By any metric, Lebanon represents the classic textbook definition of a failed state. The nation is characterized by sectarian rivalry, bread lines, chronic fuel shortages, rolling blackouts, substandard healthcare, and mountains of uncollected garbage. Bullet-riddled buildings, pot-marked by years of internecine conflict, dot the Lebanese landscape. Lebanon’s judiciary remains virtually non-existent, except in rare instances where Lebanese citizens are caught maintaining benign, cordial contact with the “Zionist Entity.” In those cases, the Lebanese judiciary acts with alacrity to prosecute the “guilty.”
Lebanon’s caretaker government has defaulted on its foreign debt. Hyperinflation has wiped out the lifesavings of most Lebanese, 80 percent of whom live at, or below the poverty line. Banks remain shuttered for obvious reasons. Some Lebanese have resorted to self-help methods to retrieve their money. In one notable instance, a Lebanese man walked into a bank with a loaded firearm demanding to withdraw his money. The bank manager dutifully complied. Though arrested, he was soon released because of intense public pressure and will likely walk away with barely a slap on the wrist.
Part of the reason for this disfunction lies with the government, which is rife with corruption and mismanagement. But the main reason for Lebanon’s disfunction, paralysis and failed-state status is the existence Iran’s malignant proxy militia, Hezbollah.
The terrorist organization maintains a massive arsenal of between 130,000 to 150,000 missiles and rockets of various calibers – from short-range and inaccurate Katyusha rockets to more devastating and accurate Scud B and C variants that are capable of leveling city blocks. Hezbollah is also known to deploy a sizable UAV fleet, courtesy of the Islamic Republic.
It would be inaccurate to say that Hezbollah maintains a parallel army alongside the Lebanese Army. That would imply some form of parity between the two. In actuality, the Hezbollah military machine dwarfs the Lebanese Army. Most of Hezbollah’s funding comes from Iran, which provides the group with $700 million annually. Hezbollah supplements this income with transnational organized crime ventures including drug trafficking, money laundering and counterfeiting schemes. They partner with notorious drug cartels and corrupt regimes, like Maduro’s Venezuela, to facilitate their operations.
Hezbollah maintains significant control over all of Lebanon’s ports of entry, allowing the group to smuggle arms, drugs, and cash with impunity. On August 4, 2020, 2,750 tons of negligently stored ammonium nitrate stored at Beirut’s seaport exploded killing approximately 215 people and injuring an estimated 6,000. Property damage neared $15 billion and an estimated 300,000 people were made homeless by the blast. Hezbollah’s culpability in the blast is undeniable and explains why the group has stymied investigative efforts to uncover its causes.
The group also maintains a parallel energy policy, importing sanctioned fuel from Iran. In addition, Hezbollah operates its own telecommunications infrastructure the purpose of which is to provide secretive and unimpeded communications between Hezbollah headquarters throughout Lebanon. In 2008, the Lebanese government moved to dismantle this network. A strong show of force by Hezbollah forced the Lebanese government to scurry back to its hole. The Lebanese Army was regulated to the role of bystander.
But it is in the realm of foreign policy where Hezbollah, and by extension Iran, truly flexes its muscles. During Syria’s civil war, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, acting on orders from his mullah bosses in Iran, sent substantial forces to Syria to prop up the Assad regime against a largely Sunni revolt. That unilateral action dragged Lebanon into Assad’s quagmire.
In July 2006, Hezbollah plunged Lebanon into a month-long, devastating conflict with Israel. In a surprisingly candid post-conflict interview, Nasrallah expressed regret for starting the war, stating that had he known in advance the strength of Israel’s response, he never would have authorized the cross-border raid that sparked the conflict.
That conflict, known as the Second Lebanon War, established Israeli deterrence vis-à-vis Hezbollah and restored calm to the border. But buttressed by some successes against ragtag militias in Syria, new weapons from Iran and frayed memories of its last disastrous entanglement with Israel, Nasrallah is once again asserting himself and threatening to engulf Lebanon and the entire region in war.
The instant crisis centers on Israel’s Karish natural gas field that lies within Israel’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Israel is moving with full speed to develop its energy resources but has nevertheless agreed to negotiate with Lebanon to resolve the dispute peacefully. Instigated and prodded by Hezbollah, the Lebanese government has laid claim to part of the field, but Lebanon’s claims have been anything but consistent. Their claims have vacillated several times between Line 23 and Line 29 of the maritime boundary. The schizophrenic nature of Lebanon’s approach to negotiations (which are indirect due to Lebanon’s refusal to have face-to-face negotiations) reflects the fact that it is Hezbollah and not the Lebanese government that is in the driver’s seat.
To underscore this point, On July 2, Hezbollah sent three drones towards Israel’s natural gas platform at Karish. All three were intercepted by Israeli air and naval assets before entering the EEZ. A fourth was shot down the week prior. These attempted drone incursions occurred while Lebanon was purportedly in the midst of good faith negotiations with Israel. Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister and foreign minister condemned Hezbollah’s failed drone incursion but other than offering empty words of criticism, the Lebanese government is powerless to stop Hezbollah.
Nasrallah has also ratcheted up his war rhetoric recently. In a recent interview with a Hezbollah propaganda outlet, Nasrallah stated that he would not permit Israeli drilling at Karish until all of Lebanon’s maritime claims are satisfied and threatened war over the issue. This week, Nasrallah released a menacing video listing the coordinates of Israeli gas drilling infrastructure in the Mediterranean as a precursor to a possible strike.
By threatening war and attempting drone incursions, Hezbollah is making it clear that Lebanon’s negotiators have no real authority to agree to anything without Nasrallah’s endorsement. These Lebanese negotiators represent nothing more than a façade for Hezbollah. Indeed, senior officers in the Israel Defense Forces suggested severing negotiations after the drone incident but the Israeli government, perhaps in its desire to avoid being perceived as obdurate, did not heed the IDF’s suggestion.
It is unclear if Nasrallah intends on going to war. His threats could be bluster and he would not act unilaterally unless his mullah paymasters ordered him to, and that might just be the case. Iran has been humiliated by Israel after Israel executed a string of military and intelligence coups in the heart of the Islamic Republic. From assassinations of high-level IRGC operatives and nuclear bomb-making experts to devastating cyberattacks and other successful acts of sabotage, Iran has demonstrated its impotence in the face of numerous successful Israeli covert operations. Not only has Iran been unable to secure its hinterland from Israel attacks, it has also demonstrated that it is unable to strike back at Israel as evidenced by its recent failed attempts to hit Israeli targets in Turkey and elsewhere.
However, if Nasrallah is serious about his threats, he would be wise to recall his post-Second Lebanon War statement where he expressed regret for messing with Israel. It is a virtual certainty that if Hezbollah does initiate hostility, Israel would visit unparalleled destruction on the group. In the meantime, it is Lebanon and its people that continue to suffer under the crushing yoke of Hezbollah and Iranian domination.