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ANALYSIS: How Hezbollah sidelined the Lebanese army

Syrian rebel groups have been pushed out of Lebanese border areas - but Hezbollah, not army, was in charge of the campaign
Hezbollah fighters fly movement's standard next to Lebanon's flag in Jouroud Arsal (Reuters)

BEIRUT - To many viewers, the video is astonishing in its sycophancy. "We love you, Sayyad Hassan," says a man in a pink shirt. "I love you, Sayyad Hassan - I hope to meet you one day," squeals a young boy. 

The film, circulated by pro-Hezbollah social media users, shows Lebanese men, women and children professing their love for the political party and its secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah. It is among the tide of rousing cries for Hezbollah in Lebanon - a result of its influence on the country's defence policy. 

The Party of God's military wing routed fighters from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), formerly al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, from the Jouroud Arsal area on the Lebanon-Syria border in a week-long military operation. Nearly 9,000 JFS fighters and their families will be banished to the interior of Syria.

Islamic State cells are the next target. 

But it was Hezbollah and the Syrian army, not the Lebanese military, that led the assault, both from the Syrian side of the border. The Lebanese army was involved, occupying back-up positions around Arsal to prevent militants escaping onto Lebanese territory. They provided artillery support, and carried out raids on suspected extremists. 

Still, it was Nasrallah making speeches to update the public on the battle's progress. It was media sympathetic or tied to Hezbollah that got first access to Arsal. It was Hezbollah troops on the front lines.

According to analysts and journalists in Lebanon, Hezbollah is now no longer just seen as a defence against Israel on Lebanon's southern border - the group can now legitimately sell itself as protecting against terrorism threats from the east, too. 

A correspondent with access to the Jouroud Arsal area told MEE that the Lebanese army was not present. "In the battle there is only the resistance," he said, using a term for Hezbollah preferred by its supporters. 

A journalist who visited the area on a later tour for the wider media also told MEE that Hezbollah was firmly in charge. "Only Hezbollah fighters and guides were there. There were no Lebanese army personnel or positions," the journalist said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Lebanese soldiers are trained by British and American forces - but they cannot match Hezbollah (Reuters)

Setting the agenda

Hezbollah's lead role in Arsal "reflects the reality that it sets the agenda as well as operational direction" in Lebanon's defence operations, according to Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, a non-profit think-tank. 

The UK and US give the Lebanese armed forces, also known as the LAF, millions of dollars in support every year. In April the British government committed to training more than 11,000 Lebanese troops by 2019, as well as building watchtowers and equipping regiments in charge of securing the country's land borders.

In the past year alone, the US has provided equipment including 50 armoured Humvees with automatic grenade launchers, Hellfire missiles and 1,000 machine guns. 

At the same time, foreign embassies say the army should be the sole security provider in Lebanon. During the Arsal offensive, the British ambassador, Hugo Shorter, said the Lebanese army had the UK's support, "because it is the only legitimate defender of Lebanon".

But many in Lebanon believe that Hezbollah, legitimate or not (several UN resolutions call for the disarmament of non-state actors), is a force that is defending the country. 

And for all the military aid it receives, the Lebanese army cannot match Hezbollah - which comes from Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps training, money and weapons, and active conflict experience in five years of fighting in Syria.

And Hezbollah's political backing in Lebanon is what truly keeps it at an advantage. In February the Lebanese president, Michel Aoun, said Hezbollah was "an essential part of Lebanon's defence".

"What Aoun said reflects that the Lebanese government follows Hezbollah's directive when it comes to its armed status and how that works together with the LAF," said Badran. 

Donald Trump and Lebanese PM Saad Hariri in Washington last month (Reuters)

He said Hezbollah wanted to assert its domination based on the doctrine: "The army, the people and the resistance".

This sets it up as partner of the army while allowing it to maintain significant influence and portray this tripartite axis as the only effective model for defending the country. 

The Lebanese army and Lebanon's other security apparatus even help the militia to achieve its wider aims. 

"The army has patrolled roads, and secured their [Hezbollah] logistical and communication routes, etc," Badran continued.

"So, when Hezbollah did its military parade in Qusayr last year, how do you think they brought in all that hardware across the border? The army was there. It waves them across."

'Wishful thinking'

Thanassis Cambanis, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and author of a book on Hezbollah, A Privilege to Die, said that strengthening the Lebanese army would not rid the country of the movement.

"That is wishful thinking," he said. "The dominant leaders in the LAF would not oppose Hezbollah, as they are seen as essential in the defence against Israel."

And while Hezbollah would be happy to hand over territory gained in Arsal to the army, the movement would still hold influence in the area, Cambanis added. 

"Hezbollah don't want to pin down manpower there unnecessarily. But they can install posts or fighters wherever they want, to maintain influence, because of the friendly relationship they have with the LAF."

Indeed in a televised speech last Wednesday, Hezbollah leader Nasrallah said: "We're ready - if the army command asks - to hand over all of the recaptured posts and territory."

But not everyone is happy with Hezbollah’s military influence. 

The Sunni Muslim community, and the support base of Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad Hariri, is deeply worried by their power and influence. 

His Future Movement bloc releases stern statements describing Hezbollah’s "incitement and treason during the ongoing battles", but his position is only secured by a delicate power-sharing agreement that involves the group.

According to Cambanis, one of the reasons it took so long to mount an offensive at Arsal was the reluctance to place rank-and-file Sunni Muslim army soldiers within an operation lead by Hezbollah.

"The Sunni mainstream in Lebanon is very distressed by Hezbollah's strength, and that it was Hezbollah, not the state, leading the Arsal offensive," he said.

But none of the problems Hezbollah has faced at Arsal - heavy casualties and protests by Sunni Muslims - will be enough to rock its base.

Thousands of Hezbollah soldiers have already been killed and injured in Syria, and held up as martyrs. The same will be said of those in Arsal.

The next stage of the Arsal battle - to be waged against IS cells in northeast Lebanon - will be key in determining Hezbollah’s future military influence.

"If the LAF plays a greater role in the next part of the Arsal offensive against IS - the harder part, where they could face suicide bombers and similar tactics - that will be an affirmation of their power," said Cambanis. "But if Hezbollah lead again, that will be another affirmation of their power and influence."

The video of people praising Nasrallah was shot in Beirut's southern suburbs, one of the areas where Hezbollah has strongest support. Most Lebanese would not gush quite as much. Many would counter it entirely.

What is certain is that the Party of God now crosses borders, is entrenched in Lebanon’s institutions, and has cemented its influence in the country.

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