Lebanese president has influence but his alliance with Hezbollah is not over

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In a speech delivered two days after Christmas, Lebanese President Michel Aoun took an unprecedented stance on Hezbollah that contrasted sharply with his lasting appeasement of the party. While the speech received mixed reviews, Mr. Aoun created an opening that Hezbollah critics must exploit to try to find a solution for his weapons.

In his speech, the president called for an urgent national dialogue around a national defense strategy for Lebanon, as well as other goals. The agreement on a defense strategy has a particular resonance for Hezbollah, as it is another term for finding a formula for integrating the party’s arsenal of weapons into the state. Mr. Aoun said: “It is true that the defense of the country requires cooperation between the army, the people and [Hezbollah]but the primary responsibility rests with the state. Only the State can establish a defense strategy and supervise its implementation.

In a broad swath directed against Hezbollah and the allied Amal movement, Aoun continued: “Before we reach this stage, we must begin by ending the deliberate, systematic and unjustified blockade leading to the dismantling of institutions and the dissolution state. “Hezbollah, Amal boycott cabinet sessions until resolution is found to investigate Beirut port explosion. Hezbollah wants investigating magistrate Tarek Bitar withdrawn of the case, as he attempts to question former ministers affiliated with party allies.

Mr. Aoun’s rivals dismissed his comments as too little, too late. They noted that the president’s goal in pointing out his differences with Hezbollah was to push the party to support the presidential ambitions of his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil. Unless he does, Aoun suggested, his alliance with Hezbollah was likely to be reconsidered.

There is a lot of truth to this conclusion. However, to ignore the President’s remarks and leave it there would be a mistake. After 2005, when the Syrian army was forced to withdraw from Lebanon, those calling for Hezbollah’s negotiated disarmament were frustrated because the party had allied itself with the Free Patriotic Movement of Mr. Aoun and Mr. Bassil. This created a political impasse in Lebanon which prevented progress by pushing the party to give up its arms.

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It would be premature today to assume that the Aoun-Hezbollah alliance is over. On the contrary, Mr. Aoun opportunistically delays the possibility of a divorce to avoid such an outcome by ensuring that Mr. Bassil can succeed him.

However, for the first time, the president has put on the table the formula for a defense strategy – based on a Hezbollah which must be subordinate to the state, and therefore whose weapons, implicitly, must be integrated into an entity. broader which retains primary responsibility. to defend the nation. The party, keen to preserve an independent military capacity outside state boundaries, primarily for the benefit of Iran, is unwilling to engage in a serious national discussion on the issue.

If Hezbollah now engages in Mr. Bassil’s presidency, Aoun could back away from his call for a dialogue on a defense strategy

Still, Mr. Aoun carries some weight, as Hezbollah views its endorsement of its status as a resistance force as valuable official legitimation. If Mr. Aoun withdraws, the party would be isolated against a majority of Lebanese who believe that the main problem in their country is the presence of an armed group acting as a proxy of a foreign power and who will always impose a debilitating status quo on them. protect its interests.

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If Hezbollah’s critics are to do anything, it is to collectively support Mr. Aoun’s calls for a dialogue on a national defense strategy, and to insist that it begin as soon as possible. Hezbollah made it clear after the president’s speech that this was not the time to discuss it. This is precisely why Hezbollah’s rivals should try to use the space between the president and the party to work towards this goal.

If Hezbollah were to commit to Mr. Bassil’s presidency now, it is likely that the president would back away from his call for a dialogue on a defense strategy. However, it is highly unlikely that he will. Hezbollah prefers to leave its options open and could be under pressure from Syria to support a more overtly pro-Syrian president.

Then Mr. Aoun may be thinking of something else. He realizes that a majority of his fellow Christians do not sympathize with the state of Hezbollah within a state. Amid Lebanon’s severe economic crisis, the party has alienated itself from many Arab countries, leaving the Lebanese isolated and facing poverty, with little outside help. The prospect of war with Israel on behalf of Iran also does not appeal to Christians or anyone. Christians are also particularly keen to see Mr. Bitar continue his investigation.

If Mr. Aoun can move forward on a defense strategy, he believes he could bolster his good Christian faith and help his party in the May election – and maybe even Mr. Bassil’s chances. The party will not surrender, but if its rivals, along with Mr. Aoun, can limit its leeway somewhat, this could be something to build on in the future. Mr. Aoun may think this is a fight worth waging, whether he succeeds or not, as his party and Mr. Bassil are in desperate need of rekindling their political appeal.

Posted: Jan 5, 2022, 5:00 AM


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