After a nine-month delay, Lebanon has a new government. Hezbollah’s dominance of the government is not restricted to the various ministries it or its allies control. Rather, the government formation process itself is evidence of how Hezbollah dominates Lebanon – a consequential fact for U.S. policy.
Following its victory in the May 2018 parliamentary election, Hezbollah began orchestrating the formation of a new government. From the outset, the terror group laid out its non-negotiable demands and immediately received the acquiescence of Prime Minister-designate, Saad Hariri. Namely, Hezbollah wanted to control the lucrative Ministry of Public Health. It succeeded. The new minister, Jamil Jabak, reportedly is the former personal physician of Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah.
Then Hezbollah proceeded to manage the shares of the other sects and parties. The Lebanese Forces, a Christian party, gained seats in the election but Hezbollah marginalized it in the government formation process. Instead of obtaining the Defense portfolio, Hezbollah made sure that ministry went to one of their allies, Elias Bou Saab.
Hezbollah similarly managed the Druze share. Hezbollah forced Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt to give up one of the three allocated seats to a figure approved by Jumblatt’s rival, Talal Arslan, an ally of both Hezbollah and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.
Hezbollah also demanded that Hariri offer a share in the government to a bloc of pro-Hezbollah and pro-Assad Sunnis. Not only did Hezbollah force the inclusion of an anti-Hariri Sunni minister, but it also forced its Christian ally, President Michel Aoun, and Aoun’s son-in-law and foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, to vacate a slot from their share. In so doing, Hezbollah stripped any one party, even allies, of the ability to veto government decisions independently.
Hezbollah now controls a majority coalition of all the Lebanese sects. The government formation process demonstrated clearly how Hezbollah actually runs the entire political order, underscoring the reality that Lebanon and Hezbollah are, in effect, synonymous.
U.S. policy should reflect this reality. It should abandon the fiction that by “strengthening state institutions” it somehow weakens Hezbollah. Instead, the Trump administration should freeze all assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces. Moreover, U.S. law requires imposing sanctions on agencies and instrumentalities of foreign states that move money to Hezbollah. Lebanon’s Ministry of Public Health now fits this category. The U.S. should thus block international funds to the ministry. While the Lebanese will surely protest that the new minister is not technically a card-carrying member of Hezbollah, there is no doubt as to whom he represents. There is similarly little doubt that Hezbollah will staff the ministry. Washington must act accordingly.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). Follow Tony on Twitter @AcrossTheBay.