Hezbollah Finds Itself Under Siege Following the Beirut Explosion

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from Region


The devastating explosion that rocked Lebanon’s capital on August 4 has taken the lives of over 170 people, with thousands injured and many still missing. The international community, led by French president Emmanuel Macron, has already approved significant funding aimed at rebuilding and alleviating the economic crisis in the country. Meanwhile, protesters in Beirut demanded the resignation of the government, a demand which was met this week by the country’s prime minister. However, for many, the government’s resignation is only the first step toward the fulfilment of a more radical demand, i.e., the wholesale change of Lebanon’s political system, in particular Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon and in the region.

Regional dailies and observers have commented at length on the recent developments in Lebanon, with many of them, including this Khaleej Times editorial, expressing support for the protesters’ demands for political accountability and change: “The Lebanese have a right to feel frustrated and distraught after years of political standoff and sectarian unrest and strife. The tiny nation is burning from within as its politicians, the elite, and warlords continue to hold sway and refuse to loosen their grip on power. The taking over of the foreign ministry by protesters shows the extent of anger after last week’s massive blast in the port area of Beirut. The people are asking: where is the accountability? They are unlikely to get answers, as always…. An interim government of unity is a solution to rebuild the country from scratch. But will the elite and power brokers allow it?”

At the heart of those protests are demands for changing the country’s political system, a demand which for Daily Sabah’s Talha Kose , however, must be considered only in light of what Kose believes are the real “sources of Lebanon’s perennial political crises…. The Lebanese political system needs to be reformed; this is an undeniable fact. But we also have to recognize that it is based on a fragile and fragmented social fabric and produced by the deliberate choices of the very actors who constructed modern Lebanon’s government. The country was created to be weak and artificial from the beginning, so it could be exploited by external powers…. If foreign governments try to enforce another artificial system that can hardly be maintained with the genuine will of Lebanon’s population, then the situation may turn into another stage of disappointment. It would be challenging to put out the current fire in Lebanon without extinguishing the flames that blanket the entire region.”

Much of the anger on the streets of Beirut and increasingly across the region and more broadly is aimed at Hezbollah, which many consider responsible for the stored ammonium in the harbor as well as for the deteriorating state of Lebanon’s political and economic system. In an op-ed for Asharq Alawsat, Rajeh Khoury, likening the blast to the Hiroshima bombing, laments the fact that the events of the last few days demonstrate that Beirut “has been murdered three times: The first when it was destroyed by the blast, the second by the political class that has been destroying it for a long time, and a third and central time, when the Hezbollah statelet took over the state. This was possible after the alliance with Aoun and after the establishment of the ‘farcical government’, which was embroiled in arguments over decisions and jurisdiction while the Lebanese people were being blown up by the blast and crushed under the rubble.”

Given the scale of the tragedy as well as Lebanon’s perennial instability, Damien McElroy—the London bureau chief of The National—suggests that the time may have finally come for European leaders to agree on a more confrontational approach with Hezbollah: “Like an oil tanker, European security policies take a long time to turn from the established and settled course. When it comes to the European Union’s stance on Hezbollah, the change is suddenly under way. The steering wheel has spun in a new direction, with the security threat to EU member states having spurred a rethink…. The collapse of the Lebanese state, in which Hezbollah holds the whip hand as a political force, is certain to accelerate Europe’s rethinking of how it protects its interests…. Keeping a lid on Hezbollah while seeking to promote European influence in the near abroad was already an impossible task. Last week showed how irresponsible it was not to tackle this group head on.”

Judging from the various analyses offered in the aftermath of the explosion, most observers, including Jordan Times’ Amer Al Sabaileh, predict that as a result of this development, Hezbollah is likely to emerge significantly weaker and more isolated, “which means that social discontent is destined to grow. The local crisis will worsen in parallel with a peak in the issues around Syria-Iraq-Iran, which leaves very little margin for political maneuvering by Hizbollah and its allies. Regardless of the facts, the presence of dangerous and potentially harmful substances at the Port of Beirut will be considered, at an international level, a sign of illegal military activities, further reducing Hizbollah’s credibility. For these reasons, the Beirut accident cannot be considered as a random and trivial accident but instead a potential trigger for change in Lebanon. The consequences of this change are likely to result in a weakening of Hizbollah’s power, and a green light for international intervention in the country.”

Ron Prosor, former Israeli ambassador to the UN and the UK, argues in an op-ed for the Jerusalem Post that, under the current circumstances, an international intervention force is not only a possibility, but rather a necessity, especially as Hezbollah may be looking to divert for its political gains the promised  international aid: “The tragic explosion at the Beirut Port sent shock waves not just through Lebanon, but through the entire Middle East and everyone who cares about the loss of innocent lives. It should also send a loud siren to the offices of the EU leaders, and if they truly care about the future of Lebanon and its people, they should act now. The most effective, immediate move they can do is to send European forces to monitor the crossings into Lebanon and ensure that any foreign and humanitarian aid arriving in Lebanon would get to those who need it, not Hezbollah.”

Of course, no discussion on Hezbollah is complete without considering how Hezbollah’s current predicament affects its posture vis-à-vis Israel. According to Times of Israel’s Michel Wyss and Assaf Moghadam, “Hezbollah’s domestic woes take confrontation with Israel off the table…. For Hezbollah, the timing of the blast could not have been worse. Tensions with Israel have been running high, especially after an Israeli airstrike in Syria killed a Hezbollah operative on July 21. Tuesday’s explosions have been the latest reminder, however, that Hezbollah faces far greater challenges than Israel, and that these are on its domestic front. As Lebanon is facing possibly the most serious economic and political crisis of its existence, more and more Lebanese have begun to openly question Hezbollah’s legitimacy and patriotic credentials.”

Palestinian columnist Ramzy Baroud seems to share Wyss and Moghadam’s conclusion, adding in his most recent Arab News op-ed that neither Israel nor Hezbollah may be interested in escalating the conflict with the other,  even though their respective strategic priorities mean that Israel will always be “keen to undermine the group’s influence in Lebanon, while the latter is insistent on thwarting Israel…. Hezbollah is uninterested in inviting another Israeli war on Lebanon. The country is on the verge of economic collapse. And, while Lebanon has always been in the throes of political division and factionalism, the current political mood in the country is more destructive than it has ever been. Losing hope in all political actors, the Lebanese people have taken to the streets to demand basic rights and services, an end to endemic corruption, and a whole new social and political contract.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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