Blog - January 31, 2019

By David Daoud

Lebanon announced the formation of a new government today, headed by Prime Minister Saad Hariri, nine months after Beirut held parliamentary elections. However, this otherwise auspicious occasion for a U.S. ally is marred by Hezbollah’s increased empowerment in Beirut’s new government lineup.

Hezbollah received three portfolios in Saad Hariri’s new cabinet. Two portfolios were granted to official party members, and a third given to a Hezbollah ally. Mahmouq Qmati, a member of Hezbollah’s Central Committee, was appointed as State’s Minister for Parliament Matters and Mohammad Fneish received the Sports and Youth Ministry. Most critically, however, Hezbollah also indirectly received the Health Ministry with the appointment of Dr. Jamil Jabaq.

Jabaq is not a direct Hezbollah party member, but is closely linked to the party’s inner circles. He was Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah’s personal doctor for a period of time prior to 2006. Theoretically, however, his non-membership could allow Hezbollah to control Lebanon’s Health Ministry while avoiding the impact of U.S. anti-Hezbollah sanctions or a boycott of the Ministry and Lebanese health sector by Washington.

Such a situation has prevailed in the past, when Hezbollah allies Fawzi Salloukh and Trad Hmadeh were appointed Minister of Labor and Minister of Foreign Affairs, respectively, in Fouad Siniora’s July 19, 2005 government. Then, this fictional non-party status allowed the United States to continue cooperating with these Ministries: Salloukh was able to meet with his American counterpart, then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and even visited the White House.

Alternatively, boycotting Jabaq and his Ministry leaves the United States with the equally undesirable option of ceding Lebanon’s health sector to Iran. Tehran’s officials have already expressed their country’s readiness to fill a void left by Washington and turn Lebanon into a market for Iranian-produced pharmaceuticals. By marketing its pharmaceuticals in Lebanon, Iran will be able to skirt U.S. sanctions and increase its influence in that country.

Hezbollah succeeded in extracting another critical concession from Prime Minister Hariri: the appointment of Hassan Mourad as State Minister for Foreign Trade. Mourad is ostensibly a compromise candidate appointed to represent the so-called “Consultative Gathering” – an ad hoc group of six pro-Hezbollah Sunni MPs. However, Mourad is entirely aligned with Hezbollah and its interests. Mourad can use his position to strengthen trade ties between Lebanon and Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, as well as Iran.

Mourad’s appointment also carries another important negative implication for the United States and its Lebanese allies: In the long-term, it will weaken Saad Hariri’s position within Lebanon’s Sunni community in favor of a pro-Hezbollah Sunni voice. By accepting Mourad’s appointment, Hariri has in effect granted his blessing to the legitimacy of the pro-Hezbollah Sunni voice within his own sectarian base. To Hezbollah, this serves as a long-coveted toe-hold which it can use to gradually undermine Hariri’s leadership of Lebanon’s Sunnis, and a means to gradually bring about that sect to its pro-Iranian political orientation. In time, this could lead to a Lebanese Prime Minister entirely aligned with Hezbollah and the end of any credible opposition to the organization within Lebanon.