Lebanon’s new, pro-Hezbollah president has vowed to ‘release what is left of our lands from Israeli occupation.’
One of the first congratulatory phone calls Aoun received after his election was from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani who said that Aoun has been elected at “a time that the region faces the two threats of the growth of Takfiri [apostate] movements and terrorist groups as well as the indulgence of the Zionist regime of Israel,” adding that Iran is “confident” that “Lebanon’s resistance front will be strengthened.”
Aoun has not forgotten about his southerly neighbor, Israel, vowing to “release what is left of our lands from the Israeli occupation,” words directed towards the Shi’ite terror group with whom he entered into an alliance with in 2006 and has backed ever since.
But, according to Michael Horowitz, director of Intelligence at Prime Source, a Middle East based geopolitical consultancy, while Aoun’s win “is clearly in Hezbollah’s favor, Aoun is definitely not Nasrallah’s puppet” as he “is a relatively independent figure” whose base of support comes from Lebanese Christians.
And while Aoun had ties to senior members in Israel’s security community in the 1990s, current government officials have greeted Aoun’s win with caution. Israeli opposition leader and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid said that Israel “should worry when Lebanon elects a president backed by Hezbollah.”
Hezbollah is entangled in Syria, with thousands of their soldiers fighting and dying for the regime of Bashar Assad; some estimates put the number of dead at 1,500 with more than 5,000 others injured.
While the IDF thinks the group is unlikely to attack Israel in the near future, the border remains explosive due in large part to the ongoing military buildup by Hezbollah. According to a senior Israeli intelligence official, Hezbollah has over 100,000 short-range rockets and several thousand more missiles that can reach central Israel, including Tel Aviv.
Those missiles, Horowitz told The Jerusalem Post, “could keep Israel under pressure and economic distress for months, while waging a defensive war in Lebanon that requires a lower number of fighters than the one [Hezbollah] is fighting in Syria.”
In addition to the massive arsenal of rockets and missiles, Hezbollah is able to mobilize close to 30,000 fighters and has flouted its tunnel system, complete with ventilation, electricity, and rocket launchers. Some 200 villages in south Lebanon have also been turned in “military strongholds” where Hezbollah fighters are able to watch Israeli soldiers at any moment.
Another area where Hezbollah has a presence is the Israel- Syria border. And while they have not devoted as much to this border, Aymenn Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Forum and researcher at the IDC Herzliya, told the Post that if and when Hezbollah “secures the northern front in Syria, specifically around Aleppo, they could then focus more time and energy” to building up their forces in the Golan using “in particular native Syrian Shi’ite fighters who they have recruited.”
A statement echoed by Horowitz, who said that Hezbollah has “gained significant military experience in Syria and therefore Israel would be faced with a force that is capable of waging both guerrilla and asymmetric warfare, as well as more conventional offensives.”
During the inaugural address, the new Lebanese president gave some indication about his vision for the nation going forward
For the untrained ear, President Michel Aoun’ssounded like a mishmash of old chewed slogans about Lebanese “national unity”, harmony and patriotism. But between the lines, Aoun loaded his speech with code words that gave away the nation’s policy under his tenure.
First, according to Aoun, Lebanon will stay diplomatically neutral, thus giving Iran the advantage over Saudi Arabia. Second, Lebanon will sponsor “resistance” to “liberate” Israeli-occupied Lebanese territory. Third, Lebanon will “fight terrorism preemptively” inside Syria, and — in coordination with Assad — will deport Syrian refugees.
Even though Aoun called for the implementation of the Constitution, including its 1990 Taif Amendment, he contradicted Taif in his very same inaugural speech. After 1990, Lebanon’s president lost the prerogative to independently define the country’s policies. Instead, policies were to be agreed on — collectively — by a nationally representative cabinet. Aoun should have promised to protect the constitution, not violate it in his first speech.
In his “presidential foreign policy,” Aoun said Lebanon should “steer clear from foreign conflicts.” While such statement sounds good, it came in the same paragraph that talked about the Arab League. Aoun wants a policy independent of this league, read Riyadh and Doha. Aoun’s son-in-law Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil had already raised the ire of the Saudis when the league unanimously voted to denounce the attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran in January. Back then, even Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani denounced the attacks, and so did Iran’s closest Arab allies, like Iraq. Bassil’s vote stood out and caused Gulf countries to deport Lebanese expats. It seems Aoun thinks that vote was good and should become policy.
Right after giving Iran what it wanted, President Aoun delivered what Hezbollah wanted. “In the conflict with Israel, we will not spare any effort or resistance to liberate what remains of occupied Lebanese land,” Aoun said, thus trashing UNSC Resolution 1701, which calls for diplomatic resolution for disputed border territory between Lebanon and Israel.
The paragraph that followed saw Aoun take Assad’s side in the Syrian war, as he declared that Lebanon will combat terrorism “preemptively,” a word that Hezbollah leaders often use to explain that the party should fight terrorism on Syrian territory before terrorists find their way to Lebanese territory.
Interestingly, Aoun made an exclusive connection between terrorism and Syria. Terrorism is a worldwide epidemic that nations are standing up to and fighting. But in Aoun’s speech, the word terrorism preceded his talk about Syria. “We will deal with terrorism preemptively… until we eradicate it, and we also have to deal with the issue of Syrian refugees by securing their swift return,” Aoun said, adding that his policy for Syria will be implemented in coordination with “relevant states and authorities.” In other words, Aoun plans to reinforce bilateral cooperation with the Syrian government under Assad, a government that has been isolated by three fourths of the planet’s governments.
Before closing his speech, Aoun presented Hezbollah with another favor. “Security stability is dependent on coordination between security agencies and the judiciary… and it’s the duty of the state to liberate both from political patronage,” Lebanon’s new president said in a clear message that, on top of his priorities, will be to undermine the Internal Security Force (ISF), a police agency that has been on Hezbollah’s bad side for a long time, to the extent that some believe the party liquidated the agency’s top intelligence officer, Wissam al-Hassan, in October 2012.
So while Aoun’s inauguration speech sounded rosy and benign, it was in fact dedicated to paying back his backers, and promising to go after his detractors.
Needless to say, the Lebanese state is in such a dire situation that it does not matter who the president is or what he promises. The Lebanese state is weak, its president irrelevant, its agencies corrupt and its debt overwhelming. No matter what Aoun says in his inaugural speech, or any other speech, Hezbollah is the force that has the final word on every Lebanese issue, domestic or foreign. Aoun only gives Hezbollah’s de facto policies an official state blessing.
The presidency will be a nice retirement plan for the aging Aoun. He will use it to leverage his share in the state and promote his guys. But he will have little influence, whether in regional conflicts, the Syrian crisis or local issues.
Lebanon’s newly-elected president vowed to “liberate Lebanese territories occupied by Israel” in his first speech following his appointment.
Retired general Michel Aoun, 81, said no effort would be spared in Lebanon’s effort to “defend itself against an enemy who aspires to control our land, water and natural resources,” a reference to natural gas fields located in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Israel.
Lebanon has claimed the gas fields extend into its water territory.
Aoun secured the presidency earlier Monday after winning the backing of 83 of Lebanon’s 128 Members of Parliament, including the crucial backing of Hezbollah and the Shiite bloc, ending a two-and-a-half-year deadlock, including 45 failed attempts to elect a new president.
“The selection of General Aoun as a President of the Lebanese Republic may seem to please the country on the surface after two years of constitutional void, but it places an ally to Hezbollah in the highest office of the land,” Tom Harb, Secretary General of the World Council of the Cedars Revolution told The Foreign Desk.
The World Council of the Cedars Revolution is a Washington-based NGO comprised of Lebanese nationals living outside the country and dedicated to freedom and democracy in Lebanon.
“Aoun will have to appoint Hezbollah and allies to the cabinet and to the command of the Lebanese army,” Harb said.
The deadlock was broken earlier this month when former Prime Minister and leader of the Lebanon’s Sunni bloc Saad Hariri who heads the “Future Movement” agreed to end the political stalemate and back Aoun for president.
Hariri, who will reportedly be appointed prime minister, was the first choice of Saudi Arabia.
Lebanon’s constitution mandates the appointment of a Sunni prime minister, a Shiite speaker of parliament, and a Christian (Maronite) president. Maronites represent the largest Christian denomination in Lebanon and approximately 22 percent of Lebanon’s population.
The president is involved in selecting the country’s cabinet and has a large say on foreign policy.
Aoun has received substantial support from Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Iran-backed Lebanese terror group, Hezbollah. Nasrallah formally backed Aoun for president for more than two years and the two have met regularly to discuss domestic issues as well as the ongoing conflict in Syria.
“Aoun was appointed by Tehran not elected by the Lebanese people,” Joe Baini, president of the World Council of the Cedars Revolution said.
Baini points out the hypocrisy of many political factions who had previously marginalized Hezbollah and Aoun himself for his affiliations with the group and with Tehran and are now supporting his presidency.
“There will be a short period of stability before this system collapses again and badly,” Baini said.
A senior advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei welcomed Aoun’s victory as a “great triumph for the Islamic Resistance movement in Lebanon and for Iran’s allies and friends” according to Iranian State media.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif also tweeted “Congratulations to all the Lebanese on election of President Aoun.
Aoun said he would pledge support for Syria’s President Bashar al Assad vis-à-vis Hezbollah who have maintained a substantial presence in Syria since 2012, dispatching many armed fighters from Lebanon.
State Department spokesman John Kirby called Aoun’s appointment “a moment of opportunity,” deflecting a question on Hezbollah’s backing of Aoun by saying “Let’s see what decisions he makes, what kind of leadership he exudes as president.”