| February 17th, 2023
Lebanon is in crisis. The country is facing a multi-pronged siege from a plethora of social, economic and political issues. Lebanese voters have persistently blamed the incumbent political class for this malaise, a trend reflected in the country’s 2022 legislative elections in which the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement and its allies endured significant setbacks. An examination of how U.S. policymakers could respond to this development is necessary, especially in the wider context of Iran’s influence over the country.
Any analysis relating to the parliamentary displacement of Lebanon’s pro-Hezbollah bloc ultimately obliges an explanation of the political landscape which operated prior to this event. The 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri witnessed the further polarization of the Lebanese body politic into two political camps: the March 8th Alliance and the March 14th Alliance. The former constituted a peculiar coalition between cross-confessional parties, including the Maronite conservative Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and Khomeinist Hezbollah. This partnership was solidified via the 2006 Mar Mikhael Agreement, which was considered to be Hezbollah’s true moment of assimilation into Lebanon’s political fabric. This was essentially a transaction, entailing that Hezbollah would support Michel Aoun—the FPM’s founder—in his bid for the presidency, in exchange for his acceptance of Hezbollah’s domestic and regional strategy and the continued existence of its paramilitary outfits. For the FPM, the dividends initially paid off, as the alliance secured the FPM more ministerial portfolios than any other Christian party and successfully placed Aoun into the presidency in 2016.
Left out of these dealings was the Lebanese population, who presently endures one of the worst economic meltdowns since the mid-nineteenth century, a spreading cholera outbreak, and corrupt inefficient governing. For many, the last straw was the 2020 deadly explosion at Beirut port, which inflamed anti-Hezbollah sentiments. The port, notably, was considered to be under Hezbollah’s control, and allegedly a primary supply area for its volunteers in Syria, strengthening the claim that its weapons in particular posed a threat to Lebanon. The popularization of this discourse injured the FPMs credibility as the ‘protector’ of its constituents, assisting— alongside the economic crisis—with the loss of 3 of its 20 parliamentary seats. This proved immensely significant, as it obstructed the ability of the entire March 8th Alliance to form a legislative majority, while permitting the Saudi-backed Lebanese Forces (LF) to become the largest Christian party with 19 seats. The LF may prove to be a natural U.S. ally. Its leader Samir Geagea, has overtly demanded that Hezbollah cease its interference in the affairs of Arab countries and dedicate itself to Lebanon, rather than Iran.
Nonetheless, the emergence of parties such as the LF does not automatically render them capable of politically confronting Hezbollah in the long-term. For that to happen, Washington should play a proactive role in enhancing the ability of Lebanese policymakers to meet the prerequisites for IMF assistance. In essence, this long-term project would aim to foster greater electoral appeal for anti-Hezbollah parties by enabling them to respond directly to the socioeconomic needs of the Lebanese population and thus enhance their credibility. In this regard, U.S. diplomatic figures in Lebanon can play a mediating role between the ascendent (albeit disunited) Lebanese opposition, such that the legislature has an improved chance of electing a president and ending the vacuum left by Aoun since October 2022. Furthermore, having the current leading presidential candidate—Michel Moawad (himself a secular reformist)—assume office would force Hezbollah to work with a figure who desires to end the group's de facto veto over policy making, and pivot away from Damascus and Tehran in favor of greater engagement with the West and Arab Gulf monarchies. Arguably, Moawad’s success is in U.S. interests.
That is not to say that the decline of Hezbollah in Lebanon is inevitable. For one, Moawad remains 86 votes short of the threshold required to trigger the second round of voting, further illustrating the need for a U.S. policy conducive to unifying opposition legislators behind the idea of a Moawad Presidency. Additionally, while the elections may have indeed challenged its political hegemony, in the field of hard-power, Hezbollah still has the upper-hand, including over the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). The Lebanese opposition can provide, however, policymakers—both inside and outside the military—who can collaborate with the U.S. on the future of aid to the LAF (which totals $2.6 billion since 2006) in the face of its growing collaboration with Hezbollah. Should the Lebanese form a government which includes a new Defence Minister, U.S. concerns on this matter will likely fall on more receptive ears, especially with figures such as Moawad and Geagea outwardly calling for the primacy of Lebanese state institutions (including the LAF) over all other actors in Lebanon. No such opportunity existed previously under the FPM and Aoun, who (predictably) defended the preservation of Hezbollah’s military supremacy in Lebanon under the pretense of combatting Israel.
It is in this sense that the effort to isolate Hezbollah remains somewhat hopeful, albeit certainly incomplete. Nonetheless, Lebanon’s political landscape has handed the U.S. a rare opportunity to collaborate alongside like-minded and potentially influential partners. It is presenting the chance to construct an anti-Hezbollah Lebanese cohort which can join it on the long-march to confront Iranian influence. Indeed, Hezbollah’s loss is the Islamic Republic’s loss.
The Lebanese Electorate Has Challenged the Status Quo: What may be the Implications for Washington’s Approach to Lebanon?