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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Hezbollah to Aoun: Ne me quitte pas...

It's been 4 weeks since Hariri has been trying to form a government, and the knot to be disentangled rests squarely with President Aoun's own ally, Hezbollah. Just as it did in the months preceding the presidential elections, Hezbollah plays the king maker, working from behind its haughty tower and dispensing various sticks in the wheels through lowly intermediaries like Berri and Frangiyeh. Lord Nasrallah, hovering high in his sublime aura and busy with more important business than his own country, such as the Syrian war and other tentacular shady ventures across the globe, will not deign come down and play with the dwarfs of Lebanese politics. By playing politics via puppets, Nasrallah maintains deniability and keeps alive the semblance of an alliance with Aoun, while in fact he keeps screwing Aoun every which way, then plays the arsonist-fireman who comes to the rescue of Aoun after he (Nasrallah) initially started the fire to begin with.

Meanwhile, all the oracles and signs keep pointing to an inexorable divorce between Nasrallah and Aoun, on account of the latter's volte-face and recent rapprochement with Hezbollah's avowed enemies, Hariri and Geagea. In two critical speeches since his election, Aoun completely ignored "The Resistance" (a.k.a. Hezbollah): In his swearing-in speech in parliament, he once vaguely mentioned a generic resistance (not "The Resistance"), and in his Independence Day speech, Aoun did not even use the word "resistance". Clearly, Aoun is keen on not playing the role of a puppet for Hassan Nasrallah, as his critics keep hammering the notion that his election was a victory for Hezbollah and Syria's Assad. Aoun's stated focus appears to be on domestic issues - corruption, rehabilitating the judiciary, etc. - and not on fighting the Quixotic "liberation" battles in Palestine-Israel and Syria that Hezbollah'e entire empire rests upon. The "alliance", as it were, has never been solid, and was never grounded in any ideological convergence; it was merely a tactical maneuver by both sides: Nasrallah needed a fig leaf on the Lebanese stage to continue abusing the country and Aoun provided it, while Aoun needed a credible raft to remain afloat while creating a lebensraum for himself in the Lebanese political pantheon after his return from exile in 2005 and Hezbollah provided that albeit reluctantly and never wholeheartedly.  

Since his appointment by Aoun as Prime Minister-designate, Saad Harri has not been able to put a government together because of Hezbollah and its puppets Nabih Berri and Suleiman Frangiyeh. Yet, 4 weeks into the stalemate, Hariri is said to have made up his mind, and has a 30-minister government ready to be signed off by Aoun. But the problem lies with Nabih Berri and Sleiman Frangiyeh who are being manipulated by Hezbollah to tarnish the start of, and maybe even derail, the new presidential term. Why? Any semblance of a return to normality in the functioning of the Lebanese State is Hezbollah's Achilles heel. The Iranian militia of Hassan Nasrallah has so far being successful only insofar as the Lebanese State was weak and dysfunctional, and this has been true since the early 1980s when Hezbollah was imported from Iran and transplanted in the midst of the Lebanese Shiite community. The stability promised to Lebanon by the Taef Agreement never materialized for one simple reason: Hezbollah, as a militia, and contrary to Taef and to the other militias, refused to lay down its weapons and was backed in this by the Syrian enemy occupation of the country. The curriculum vitae of Hezbollah is rife with acts of warfare, many of which clearly in the realm of terrorism, both within and outside the borders of Lebanon. That is the raison d'etre of the Iranian militia whose extant existence is solely at the expense of a normally functioning State. The more the State is weak and dysfunctional, the better Hezbollah does, and the stronger and better functioning the State is, the worse Hezbollah does. The coexistence of the two systems is similar to a parasite-host relationship in which the parasite feeds itself off the sick host, but without causing the demise of the host, for if the host dies, so will the parasite, and by the same token, the host can only heal by removing the parasite. As an illegitimate entity whose entire construct is an absolute antithesis of the State in which it operates, Hezbollah thrives only in a sick Lebanon. So far, this has worked because many actors, both inside and outside Lebanon, have agreed to this equilibrium. 

But things are changing. Syria's war may be coming to an end. The Lebanese have, for the most part and except Hezbollah and its puppets, come together and agreed to re-invigorate the State. This has been most obvious with the two rapprochements: one within the Christian camp (Aoun and Geagea), then another one between the Christian and the Sunni camps (Hariri, Geagea and Aoun), leaving Hezbollah without a fig leaf to cover its anomaly. As a result, and with its survival still dependent on it being a parasite leeching off a weak and dysfunctional Lebanese State, Hezbollah has every reason to want to derail any attempt at restoring a strong State. And the government formation crisis is just a reflection of this Hezbollah strategy, now that the country has a "strong" government in the personas of Aoun and Hariri.

So in the end, and contrary to appearances, Aoun may in fact have used Hezbollah more than Hezbollah has used Aoun. Aoun aimed long term with a strategy to win the war, while Hezbollah's goals were to winning small battles along the way. By riding Hezbollah long enough to recoup the space he lost in 1990 on the political chessboard of Lebanon, Aoun has surrendered much, but is now in a good position to divorce himself from Hezbollah, even at the price of a confrontation between the Lebanese State (Aoun is now the Commander-in-Chief of the Lebanese Army) and the Iranian militia. Aoun's reputation of volatility might come in handy this time around, just as it did back in 1989. The stakes are gradually rising: As Lebanon's army marched on the first (in decades) truly independent Independence Day a fortnight ago, Hezbollah staged its own show of force, parading itself in the ruins and devastation it itself has caused inside Syria, as a challenge and a warning to newly-elected Aoun. Hezbollah made the headlines with its transformation from a militia into an "army". Aoun is old and sometimes appears like a smarmy old chap, but he is not dumb, and he has picked up the scent. Now, Hezbollah is challenging Aoun again by derailing the formation of Aoun's first government. The tension buildup is clear; but the outcome is perhaps even clearer. The Lebanese army has received from the US and the West hundreds of millions of dollars worth in so-called anti-terrorist weaponry in recent years (more than ever before), supposedly to counter the Jihadi (Sunni) terror threat. But as soon as ISIL's back is broken in Iraq-Syria and its threat significantly diminished, guess who the world will turn its attention to: Syria's own Assad and his appendage the Iranian Hezbollah, and who better than the Lebanese army than to subdue a tried and experienced, but tired and exhausted, Hezbollah?

Aoun will within 10 days at most sign a decree giving birth to the government, regardless of whether Hezbollah agrees or not, signaling the trigger of a long and painful breakup between the two unlikely allies. Will Hezbollah be in the opposition against the Aoun-Hariri tandem? Hezbollah might be calculating that since this government is by definition short-lived, as it is principally tasked with preparing for the May 2017 parliamentary elections that will yield a new government in their aftermath, Hezbollah might lay low and not put a fight with Aoun, not just yet. But by withdrawing from the fight now, Hezbollah will appear to have buckled down in this first round, giving Aoun an even greater political boost on the domestic stage, and that is not a good omen either for Hezbollah.



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