President Trump claims Lebanon “is on the front lines in the fight” against Hezbollah, apparently not realizing that Hezbollah is a partner in the Lebanese government–and just as Hezbollah scores a key victory against al-Qaeda
AARON MATE: It’s the Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. Hezbollah has claimed victory in a fight for Al-Qaeda’s last remaining foothold on the Lebanon-Syria border. A ceasefire between Hezbollah and the Nusra Front took effect today after days of fighting. Nusra was Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria before changing its name last year. The ceasefire includes the release of captured Hezbollah fighters and the transfer of Nusra members to the Syrian province of Idlib. Hezbollah’s next battle is likely a nearby enclave held by the so-called Islamic State, but they have another foe to worry about as well. Donald Trump: Lebanon is on the front lines in the fight against ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and Hezbollah. The Lebanese people of all faiths are working together to keep, and you know this, and we’ve been discussing this at great length, their country safe and prosperous. They love their country, and they’re going to keep it safe and prosperous. AARON MATE: President Trump said those words at the White House this week alongside Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. What Trump apparently doesn’t know is that instead of fighting Hezbollah, Hariri is in fact its political partner. Hariri has a power-sharing deal with the Hezbollah-backed president, and Hezbollah effectively controls a majority of the Lebanese parliament. Trump’s comments come as the US increasingly targets Hezbollah and its ally, Iran. U.S. lawmakers are working to impose new sanctions on Hezbollah over Lebanese objections. Lebanon has warned the sanctions could cripple its banking sector. Joining me from Beirut is Bashir Saade, lecturer in religion and politics at the University of Stirling, Scotland. He’s the author of Hezbollah and the Politics of Remembrance. Bashir, welcome. BASHIR SAADE: Welcome. Thank you. AARON MATE: Thanks for joining us. Let’s start with this offensive that’s just wrapped up on the Lebanon-Syria border, Hezbollah claiming victory. What has happened there? BASHIR SAADE: The summary you gave was actually quite accurate. Hezbollah has decided to do this operation over the last few weeks and has been warning that it will do the operation. They went into Arsal and they were actually … I think most people were surprised that it didn’t take much time for them to control the area. They neutralized the armed factions inside, whatever the actual real affiliations of these armed factions. There’s still, I think, negotiations taking place, if I’m not mistaken, over the fate of some of the remaining people within [inaudible] strategically [inaudible] is the people who are inside the territory who pose some kind of threat have been neutralized, in a sense. AARON MATE: How so? BASHIR SAADE: Basically, Hezbollah has controlled most of the strategic areas of that … There’s a town called Arsal, and then there’s what we call the mountainous region around the town. These fighters have been there for a few years now, and they were hidden. It’s a hostile territory, valleys and very steep hills and some grottoes and things like this, so the fighters were a bit hiding here and there. What Hezbollah did was, has basically controlled most of the hills, most of the top peaks of the area. First of all, the Syrian army conducted airstrikes, and then Hezbollah went in on the ground, ground troops if you want. They’ve conquered most of the area. AARON MATE: Let’s get to the background to this fighting in Arsal. BASHIR SAADE: Okay. AARON MATE: The stand-off, as you said, was just a week, so not very long, but the situation there has been unfolding for years. The area has been a transit point for the Sunni jihadists on the Syria side to basically send in suicide bombers into Lebanon, targeting Hezbollah areas. Talk about the background to the offensive that we’ve seen unfold over the past week. BASHIR SAADE: Okay. Basically, Arsal starts being a problem, just to make a long story short, after Hezbollah starts intervening in Syria on the west side … On the east side in the sense of Lebanon, west side of Syria, in what we call the Qusayr area. There’s a town called Qusayr, and the whole area next to it, with is at the frontier of Lebanon. Then next to Qusayr, there is what we call Qalamoun region. This region was a pocket for a lot of opposition party groups, or if you want, armed factions against the Assad regime. Some of them were perceived to be a threat to Hezbollah. There were some skirmishes that started on the frontier [inaudible] Hezbollah or the villages sympathetic to Hezbollah on the frontier and this area. In any case, Hezbollah intervened in Qusayr and successfully conquered the city and dislodged whatever armed factions were there. At the time, there weren’t really talks of Nusra and ISIS and all that. That’s even before the actual birth of ISIS or the actual announcement that ISIS exists. Most of these groups, to Hezbollah’s knowledge or what Hezbollah was saying is that all these groups were anti-Shiite, if you want, or anti-Shia groups, and that Hezbollah perceived them as an existential threat. Most of these group, even those who were so-called moderates, etc., were perceived to be sympathetic to [inaudible 00:07:15] or whatever broad slogans. That espoused mostly anti-Shia slogans. At least this is how Hezbollah perceived and portrayed it officially. Once the conquering of this area happened, most of the people who escaped from this area went to Arsal and were, in a sense, granted or were helped by opposition parties within Lebanon, Lebanese and Syrian and also in the Homs area. If you want, Homs is on the north, and Arsal is between Qusayr, Qalamoun, and Homs. These groups, if you want, moved slowly or migrated towards Arsal and found a place to stay. They became strong in Arsal, and then Arsal became a field, if you want, or a place where all kinds of skirmishes happened, and the Lebanese army, there were some kidnappings, there were all kinds of “terrorist activities,” all kinds of events of this sort. Hezbollah wasn’t really doing anything about it. There wasn’t really a plan for Hezbollah to do something about it. The official line from Hezbollah was, “We let the Lebanese army deal with a threat to Lebanon,” if you want. It’s interesting that today Hezbollah decided, “Okay, we’re going to clean this up.” Why now? The Lebanese army stayed. If you want, there were several battles that were waged in Arsal. There are several episodes of suicide attacks and kidnappings and then actual military battles. There’s also a lot of people from the Lebanese Sunni establishment that were at least more radical than the establishment and the Salafi groups that were sympathetic or semi-sympathetic, if you want, or were believed to have ties to the groups in Arsal, or were pointed by the finger. There was this situation for a few years until the Aleppo events happened, the various, if you want, liberation of the north of Syria happened, or what was called liberation at least by the regime and these groups. Then Mosul happened in Iraq, etc. I think this whole regional context provided a fertile ground for Hezbollah to feel comfortable and to just hit Arsal, because Arsal was isolated from its environment. Before there was a safe route between Arsal and Homs, another area of the Syrian hinterland, and that was cut in the last few years. Yeah, Arsal became an easy target, if you want. Arsal inhabit both ISIS and Nusra groups, which actually fought each other [inaudible]. They were bleeding each other for a while inside Arsal, which I think actually helped Hezbollah. I think when Hezbollah arrived, these groups were mostly tired from just actual intra-fighting, lack of resources, which is why probably also the operation happened very quickly. Also, they did put up a fight according to the news, but Hezbollah is quite impressive I guess militarily. It has drawn the attention of a lot of parties in the region and internationally. Yeah, I guess this is a summary. Sorry I talked too much. Does this cover what you asked for? AARON MATE: Bashir, let’s get to the Hezbollah intervention in the Syrian war, which predates all this fighting on its frontier. BASHIR SAADE: Okay. AARON MATE: Historically, Hezbollah was founded as a response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in ’82 and has acted as a deterrent against Israeli attacks since then, but the involvement in Syria was different, because here it was now going across the border, not defending its own territory, but going across the border to help defend the Assad regime, which is a decision that divided people in the Lebanese left and certainly was controversial to people who might have previously supported Hezbollah from abroad before. Can you talk about the reasons for that decision to get involved on Assad’s behalf? BASHIR SAADE: Yeah. The question of Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria and its rationale has been very much debated and has split people in actually two very radically opposite camps. Especially people who are sympathetic to Hezbollah’s politics were split. Hezbollah has been very itself, I think, split on the question for a long time, especially if you hear from inside sources. There was a concern over the moral and even political dilemmas of intervening in the whole Syrian conflict, but I guess basically, the main justification for it was that it is very much tied to Hezbollah’s fight against Israel. The main official argument that is now quite famous is the fact that Hezbollah’s intervening in Syria in order to protect what is called the resistance axis. Without Syria, Hezbollah loses a very important partner or ally, even help in its resistance against Israel. Not only does it lose it, but actually may gain a very strong enemy right at its border, who either has vouched to neutralize the party and its resistance effort against Israel, or even has [inaudible 00:14:09] sectarian [inaudible 00:14:12] discourse. At all levels, Hezbollah was very edgy about what was going on in Syria. It didn’t really see an alternative to [inaudible 00:14:23] something promising. There wasn’t really an opposition or any form of opposition to Assad that actually made Hezbollah feel comfortable. AARON MATE: Bashir, let me ask you just to clarify, the third part of that resistance axis that you mentioned already, Hezbollah, Syria, and of course Iran, right? BASHIR SAADE: Yeah. AARON MATE: Let me ask you, when you say that the decision was made as part of an effort to resist Israel, someone could say, “What does the Syrian Civil War have to do with Israel?” Because looking at it from the outside, it’s just an uprising against a dictator that turned very violent when Assad cracked down. Are you saying that then because the surrounding countries like the Gulf States intervened with their militants, that that was a move that could favor Israel, and so Hezbollah had to intervene against that? BASHIR SAADE: Yeah, of course. That too, but of course, this is all tied together. There’s a regional situation with different regional blocs, contending regional blocs facing each other. The fight against Israel is not just a geographic fight against Israel. It depends on a lot of regional alignments. Hezbollah without Syria cannot fight Israel. It’s simple. Geographically, it will be severely impaired in fighting Israel, and especially if in Syria the political force is aligned with groups, state or non-state in the region, who are tacitly, yes, aligned with Israel and want to see Hezbollah neutralized. Most of these groups, like the Gulf States, have themselves fought Hezbollah through Israel since July 2006, and even if not before. Yeah, does this answer your question? AARON MATE: Yeah. The reason why Hezbollah sees it as important to be able to fight Israel is twofold, right? One, they want to defer Israeli invasions in their territory, one of them, let me just mention July 2006, but going back to 1982. Also, Hezbollah is pretty much the only fighting force that can act as a deterrent to other Israeli military action, right? BASHIR SAADE: Yeah. On the ground, yes. In terms of ground troops, in terms of groups that actually made a difference or created some kind of a deterrent force against Israel, Hezbollah is the only military actor who did so. Hezbollah is very proud of that, obviously I guess, and they’re not willing to concede. They’re not willing to let go of that gained asset. Definitely, what was happening in Syria was putting this under threat in all possible ways. A lot of people, if I can add something, say, “Yes, but who told you that the Syrian opposition would have been against Hezbollah? Why didn’t Hezbollah engage with the opposition, and things like this?” That would be a good argument to make, but according to what we have in terms of the actual opposition on the ground, it seems that this didn’t happen. This could have been. It’s nice, but it’s wishful thinking. It actually didn’t happen. Hezbollah was really trapped in this situation where it had to intervene in Syria, even though there is obviously a cause that was being fought from some people. Some people were obviously genuinely revolting against corruption, against an unjust system, and all that, but also this situation was captured by groups that were most probably going to be or were already, by their declaration and action, antagonistic to Hezbollah, because allied with the Gulf and other groups. AARON MATE: Let’s get- BASHIR SAADE: One second. Not just the Gulf, but Turkey and the U.S. Let’s not forget, it’s not just the Gulf, but the U.S. has a big part in this, and Turkey also. AARON MATE: Right, okay. Speaking of the U.S., let’s go back to President Trump and his comments this week. Trump’s signaling an even more confrontational posture towards Hezbollah than already exists. Let’s go back to his appearance in the Rose Garden with Hariri and hear more of what Trump said. Donald Trump: Hezbollah is a menace to the Lebanese state, to Lebanese people, and the entire region. The group continues to increase its military arsenal, which threatens to start yet another conflict with Israel, constantly fighting them back. With the support of Iran, the organization is also fueling humanitarian catastrophe in Syria. Hezbollah likes to portray itself as a defender of Lebanese interests, but it’s very clear that its true interests are those of itself and its sponsor, Iran. AARON MATE: That’s President Trump speaking in the Rose Garden this week alongside Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. I want to play again that clip we played in the intro, of Trump not apparently realizing that Hezbollah is a part of the Lebanese political system. Let’s go to that clip. Donald Trump: Lebanon is on the front lines in the fight against ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and Hezbollah. The Lebanese people of all faiths are working together to keep, and you know this, and we’ve been discussing this at great length, their country safe and prosperous. They love their country, and they’re going to keep it safe and prosperous. AARON MATE: That’s President Trump saying Lebanon is on the front lines of a fight against Hezbollah, not apparently realizing that the man he’s standing next to, Prime Minister Saad Hariri of Lebanon, effectively has a power-sharing agreement with Hezbollah. I want to stress something, Bashir, that these were not off-the-cuff remarks. This was something Trump was reading off of a prepared statement, so whoever wrote it for him apparently doesn’t know that Hezbollah is a major political force inside Lebanon. BASHIR SAADE: Yeah. Whatever the correct interpretation of what happened, the correct version, I don’t know if it was sheer ignorance, it was Trump tripping on his words, or sheer ignorance from his team, and it’s very much likely that it is the case, there is a longstanding, by the way, tradition in American U.S. foreign policy or U.S. politics to disregard the fact that Hezbollah is part and parcel of Lebanese politics. They have a constituency. They’re voted into parliament. The people who vote for Hezbollah are not specifically coming from Hezbollah’s community. It’s part and parcel of the political landscape, really. Not only this. In the case of Arsal, Hezbollah is almost doing a big favor, at least apparently so, to the West or to Trump, who’s purported or alleged official line is, “I’m fighting ISIS.” Yeah, it’s quite strange that such a statement is made. AARON MATE: Yeah. Bashir, that contradiction you mentioned is quite stark. Just as Hezbollah announces that it’s defeated Al-Qaeda, although Al-Qaeda under a different name, but Al-Qaeda nonetheless I think it’s fair to say, just as Hezbollah announces that, Trump has said these words this week. Also, now we have talk of this new push for another round of sanctions targeting Hezbollah, going after Lebanese banks. Lebanon is warning, and not even just people in Lebanon who are sympathetic to Hezbollah, but pretty much everybody is warning that this could cripple the entire banking sector. Can you talk about what’s going on there? BASHIR SAADE: To be honest, I’m not very familiar with that, but to be honest, I think this is to be played down, because there’s been several times in the history of Lebanon, especially in the last 20 years, every year or so, they tell you, “There’s a banking crisis on the horizon,” and all that. I wouldn’t give much importance to this. This is my personal opinion from my own analysis. I don’t know, but money is always injected in these banks, because the people who are in charge of these banks can’t afford to lose anything. They are very strongly connected internationally and regionally. The Gulf just pours money- AARON MATE: Bashir, hasn’t there been some problem already with previous U.S. laws apparently targeting Hezbollah, leading to some confusion at Lebanese banks and problems for customers? BASHIR SAADE: Yeah, it’s true. It just makes things more difficult for people to have specific accounts. There’s more control. Basically, what the U.S. tries to do is what it can do. Hezbollah is powerful. Hezbollah is an impressive military force. It has taught a lesson to Israel. It has taught a lesson to the Americans. When you teach a lesson to the Israelis, it’s basically teaching a lesson to Americans, because it’s the U.S. that ordered Israel really to go into Lebanon in 2006. I’m pretty sure the order didn’t come from Olmert at the time, if not just from the Saudis outright. When Hezbollah teaches a lesson to whatever force it’s encountering in the region, it is also telling the Americans that they have less and less bargaining power on the ground in the Middle East. The only way the Americans can work is through these sanctions here and there, economic, financial, whatever. Even economic, there’s not really sanctions, because there’s not much economic trade between Lebanon and any country. The way the Lebanese economy works is it’s very much a service economy, so the only way they can hit is through the financial sector. Still, I don’t think the effects of that are going to be very strong. It’s really just last resort measures. AARON MATE: Finally Bashir, looking ahead, you have in Syria right now the conflict appears to be winding down, at least in some areas, especially in the aftermath of ceasefires like the one announced today, and also the U.S. pulling back support for Syrian rebels, which could make a difference in consolidating the Assad regime’s control over big parts of the country. That would then ease the pressure on Hezbollah and allow them to maybe pull back their forces some more. Looking also at the fact that meanwhile Trump is going after Hezbollah’s key ally Iran, and also making hostile comments about Hezbollah itself, and the fact that you have occasionally talk of Israel launching another attack in Lebanon to dislodge Hezbollah. What, to you, are the biggest questions and concerns that you have in terms of Lebanon and Hezbollah going forward? BASHIR SAADE: Okay. First of all, just a general point, what’s happening now in Syria is completely unprecedented militarily, geopolitically, in the history of the 20th and 21st century, of modern states. It’s really unprecedented. The way these battles were waged, and the way Hezbollah acquires a certain edge or a certain edge of bargaining power, the way Iran has played its role, the way the Gulf has tried to get tough, etc., it’s really until now, I think most commentators, most analysts don’t really understand the results of what’s happening. Who’s really winning, losing? Obviously yes, the regime has been able to reacquire a certain sovereignty over certain territories. Hezbollah has played a huge role in doing so. There’s definitely a lot of deterrence, if you want, a result of a lot of deterrence taking place. Hezbollah and its allies has proved that certain things cannot be done, and that they will oppose it, and that they will make it fail, if you want. Just like in 2006 when they faced Israel, Israel most likely will never try to do again what it tried to do in 2006, things like that. We still don’t know, really I think, if this can lead to long-lasting solutions or a particular formula of political compromise in Syria. It’s really I think too soon to understand this, and most importantly for the purpose of what you’re asking, we really don’t know what’s the role of Hezbollah in all this. I think even Hezbollah still doesn’t really understand, what is it going to do with all these developments? Is it going to be a regional power? Is it going to play a role in that? Is it going to pull back and just go back to its frontier? Which I think is much less likely, to be honest. I think Hezbollah will play an important role in what’s going to happen in Syria, and will always have an eye outside Lebanon at least for the time being, until there’s strong state structures in place, and Iran, too. I just want to clarify one thing. When Trump says that Hezbollah is a danger to Lebanon because Hezbollah is just a client of Iran, in a sense, he’s not wrong. Hezbollah is working with Iran, but it’s important to understand that Hezbollah is not just taking orders from Iran. Hezbollah has its own agenda, and needs Iran to do certain things, but also cannot do certain things that goes contrary to its own agenda, if you want. The complexity of the Iran-Hezbollah relationship is very much misunderstood. Most of the time, it’s just used as a shortcut to say, “Hezbollah is not Lebanese,” or, “Hezbollah is not in Lebanese interests,” even though Hezbollah has been praised by a lot of Lebanese across confessions, across creed, class, and stuff. Yeah. I don’t know if I [inaudible]. AARON MATE: Especially, Bashir, I imagine in the aftermath of wars like 2006, right? The balance of power- BASHIR SAADE: Yeah, but even Arsal. If you had to see all the social media, the TVs, etc., whether Christian or Shia or even Sunni, Muslims and Christians and everybody, for those who affiliate to religious denominations, but even secular people, a lot of people … Obviously, there was a lot of criticism of Hezbollah, but also there was a lot of support. Hezbollah was hailed as a hero. Nasrallah .. .It’s very ironic, because as Trump was making his really a bit silly declarations, and Hariri was unfortunately silent the whole time and not saying anything about things, Hezbollah not just liberated a chunk of Lebanese territory but offered that victory for all Lebanese, made a huge speech about it. Nasrallah, the Secretary-General of Hezbollah, did. There was a big, if you want, emotional moment in his speech that everybody shared in the press and the social media about thanking the families and the fighters and all that. Nasrallah was sometimes hailed as a national hero by even his critics. I read this big critic of Hezbollah saying, “I have to say, when Nasrallah says these things, I cannot but pay my respect to him even though I don’t agree with Hezbollah’s politics.” In these moments, there is a large consensus that there is a national “thing” happening, whatever you want to call it. When the U.S. president, who’s not even Lebanese and he’s not supposed to make declaration for Lebanese … Imagine the Lebanese saying, “The Americans should lose Trump, because he’s not American,” something like this, or he’s not in the interest of the American people, although you could make the argument. The point is, it’s so ironic that he says something like this when Hezbollah, in a rare moment, has a large consensus of people saying, “Well done,” basically. Actually, that puts Saad Hariri in a precarious position, because he’s there taking what Trump is saying like this, staying silent and not really standing for what Hezbollah has achieved there, because yes, in a sense, Hezbollah is a competitor, and has been an ally at certain times but also as an enemy. Hariri has his own affiliations with Saudi Arabia and others. You know the rest of the story, I guess. AARON MATE: Sure. It’s all one of many puzzling facets of U.S. policy, especially coming at a time when Hezbollah has just defeated a group who we also apparently want to defeat, as well, given that they carried out 9/11, Al-Qaeda. Sometimes … Yeah. BASHIR SAADE: It does show, in that rare moment, that maybe the U.S. has been complicit with these groups all along, because it just doesn’t make sense when Hezbollah- AARON MATE: Or, it shows that simply the geopolitical goals of the moment happen to take precedent and subsume other matters such as attacking people who once attacked us. BASHIR SAADE: True. AARON MATE: We have to leave it there, though. BASHIR SAADE: Okay. AARON MATE: Bashir Saade, lecture in religion and politics at the University of Stirling, Scotland, author of Hezbollah and the Politics of Remembrance. Bashir, thank you. BASHIR SAADE: Thank you. AARON MATE: Thank you for joining us on the Real News.