Will Lebanon be the next staging ground of Iran’s revenge?

Hassan Al-Qishawi , Wednesday 8 Jan 2020

As the poster child of pro-Iran militias, Lebanon’s Hizbullah faces pressure to respond to Qassem Suleimani’s assassination. But to do so could usher in a regional war

Supporters of Shiite Hezbollah movement react with clenched fists as they watch a speech by the movement's leader Hasan Nasrallah, transmitted on a large screen, in the Lebanese capital Beirut's southern suburbs on January 5, 2020. (Photo: AFP)

On Wednesday, Iran attacked two bases in Iraq that are used by the American troops with missiles. Before the attacks, the Lebanese people were holding their breath out of fear their country will be the launchpad for Iran’s revenge for the assassination of Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Al-Quds Force, through an attack by Hizbullah on Israel or US targets. In fact, the still are. 

This small Arab state is further embroiled in this matter due to the strong ties between Suleimani, in charge of Iran-backed militias, and Hizbullah, one of the key and oldest such militias and poster child for other militias. Therefore, the group can become a tool in avenging Suleimani as Hizbullah’s top military commander.

Reports revealed that the route taken by Suleimani before his assassination began at Beirut Airport until Baghdad, where he was met by the Deputy Commander of the Popular Mobilisation Forces Abu Mahdi Al-Mohandes, and other officials. Hizbullah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said the assassination of Suleimani by US drone warranted “just retribution” and is the “responsibility and vow of every resistance fighter”. Nasrallah further described Suleimani’s assassination by drone attack, which also killed Al-Mohandes, as a “major crime” and that the US will never achieve its goals due to this act.

The assassination opened the possibility of several scenarios of confrontation, changed the rules of the game and could seriously impact the region. Predictions vary about the scope of Iran’s response, from where it will launch, and the impact of this response. Bruce Riedel, a former member of the CIA who spent most of his career studying the Middle East and currently is a senior fellow at the Saban Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, said: “This administration is leading the US to another war in the Middle East. It will be a greater war than anything before.” 

It may not be a conventional war since Iran’s advantage lies in asymmetrical conflicts, according to Riedel.

General Khalil Al-Helw, a strategy expert, told the Lebanese newspaper Al-Joumhouria that recent escalation by Tehran to force the US to ease sanctions was a strategic mistake. “With this assassination, the Americans sent a message that they are willing to stand up to any military escalation that threatens their interests and forces in Iraq and the region,” said Al-Helw. “And that they will firmly respond to every threat.”

On the diplomatic front, it appears that “channels have frozen since the recent attack on the US Embassy in Baghdad, therefore Iran will not negotiate right now,” according to Al-Helw.

But where will the Iranian response come from? Will Lebanon be the staging ground for its response?

If Iran decides to respond via Lebanon, whether against Israel or US targets, then Tehran and Hizbullah are taking a gamble on the future of this small country at a most vulnerable point in time. Lebanon is suffering an unprecedented financial crisis which it cannot survive without international financial assistance that must be approved by the US and Saudi Arabia, which was already difficult even before embroiling Lebanon in new dilemmas. 

What makes it worse, is that the Gulf and US umbrella of protection over Lebanon is gone. Since the end of the civil war, Lebanon was subject to Syrian influence and the staging ground for Hizbullah’s activities which provoked Israel and the West.

Gulf countries and the West, especially the US, took into consideration the complex nature of Lebanon and that Lebanon is not only Hizbullah, and that one third of its population is Westernised Christians and another third is Sunnis led by the Future Movement that believes in liberal economic policies and is close to Gulf countries. Also, the majority in both these sects were oppressed by Syria, and then by Hizbullah. This protection factored in Lebanon’s multi-sectarian character, freedoms, openness and culture which is closest to Western civilisation among Arab countries, and the pro-Iran segment was only one part of the country.

Countries such as Saudi Arabia and France had interests, allies and investments in Lebanon which they wanted to protect, and Lebanon was a meeting point of Iranian-Syrian-Saudi-French and to some extent US influence. However, as Hizbullah gained more power in the Lebanese regime, the line separating Hizbullah and the Lebanese state faded, according to former Lebanese minister of interior Nehad Al-Mashnouq. This changed the formula, but the key factor that caused the withdrawal of the Gulf-US protective umbrella is a shift in Saudi and US policies to clamp down on Hizbullah and Iran; they no longer excuse Lebanon under the pretext that the state has no control over Hizbullah.

In the past, Hizbullah benefited from the distinction made between them and the state of Lebanon. When Hizbullah policies hurt the country’s economy, Gulf and Western countries came to rescue Lebanon by launching massive construction projects after Israel’s war on Lebanon in 2006. It was not limited to funds, and this policy was also apparent during Israel’s assault on Lebanon in 2006 when the US curbed the scale of destruction of Lebanon by Israel, limiting attacks to Shia areas and some infrastructure servicing Hizbullah.

Washington and Riyadh, however, decided to pull the rug from underneath Hizbullah and now hold the group responsible for the state it thrived and sheltered under. Saad Al-Hariri’s decision to withdraw from forming a government is evidence of this, since part of his motivation was the US-Saudi desire for Al-Hariri to distance himself from Hizbullah and leave the latter to shoulder full responsibility, even if this means the country’s financial collapse.

This policy can also be applied on the military front. It is likely that the US and Israel will not heed previous caveats if Hizbullah launches an attack from Lebanon. If the group makes any risky moves, the response will be severe and Lebanon will not be viewed as a semi-ally to the West.

General Hesham Jaber, director of the Middle East Centre for Research and Political Studies in Lebanon, said: “Iran will not advise Hizbullah to use Lebanon as the staging ground to attack Israel. Neither has an interest in escalating tensions right now on the Lebanese border, therefore the Lebanese front is postponed since it is a risk that could lead to a regional war. The possible stage for a response is the scene of the crime, namely Iraq, by targeting US forces there. This does not exclude Hizbullah from participating in a response, but in another country, possibly Syria.”

Syria is a possibility especially since conditions there are chaotic and several countries have influence. US forces are deployed there in different locations, and Israel is also present and could be a target as well. While Iran’s response is likely to be carried out by the Popular Mobilisation Forces, since it was also targeted by the US attack, there is the possibility that Hizbullah will be involved due to the group’s ability to carry out limited precise operations that Iranians will flaunt as a response. At the same time, it will be a calculated move to avoid pulling Iran into a difficult war with the US. Hizbullah is accused of carrying out overseas attacks, which is something that distinguishes the group from other pro-Iran militias in the region. 

Another response by Iran, with Hizbullah participation, could be a cyberattack on the US.

Overall, the Iranian regime is in a strategic predicament. If it does not avenge Suelimani it will lose face, and if it does respond irrationally, it will lose its throne. Therefore, Iranians are trying to decide on a stealth response that does not provoke the US, but there are exaggerations about Iran’s options. In the end, Tehran knows its limitations, and the risk of attacking a US base in northern Iraq, then the US embassy, have shown that miscalculations with major powers is like playing with fire.

One must remember that when Israel assassinated the former secretary general of Hizbullah, Abbas Moussawi, in 1992, and military commander Emad Moghniya, the group did not carry out an earth-shattering response as promised, but neither did the group’s popularity falter. In fact, it grew. The assassination of Suleimani was a major moral blow to Iran due to the man’s iconic stature, who was more popular in Islamist circles in Iran than secular or opposition ones due to his role in building the modern Persian empire. This empire will not fall as a result of his elimination, and Iranians will not risk their strategic goals to avenge Suleimani.

They lost a ferocious general, but they won control in four Arab countries, and the moral impact of the assassination also weakened the uprisings in Lebanon and Iraq, which primarily targeted Iranian influence, especially in Iraq.

Shia legacy often manipulates tragic circumstances of death to create more drama and increase the popularity of the doctrine, as it continues its scheme and final goals. Shiism was born at the Karbala massacre and continues to memorialise it; it is no coincidence that Iran’s Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei commented on Suleimani’s assassination by saying that every land is Karbala and every day is Ashura.

*This article is an updated version of the one that appears in print in the 9 January 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: Will Lebanon be the staging ground of Iran’s revenge?

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