Blog - January 3, 2018
In early December, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri rescinded his resignation, announced from Saudi Arabia a month earlier on November 5. The rescission came after Lebanon’s political factions agreed on a “dissociation” policy that would theoretically constrain Hezbollah’s activities abroad and return Beirut to its traditionally neutral regional foreign policy. The policy suffers from three fundamental flaws and is bound to fail. First, it defines Lebanon’s neutrality ambiguously. Second, it aims to revive Lebanon’s 1989-2000 domestic situation, which is the precise environment that enabled Hezbollah to grow powerful; and third, the policy depends on Hezbollah subordinating itself to the Lebanese government.
Lebanon’s Ambiguous Neutrality
The ambiguous “dissociation” policy statement calls on “the Lebanese government, in all of its components,” to “dissociate from any conflicts, struggles, or wars, or the internal affairs of Arab states”.. But, problematically, the policy is silent on how Lebanon should manage its relations with non-Arab allies, like the United States. It also fails to address Hezbollah’s activities—namely its presence in Syria or its role in any future conflict with Israel. Hezbollah will exploit this ambiguity to its advantage. It has already begun doing so, using Islamic, Arab, and Lebanese consensus on “liberating Jerusalem” as justification to call for fighting Israel under the aegis of Iran’s Resistance Axis.
Returning to the Post-Taef Decade (1989-2000)
Based on statements and media leaks, the negotiators of the dissociation policy – President Michel Aoun, prime minister Hariri, and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri – intended the following interpretations: 1) Lebanon and its officials will refrain from taking positions or making statements aligning Beirut with outsiders against its fellow Arab states, taking sides in inter-Arab disputes, or comments that could be perceived as interference in the internal affairs of other Arab countries; 2) Hezbollah would not be disarmed – as indicated by Hariri and Aoun both erroneously claiming the group does not use its weapons domestically, and the president defending it as a “resistance group” – and its deployment in Syria (and possibly Yemen) would be accepted as fait accompli; and 3) However, it aims to simultaneously assure the Arab and Gulf States - mainly Saudi Arabia – that Hezbollah would not undertake further deployments or activities outside of Lebanon harming their interests.
More or less, this envisions returning Lebanon and Hezbollah to the conditions prevailing between the ratification of the Taef Agreement in 1989, which ended Lebanon’s Civil War, and Israel’s withdrawal from south Lebanon on May 25, 2000. During that time period – per the Syrian-imposed interpretation of Part 3(C) of Taef – Hezbollah was allowed to retain its arms and operated exclusively from within Lebanon, with successive Lebanese governments legitimizing it as an armed national “resistance” group.
However, those are the precise conditions that Hezbollah exploited to become the current credible competitor to the Lebanese state. The Shiite organization operated under the cover of legitimacy as a “resistance movement,” to grow its military and social strength, making it too powerful to disarm when the need for “resistance” ended with Israel’s May 2000 withdrawal. Allowing the group to remain armed and continue its social activities parallel to the government during that decade is precisely how Hezbollah gained the ability to use Lebanon as a headquarters for its pro-Iranian regional activities.
Hezbollah Answers to a Higher Authority
Prime Minister Hariri sought the assurances of Hezbollah and its ally President Aoun that it would abide by the new dissociation policy, buttressed with the guarantees of the international community. However, Hezbollah’s adherence to the ideology of Absolute Wilayat al-Faqih makes these guarantees illusory. The group’s highest authority is Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and not Aoun or the government of Lebanon. If and when he calls on Hezbollah to act in Iran’s interests, it will without hesitation. So long as it continues to function as an armed group in Lebanon, the risk remains that it will use its domestic capabilities abroad when called upon by Tehran, rendering the dissociation policy toothless.
That does not mean that Hezbollah will begin flaunting Lebanese neutrality immediately. The group is highly adaptable and – while it does not shy away from armed confrontation when necessary to protect its interests – it will only use them as a last resort in Lebanon, preferring to advance its project quietly. The organization will therefore likely continue the feigned moderation and responsibility it assumed in the wake of Hariri’s resignation, while simultaneously testing the limits of Lebanese neutrality. That is, until the last vestiges of this crisis pass and its responsibility for causing it is forgotten, it is able to gradually impose a return to its previous behavior as the status quo upon the Lebanese, or until Iran’s interests demand otherwise.
In theory, Lebanon’s dissociation statement is a laudable attempt to reorient the country towards its traditionally neutral foreign policy stance. Nonetheless, it is bound to fail in the long-run. Its fundamental flaw is treating Hezbollah like the other Lebanese political factions which view Lebanon as a “final homeland,” – i.e. their country of ultimate loyalty, even if they disagree on alignment or specifics – and allows it to retain the means to continue disrupting the country’s neutrality.
But Hezbollah is an anomaly. Distinctly – even from its political allies in the Amal and Free Patriotic Movements – it owes final loyalty to Iran, and actively aims to compete with, undermine, and ultimately replace the Lebanese republic by overwhelming popular demand. An agreement that attempts to constrain such a group by Lebanese “rules of the game,” is therefore bound to fail in the long run, particularly one allowing the group to continue growing its domestic sources of strength. Hezbollah may cooperate for now, but it will renege as soon as its higher interests – which are Iran’s – demand. In the end, it is not merely Hezbollah’s actions which are the source of Lebanon’s problems, it is the group’s core identity – and that is something the dissociation policy fails to address.
David Daoud is a research analyst at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI).