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The day Hezbollah blinked.

Summary: A 40-day gridlock pitting Hezbollah's Druze and Christian allies against Walid Joumblatt ended with capitulation of the former.

A 40-day gridlock pitting Hezbollah's Druze and Christian allies against Walid Joumblatt ended with capitulation of the former. A stern letter from the U.S. Embassy as well as public outrage played no small part in dealing the coup de grace to Hezbollah's allies in a very significant first. Other Hezbollah allies must be worried that the Ayatollah's blessing no longer guarantees success. It is doubtful that it occurred to Arslan as well as the Free Patriotic Movement that they may have to compromise given the support of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.The gridlock arose after a planned visit by the Foreign Minister and head of the FPM Gebran Bassil to the Chouf mountains degenerated into a firefight pitting Joumblatt's followers against those of MP Talal Arslan's. In a show of force aimed at Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Joumblatt, Bassil disrupted the Cabinet after the tragic event by meeting separately with eight of the ministers in the Foreign Ministry. Arslan insisted on having the conflict as the first item on the Cabinet's next meeting.

Nasrallah declared his unwavering support for Arslan as friend and ally. At stake was Hezbollah's bid to dominate the Druze heartland by proxy. But it was not to be.

Four days after Bassil declared to Euronews that everyone in Lebanon is Hezbollah's partner and after forty days of intransigence Arslan, and the FPM, capitulated and accepted a previously rejected offer by Speaker Nabih Berri to resolve the matter by meeting Joumblatt in the presidential palace. The Cabinet met the day after without discussing the incident. An earlier demand to have the case put to the Judicial Council by Arslan was also dropped.

While some tried to trivialize the whole affair as a crisis within the Druze community, a sober analysis of the dynamics and outcome reveals a major setback for Hezbollah and friends.

The push to isolate Joumblatt by the FPM with Hezbollah's blessing backfired with FPM finding itself isolated; an ominous sign for Bassil's bid for the presidency. Joumblatt received widespread support from Hariri, March 14 factions, as well as Western diplomatic circles.

The U.S. Embassy statement was the icing on the cake. Interestingly, Russia as well as many pro-Syrian March 8 players stayed on the sidelines, in effect abandoning Hezbollah's allies to fend for themselves. Wiam Wahhab, a Druze politician close to the Syrian regime who lost in the last parliamentary elections to Arslan because of Hezbollah's heavy handed support of Arslan, also stayed on the sidelines. With increasing domestic and diplomatic pressures Hezbollah's support of its Christian and Druze allies started to fray.

Arslan in a news conference cited the economic situation as a main reason for back tracking. The truth of the matter is more dire. For the first time Hezbollah and its allies failed to prevail and had to compromise in a not so face-saving arrangement. Joumblatt had effectively succeeded in confronting Hezbollah's dominance of the Lebanese political scene.

The issue at stake for the Druze community was existential. Had Bassil had his way the Druze community would have gone the way of the Sunni and Christian communities; fragmented, weak, and in part accountable to Hezbollah. The ramifications of this reversal of fortune for Hezbollah's allies will cast a long shadow on Lebanese politics. Bassil is no doubt contemplating the utility of his alliance with Hezbollah in his presidential bid.

The lineup against him in the latest drama would surely favor former MP Sleiman Frangieh. A repeat from Hezbollah's playbook of "presidency interrupted" now appears unlikely. And what is to become of the alliance of the FPM with Hezbollah if the latter cannot deliver the presidency. When one considers the looming sanctions on Hezbollah's affiliates including the FPM, the alliance becomes all pain and no gain.

Joumblatt is a major stumbling block for Bassil's presidential aspirations. Hariri, who previously relied on the FPM's and Hezbollah's support, has also taken notice of the fading prospects of Bassil's bid for the presidency as well as the limitations of Hezbollah's power. His current visit to the U.S. comes just in time to rally American and Western support to extricate defense policy and border delineation from Hezbollah's grip.

In its long and protracted march to gain political ascendency Hezbollah has never wavered. When it had the minority in Parliament it insisted on a blocking third majority and government formation took months. Presidential elections were delayed twice. Of late, Hezbollah insisted on having the Health Ministry and eventually did despite American misgivings. Hezbollah drew allies because it never faltered in their support. Until now when Hezbollah's allies never had to compromise under pressure. With Lebanon on the verge of economic collapse, Hezbollah had lost its leverage.

Lebanon's financial dependency on the West had critically undermined Hezbollah's influence. Hezbollah may promise security but not prosperity. Nor can Hezbollah provide immunity from targeted financial sanctions. Whereas naming of two Hezbollah deputies will not affect them much, Hezbollah's allies surely took notice of the recent sentencing of Kassem Tajideen. Opposing Hezbollah incurred severe penalties in the past whereas opposing the U.S. incurred none. Until now.

On Army Day celebrations, Aug. 1, the word resistance was conspicuously absent. Someone noticed the emperor has no clothes.

Bassem Shabb is a former MP in the Lebanese Parliament.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Date:Aug 17, 2019
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