Hezbollah on the March, but Not Where Trump Says

  • 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 the Region

August 2, 2017

U.S. President Donald Trump, standing next to Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri at a press conference in Washington, DC, asserted that Lebanon was at war with Hezbollah, despite the militia-cum-party’s role as a member of Mr. Hariri’s coalition government. Depending on who you ask in the region, the statement by Mr. Trump reveals either his misunderstanding of Lebanon’s complicated political scene or his willingness to bend the facts to fit a political lens. But though it may not be at war with Mr. Hariri’s government, Hezbollah is no lamb, as shown by recent reports of the militia’s battles on the border of Lebanon and Syria. And alleged Hezbollah involvement in a terror cell within Kuwait has drawn sharp protest from the small Gulf nation and its neighbors.


One of the first to react to Mr. Trump’s error was the Lebanese website Naharnet, which accused the U.S. president of not being “up to speed on who’s fighting whom in Lebanon. He wrongly credited the Lebanese government with fighting Hezbollah when he heaped praise on its prime minister, Saad Hariri, at the White House on Tuesday. Hezbollah, a Shiite Islamist political party with a militant faction, actually is a partner in Hariri’s government…. And the Lebanese government is not confronting Hezbollah militarily, as Trump said, but rather reliant on it to stay in power. The group holds two seats in cabinet, as it has in previous governments. And while Hariri is opposed to Hezbollah’s policies, particularly its decision to send fighters to shore up Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces in Syria, he has a power-sharing relationship with the group, without whose approval he would not be able to govern.”

Yedioth Ahronoth’s Orly Azoulay was even more damning in his appraisal of Mr. Trump, characterizing the president’s remarks as deserving of “scorn and pity”: “Words have meaning, and so does the lack thereof. When an American president stands on the steps of the White House alongside the prime minister of Lebanon and can’t find the words, ignorantly stuttering when he receives a simple question about Hezbollah, it’s not just a disgrace—it’s an occasion that calls for scorn and pity. Because Donald Trump, it turns out, has no clue about Hezbollah. The man who announced with great fanfare that he is the only person who can bring a peace agreement to the Middle East has no idea who’s fighting whom in the neighborhood. On Tuesday, Trump told the nation that Lebanon was on the frontlines in the fight against the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and Hezbollah. Yes, Hezbollah. As usual, he didn’t do his homework, and didn’t know that Hezbollah is part of Lebanon and its politics. It’s therefore no wonder that Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who was standing next to him, wiggled with discomfort.”

In an op-ed for the Jerusalem Post, Seth Frantzman overlooks the lack of veracity of President Trump’s statement on Hezbollah, instead praising Mr. Trump’s “robust stance against Hezbollah.” But even he is left with more questions than answers in the aftermath of the press statement: “Trump clearly was briefed on concerns about Hezbollah in the region, especially its role in Syria and Israel’s worries that Iran is setting down deeper roots in Lebanon. But Trump has also signed on to a ceasefire in Syria that empowers Assad close to Israel’s border and also empowers Hezbollah. If Hezbollah is a menace, where is the policy on rolling it back? If Assad is horrible, then why is the US administration not upping support for Syrian rebels, but rather decreasing that support?”

The presidential confusion was even more awkward considering the recent battle between Hezbollah fighters and anti-Assad militants from the jihadist Al-Nusra Front in the outskirts of Arsal in Lebanon. According to a report by the pro-Hezbollah newspaper Alahed News’s Zeinab Essa, “Hezbollah Secretary General His Eminence Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah announced the great and massive victory in the battle against the takfiri terrorist Al-Nusral Front in Arsal outskirts…. Sayyed Nasrallah also said that ‘the timing of the battle has nothing to do with regional or Arab developments’. ‘Whoever has the slightest military knowledge would know that such a decision cannot be taken days before the battle, which needed preparation and is not linked to any political developments…We had two choices: either to start before or after Ramadan but it could have extended into it so we decided after Ramadan’…. Moreover, he said that ‘the next day after the battle near Arsal we are ready to hand over area to the Lebanese Army’.”

According to Naharnet, the Lebanese government and its army have been quick to point to the fact that despite Hezbollah’s military involvement in Arsal, “the country’s military institution is the only entity entitled to defend Lebanon and protect its border…. Reinforcements from the army’s elite units were pouring into the Bekaa region on Wednesday for a possible operation against the jihadist Islamic State group in the outskirts of the border towns of al-Qaa and Ras Baalbek. State-run National News Agency said the army’s Airborne Regiment reinforced its posts in Ras Baalbek, al-Qaa and the neighboring areas, staged patrols and set up new military points ‘in anticipation of any infiltration or escape attempts by the militants into the two towns’. The move comes as Hizbullah wages an offensive across the scraggy landscape of Arsal’s outskirts to oust what it says are ex-al-Qaida Syrian jihadists.”

Arab News’s Najia Al-Houssari builds on this same narrative, by pointing to the Lebanese army’s effort to counter the influence of Islamic terrorists along its borders: “The Lebanese army says it is currently strengthening its positions against Daesh following skirmishes with militants close to the Syrian border. A military source stated that the army had exchanged fire on Thursday with fighters attached to Daesh, which controls a barren mountainous area in northeastern Lebanon. The official Lebanese National News Agency (NNA) reported that ‘Daesh militants fired at the Lebanese army which in turn responded.’ A Lebanese military source confirmed to Arab News that ‘skirmishes between the Lebanese army and Daesh militants take place on a regular basis and cannot be considered as new military operations’.”

Meanwhile, in an article posted on Asharq Alawsat, one of Lebanon’s most well-known politicians suggested that the problem of terrorism in the country will not go away until the Syrian question has been solved: “Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea stressed the need to resolve the dispute over Syrian regime head Bashar al-Assad remaining in power in order to reach a solution to terrorism. ‘We have heard from the international community that it is not interested in whether Assad stays in power or not, but if we are acting in a comprehensive manner to reach a comprehensive solution to terrorism, we must not keep silent over Assad’s presence in power,’ Geagea said. ‘If we want a solution to terrorism, we must find one to the regime crisis in Syria’, he added during a joint conference on Monday with Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Maarab.”

For its part, the Syrian regime argues that organizations like the Al Nusra front and ISIS are the real reason for the continued insecurity in the country. In a statement published by the Syrian News Agency, the Syrian permanent representative to the United Nations, Mr. Al Jaafari, noted “that the deterioration of humanitarian situation in some Syrian areas was because of the terrorism of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra organizations and the clashes among them and their prevention of the entry of any humanitarian materials. Al-Jaafari affirmed that the continued negative intervention of some regional and international sides in the Syrian domestic affairs and obstructing efforts aimed at reaching a peaceful solution to the crisis in Syria through a political process were also behind the reason of obstructing the delivery of the humanitarian aid.”

Meanwhile, the Kuwaiti government has expressed concern regarding Hezbollah’s covert actions within Kuwait. According to a Khaleej Times report, “The State of Kuwait delivered a memo of protest to the Lebanese government, urging it to assume its responsibilities towards irresponsible practices by Hezbollah, a component of the government, reported the Kuwait News Agency, KUNA. In a statement by Kuwait’s Ambassador to Lebanon, Abdelaal Al Qenaei, commenting on what was posted and shared on social media networks concerning a cable sent by the Kuwaiti Foreign Ministry to Lebanon following the verdict by Kuwait’s Court of Cassation concerning a ‘terror’ cell known as ‘Al Abdali cell’. The decision affirmed involvement of Hezbollah in intelligence, coordination of meetings, payment of funds, and provision of weapons and training on Lebanese territory with the aim of destroying the core infrastructure of the State of Kuwait, the statement added.”

Arab Times’s staff editorial highlights the Arab Parliament’s support for Kuwait’s reaction, in particular measures taken against Hezbollah’s ally Iran: “The Arab Parliament said Thursday it fully supports Kuwait’s recent measures aimed at preserving its security, stability, and safety. These measures include reducing the number of Iranian diplomats in the country, closing down Iranian cultural missions along with other affiliate offices, and halting all activities related to Kuwaiti-Iranian joint committees, the Kuwaiti Foreign Ministry announced earlier…. Kuwait’s Foreign Ministry announced Thursday that it informed the Iranian diplomatic mission to reduce the number of diplomats, close the embassy’s technical offices and suspending joint committees. A foreign ministry sources said the decision was in light of Iranian parties’ support of what was known as Abdali terror cell members. He added that the Iranian Ambassador was informed of the decision.”


  • 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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