The US Plan for Weakening Hezbollah: a Civil War and the Exodus of the Christians
The Christian political and religious leaders of Lebanon are theologically distant from Twelver Shia; they have political and ideological objectives that fundamentally differ from those of Hezbollah. Gebran Bassil, the Leader of the larger Christian Parliamentary Group “Al tayyar al-watani al-Hurr” (Free Patriotic Movement – FPM) made this clear last Sunday in a televised statement in response to US sanctions over alleged corruption and his close political alliance with Hezbollah. However, these differences of ideology are a kind of insurance, a guarantee which prevents civil war in Lebanon and the exodus of Christians from the Middle East. “This (a civil war in Lebanon and the exodus of Christians) is what Israel wishes to see, a desire expressed overtly by US officials during private meetings,” Bassil revealed. Thus, questions have to be asked: what are the fundamental differences between Lebanese Christians and Hezbollah, and what does the US want from the Christian Lebanese so as to weaken Hezbollah?
Just after the day of the Presidential election, on the fourth of November, the US administration announced- in a move that seemed incomprehensible and without strategic or tactical benefit either to Israel or the US- that it was sanctioning the MP Gebran Bassil. Bassil said that the US ambassador to Lebanon, Dorothy Shea, visited him to give him an ultimatum and warned him of the start of US sanctions if he didn’t terminate the Hezbollah FPM alliance. Bassil rejected the threat, and President Donald Trump’s administration sanctioned him. Bassil decided to reveal the content of his meetings with the US officials to strike a balance between his relationships with Hezbollah and with the west. The Christian leader detailed the points of difference with Hezbollah in terms of “thinking, language and ideology”.
The Shia Hezbollah consider the US as “the great Satan, the head of the snake”, and as far as Israel is concerned, their objective is to end its existence. Hezbollah’s aim is clearly stated: to liberate Palestine. The Christians are not the only group who don’t share the same goal as Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Shia group of Amal led by Speaker Nabih Berri, considered to be the closest ally of Hezbollah, doesn’t share Hezbollah’s slogans and objectives. Berri, unlike Hezbollah, has excellent relationships with the west and with the Gulf states.
Furthermore, Bassil has said that the Christians of Lebanon believe the relationship with the US is essential- and that it should be treated accordingly. He said that he believes that Israel has the right to live in security when the guaranteed safety of Arab territories is also provided for, and the rights of the Palestinians are guaranteed based on King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia’s peace plan. Bassil here meant the return of the Syrian occupied Golan Heights and Lebanese territories, the right of return of the Palestinian refugees, and a state for Palestine in exchange for normalisation with Israel, as stated in the Saudi King’s initiative.
This same initiative was agreed to by the late President Hafez Assad prior his meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Barak in the year 2000 – but it failed at the last minute. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Lebanese President Emil Lahoud, both close allies of Hezbollah, agreed on King Abdallah’s peace plan initially proposed in December 2002. The Palestinian Authority (PLO) and Hamas are both calling for the right of return of refugees and two states in Palestine to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It is clear that Bassil doesn’t want to look as if he is totally in the arms of Hezbollah, nor does he accept a conditional relationship with the West when the stated conditions could lead to civil war in Lebanon. What Bassil did not share was the US Ambassador to Lebanon’s request to join, in one coalition, the Christian “Lebanese Forces” of Samir Geagea and the Kataeb, and the Druse of Walid Jumblatt- thus isolating Hezbollah.
The FPM believes the US request to isolate the Shia would divide Lebanon into two parts wherein one part Christians will be on one side of the country (with the US-supporting Lebanese Druse as allies) and Sunni and Shia on the other side. It would be effortless to create a Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict to keep Hezbollah busy. In this case, Israel could hit the Shia villages, and the western community would applaud a partition of Lebanon under the excuse of protecting the Christian of Lebanon. The Christian area would be financed and supported by the west. If the borders between the two sides were to be broken and Hezbollah had the upper hand, the Christians would be rushed outside the country, an ideal situation for the west. It would force the migration of the Christians, and leave Lebanon to a sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims, as in Iraq and Syria in the last decade. In fact, in reality, this is what French President Nicholas Sarkozy proposed to the Christian Patriarch when asking for support for the community in Lebanon back in 2011.
Gebran Bassil rejected the US offer even though the Christians of Lebanon are by nature close to the west. Bassil wants a relationship with the US and Europe: he is not ready to exchange it for relations with Iran, Russia or China. The US requests from the Lebanese Christians include the naturalisation of the Palestinians and the Syrian refugees. That would create a vast demographic imbalance in Lebanon where the majority would then be Sunni, followed by the Shia in the second place. In consequence, it would no longer be feasible or justified to give the reduced minority Christians half of the total share in all institutional positions of the state, Parliament, cabinet and security forces as stipulated by the Taef agreement.
One of the most significant differences between Hezbollah and Gebran Bassil is not only ideological but concerns the Speaker Nabih Berri, accused of corruption along with Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the Druse Leader Walid Jumblat, the governor of the Central Bank Riyad Salame and others. Gebran accuses Hezbollah of protecting his closest Shia ally Berri who, along with Hariri, protects Riyad Salame. The Central Bank governor is accused of facilitating the transfer of dozens of billions of dollars to Lebanese officials, accumulated from corruption and abuse of power over decades. Hezbollah understands Bassil’s accusation and finds itself powerless due to the limited choices available. Berri is the Leader of Amal who may not hesitate to confront Hezbollah if left alone or even go as far as an inter-Shia conflict. The price would be very high, mainly when the US and Israel are waiting for every opportunity to weaken Hezbollah from within, or through its allies.
Bassil also spoke about a plan thwarted by the local security services – who arrested several militants – to revive the terror group “Islamic State” (ISIS) in the north of Lebanon where a group of 40 militants linked to Idlib (Syria where the base of al-Qaeda is established) were uncovered. The Christians understand that their separation from Hezbollah would render them without protection, particularly when the ISIS card is still on the table and can manifest whenever the opportunity presents itself. This is why Bassil can’t break with Hezbollah: it is its guarantee and protection from radical Islamists who amply demonstrated how brutal they could be against all religions and sects in Syria and Iraq. In reality, the only political friend Bassil has in Lebanon today is Hezbollah, since all the other groups – including Maronite Christians, Sunni and Druse –have demonised him and are trying to isolate the FPM and its Leader.
In fact, being a Christian in Lebanon is not the privileged position it would be in the West. The only advantage it confers is facilitating a visa to change residence. Moreover, the US clearly doesn’t interact with Lebanese politicians on a humanitarian or « favour for favour » basis, but on the grounds of interests (theirs). Indeed, despite facilitating the departure of Amer Fakhoury to the West, Bassil didn’t win popularity with the US. On the contrary, events confirm that when the US administration considers the time has come to sacrifice Lebanon’s Christians as wood for a civil war fire, it will not hesitate. For the US, the interests of Israel come first. This is unfortunately unlikely to change with the new administration.
The US and Israel tried to confront Hezbollah face-to-face but failed to defeat or weaken the group. They tried to divide Iraq and Syria to cut the supply road to Hezbollah, but to no avail. Their last attempt was to impose “maximum pressure” on Iran. The result was that Tehran did not submit and Hezbollah continued to pay wages to tens of thousands of militants in US currency even when this is largely missing in Lebanon. No other choices remain for the US /Israeli side but the possibility of a civil war in Lebanon, and to dispose of the Christians in order to relieve Israel from the pressure applied by Hezbollah, with its growing strength and effectiveness.
Hezbollah is not expected to fall into this trap despite their Christian ally having significant differences in ideology and objectives. Differences can be managed when it is in the mutual interest of both sides to stick together. On the contrary, far from weakening him, the US sanctions on Bassil have boosted his position and freed the young Christian Leader to claim his right representation in the new government he was previously denied. But that puts the elected Prime Minister Saad Hariri – who holds the minority in Parliament – into a weaker position: he was counting on French President Emmanuel Macron’s initiative to overlook the Parliamentary results and form his government without Bassil. The US sanctions, predictably, produced a counter effect, giving wings to Gebran Bassil and making him stronger than ever.
A. King Abdullah’s initiative: the Arab states were to call upon Israel to affirm a full Israeli withdrawal from all the territories occupied since 1967, including the Syrian Golan Heights, to the lines of June 4, 1967, as well as the remaining occupied Lebanese territory in the south of Lebanon. It includes a just solution to the Palestinian refugee question on the basis of UNSC Resolution 194. There is also a request for the acceptance of the establishment of a sovereign independent state on the Palestinian territories occupied since 4 June 1967, in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Consequently, the Arab states will do the following: One, consider the Arab-Israeli conflict to be completely over; two, establish normal relations with Israel in the context of comprehensive peace. It also called upon the government of Israel and the Israelis to accept this initiative in order to safeguard the prospect for peace and stop further shedding of blood in the region. These are the key issues. They have been described as peace for withdrawal, as a normalisation for a normalisation: the Arab states are asking Israel to be a normal state. In return, they would normalize their relationship with Israel – economic, cultural and otherwise.
B. During the 1982 Israeli occupation of Lebanon, Amer al-Fakhoury was a commander at the Israeli-established Kiyam detention camp and was responsible for the killing and torture of many members of the resistance. Lebanese authorities exerted pressure on the head of the military court to release Israeli collaborator Amer al-Fakhoury as requested by President Donald Trump. Al-Fahkoury was then delivered to the US embassy and smuggled out of the country. The release order was carried out following pressure from the Chief of Staff and the President Michel Aoun, Gebran Bassil’s father-in-law.
C. Amal Shia Leader and Speaker Nabih Berri said in a statement.: “UNIFIL welcomes today’s announcement on the framework agreement to launch negotiations between the two states of Lebanon and Israel on demarcating the maritime borders between the two countries.”