Lebanon: What do the Iranians know that you don’t?

Over the past few weeks, Alma Research and Education Center has been the target of Iranian hackers, who used the identity of Major General (Res.) Amos Yadlin and his secretary to glean information and other resources from us. To do this, the hackers sent us the INSS article “Lebanon, One Year Later after the “Revolution”: Grim Reality and Bleak Prospects”, which was stolen from the INSS before they published it. In their email to us, masquerading as Yadlin’s secretary, the hackers requested we send them a professional opinion on the article, and we did.

This is the fourth cyber-attack we have been under in less than a year. We decided to expose the attack and the hackers’ attack strategies, to warn other think tanks and organizations. More details here.

The following article is the document we unknowingly sent to the Iranian hackers. It does not contain sensitive information, rather an opinion article discussing our view on the transpiration in Lebanon. The Iranians will not be the only ones who find it interesting, especially in light of recent developments – the Mohsen Fakhrizadeh assassination.

The protest in Lebanon over the past year suitably shows the situation in which Lebanon is torn between the desire to revert to its traditional western persona and the Shiite ideological direction Hezbollah is taking it in.

First, it is important to emphasize that the protest is not a revolution as the Lebanese called it when it began in 2019. And yet despite this, this protest was not convenient for Hezbollah. Hezbollah operated covertly and openly over the past year against the demonstrations, using psychological and physical methods including violence.

Although this is so, Hezbollah’s base of support, most of which is Shiite, remains strong and stable.

Throughout the protest, the Shiite base did not go out to the streets and authentically demonstrate. If a protest such as this would have taken place in Nabatiyeh or in Baalbek, they would have been “on behalf” of Hezbollah, monitored by it at times convenient for it to show a false presentation that Hezbollah allows these popular demonstrations, and also to present itself as an organization opposing corruption and in favor of improving the economic situation.

From analyzing the social media platforms in Lebanon, we can learn that the public opinion of Hezbollah’s supporters tends to be constantly and clearly in Hezbollah’s favor, with no room for doubt. What is more troubling is that these trends ultimately direct attention and blame towards Israel, and simultaneously express clear intentions of the desire to act against Israel.

If so, despite the protest’s many echoes throughout the world, Hezbollah’s status in Lebanon has not weakened and there is no change in the balance of its support. Those who opposed Hezbollah and those who supported it remain so. Hezbollah’s opposing camp is well familiar with Hezbollah’s power, and despite its occasional “battle spirit”, the chances of it initiating another civil war in Lebanon are low, the fact being that an attempt at doing so will provide Hezbollah with the opportunity to completely and forcefully take control of Lebanon.

Regretfully, ever since the establishment of Hassan Diab’s government in January 2020, Hezbollah’s process of taking control of the country’s government facilities was completed de-facto. Since then, “a Hezbollah state within the state of Lebanon” can no longer be said, but rather the state of Lebanon lies within the state of Hezbollah”.

Hezbollah’s control of Lebanon is both in the military and civilian field. Hezbollah is the central military power in Lebanon today. In the scenario of civil war, the LAF will not be capable of contending with it, because of its inferiority and since Hezbollah has been quietly promoting the position of Shiites in the LAF for many years, with the goal of turning the LAF, or at least part of it, into Hezbollah’s proxy in times of necessity. There are estimates that today between 45-50 percent of the LAF soldiers are Shiite, and between 35-40 percent of the combat soldiers are Shiite.

To blur the direction of Shiitization that Hezbollah is taking the LAF in, it constantly takes the time and effort to glorify on one hand the narrative of the LAF’s independence, and on the other hand the narrative of the mutual cooperation, destiny and goal the LAF shares with Hezbollah. This is done while simultaneously indoctrinating the trilateral “Nation-Army-Resistance” equation narrative.

In Hezbollah’s civilian field, its civilian infrastructure is parallel to its governmental one. In contrast to Lebanon’s non-functioning and collapsing civilian infrastructure, Hezbollah’s education/health/welfare services function relatively well and operate primarily for the benefit of the Shiite base. For example, Hezbollah leads the ongoing treatment of the COVID-19 via its Islamic Health Organization, that provides services to the entire population. In addition, Hezbollah insists on holding the budget-plentiful government health file, that obviously serves its interests, particularly those of the Islamic Health Organization.

Despite all this, we cannot ignore the fact that Hezbollah suffers from much international pressure:

International sanctions against it, the Caesar Act that states that anyone doing business with Hezbollah risks sanctions himself, and the increasing number of states in Europe and South America designating Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

Simultaneously, the Lebanese government’s negotiations with the International Money Fund (IMF) for receiving financial aid, and the conditions set by the IMF against Hezbollah in order to receive said aid – the implementation of the United Nations Security Council resolutions 1559 and 1680 regarding disarmament of Hezbollah and the stationing of supervision on the border between Syria and Lebanon.

And finally, the USA’s attempt last summer to strengthen UNIFIL’s activity in south Lebanon and expand its authorities, which is at the moment postponed at least until the next renewal of its mandate in August 2021.

Alongside international pressure, we cannot ignore the internal pressure either. Lebanon is a collapsing state. The blast in Beirut last August only worsened the economic and political crisis Lebanon faces, that stirred the demonstrations in the first place. The World Bank estimates that the percentage of the poor in Lebanon will rise to 45 percent, meaning more than a 1.5 million people. A research report by the Asia-Pacific Group of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) at the end of last August warned that by the end of 2020, half of Lebanon’s population will likely be incapable of buying food.

Nasrallah’s statement last June prophesizes what is about to transpire: “If you think we will be humiliated by this famine and become submissive because of it, and that we will put our state and its security in your hands and live under the mercy of the Israelis, then I am telling you that our weapons will remain in our hands [Nasrallah here is addressing the demands for Hezbollah’s disarmament], we will not go hungry and we will kill you…”

It appears Lebanon is on a path to famine, and Nasrallah’s calls for an agricultural Jihad against the international sanctions and to aspire to autocracy, are for pride and morale purposes only.

The pressure Hezbollah has been under over the past year reminds us of the events that occurred before the kidnapping of the Israeli soldiers in 2006, and the event that caused war between Israel and Hezbollah. Back then, there was internal and international pressure on Hezbollah and demands for its disarmament as well. Hence, the question arises, will Hezbollah now as well attack Israel in order to divert attention away from itself and change the name of the game?

Hezbollah has several options: The first one is to simply continue acting normally, without taking any specific actions, rather publishing verbal warnings and public threats. In Nasrallah’s latest speeches, he warned and threatened Israel both in order to influence the Lebanese people’s public opinion and to deter the USA and Israel from increasing pressures on Hezbollah.

The second option is the “May 2008 Narrative”: In Nasrallah’s address on September 29th, 2020, he stated that Hezbollah needs to be part of the government in order to protect the Resistance, so that “the government of May 5th of 2008 will not repeat itself…” He essentially threatened to cause the internal arena to erupt into another widespread or limited civil war, similar to the actions Hezbollah took in May 2008. Back then, it forcefully took control of the airport, centers of influence and media outlets affiliated with Saad Al Hariri’s camp. Today, Hezbollah has the option of taking similar yet more aggressive and widespread actions, and deliver a warning message to the leaders of the demonstrations on one hand, and to the international entities on the other.

Nonetheless, today Hezbollah has more political power and will have absolute control of the government anyway, therefore an action such as this may not be relevant or necessary.

Therefore, over the past few years, it seems that Hezbollah’ use of its “May 2008 threat” was only a theoretical and verbal one, and not necessarily one intended to be carried out physically. The threat’s goal is to deter the Lebanese people, especially those opposing Hezbollah.

The third option is escalating the regional arena – and with it the internal Lebanese one as well – into conflict with Israel, the “real enemy” of Lebanon. In addition, strengthening the “unity of the siege and the conflict” narrative, according to which the entire Lebanese nation, with all its sects, religions, etc.- is unified against the bitter enemy – Israel. Hezbollah believes this option has the potential to create new conditions for it in the region.

The implications of the blast in Beirut

Many nations over the globe could not stand idly by after the Beirut explosion and volunteered to provide aid to Lebanon. However, how can we prevent the aid from ending up in the hands of Hezbollah? Hezbollah will benefit from any and every unsupervised aid. Does everything need to go through the USA-supported LAF? Even now, the transfer of the budget of restitution for civilians who suffered losses and damages in the Beirut blast goes via the LAF, that is still unanimously believed to be an uncorrupted player.

Besides the issue of international aid, there is also the matter of the maritime border dispute negotiations – here too, Hezbollah’s agreement to the negotiations stems from its economic interest to receive fat checks if and when Lebanon will begin the gas drillings and harvesting of the area’s natural resources, or even the economic prospect they will ensure.

The bottom line is that the internal and external pressures have not and will not hamper Hezbollah’s operational capabilities or its military power. Even the COVID-19 does not restrain it and is not taken into consideration by Hezbollah and Iran regarding their operational activity on the border with Israel. When we refer to Hezbollah’s power, we must of course refer to Lebanon and Syria, with an emphasis on the fact that Hezbollah’s front with Israel in southern Lebanon and the Golan Heights is one front – and there were quite a few attempts at terror attacks on these borders during the months that the COVID-19 went rampant.

To be perfectly clear, Hezbollah will not act independently unless it receives permission from its patron, Iran, which prefers that the actions taken must first and foremost benefit its own goals and the goals of the Shiite axis, that is also under much pressure and is affected by the aforementioned causes.

It seems that over the past few months in Iran, a “silent” attack by an unknown source has been underway on its nuclear, electrical and missile infrastructures, wreaking great damage. If so, it is difficult to know what the Iranian boss current interest is in light of the Iranian regime’s current situation in its internal arena, and its situation in the regional arena, primarily because of the elections in the USA and the negotiations regarding the Iranian nuclear deal. However, the Biden administration’s transition and acclimation to office will allow the Shiite Axis to continue its establishment with all the more vigor.

Even now, Iran invests efforts into copying the southern Lebanon model to southern Syria, with regards to its intention on establishing itself there both in civilian and military terms. Similar to northern and eastern Syria along the Shiite Ground Axis: Al Bukamal/Deir ez-Zur/Aleppo, the Shiite Axis manages a campaign in southern Syria as well, to “capture the hearts and minds” of the locals, as well as establishing a civilian infrastructure alongside a military one.

It is possible that a disclosed military operation or unmanned plane activity (attack on the Shiite Axis’s military/nuclear infrastructure by the Trump administration the end of its office), will trigger Iran and Hezbollah to act against Israel in a regional conflict, and not necessarily trigger them to carry out a pinpoint tactical operation in retaliation to the killing of the Hezbollah operative in Syria last July, as was promised by Nasrallah.  A widespread regional conflict with Hezbollah, or more correctly against Iran and its proxies, can quickly develop and escalate as a result of Hezbollah’s response, even though both sides (Hezbollah and Israel) are not interested in any escalations.

This article was written about a month ago. On Friday, (November 27th), the head of the Iranian nuclear program, Muhsin Fahrizadeh, was assassinated, making the assessments in this document even more relevant today. Iran, in response to the assassination, formally blamed Israel and promised it will take revenge.

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