Hezbollah’s dithering could force Iran to take the suicide pill in Lebanon

  • Martin Jay
  • 12 Nov 2019

While regional powers are playing the long game in Lebanon which is balanced on a knife-edge, Hezbollah digs its heels in when it should be accepting more responsibility for the country's crisis.

An anti-government protester takes a selfie in front of graffiti portraits of top Lebanese politicians, from left to right, Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, former Prime Minister Found Saniora, outgoing Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil and outgoing Prime Minister Saad Hariri, in Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, Nov. 10, 2019. ( AP )

“The conventional army loses if it does not win. The guerrilla wins if he does not lose,”

We are reminded of this famous quote by the infamous Henri Kissinger, who appeared in a vile photo in October with Tony Blair and Narendra Modi on the White House lawn. The reference, presumably, was made to America and its retreat from Vietnam. But does it still apply today to, say, Iran’s hegemony in the Middle East and in particular to Hezbollah in Lebanon?

Since Lebanon’s pro-Hezbollah Christian president Michel Aoun took office in October 2016, much hope was placed in him to manage the experiment, which gave Iran even more power in this tiny country. It served as a glowing example of Tehran’s reach as Lebanon more or less became a satellite of Iran. 

For many, it was a final straw — another click of the ratchet of Iran taking more power from the West and the Saudis. But while the Lebanese complain about Hezbollah many in private respect its power, in particular concerning any threat from Israel. 

Indeed, the Kissinger argument stood for quite some time as, in reality, all Hezbollah had to do was to make sure this new coalition – held together by Aoun and Hariri – would sustain the knocks that were inevitably on the horizon.

Hezbollah in Syria

But no one could have imagined that the Stockholm Syndrome that many Lebanese endured for Hezbollah, which is in many ways a parallel state in Lebanon, would reach a breaking point after merely three years. 

In reality, it wasn’t the idiotic and misplaced idea of placing a tax on WhatsApp, which was the real breaking point. In many ways, you have to go back to 2013 when Hezbollah’s secret that it was fighting in Syria for Assad was let out of the bag when its fighters won a key battle in Qusayr.

It was at this point when Lebanon could no longer cling on to the farce of being neutral in the Syrian war, which was one of the last nails in the coffin of the economy as tourism from Gulf states dropped to zero, not to mention financial support from Riyadh. Assassinations, kidnappings and car bombings rocked Lebanon.

Corruption was always a problem in Lebanon, but before 2013 there was at least a trace of an economy to be pilfered; in recent years though there has been nothing to cream off which led to the crisis today and to a lot of anger towards not only the non-Hezbollah bloc but also Hezbollah itself. 

The Shia group is not accused so bluntly of looting the country’s coffers, unlike the other groups and warlords, but is charged with allowing it to get out of hand. Hezbollah’s power could have been put to good use to rein in the embezzlement, but in reality, its leaders turned a blind eye.

And here is the crime of Iran, which is now very much in the spotlight of geopolitical pundits who are all pointing to the crisis in Lebanon and warning how Tehran will be the biggest loser if Lebanon’s economy collapses. 

The myth that non-Hezbollah protestors will be the only losers when the economy implodes is dispatched to the long grass, if not eclipsed, by Tehran’s bigger worry that Hezbollah losing its grip in Lebanon might be the beginning of Iran’s demise in the entire region.

In many ways, the delay we are witnessing in Lebanon is a game of ‘who blinks first’ between Hezbollah and the protestors. Aoun, ageing, and entirely servile to Hezbollah and Iran’s calls, is hoping that Hezbollah can sit it out.

But time is running out.

No Plan B

The real problem is that Hezbollah has no real political finesse and is unable to compromise. Hariri was its sole tool for compromise. Allowing Gebran Bassil, his nemesis, to be hurled into the political wilderness would be a smart move.

Yet Hezbollah was not prepared for the sheer size of the protests and their swiftness to push Hariri out of government. They simply didn’t have a Plan B for a government made up of people who didn't include their successor to Aoun, and many are eagerly watching and noting the strength of anti-Hezbollah protests in the Shia heartlands.

Hezbollah is stuck in a rut. For once, its boss appears to have little to say about the standoff with the protestors and is stumped by the political deadlock which is entirely about corruption – the same subject which features in Iraq and perhaps more poignantly, in Iran itself.

And yet paradoxically, it’s probably untrue to say that Iran’s power in the region is in decline, which is ultimately what Riyadh is hoping by holding back any emergency aid to Beirut.

In fact, if we can look beyond the protests in Lebanon - which at the time of writing were demonstrating in front of the house of a former Hezbollah-foe prime minister (Fouad Siniora) who is accused of embezzling a staggering $11 billion while he was in office – there are signs that Iran’s fortitude is gaining. 

While the anger against Hezbollah is not that it was embezzling cash itself, but allowing others to, as part of a deal it struck with them (with Siniora and others like Berri), there are signs that across the region Iran’s hold is strengthening.

Remarkably, according to the BBC which cites a respected London thinktank report, following vociferous attempts by the US to drain Tehran of cash through painful sanctions, Iran’s rivals have had to shell out even more cash on defence which has led to Tehran extending its reach to proxies even more. 

The report focuses on the success of Tehran’s cyberattacks, drone strikes and influence across the region with proxies which has given Iran even more power. In a word - militias, have expanded in numbers and strength.

And so, for those wondering why Lebanon is not fixing itself and Hezbollah is not ready to allow Gebran Bassil to be removed from government, it is because Iran is confused. 

Between Hezbollah and Iran, there is a mindset that Hezbollah can weather the storm and retain the same level of power it enjoyed before October 17 and that giving into protestors would be the thin end of a wedge for its ultimate downfall. 

It may be hard to see if we have reached a point which we can call ‘Peak Iran’ in the region. But yes, this appears to be the case in Lebanon where Hezbollah cannot accept that the crisis is not exclusive to warlords looting the country, but also to the Shia group being unprepared to cope with high expectations placed on it, even from those who claim to hate it. 

It’s also about adapting to change and understanding moderation although wasn’t it Kissinger again who said of moderation that it was “…a virtue only in those who are thought to have an alternative”?

Correction: This article erroneously referred to Fouad Siniora as 'Hezbollah-friendly president'. He was the former prime minister and opposed to Hezbollah. 

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