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Lebanon’s new government highlights shift toward Iran

A sigh of relief is maybe being shared by the people of Lebanon after the country’s new government was announced after nine months of waiting. Although it is called a unity government, it is the country’s first Cabinet dominated by the victors at the expense of the vanquished. The victors in this case are the Lebanese political and militant groups orbiting in Syria and Iran’s spheres of influence.

This is particularly true of the Hezbollah militia, which has fought with Iran’s help to keep the regime of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad in power since the initially peaceful uprising by Syrians in 2011. Hezbollah’s expanding power in Lebanon reflects a deepening Iranian influence in an arc of Arab territory — from Tehran through Baghdad and Damascus — that its foes Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries have been struggling to counter.

Since its inception, Lebanon has respected a formula to allow even the losers to be represented in government. All internal conflicts fought between its various groups ended in a draw. The Lebanese Civil War that ended in 1990 saw some 200,000 people killed and nearly a million injured, yet it ended with a deal that declared no victors and no vanquished. If anything, the new government heralds a new era for the small Mediterranean country, where the only armed group is calling the shots, ensuring that it and its key allies’ interests must be respected for the country’s institutions to function.

This is why everyone both inside Lebanon and outside of it will celebrate the formation of the new Cabinet with watered-down hopes as to what its achievements are likely to be.

People in Lebanon always repeat that a powerless government is better than none at all. This Saad Hariri-led government is the result of changing Lebanese and regional and international realities. Hezbollah’s patron Iran has become more assertive, not only in Lebanon but also in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. A resurgent Russia and a hesitant America under President Donald Trump tipped the balance in Lebanon to favor forces under Hezbollah’s umbrella.


Meanwhile, Arab countries’ efforts to remove Syria from Iran’s orbit remain fruitless to say the least. In such an atmosphere, Prime Minister Hariri should be praised for forming a government — even if it is one dominated by Hezbollah — but expectations must be lowered as to what it will be capable of achieving.

The most this government will be allowed to do is babysit the country’s soaring public debt, which has reached $84 billion or 150 percent of gross domestic product, and rising unemployment of more than 35 percent.

Hariri remained as head of government based on his supposed ability to keep an international umbrella that sustains the viability of state institutions, and maybe unlock the $11 billion of soft loans and grants pledged by international donors at a conference in Paris last year.

The Lebanese are not expecting miracles, as pledging to implement reform is one thing, but effectively rooting out corruption and collusion from the state would need to see the whole political class that has dominated affairs for the past three decades replaced.

So, yes, the Lebanese are celebrating the new Cabinet, but are reasonable enough not to expect an end to their domestic misery, with bad infrastructure seeing the country flooded with every downpour, an uncompetitive and unreliable telecoms sector, intermittent power supply, and garbage that has been piling up.

The Lebanese will not be caring much that Hezbollah is in total control of the country’s destiny, including its foreign relations and strategic alignment closer to Tehran and Damascus.

In last May’s elections, Hariri’s Sunni dominance was shaken, as he lost more than a third of his seats in parliament, many of them to Hezbollah-allied candidates. Hezbollah equally weakened its Christian and Druze opponents, which once formed the anti-Iran and Syria front of the March 14 Alliance.

Despite it being deemed a terrorist organization by the US, Hezbollah has assumed control of three ministries — a clear slap to all American efforts to contain both it and Iran in the region.

In a first blow to the West and particularly the US since the government formation, Lebanon has announced that it will not attend the Warsaw conference that aims to realign efforts to contain a more belligerent Iran. Not that Lebanon’s participation is crucial to the success of such conferences, but it is an indication that things in Lebanon have changed, as the country and government is further aligned with the Iran axis at the expense of its traditional position as a neutral player in the Arab world.