Though tempting to ascribe Trump’s seemingly bizarre statement lumping Hezbollah in the same box as ISIS and Al Qaeda to a gaff, this would be a mistake. Indeed, taken in the context of Washington’s wider geostrategic objectives in the region Trump’s statement was far from being a gaff.
The US President’s statement came during a joint press conference with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in the White House Rose Garden. “Lebanon is on the front lines in the fight against ISIS, al-Qaeda and Hezbollah,” Trump said to a perplexed press corps as Mr Hariri stood beside him.
It is no stretch to imagine that Washington’s closest Middle East allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, were among those who were not surprised by Trump’s statement, given their shared enmity towards the Lebanese Shia resistance movement. Indeed the President’s words could have been scripted for him in Tel Aviv and Riyadh they were so on the mark where both are concerned.
What should also be borne in mind is Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s own hostility towards Hezbollah, along with his opposition to the Assad government in Syria. Significantly, it is a stance that is not shared by the country’s President, Michael Aoun, who is considered a staunch ally of both Hezbollah and Iran. The divergence in their respective views on Hezbollah was laid bare earlier this year when in response to Aoun stating in an interview that Hezbollah’s military wing was vital to Lebanon’s security, Hariri described the organization’s arms as illegitimate.
Here we must take a moment to grasp the labyrinthine confessional world of Lebanese politics, in which it is mandated that the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the country’s parliament a Shiite Muslim. It is a power-sharing agreement that was forged after the 15-year civil war that ravaged the country between 1975 and 1990.
Saad Hariri is the son of Rafic Hariri, business tycoon and former prime minister of Lebanon, who in 2005 was assassinated in a massive bomb attack while travelling through Beirut in a motorcade. Members of Hezbollah were implicated in the assassination, alleged to have been acting in conjunction with the Syrians over Rafic Hariri’s strong opposition to the presence of Syrian forces in Lebanon at that time.
The enmity between Saad Hariri – his supporters and followers – and Hezbollah is thus well defined. As such, it seems highly likely that Lebanon’s Prime Minister likewise agreed with and endorsed Trump’s description of Hezbollah as a terrorist group on a par with ISIS and Al Qaeda.
Despite Trump’s studied denigration of Hezbollah, in truth it has been at the forefront of the conflict in Syria with ISIS and various Al Qaeda affiliates, such as Nusra, since 2013. Its contribution in this regard is impossible to refute, measured not only by its military effectiveness but also the losses it has sustained. As author and academic Christopher Phillips writes in his book, The Battle for Syria, “By offering expertise that Assad lacked, such as light infantry and urban warfare expertise, training, or directing military tactics, from 2013 the Party of God [Hezbollah] became a vital component of Assad’s forces and greatly shaped the conflict.”
Hezbollah’s military effectiveness has never been in doubt and is acknowledged and respected even by its enemies, chief among them Israel. After the short war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, the New York Times ran an article in which an anonymous Israeli soldier was quoted admitting “They [Hezbollah] are trained and highly qualified, while in the same article an Israeli tank commander described them as “not just farmers who have been given weapons to fire. They are persistent and well trained.”
For the Israelis and Saudis, Hezbollah is and will always be a terrorist organization no different from ISIS or Al Qaeda. It is a position responsible for the raft of Israeli airstrikes conducted against Hezbollah positions and convoys in Syria over the past few years, taking advantage of the organization’s deployment in the country to try and weaken it. Given that most Middle East analysts and experts consider another conflict between Israel and Hezbollah to be inevitable, these airstrikes are no surprise.
It would be a mistake, however, to assume that Hezbollah’s commitment in Syria has severely weakened its capabilities in any future conflict with Israel. As Nadav Pollak points out, “Hezbollah’s preparations for war with Israel have no doubt been hampered by its involvement in Syria, but the organization has nonetheless maintained significant capabilities to fight Israel.”
It bears emphasizing that the divide that matters in a region overladen with religion and religious strife is not between Muslim and non-Muslim, Sunni and Shia, or between secular and non-secular; the only divide that matters and is key to the region’s future is between sectarian and non-sectarian. In this respect, though identifying as a Shia resistance movement, Hezbollah undeniably comes under the category of non-sectarian, evidenced in its longstanding commitment to the Palestinians, who are Sunnis.
Along with Syria and Iran, Hezbollah forms an axis of resistance in the region not only to Salafi-jihadi terrorism but also US hegemony. Trump’s statement should be seen and treated in this light.