| 5 March 2024, Tuesday |

The National interest: Hezbollah is an Iranian puppet and established a cross-border black market

Hezbollah, an Iranian puppet, is also becoming increasingly indistinguishable from the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. The United States notes  notes that the Assad regime both funds and arms Hezbollah, all while facilitating Iranian assistance to the group.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah has set up a quasi-state within a state that operates a cross-border black market with Syria. It is widely known that Hezbollah controls access to neighborhoods, such as the southern suburbs of Beirut, in the Bekaa Valley, and in South Lebanon, where it engages in illicit activities. Israel has warned about Hezbollah’s precision-guided missiles and has discovered and demolished Hezbollah-dug tunnels on the Lebanese-Israeli border. Experts agree that Hezbollah’s infiltration into the Lebanese government renders the group a threat not only to Lebanon, the most religiously pluralistic democracy in the region, but also to the United States and Israel.

Hezbollah’s current stranglehold on the Lebanese government, and the shadow state it operates, continues to cost the Lebanese immeasurable blood and treasure. The Beirut Port blast of August 2020 claimed over 200 Lebanese lives and injured over 6,000. The lack of accountability for the 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate stored at the port, a well-known smuggling hub, incriminates the shadow state.

The February assassination of Lokman Slim, a prominent Hezbollah critic, and a Shia himself, is indicative of the threat to free speech and thought in a failed Lebanese state. Hezbollah cares nothing about the plight of the Lebanese people. In the midst of widespread food insecurity, Hezbollah offers discounted food from Iran, Iraq, and Syria exclusively to its card-carrying members. As for non-card carrying members, it views them either as pawns to benefit its criminal operations at best, or at worst, dispensable human shields to protect its precision-guided missile caches, which it purposely stores amidst civilian communities.

The Lebanese government is effectively crippled by Hezbollah’s involvement. The Lebanese state is ripe with corrupt politicians whose allegiances often lie with foreign interests rather than with the people who elected them to serve. Responding to the current crisis is to win the war; reforming the Lebanese central government so it is not a mafia-state run by a terrorist organization is to win the peace.

The Biden administration needs to act quickly to prevent Lebanon from plummeting into failed state status where Iran and Hezbollah can operate with complete impunity. The administration should work with France and follow the recommendation of the Syriac Maronite Patriarch of Antioch, Cardinal Boutros al-Rai, to convene an international conference to pressure the Lebanese to form a responsible, technocratic government so the state can re-stabilize. This will serve as a vital strike on the Iranian grip.

Such a conference should be used by the United States and France to advance the notion of “active neutrality,” the patriarch’s other complimentary policy recommendation. Western nations must work with pro-democratic Lebanese activists of all sects to rid Lebanon of this shadow state that threatens its citizens every day. The initiative for active neutrality would also necessitate increased and sustained U.S. support for the Lebanese Armed Forces, as it is the only credible security force to displace and replace Hezbollah.

The Biden administration finds itself at a critical foreign policy juncture. An American ally may fail within weeks, a designated terrorist organization may have yet another country where it can operate unchecked, where genocide survivors and vulnerable religious minorities will be targeted by extremist militias, and American personnel (civilian and military) in the Middle East will remain vulnerable to attack.

Iran’s backing of Hamas’s current attack on Israeli civilians is just the latest example of what could be the new normal in an Iran-dominated Levant.

These developments point to the urgent need for the Biden administration to craft and prioritize an Iran policy that demands the discontinuation of support for malign proxies across the Middle East.

Toufic Baaklini is the president and chairman of the board of In Defense of Christians. He is an expert on geopolitics and US foreign policy, and has committed years of service to preserving the historic Christian communities of the Middle East. He received a knighthood in the Pontifical Equestrian Order of Saint Gregory the Great by Pope Francis in 2014.

Richard Ghazal is the Executive Director for In Defense of Christians. He previously served as a U.S. Air Force Judge Advocate and intelligence officer with a special focus on Hezbollah. Richard is an ordained reader in the Syriac Orthodox Church, and speaks the Turoyo dialect of Aramaic. 

The National Interest