Hezbollah in the Crosshairs of new DOJ Taskforce

According to a three-part series released by the online paper Politico, the US has
been tracking Hezbollah’s role at the nexus of drugs from South America, arms to
Iran and Syria, and drug shipments to the US and Europe via a clandestine network
of used car dealers in West Africa since 2008.

The probe, dubbed Operation Cassandra, was, according to the series, obstructed
by the Obama Administration, which concerned how it might upset US negotiations
of the nuclear deal with Iran. The claims in the series are nettlesome enough that
the Department of Justice has vowed to refresh the investigation and bring a harsh
light onto Hezbollah’s international activities in funding terrorism and arms
transfers through illicit drug operations, money laundering, and other criminal
activities.

The Politico investigative report is quite detailed and includes charges made by
those intimately involved in the operation and its predecessors and well as former
Obama officials who do not agree with their allegations and characterizations.
The series notes that the backbone of the supposed Hezbollah network is in large
part Shiite diaspora communities in South America, West Africa, the Middle East,
and Europe where interconnected business ventures, transport systems,
government officials, dealmakers, and arms dealers collaborate in an efficient and
well-organized network able to turn drugs into cash used to purchase arms for
Hezbollah, Syrian, and Iranian militaries.

Interesting, one of the chief architects of the network, according to Politico, is
Abdallah Safieddine, whose cousin is the Secretary General of Hezbollah, Sheikh
Hassan Nasrallah. Safieddine’s son is identified as a key component of the network
residing in Beirut.

Worth reading, the series provides part of the rationale for the announcement by
Attorney General Jeff Sessions of the Justice Department of a new government
taskforce to investigate the alleged involvement of Hezbollah in many illegal
activities, including drug trafficking. Called the Hezbollah Financing and Narco-
terrorism Team (HFNT), it is the strongest evidence yet that the new Administration
takes the implications of the Cassandra Project quite seriously.

The naming of the Task Force follows the October 2017 passage by Congress of
legislation to apply additional sanctions to Hezbollah and any organizations and
individuals that provide support to it. Sessions described the team as “a group of
experienced international narcotics trafficking, terrorism, organized crime, and
money laundering prosecutors,” who are “tasked with investigating individuals and

networks providing support to Hezbollah, and pursuing prosecutions in any
appropriate cases.”

In his announcement, the Attorney General specifically mentioned the need to
examine evidence from earlier investigations, including cases resulting from Project
Cassandra, which targeted Hezbollah’s drug trafficking and related operations. “The
Justice Department will leave no stone unturned in order to eliminate threats to our
citizens from terrorist organizations and to stem the tide of the devastating drug
crisis,” said Sessions.

He also noted that the Obama Administration had failed in its support of the
investigation, pledging to “ensure that all Project Cassandra investigations as well
as other related investigations, whether past or present, are given the needed
resources and attention to come to their proper resolution.” The team has the
power to “initiate prosecutions that will restrict the flow of money to foreign
terrorist organizations, as well as disrupt violent international drug trafficking
operations.”

Assistant Attorney General John Cronan of the Criminal Division is tasked with
supervising the HFNT and build interagency coordination to identify and combat
individuals, companies, and networks supporting Hezbollah. Other agencies include
the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which initiated Operation Cassandra,
the FBI, Homeland Security, and Justice Department offices across the country and
overseas.

“The Justice Department will leave no stone unturned in order to eliminate threats
to our citizens from terrorist organizations and to stem the tide of the devastating
drug crisis,” Sessions said.

In additional reporting from CBS, it mentioned that “US government officials allege
the group's [Hezbollah] External Security Organization Business Affairs Component
(BAC) is involved in international drug trafficking and money laundering, and that
the proceeds are used to purchase weapons for Hezbollah's activities in Syria.”

“According to the DEA, members of Hezbollah's BAC have established business
relationships with South American drug cartels that supply cocaine to the European
and US drug markets and then launder the proceeds. Over the past year, the DEA
has uncovered what it describes as an intricate network of money couriers who
collect and transport millions of dollars in drug proceeds from Europe to the Middle
East” for arms purchases and funding terrorism.

The DEA says the international investigation is on-going, and involves numerous
international law enforcement agencies in seven countries.

Energy Exploration Process a Major Test for Lebanon


Maybe there may be some luck in Lebanon’s future after all. For 60 years, the people of Jordan, Palestine, and Lebanon benefited from the region’s oil wealth, not directly, but as a result of the hundreds of thousands of their citizens who worked in the Gulf since the early 70s.

Visiting Aramco and cities throughout the Kingdom in the late 70s and early 80s, I invariably came across Lebanese working in Saudi Arabia (my Barakat cousins even had a company in Jeddah), in many positions related to the country’s development – from the financial sector to agriculture, food processing, retail, construction, engineering, and education, among others.

In those years, Yemeni shopkeepers recognized my accent from having lived in Sanaa, which only slightly affected the jabali (mountain = hillbilly Arabic) I learned from my parents…some things are not worth changing. Even today people enjoy hearing my Araby makhlota (mixed Arabic) as the Lebanese language, thanks to LBC, Fayrouz, and Lebanese cinema, is well-known throughout the Arab world.

Now, Lebanon, nishker allah, may finally get a break if it can diminish its usual tribal politics and move ahead proactively with awarding its oil and gas concessions. A recent Al Monitor called the potential energy resources a “game-changer” for the country, as Lebanon and Israel met to discuss for the first time the demarcation of their maritime border.

It was only a year ago that the Lebanese government, despite a vacant presidency, agreed on a formula to divide the offshore gas and oil blocks using political, geographic, and sectarian criteria! Sectarian business as usual had delayed the agreement, giving Cyprus and Israel a significant head-start in exploiting the potential resources.

The first two blocks were recently awarded and an agreement is expected to be signed by the end of January, with exploration slated for mid-2019 and any commercial production in 2021-22.

Two major conditions will impact the likelihood of production: a continuing agreement between the political factions, already threatening to implode; and maintaining the current stalemate between Hezbollah and Israel as one of the blocks in located next to the Israeli economic zone. Internally, managing the energy agreement is a hot item that may affect the Aoun-Berri alliance. President Aoun, keeping with his pledge to keep corruption out of the energy business, wants the Energy Ministry, held by his party, to be in control; while Speaker Nabih Berri, is, of course, looking to set up an agency controlled by his party, to shape the award and exploration process.

According to Al Monitor, “The next parliament, with a term that expires once the energy exploration concludes in 2022, will have to debate and vote on establishing a sovereign fund to preserve and invest the surplus revenues of oil and gas production. The exploration process’ financial dimension is currently led by a small unit in the Finance Ministry, while the energy minister, advised by a multi-confessional Petroleum Authority, handles the technical side. Moving forward, Lebanese politics is not expected to have an impact on the exploration process, at least until production starts.”

Who controls the future?

Absent Hezbollah, it would have been rather straightforward for Lebanon and Israel to adjudicate a boundary in the sea. However, given the continuing war of words on the border, this is not a sure bet. As Al Monitor put it, “The blue line that was drawn in 2000 between Lebanon and Israel, from Shebaa Farms to Naqoura, was not extended into the sea, which caused a dispute over 860 square meters (9,257 square feet) of international waters and triggered an energy exploration race between Lebanon and Israel.”

Previous US and UN efforts to hammer out a bilateral agreement failed and were suspended in 2014. In December 2017, military commanders from UNIFIL, Lebanon, and Israel met to demarcate the “maritime blue line.” “Satisfied with the status quo along the Lebanese-Israeli border since 2006, both Hezbollah and Israel became less interested in a confrontation as they eyed the economic benefits of oil production,” according to Al Monitor.

What’s vital to Lebanon is that, given its excessive power demand, it will absorb an energy production for at least the next two decades. Given that the production costs may increase due to the sedimentary layers about the hydrocarbons, an increase in production costs may cut into the profits of the Lebanese state.

As the Al Monitor article concludes, “Managing expectations is paramount regarding the potential benefits and rewards of energy production. The Lebanese government has yet to devise a long-term economic plan or offer a road map that addresses the country’s crippling electricity problem and a national debt spiraling out of control. Lebanon’s energy promise could indeed be a regional game changer, but the jury is out on whether the Lebanese people will get the chance to reap the economic benefits.”

And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, Up, Then Down Again

 The New Year has some new looks and some old threats along Lebanon’s borders. Part of the good news is that Lebanon’s five official border crossings with Syria are all open, some of them closed for five years. Maybe more importantly for the Lebanese, the government has finally removed security barriers in the downtown section around Parliament Square, which were not only an eyesore, but a death knell for the businesses that once thrived in the area.

When I visited Lebanon in 2006 with my children, there was no better time than being part of the happy crowds strolling along the streets watching the World Cup and savoring the nightlife of Beirut. The area was closed off after a show of strength by Hezbollah in response to the government trying to reign in its illegal ITC network. Then the area was the site of large-scale demonstrations during the trash crisis.

This made it a flashpoint for anti-government actions with the result that the area was barricaded except for a bit of foot traffic. One of the most attractive centers that Solidere built in the reconstruction of Beirut’s downtown became a virtual ghost area, soon to lose its luster to Beirut Souks, a misnamed tribute to the original shopping district of the city.

According to a recent article, “Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri ordered the roads leading to the Parliament Square open days after the square witnessed its largest New Year’s Eve celebration, with thousands of revelers, as part of a government initiative to revive the area. Berri on Wednesday urged business owners, restaurants, hotels and offices in the area to reopen after many of them had closed down, having given up on the area attracting visitors again.”

Well, that was one source of optimism. Another is that the last official border crossing at Qaa between Lebanon and Syria that had been closed is now opened. With a large sign “Welcome to Bashar al-Assad’s Syria” greeting those who use the crossing, there is a not so subtle reminder on the sign that “The Lebanese and Syrians are one people that live in two brotherly lands.”

The Syrian government, under Assad father and son, insisted that there was no need for an ambassador to Lebanon as the countries were one peoples divided by the Great Powers. While this sentiment once had some popularity in Lebanon, that faded under the Syrian presence after the civil war and has diminished even more with the hosting of more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

While the opening is good news for local residents on both sides of the border with property, family, and friends now accessible, it is not seen as an indication that Syrian refugees may soon begin to return home. At this point, the main beneficiaries are Syrians who can come to Lebanon and finds goods and products unavailable in war-ravaged Syria.

The newly opened “Chtaura-Homs road,” according to one article, “Used to be a busy artery, with hundreds, if not thousands, of cars crossing the border every day. But clashes between different rebel groups operating from Syria and the Lebanese army forced its closure.” This past year, with the territory back under government control, “All five official border crossings between Lebanon and Syria are now open and controlled by the Syrian regime.”

Chtaura is a key city in the Bekaa valley, a major agricultural area in Lebanon long under the control of Hezbollah. Locals are hoping that in time the situation will normalize and customary business will resume. This is critical for the Bekaa, which is “one of Lebanon’s poorest regions and houses a disproportionate number of Syrian refugees compared to the rest of the country because of its proximity to the border. There are a little under 1 million Syrian refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, of whom roughly 350,000 live in the Bekaa Valley. However, Lebanese officials believe that the number of Syrians that fled to Lebanon because of the war is closer to 1.5 or 2 million people,” according to an article in Al-Monitor.

The article noted that “Those who are tempted to go home are still wary of the economic situation back in Syria. Askar, a young agricultural worker, fled Homs to Qaa several years ago with 100 extended family members. “[God willing] we will go home soon. But there are still problems. We will not be able to live like before. For now, the situation is still better in Lebanon, as I can find work here.”

According to a Lebanese security official interviewed by Arab News, “the whole issue could be limited to local residents only, because there are Lebanese citizens who have properties in Syria, and there are Syrian citizens who have relatives in Lebanon, otherwise we do not expect the return of Syrian refugees to inland Syria.” He estimates that there are about 30,000 Syrian refugees in the border area.

Noting that the open crossing with enable better control of the movement of refugees, “the actual return of refugees is still awaiting a political solution for the war in Syria, which involves tackling the issue of refugees.” However, the source said that “opening the border crossing is part of field preparations for any future step in this direction.”

An indication of how unresolved the situation is was a statement from Prime Minister Hariri’s office that “those who think the war in Syria is over are mistaken.” Without a formal rapprochement between the two governments, which will be difficult given the enmity between the Prime Minister and President Assad, the opening is symbolic and functional, no more.

From the Lebanese side, the regional representative of Lebanese General Security, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, inaugurated the new General Security center without coming to the Syrian side. He said in a speech that the inauguration of the center “is of great importance at these exceptional sensitive times. We are here to set the borders of our homeland with efforts and sacrifice.” He also said that “the cooperation with the Syrian side is within the limits imposed by the procedures and laws,” stressing that “the policy of dissociation has nothing to do with opening the border crossing.”

Of course, Israel is looking closely at any movements by the Syrian government or its ally Hezbollah to change the status of the current borders, an issue I will explore in my next blog.

Border War of Words Threatens Economic Recovery of Lebanon and Dissociation Policy

Recent movements by Hezbollah and the Syrian Army on Israel’s northeast border and the strong likelihood of no US disapproval of any upticks in Israeli militancy regarding the Palestinians, Hezbollah, or its borders, has prompted statements and actions by Israel’s right that portend bad news for Lebanon’s stability and security.

While Lebanon’s government and citizens are pressing for more economic development, stability in the political arena, and incremental reforms needed for infrastructure projects, the war of words on the southern border are heating up, most recently around the visits of Syrian, Iranian, and Hezbollah military leaders to the area. The most immediate effects are the potential to divert government funds away from development to security, discourage international investors from entering Lebanon, and cast doubt on the stability needed to move ahead with the May elections

Recent flare-ups include the statement from the IDF spokesperson Avichai Adraee telling Hezbollah to refrain from any aggression “because we are going to surprise you if you dare. Maintaining stability in the region is a common interest of the Israeli and Lebanese sides, but if you dare, we will surprise you.” Of course the root cause of the recent resumption of hostile exchanges is Iran’s success in support the Assad regime’s hold on power. Adraee said that “Hezbollah has been working as an Iranian arm in Lebanon and sacrificing Lebanese to foreign interests. [and that Israel] is closely monitoring what Hezbollah is doing as well as what is happening on the border and beyond.”

This past week, the Israel’s security cabinet met several times to review conditions along Israel’s northern border, discussion which were reported to be “extremely significant.” Among the issued reportedly discussed were Iran’s activities supporting the Assad regime, its likely control in the near future over most of Syria, Hezbollah’s possible next actions, and options for dealing with growing Iranian presence in Syria.

Also noted in the article is that PM Benjamin Netanyahu has expanding his conversations with world leaders on Iran’s efforts to set up bases in Lebanon and Syria using Hezbollah and Syrian Shiite militias as proxies. Among his most immediate concerns is that “At the end of December, Assad’s troops, accompanied by Iranian-backed militias and the Hezbollah, took over the Syrian Golan from the rebels, giving the government control over the Golan Heights, captured by Israel from Syria during the 1967 Six Day War.”

Adding more incendiary comments from Israel,

the IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot said that Hezbollah was the most serious threat to Israel followed by other Iranian-backed jihadist groups in the border areas. Without giving his sources,, Eisenkot mentioned that “Each year Iran sends between $700 million to $1 billion to Hezbollah, $100 million each to Shiite militias in Syria, Shiite militias in Iraq, rebels in Yemen, and to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas terrorist groups.”

He repeated charges that “the Hezbollah terrorist group has transformed from a so-called defender of Lebanon to an Iranian proxy in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen,” with significant defense capabilities as well as the ability to attack Israel.

Eisenkot noted that with regard to Syria, the IDF will continue to strike targets in Syria to prevent build-up of a military capability and presence on the border by Iranian-backed Shiite militia. These statements came on the heels of a heightened movement of Iranian-backed militias into Beit Jinn, close to the border with Lebanon and the last significant rebel-controlled area on the border.

This is problematic for Israel in that “After years of cultivating ties with rebel-held forces across the border in the Golan, Israel now faces the prospect of the return of forces from the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah army and fighters commanded by Iran.” This will also impact Israel’s so-called “good neighbor policy” that provided humanitarian assistance to Syria’s rebel-held villages.

In light of the incremental success of the Syrian regime and its allies inching closer to the border areas, some Israeli analysts are encouraging the Israeli government “to bolster the pockets of non-regime holdouts…[by] quietly trying to broker a cease-fire deal between Druze, Muslim, and Christian areas…to communicate to villagers that they should avoid cooperation with Hezbollah and Iran, and focus on their local interests rather than foreign powers.”

While this may differ in many ways from the South Lebanon Army, which was allied with Israel until it was disbanded in 1980, it poses a threat for Lebanese who would then be exposed to retaliation from the militant and heavily-armed Hezbollah. Today the Iranian presence and influence in Syria most troubles Israel, and could lead to preemptive actions that damage Lebanon’s infrastructure and security capabilities.

What this means for Lebanon in advance of the May Parliamentary elections is unclear. Unless the government has unfettered access to Lebanese civilians throughout the country, there may be challenges to the results and once again push Lebanon into political stalemate.

Can Lebanon Salvage Its Stability and Regional Economic Role? PR Hariri Thinks So

A recent story on www.Naharnet.com featured an assessment of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s recent experiences and his vision for Lebanon in the coming year. He emphasized once again that it is vital that the parties in Lebanon engage in serious and concrete dialogue as the only possible approach to moving the country forward.

The posting noted Hariri’s statement “Emphasizing that he and certain political parties will not agree on a lot of issues, especially regional matters, Hariri asked: “Without dialogue, how would the situation in the country be? We experienced the absence of dialogue prior to the Taif Accord but we ended up around the same table. The Taif Accord is doing very well because we will always defend this Constitution.”

Despite his return and the commitment of the government to observe the dissociation agreement, many questions regarding the relationship with Saudi Arabia, the role of Hezbollah as Iran’s proxy, the flailing economy, and the impact of the outcome of upcoming election on May 6, still confound most Lebanese and outside observers.

Hariri remains proactive on the economy

High on the PM’s agenda is restoring Lebanon as an investment destination for regional business. Even the latest political upheaval around his resignation/reversal has not dimmed his optimism. In a statement carried by the government media, He said that “this is the best time to invest in Lebanon because, thanks to this political stability and security in our country, we have been able to establish that the country is capable of confronting crises in a wise manner.”

More specifically, he hopes the government will not increase the fiscal deficit next year while meeting the financial demands of the new national budget.
His remarks came during a session at the Global Business Summit organized by LIFE and Endeavor Lebanon.

Regarding the national budget, he noted that the recently passed legislation includes a number of reforms and some taxes. He was quick to emphasize that investments in the existing infrastructure program, debuted at the donors conference last year, was a viable starting point. The PM said that the government was ready to launch its efforts based on the results of the upcoming donors conference in March, which would mean raising $750 million of the $3 billion price tag. He also stressed the importance of the private sector’s role in the program with projects that could be initiated as early as February to upgrade the power infrastructure, rebuild roads, and other projects requiring the acquisition of land from existing owners.

In order to attract both domestic and international investors, however, Lebanon must adopt certain regulations and protocols that are not yet in place. Hariri said that “There are many laws that we have prepared and which are very important to encourage work. We worked on them in cooperation with several ministries and advisory bodies. They will be completed in Cabinet and then referred to Parliament, which will not delay them. With these laws, business will be much easier. There are a number of other laws that we will work on and a number of legal offices will help us in this matter in order to speed up their adoption.”

On the thorny issue of transparency, the PM pointed out how Lebanon had utilized international standards for the oil and gas awards and was now following up with the World Bank and IMF to implement similar standards for the CIP (Capital Improvement Projects) and other efforts that require international donors and participation by the private sector.

The wide-ranging discussion continued on topics such as taxes, the government deficit, support for SMEs, perceptions of political stability, relations with the Gulf States, investing in technology, and the internet in Lebanon. While it was an effective presentation by the PM, his points did not go unchallenged.

Not so fast Mr. Prime Minister In an article posted on the UAE site www.thenational.ae, the author challenged the PM’s optimism on a number of points. The author, Michael Karam, noted that “Everyone from the IMF to the various ratings agencies knows that the country is crippled by an external funding deficit of roughly 20 per cent of GDP and a government debt running at 150 per cent of GDP.” He also noted the disproportionate importance of remittances, some 16% of GDP, which could be reduced by political actions abroad, setting off an economic crisis.

Karam wrote that “Mr Hariri should take a page out of his late father’s book and give the people he is trying to woo something worth investing in. Rafik Hariri rebuilt the whole of central Beirut into what he believed would be a retail, tourism, and commercial hub.” It was a success initially “But today, the Beirut Central District lies largely deserted, a symbol of what happens when regional politics trumps business ambition,” referring to the blockade of the BCD by Hezbollah to force the government to not interfere with its independent telecommunications network.

The key point, he contends, “Is that the initiative was government-led, forming part of Hariri’s Lebanon 2000 vision, which he unveiled in the mid-90s. If only someone would give us similar hope, the business community might get behind his son. Give the private sector enough electricity, adequate clean water, and decent broadband, and it will perform miracles. And it could all be paid for with the oil and that gas that in all likelihood sits under the Lebanese coast.”

Although any realistic projection of revenues from oil and gas production is still 3-5 years away, there can still be another Lebanese “miracle” if somehow the business of reconstruction reverses the stereotype of Lebanon as a country that lacks transparency, is ruled by elites more concerned with benefiting their own constituencies rather than country as a whole, and a political system beholden to forces domestic, regional, and international forces that do not respect Lebanon’s independence.

The Debate Is Not Over – Dissociation Vs Hezbollah’s Regional Ambitions

Although the government of Lebanon agreed this week to a renewed commitment to dissociation, Hezbollah’s representatives said that it was nothing different in content from the previous Cabinet agreement and reserved the right to issue its own position. Importantly, the restatement enabled Prime Minister Saad Hariri to withdraw his resignation and take up his position in the government, which has a full agenda in advance of the May 2018 Parliamentary elections.

As a recent article by an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy put it, “Now that Hariri has returned to Lebanon and suspended his resignation, the question is no longer about him. Rather, it is how Iran will move beyond this hurdle to consolidate its achievements in Lebanon and the region.”

This is the obvious conundrum. Will Hezbollah continue to act as Iran’s proxy across the region and continue ramping up its military presence in Lebanon threatening Israel, or will it resume its Lebanese character and limit its ambitions to its home country?  As the article points out, “When Hizballah decided to join Iran’s regional foreign legion, it was only a matter of time before Lebanon would be dragged with Hizballah to the regional confrontation. Now, any dialogue among the Lebanese people or possible resolution to nation’s crisis is going to be tied to regional negotiations over the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.”

To successfully navigate between its commitments, to Iran and Lebanon, Hezbollah will have to choose between continuing its involvement in Yemen and Iraq while advancing towards a more nuanced and evolving posture in Syria. In fact, Hezbollah could be helpful in working with the Lebanese government to reduce threats along the border as hostilities wind down, and provide pathways for solving the refugee presence in Lebanon and well as its participation in Syria’s reconstruction.

Analysts are offering two contradictory scenarios: the entire episode has strengthened Hariri’s hand and weakened Saudi Arabia, or weakened Hariri and strengthened Hezbollah. What is even murkier is how public opinion will morph from now until the 2018 Parliamentary elections.

And what are the Lebanese saying about this?

Implications of the Hariri crisis on the election results are very hard to predict. According to NDI, despite some naysayers, the new election law does not of itself favor Hezbollah. It puts more districts up for grabs, and Hezbollah may benefit because of its better organization. If enough young voters are mobilized in these competitive districts around capable candidates, the results may not reflect the usual sectarian patterns.

According to a Washington Institute article on political affiliations among Lebanese, it points out that “a reasonable estimate is this:  around 40 percent are Shia Muslim; 30 percent Sunni Muslim; 25 percent Christians (Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Armenian, Protestant, and other); and the remaining 5 percent mostly Druze, plus a few other small minorities.”

“Asked about their attitude toward Hezbollah, the extent of Lebanese sectarian polarization is sharply evident. Among Sunnis, 85 percent express a negative view and just 14 percent a positive one.  But among Shia, the proportions are almost exactly the reverse:  88 percent voice a positive opinion of Hezbollah (including a striking 83 percent “very positive”); while a mere 11 percent say they have a negative opinion.”

What is critical about these numbers is that they are no longer the only indicator of voting outcomes in the Parliamentary elections. Political affiliations in the abstract do not always coincide with voter behavior. “For example, in the 2016 local elections, 45 percent voted against Hezbollah and affiliated Amal candidates, even in their supposed stronghold of Baalbek.”

The Christian voters are likewise is flux. “Lebanon’s substantial Christian minority remains split almost down the middle on Hezbollah: 45 percent in favor, 55 percent opposed.  Yet almost half of Lebanese Christians still apparently adhere to the view of the country’s Maronite president, Michel Aoun, that Hezbollah represents a positive player in the Lebanese arena. How his position evolves, if at all, in the coming months will be telling.

Despite disagreements about Iran and Syria evident among the respondents, there was a high degree of agreement regarding support for coexistence between Sunnis and Shias and the overriding importance of domestic reforms compared to foreign policy.

Moving on

The international pushback that reversed Hariri’s sojourn in Riyadh demonstrated that Lebanon has an intrinsic value to Western countries that value its role as a buffer state that strives to preserve it tolerant, multi-confessional character in a very tough neighborhood, made more dangerous by Iran’s aggressive policies in the region. The zero sum game between Saudi Arabia and Iran can have no winners without dangerous and unprecedented instability throughout the region.

Even President Trump’s official recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel will only for a moment be a common cause among Sunnis and Shias. It only opens the door for Hezbollah to reassert its presence in the south and make menacing noises that may, though misjudgment and miscalculation by either party, lead to a catastrophe for Lebanon.

So the tension around the resignation and restoration, coupled with the US announcement on Jerusalem may only result in more instability in the near term, hopefully dissipating before the election season begins.

As the European Council on Foreign Relations noted in an article, “The collective memory of Lebanon’s own civil war and the buy-in of key political leaders to the current order still hold firm. But renewed political paralysis and associated economic shock – which could be made considerably worse if Riyadh tightens the financial noose – will feed intensified instability and the further hollowing out of the state.”

It further states that “These are precisely the conditions which will help Hezbollah reinforce its parallel, non-state ascendancy,” which may be worsened if the war of words about Jerusalem turns violent.

Lebanon’s hope in the run-up to the election is that “A broad-based government and legitimate parliament, even if it includes Hezbollah, still likely represent a better means of establishing some political counter-weight to the group’s dominance. It is also key to providing the governance services needed to maintain the semblance of a functioning state able to act as a legitimate alternative to Hezbollah.”

The Hariri episode is but the latest in the continuing and challenging efforts to rebuild Lebanon’s role in the region as a hub for intellectual, cultural, and economic progress.

 

What’s At Stake in Lebanon’s Survival?

 

 Speculation continues to swirl around ‘what’s next?’ after Prime Minister Hariri’s return to Lebanon and the ongoing discussions among key players in and outside Lebanon. So it may be worthwhile to take stock of what’s at stake if Lebanon, as imperfectly as it operates, would become a failed state, i.e. looks more like Libya without even a modicum of central government authority and returns to a civil war with outside parties holding their contests for regional power inside Lebanon.

Of course the first question is survival as what? The status quo is certainly untenable with Hezbollah acting as a state within a state, Parliament divided among those who support an independent and secure country and those who welcome outside intervention, and those reluctant to stand for fear of losing their piece of the pie that is Lebanon. Add to that over 2 million refugees of uncertain status and the price of stability becomes astronomical.

Lebanon has never been a fully free and independent country, capable of defending its territory and preserving its institutions. But it certainly has been more free than it is today. Its survival depended on balancing the interests of national and regional players, whose agendas, often in competition, usually benefited from Lebanon’s role as a dynamic center of culture, business, tourism, and political discourse.

In broad terms, most analysts draw a direct line between Black September in Jordan, pushing Palestinian forces in exile to Lebanon, whose state within a state status precipitated the civil war and birthed Hezbollah, resulting in continuous and blatant foreign meddling that characterizes the current political morass. No wonder I go silent when asked to explain “what’s going on over there?”

The consequences of destruction and disabling 

Those who care about Lebanon want a free, independent, secure, and stable country that enjoys territorial integrity and a functioning government providing adequate services to its people. Yet, none of these qualities are assured in the current context where very little is certain except obscure outcomes. But we can point to what is on the doorstep if the regional competitions between Sunni, Shia, and Israel are not resolved without destroying Lebanon as collateral damage.

A failed state in Lebanon brought about by willful acts or unintended consequences of regional powers will have catastrophic outcomes – none of which support US interests or those of Israel, America’s primary ally in the region. To note only a few:

  • Instability along Israel’s northern border, which will require Israeli boots on the ground – an occupation army will yield no good outcomes over time.
  • War against Lebanon will make Christians, the backbone of the country’s social, economic, and cultural integrity, targets of opportunity for militias looking for scapegoats.
  • Lebanon which represents, one of the few successful bulwarks against radical Islam in the region, will be lost.
  • And the destruction and occupation of Lebanon will exert enormous pressure on our other ally, Jordan, which is also threatened by Syria and Iran.

The US cannot give a blank check to Israel to defend itself/attack Hezbollah as a proxy for Syria and Iran without considering consequences to America’s own safety and security, and its relations in the region. Consequences in the US of Lebanon’s failure cannot be overlooked. Heightened tension and warfare in the region will ratchet up domestic threats to the US, seen as the enabler of Israel’s disregard for Lebanese and Muslim lives.

Nor can the US stand by while Gulf Arab countries hammer Lebanon over the reality of Hezbollah’s paramount position in the government. Among the many unanswered questions emerging from the current crisis with Saudi Arabia are the many ways in which the Kingdom can undermine Lebanon through economic means, such as withholding funds from the Central Bank, cutting Lebanese imports, or deporting Lebanese workers or limiting their remittances, which are so crucial to Beirut’s budget.

To diminish the threat of state failure in Lebanon, the target of Saudi ire, Hezbollah, must decide if it is a Lebanese party or Iran’s proxy. It cannot be both. An accommodation, outlined in previous agreements and resolutions, to resolve its military status, now that its political role is demarcated, is central to returning Lebanon to a neutral position of disassociation that is its historical role. It is the ultimate win-win for the region.

The Saga Continues – Lebanon’s Stability Compromised by Regional Intrigues

Since Michael Hudson penned his opus on Lebanon, “The Precarious Republic,” I have been addicted to looking behind the curtain to try and understand goings-on in that sliver of a country, endowed with incredible beauty, and multiples of people who claim it as home. The book was written in 1968, that’s 50 years ago, yet the core facts resonate today – Lebanon is a multi-sectarian home to affinity groups that lack a central defining identity as “Lebanese,” always adding a hyphen for their sect, tribe, or religion.

When I first went to Lebanon in the early 70s, this was apparent in the Palestinian, Armenian, Syrian, and other peoples one routinely met in the cabarets and alleyways of Beirut. The World Lebanese Cultural Union was pushing to have Lebanese abroad included in the political life of the country, and Israel routinely bombed “guerilla” havens to remind the country that it had an obligation to protect Israel’s border. Newspapers flourished, each subsidized by a regional power broker or a local one with enough money to literally give away their opinions. It was heady and crazy at the same time. The seeds sowed for Lebanon’s coming traumas were real, constant, and obvious to anyone who took the time to push past the reality show and ask “what’s next?”

Well, it’s show time…Lebanon is deep in crisis, with deepening domestic fault lines being exacerbated, as usual, by external actors who think that Lebanon is the school playground for beating on rival gangs.

The Prime Minister resigning as a “hard shock” to the nation; the Maronite Patriarch visiting the King of Saudi Arabia; Hezbollah’s Secretary-General appealing for calm; the President calling on the PM for clarity; and conspiracy theories and realpolitik crashing headlong into the Mediterranean, only to end up floating on the polluted shoreline. What are we to think, what are we to hope about resolving this latest mess before Lebanon is caught between the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Israel vise or the Saudi Arabia-Israel-Hezbollah-Iran conundrum?

First reality check, Security for Israel at any cost is not a sustainable security. While Hezbollah and Lebanon may be relatively easy to attack, the consequences to regional stability are quite complex. The resulting high number of civilian casualties, widespread destruction of infrastructure, and deterioration of the Lebanese central government’s authority will actually exacerbate threats to Israel’s security, further destabilize the region, and leave the main protagonists, Syria and Iran, backed by Russia, unscathed.

Israel may thunder all its wants at Lebanon for its legitimate as well as its contrived agenda, the bottom line is the same – Lebanon cannot change its internal reality, it is in an impossible situation. Hezbollah outguns the LAF but doesn’t want another civil war, since that would distract from its self-defined role as a defender of Lebanon’s territorial integrity. Israel’s war messages give Hezbollah greater credibility in the minds of the local Lebanese and Arab people.

Second reality check, Hezbollah has to decide, is its future in a multi-confessional Lebanon or is it truly an Iranian proxy that will allow hundreds, perhaps thousands of Shia and other Lebanese to die for Iran? The Saudi distemper towards Hezbollah corresponds to Hezbollah’s disregard for solidly endorsing a policy of disassociation from regional conflicts. It is time for the party of God to calculate where it should be placing its bets and realize that it has a very good deal in Lebanon but only if it is committed to the country’s independence and territorial integrity.

If war comes, the likely humanitarian crisis, which has already resulted in Lebanon hosting 1.5 million Syrian refugees in addition to the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, Iraqis, and others in the country, will add large numbers of internally displaced Lebanese to the mix, resulting in a fragile state teetering on becoming a failed state…just what the region doesn’t need.

As Tensions mount in the Region, is Lebanon in Danger?

I am concerned that cross-border and internal tensions are placing even greater burdens on Lebanon’s stability and independence. There is no mistaking that the deepening challenges engulfing Lebanon are due to its unique political composition and preferred policy of “disassociation” from regional conflicts, unfortunately more observed in the breach than in reality.

These tensions are real and numerous, including:

  • Internal concerns with refugees and Hezbollah’s military dominance,
  • Domestic issues surrounding the government’s performance and upcoming elections,
  • Israel’s increasing pressures on Lebanon to rein in Hezbollah,
  • Israel and the GCC’s hate-fest with Iran,
  • Iran’s manipulations in Iraq, Syria, and with Hezbollah,
  • And now, Saudi Arabia’s push to isolate Lebanon even further from it and other members of the GCC.

Lebanon is facing many obstacles to its stability, the most compelling is the specter of another conflict waged between Israel and Hezbollah. It appears that Washington is doing too little to keep the march to war from mobilizing. In Lebanon, US military and diplomatic officials have held extensive discussions with the Lebanese government, speaking warmly of the relationship with the LAF and support for Lebanon. However, this has not been carried through in Washington where a steady stream of media and panels has been discussing the next Israel-Hezbollah war and how it will decimate Lebanon.

When questioned about Israel’s goal is, the answer lies somewhere between a preemptive strike to eliminate Hezbollah’s arsenal that threatens Israel, sending a signal to Syria about stability along its border with Israel, to letting Iran know that Israel will destroy its proxy Hezbollah before it will allow Iran to enlarge its scope of influence from Tehran to Beirut.

This puts those who support strong US-Lebanon relations in a quandary, – how to support Lebanon’s territorial integrity, independence, and stability, which we believe are clearly US interests as well, while addressing the consequences of Hezbollah’s role in the country, which, we believe has both negative and helpful results. For example, the first response from Hezbollah upon hearing of PM Hariri’s resignation was to call for calm and continued cooperation in the government to stand fast against external pressures.

 So if brutalizing Lebanon is intended as a signal to Iran…why not go to the heart and head of the threat in Syria and Iran? Israel has already demonstrated that it knows where the weapons flowing to Hezbollah are being manufactured and transported, so it has identified the primary targets. It has also made it clear that it knows that Hezbollah has infiltrated villages in southern Lebanon and has fighters and supplies among the civilian populations. Aren’t there better means for reducing threats to Israel and to the Lebanese civilians than assaulting entire villages as Israel has threatened?

More importantly, there is a fallacy in looking for a military solution as that only guarantees that there will be no peace in the region. An Israeli military campaign in Lebanon – while it may mean no war now, it also means no peace ever for Israel. If Palestine continues, after 70 years, to be a core issue with Arabs and Muslims worldwide, it isn’t hard to imagine the highly negative impact of the destruction and occupation of Lebanon that will reverberate in the West as well.

Another misjudgment in targeting Lebanon and not the sources of instability in the region, is that an all-out assault brings the region closer to a nuclear Armageddon as Syria and Iran cannot ignore the consequences of a failed state in Lebanon. Another war in Lebanon may set off a civil war in the country between armed camps, while the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), the only non-sectarian stabilizing force in the country, will have the impossible task of restraining local militias from further chaos. Israel’s northern and northeast borders will be hotbeds of instability and conflict.

All of this, of course, plays directly into Russia’s goal of destroying American influence, restraining democracy, and promoting autocratic rule throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Is this what the US wants…more war, less stability, diminished influence, greater threats to our friends in the region, and promoting Russian ascendancy even more?

What’s Going to Happen in the Middle East?

It’s been more than three months since my last blog on my home page.

Much has transpired in Washington, DC where I live and in US relations with the Middle East, from where I am writing. Contradictory statements and actions of the Trump Administration, on Syria for example, have observers puzzles as to the strategic thinking that support of statements and policies. From the White House to the NSC, the State Department and the US UN Ambassador, the Defense Department and the various official spokespersons, it is hard to find a thread on which to build an unencumbered understanding of this administration’s priorities. As it is becoming obvious to many, “American First” is not a policy; it is a point of reference for a tribal zero sum view of the world, not to mention the administration’s attitude towards its domestic critics. Throw in Congressional reluctance to be drawn into a lock step march on President Trump’s initiatives, and the brew certainly becomes toxic.

So here I am in Lebanon after a week of meetings with the country’s political/sectarian leadership, a weekend in Jordan catching up with friends, and back for more meetings and participation in the Lebanese Diaspora Energy conference of Lebanese from around the world. Of course it would be great to say that the country is on track to getting its act together and mobilizing its tremendous human capital…can’t say that, not even close. The bickering over the electoral law, in which each sect seeks to protect its own prerogatives, is just another indicator that this “democracy” has yet to evolve into institutions that support the state regardless of the political environment. Lebanon, as the eminent professor Michael Hudson wrote in 1968, is still the “Precarious Republic” splinted into multiple competing identifies of which “Lebanese” is not always even in the top three!

True, some compromises were made in accommodating competing demands in electing President Aoun and allocating ministries, yet the core question remains…who are the Lebanese who share a national identity? Unfortunately, while there are signs of less partisan attitudes among Lebanese youth and urbanites, this varies by class, background, and education. What remains is a country in a form of paralysis that is just enough to numb without destroying basic functions but not elastic or strong enough to take steps that reduce the inability to act consistently for the national good.

So what have I learned so far on this trip and what are the implications for US policy? Much of the analysis has not changed from earlier commentaries. Regrettably, countries from Mauritania to Iraq and the Gulf have structural and cultural barriers that inhibit much needed change. Witness the challenges that Saudi Arabia is facing in implementing Vision 2030. Issues decades in the making will not be resolved in months or even a few years. Among the most intractable are:

  • Uneven governance, wealth inequality, un- and underemployment, environmental degradation, and for countries with limited economic resources, inadequate public and social services in health, education, sanitation, water, and power, among others. In those states, particularly the Gulf oil monarchies that can buy solutions for infrastructure needs, the challenges of national employment and adequate market-based education still loom large.
  • Tied to this is the concept of leadership at the national and local levels. How is leadership determined and political priorities set? Is power-sharing between national and local governments on the agenda? Morocco and Jordan are among the few working on decentralization strategies to empower local communities. Maybe you have to have limited resources to be innovative and spread decision-making!
  • In their political systems, from political parties and real separation of powers, to Rule of Law and electoral politics, most of the Arab world gets poor grades for implementation.
  • The all-pervasive specter of corruption, from low level purchasing of goods and services to opaque government procurement processes, has not diminished. While some progress has been made, it is still an obstacle for international firms and investors and well as citizens.
  • Gender and youth inequality that robs the countries of productive roles from the majorities of their populations.
  • The negative consequences of multiple identities: religion, ethnic, tribal, and social differentiators,
  • The lack of coherent and integrated economic growth strategies with achievable results that benefit the economy broadly, supporting emerging and existing middle class citizens, and that deal with the presence of large communities of foreign workers who take jobs that locals disdain.
  • The interference of external factors such as regional politics, crises, and competition among the US, Russia, China, and others for influence.

Remedial Actions and Possible Initiatives

These do not represent all of the challenges in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region to becoming more engaged in citizen-centric and rule of law policies. But, as a checklist of potential areas for where the US can be useful, it’s a sufficient start. Of course, what will happen with US foreign assistance was a major question in both countries. The US supplies much of the weapons and supplies, and well as training for the Lebanese and Jordanian military. That will likely continue as Syria and ISIS are targeted by this administration.

In a companion blog, I will look at the administration’s political calculus on foreign assistance, which as of now seems muddled aside from supporting those who fight against “terrorism.” Hopefully, this will lead to some doable initiatives that both build on best practices and serve US interests in the always challenging MENA region.