irak protests
© Khalid al-Mousily / Reuters
The United States of America, Israel and Saudi Arabia are fed up with Iran and its allies in the Middle East. But despite waging war against Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon, by inviting the Iraqi government to dilute al-Hashd al-Shaabi, by attempting to submit Gaza and to curb the Houthis in Yemen, it was not possible to break the strong alliances of Iran spread throughout the Middle East. Moreover, through democratic elections, Iran's allies in Lebanon and Iraq managed to be part of the Parliament and have ministers in the cabinets of their respective countries. Also, in Syria, Iran's strong ally President Bashar al-Assad is still leading the country notwithstanding years of war, and the attempts, through foreign and domestic intervention, to remove him from power. But civilian protestors - with legitimate demands against corruption and wealth mismanagement of the elite in Iraq and Lebanon throughout the years - are causing havoc in these countries, shaking the stability and therefore putting Iran and its allies on alert. Meetings are continuously held by the "Axis of the Resistance" to evaluate the situation, the possible threats, and the degree of involvement of foreign powers in the streets in attempting to curb this Axis.

In Lebanon, following two weeks of protests covering the entire country, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri offered his resignation and became a caretaker, leading a cabinet which has also resigned. This move has calmed protestors for a few days but it is not certain that this will satisfy Lebanon's hungry, jobless youths and those contesting corruption. They are expecting their demands to be dealt with within the medium and long term as well. At the same time, the escalating national debt has to be reckoned with.

It is not clear that a new government will come into being this month, or even in the months to come. Hariri discussed his plans with main political parties stating his will to form a technocrat cabinet. His aim is to respond to some of the protestors' demands but also to remove the strong Christian member of the parliament (MP) and Minister of foreign affairs Gebran Bassil, who leads the largest group of MPs in the country. Hariri's demand was contested because "a political leader (he is leading a large political party) cannot lead a non-political cabinet unless it is mixed governance between politicians and qualified technocrats". Other options have been put on the table, for example, to ask Hariri to form a politico-technocrat government to bring the country out of the actual impasse.

Domestic and international complications are enormous, crucially affecting the success or failure of any future Lebanese government. The US administration in particular (as announced by the State Department) is waiting just around the corner to impose further sanctions on Lebanon and in particular on the Hezbollah allies. Also, Bassil, the President's son-in-law and a strong ally of Hezbollah, is looked upon by the US State Department as a persona non grata due to his explicit support of Washington's declared enemy. Hezbollah, a Shia political group, struck an alliance with the strongest Christian political group in the country. This alliance is highly disturbing to all Hezbollah's enemies because it gives the Iranian ally a non-sectarian dimension and international support via the Christians of Lebanon. The US is left with a small Christian ally, Samir Geagea, who years ago was the closest Israeli ally and has become the dearest supporter of Saudi Arabia. Geagea's men are spread around the streets of Lebanon, preventing civilians from reaching their businesses and asking for Hezbollah to lay down its arms.

This is pushing Hezbollah to hold its allies close, sharing with them a common destiny, and consolidating its domestic hold over the political arena of the country. Thus, the question to clarify here is whether the future holds a successful government to come, or (which is most likely) a political vacuum.

Generally speaking, the harshest criticism towards Hezbollah, Iran's ally in Lebanon, and towards its most powerful armed corps, comes from the mainstream media, who find it attractive to associate Iran and its allies with every event. In reality, only a very few voices, in the streets of Lebanon, are heard against Hezbollah. These mainly come from areas under the "Lebanese Forces" leader's control, Samir Geagea, on the US and Saudi Arabia pay-roll with a clear objective to boost his image. Geagea's ministers offered their resignation from the first day of the protests to enable him to distance himself from the government that he was part of in the last years. He was left, alone, to depart from the cabinet. His men are closing the streets of important sections of the main roads in the Christian-dominated areas to improve his negotiating conditions in any future cabinet.

What is unusual is the role of the Lebanese Army and its commander in chief General Josef Aoun, a relative to the actual president Michel Aoun. In fact, the army is under the code of Emergency no.3, allowing it to intervene to protect the country from internal and external threats. Sources within the military command said: "General Aoun is under US pressure: they "invited" him not to use the army against protestors even if these close the main roads linking the entire country from the south to the north and the east. Delegations from the US embassy visited the General on a regular basis to make sure the country was "under the protestors' command" rather than that of the security forces. The behaviour of the Army chief is embarrassing the President, a Hezbollah ally. It aims to indicate that the President's mandate is unstable because of his political choices and his links to Hezbollah which would pave the way for the commander in chief of the army to become a president in the future".

Informed sources in Beirut believe the closures of the road links between the south of Lebanon and Beirut and the Bekaa Valley and Beirut (Shia strongholds) are not innocent moves. The aim is to bring Hezbollah onto the streets and trigger a new civil war in the country, destabilising it for years to come.

Hezbollah seems very much aware of this plan and its negative potential.

Part II

In 1975, Lebanon went through 15 years of violent and destructive civil war. The circumstances before the beginning of the war were aimed at destroying and removing the Palestinian Liberation organisation (PLO) led by Yasser Arafat. Palestinians were drawn into a civil war in Lebanon, paving the way for an Israeli invasion in 1982 that finally led to the departure of the PLO from Lebanon (and the "Islamic Resistance" that became years later known as Hezbollah). Today, in Lebanon, Hezbollah believes the same scenario could be repeated if dragged onto the street to face protestors. This is why the leadership is exerting patience and restraint, and will continue to do so, to keep control of its men, off the streets.

However, there were strong voices among protestors asking "Why is Hezbollah covering or protecting its allies regardless of accusations of corruption?"

Years before the Hezbollah officially emerged in 1985, the "Islamic resistance" was already engaged in liberating the Lebanese territory occupied by the Israeli invasion in 1982. A few years after the withdrawal of Israeli occupation forces from most cities and villages in the year 2000, Hezbollah emerged on the political scene. Political engagement created a difficult challenge for the organisation's leadership. Many within its Shura council wanted to keep a distance from the corrupt government that had led the country since 1992, and were afraid of being called to account with Lebanon's old guard of corrupt political leaders.

Hezbollah decided to maintain only one minister in the government, in order to have ears present at every meeting and debate within the Lebanese Council of Ministers. After some years, Hezbollah decided to become a full partner in Parliament and in the cabinet of ministers with its Shia ally, the Speaker and leader of the "Amal" movement Nabih Berri. Following withdrawal of the Syrian Army from Lebanon in 2005 and the third Israeli war on Lebanon in 2006, Hezbollah decided to take its share, along with Berri, in appointing the security officers allocated for the Shia, and left to the Speaker all other senior and junior jobs to be allocated to Shia, in accordance with the Lebanese confessional system. Hezbollah's relationship with Amal was conditioned on one key principle: appointing a security officer in the Army or other security forces had to be approved by both main Shia groups.

Hezbollah fulfilled its goal of protecting the Lebanese Shia. Hezbollah's aim was to ensure that the historically disfavoured group would never again be subject to injustice within the Lebanese political system. Long decades of unfairness towards the Shia in Lebanon came to an end when Hezbollah became a powerful and effective military and social group.

Hezbollah is today "the one who nominates the President of the Republic" after its successful years of war against "Islamic State" and al-Qaeda on the Lebanese borders, and in Syria and Iraq. Hezbollah's men operated within a territory ten times bigger than Lebanon in both neighbouring countries. Hezbollah is not merely a domestic group but a regional and international player. Its men were present in Bosnia, Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Palestine in keeping with their oft-repeated goal to defend the oppressed wherever they are found. Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah recently confirmed this mission: "Wherever we need to be present, we shall be there". But Hezbollah's involvement in regional wars and domestic policies has had both positive and negative effects on the group and its operations.

Militarily speaking, Hezbollah is one of the strongest irregular but organised armies in the Middle East. It has tens of thousands of rockets and missiles, long-range precision missiles, anti-ship and anti-air missiles, armed drones, electronic and surveillance capabilities (phone tapping), and thousands of Special Operational Forces.

Domestically, its alliance and strong bond with its Shia partner, Speaker Nabih Berri, and his Christian partner, President of the Republic Michel Aoun, along with his son-in-law, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil (who acts as the head of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) is not without cost. In recent weeks of protests in the country, for the first time Shia who are considered an integral part of "Hezbollah society" came out into the open and harshly criticised Berri and Bassil, contesting Hezbollah's alleged support for allies accused of corruption.

What appears to be an anti-corruption uprising in Lebanon is also an indirect anti-Hezbollah campaign, aiming to cripple its allies when it is not possible to hit Hezbollah itself directly. Many regional and international players, who recognise that they cannot face down Hezbollah on a battlefield (as shown by its victories when confronting Israel, in Syria, Iraq and in the Yemen), would be delighted to see Hezbollah involved in domestic political battles, unrest or quagmires. This has been the US administration's policy, carried out untiringly by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Can he succeed?

Part III

For the first time since Lebanese independence in 1945, protestors in Lebanon have hit the streets to protest against the corruption of all political leaders currently in power. However, they were not alone: many of the over one and a half million Syrian refugees and seven hundred thousand Palestinian refugees in the country also participated. They all demanded reforms, and expressed anger over the corruption of Lebanese politicians, poor public services, and the mismanagement of economic resources.

The resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri will postpone, perhaps indefinitely, the implementation of the thirteen reform points proposed by the PM ad interim. This may lead in turn to another revolt if a vacuum imposes itself on the country. Yet how can a stable Lebanon still be important to those same countries who are willing to go after Hezbollah and weaken it from within?

Many protestors in the south of Lebanon accused Hezbollah's Shia ally, head of the Amal movement and long-serving House Speaker Nabih Berri, along with his family members, of amassing hundreds of millions of dollars from illegal deals and imposing a forced partnership in substantial local projects in the south of Lebanon. A small number of protestors blamed Hezbollah for turning a blind eye to its Amal ally.

Hezbollah has its suspicions, according to well-informed sources: "there is no doubt that corruption, and grievances are hitting the whole of Lebanese society, including its youth. But after making demands that are impossible to meet, insults were directed against most political leaders, and chaos was the goal of protestors in these days."

"When people go onto the streets for a very just cause and series of demands, there are in this context "watchers" who focus on the demonstrations' longevity and efficiency in order to intervene at an opportune moment. Thus, Hezbollah looks carefully at the motives of those financing and benefitting from the general chaos in the country", said the source.

Even the Governor of the Central Bank, Riad Salame, in an interview with the New York Times, accused Hezbollah indirectly of planning to remove him because he "abides by US sanctions". Thus, a domestic Central Bank Governor openly expresses loyalty towards a foreign country (the US) which is imposing harsh sanctions on his fellow countrymen offering donations to Hezbollah, a group with Members in Parliament and ministers in the government. Only in Lebanon!


Comment:



There is little doubt about the corruption in the Lebanese system: this is a country where every single leader has become a rich entrepreneur during, and certainly by the end of, his political career. There are public service employees who were given the authorisation to deposit hundreds of thousands of dollars daily in their bank accounts. Expensive gifts and money under the table (or even above it!) are part of the local culture and the exchange of services in the country, and operate according to different scales.

Hezbollah's leader, Sayyed Nasrallah, decided a year ago to fight domestic corruption. His battle has not been successful because he needs the support of legislative and executive decision-makers. These players are, not unnaturally, unwilling to accommodate him (even his closest allies) because they all have skeletons in their closets.

Hezbollah finds itself with a large military force but which is certainly unsuitable for imposing the necessary domestic changes on the corrupt political system of this country. Hezbollah is facing the relatively ineffective but continuing sanctions of the US on its leaders. But sanctions on rich members of Shia society (and its allies) are having an effect. These financial attacks place a moral obligation on Hezbollah's leader Sayyed Nasrallah - who has warned he would not stay idle for very long.

As a group, Hezbollah doesn't suffer directly from the US sanctions. It receives its financial support on a monthly basis from Iran, in cash, or through Iranian oil and other goods sold on the market. It has its own bank, al-Qard al-Hasan - the only domestic bank with no international link that is today providing any amount of money requested by their customers deposited in foreign currency, when all other banks, with international link, refused to give people their own savings but limited the withdrawal amount to $1500 per week - and has no business outside Lebanon. Its tens of thousands of militants receive their salaries - although salaries may sometimes be delayed, they are fully paid when the cash is available - and benefit from outstanding free of charge medical healthcare, and a tax-free private retirement system. This is what makes the group so attractive to young people and in particular to Shia graduates from universities, flocking to offer their services to be part of the group. Sayyed Nasrallah draws up the policy of the group and is observed by Israelis - more than the Lebanese - and politicians outside the Shia community. Hezbollah sympathizers are in fact more radical than Hezbollah militants in rebuffing any criticism of the group or its leader. These represent the backbone of Hezbollah, and the group owes its continuity to them.

Hezbollah is not in a position to render its allies accountable: its preferred intention is to support and stand by them. This is necessary to avoid inter-Shia clashes and to keep alliance with Christian partners, because the danger of a country facing chaos is now spreading out to contaminate all of Hezbollah's allies.

Part IV

When the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says "The Iraqi and Lebanese people want their country back. They are discovering that the Iranian regime's top export is corruption", he is directly accusing the respective governments in Iraq and Lebanon of being pro-Iranian and therefore supporting the revolution. The US involvement in the Iraqi and Lebanese streets and its wish to see governments removed has not gone unnoticed by the highest Shia authority in the world, the Iranian Najaf-based Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who enjoys significant influence in Iraq and the rest of the Islamic world. "There are internal and external parties who have played a prominent (negative) role in the past decades in Iraq, which has been severely harmed and who have subjected Iraqis to oppression and abuse. They may seek today to exploit the ongoing protests", Sayyed Sistani said via his representative Sheikh Abdel Mahdi al-Karbala'ei during Friday prayers.

These strong words echo exactly what the Secretary-General of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, warned about the source of the protests in his country. Both authorities, Sayyed Sistani and Sayyed Nasrallah, were careful not to explicitly accuse the US of being in control of the streets. Protestors in Iraq and Lebanon have legitimate demands, contesting long-standing corruption in their respective countries. There is no doubt about the grievances and exasperation of the population with a political system dominated by only a handful of leaders. The US is trying to sneak-in through the legitimate demands of the protestors.

However, the situation in Iraq and Lebanon is taking a dangerous turn where the possibility of a total collapse, particularly in Lebanon, is not remote.

It has nothing to do with Iran and its allies in Lebanon and Iraq. The Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Sistani, known to be against any Iranian or US interference in Iraqi affairs, has protected al-Hashd al-Shaabi, harshly accused by the west, in particular the US, and also by Saudi Arabia of being an Iranian arm in Iraq: "Our pride in the armed forces and those who joined them in the fight against ISIS and defended Iraq give a great credit to everyone, especially those who are stationed to this day on the borders and at sensitive sites". Hashd al-Shaabi is deployed along the borders between Iraq and Syria, in the desert of al-Anbar, and in all sensitive and remote areas in Iraqi territory where ISIS is still operating.

In both Iraq and Lebanon, Hashd al-Shaabi and Hezbollah abandoned the street and asked their supporters to follow. Both entities are aware of the trap being set for those forces directly involved, and the consequences of such an involvement domestically and internationally. Both parties believe the US is ready to incite Europe, the UN and the international community to intervene in Lebanon and Iraq in order to widen the crisis, hijack the protests, and repeat the Libyan-Syrian scenario of war.

Mainstream media are concentrating on the thousands of demonstrators in Lebanon and Iraq, ignoring the millions at home or off the streets. These abstainers support the justified demands of protestors, the fight against corruption, and calls for changing political leadership. But they oppose the destruction of their countries, a destination to which the course of events seems to be leading Lebanon in particular. Many of these are incapable of acquiring the minimum necessities of life unless they work daily. Others see their businesses succumbing following the closure of all national institutions.

The monetary system in Lebanon is very near collapse and banks are refraining from meeting the rush of demands for a withdrawal of savings by the population. The last stronghold of Lebanon, the banks, is shaking and the governor of the Central Bank Riad Salame has decided to ride the US horse to save himself rather than saving the country. He is diverting the responsibility for his own failed financial planning and his personal support of key political and personalities notable for corruption in Lebanon. He accused Hezbollah of being behind people's criticism of his monetary policy.

There are no serious anti-Iran sentiments prevailing in Iraq and Lebanon, any more than anti-US or anti-Saudi opinions. In Iraq, it was Moqtada al-Sadr, the political leader who controls 53 MPs, the largest political party in the Parliament, the highest number of Ministers, general directors, ambassadors and other key positions in the government, who led the anti-Iran slogans because of his personal vendetta with Iran. Iraqi people are sentimental and readily critical of any domestic or overseas statements. However, Iran supported Erbil and Baghdad against ISIS when the US invaded the country. The US is responsible for the killing of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and not long ago delayed its intervention to watch how far ISIS could reach beyond the occupation of a quarter of Mesopotamia. The partition plan for the country was on the US table but failed due to Iran's quick intervention, the training provided by Hezbollah, and above all the determination and the sacrifice of the Iraqi population and security forces.

The US and Iran are both involved in shaping the political leadership in Iraq and Lebanon. The US dictates its will to Lebanon and Iraq, while Iran merely tries to make sure the governments are not hostile but do not impose on Lebanon and Iraq sanctions, nor does it command its banks or select what Lebanon can or cannot do in defending the country from Israel's aggression, violation of its waters, space and territories.

Iran has succeeded in creating a robust chain of powerful friends in the Middle East while the US has failed.

In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad became one of the most solid allies of Iran. In Iraq, Tehran has managed to push to power three main top allies, the Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, the Speaker Mohammad al-Halbusi, and President Barham Saleh. The Iraqi government can count on al-Hashd al-Shaabi as an ideological security force ready to protect the state, and to prevent any possible coup d'état planned by high ranking officers. Hashd has managed to foil top-ranking Iraqi officers' plans in this regard, officers with strong direct link to the US embassy in Baghdad. But the situation in Iraq took a critical turn for Prime Minister Abdel Mahdi when protestors took to the streets and asked for accountability against deeply installed corruption of all politicians. As in Lebanon, people are rallying for a just cause due to lack of basic infrastructure, electricity, clean water and job opportunities. Lebanon and Iraq look much alike and their populations have the same demands. But to claim that the Iraqis are fed up and fuelled by Iran's influence is an indication that observers have understood very little about Iraq and are expressing their wishful thinking rather than the reality.

Having lived in Iraq (Lebanon and Syria) for many years - and still travelling quite often to the country - it is not difficult to realise that the Iraqi population is waking up to the incredible level of corruption. Like Lebanon, tens of billions of dollars were stolen from Iraq since the US occupation in 2003 and throughout the rule of all governments and politicians, without exception.

When I asked once Sayyed Sistani why the Marjaiya doesn't stand against the selected Prime Minister and choose another more suitable candidate, he answered: "Do you have a name to suggest? These are our people. From where do we get a perfect candidate?"

Yes, Iran - like the US - attempted to bring together a coalition of the strongest political parties to select a non-hostile (towards Iran) Prime Minister. This is exactly what the US envoy to Iraq has been trying to do since 2003. The Americans have failed, since the fall of Iyad Allawi, to bring to power their man, until Adel Abdel Mahdi arrived and was a choice suitable for both Iran and Iraq.

In fact, Abdel Mahdi is a professional technocrat willing to introduce reforms in the country but has no political support behind him to allow him to choose between corrupted politicians. He was elected due to the support of the biggest political parties, mainly the block under Moqtada al-Sadr and the block under Hadi al-Ameri.

But Iraq Prime Minister Abdel Mahdi, like the Lebanese government, has initiated a reform plan to make changes. If the governments are not allowed to implement these reforms under the watchful eyes of the protestors, the countries will collapse.

These are not pessimistic words but a realistic approach to possible events. In Lebanon, the Lebanese Army stocks its main weapon and ammunition warehouses in Dbaiye, an area not far from the US ally's reach in case of unrest. The majority Christian Aounists - who believed the Lebanese Army was their protector - discovered that they could be dropped from one day to the next. The attitude of the commander in chief of the Army was very disappointing to President Michel Aoun and his supporters. Indeed, it may take - according to well-informed sources - a handful of determined thugs to trigger a potential massacre in a small location in the Christian area to keep all pro-Hezbollah Christians at home and give the upper hand to those willing to engage in a civil war. Not an impossible scenario in the case of the total anarchy that is waving on the horizon.

In Iraq, the situation is much better than in Lebanon. A reformed government is about to take power and Prime Minister Abdel Mahdi is working on it with little resistance from the various political parties. In Lebanon, Prime Minister Saad Hariri is far from forming a new government. Hariri told Hezbollah's envoy in a private meeting that his resignation is due to the foreign minister Gebran Bassil's presence and influence in the cabinet. When meeting with President Aoun, Hariri told him he doesn't want a government with Hezbollah ministers. This "game" is showing little transparency and raising questions among Hariri's political opponents, who would like to see him leading the new government - although they cannot meet his impossible demands. The Prime Minister ad interim has no power to exclude the largest political parties in the Parliament, especially when he is far from holding even half of the MP's support.

It is correct to say that the countries where Iran has strong allies are shaking, but their entire population has nothing to do with Iran or US issues. The US administration has adopted war as its hobby, while the Middle Eastern population has had enough of war. The awareness of the protestors seems very limited to reach any further than their own domestic demands. Who will prevail? The coming weeks have never been more crucial for Iraq and Lebanon.
Elijah Magnier

Veteran War Zone Correspondent and Senior Political Risk Analyst with over 35 years' experience covering the Middle East and acquiring in-depth experience, robust contacts and political knowledge in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Sudan and Syria. Specialised in terrorism and counter-terrorism, intelligence, political assessments, strategic planning and thorough insight in political networks in the region. Covered on the ground the Israeli invasion to Lebanon (1st war 1982), the Iraq-Iran war, the Lebanese civil war, the Gulf war (1991), the war in the former Yugoslavia (1992-1996), the US invasion to Iraq (2003 to date), the second war in Lebanon (2006), the war in Libya and Syria (2011 to date). Lived for many years in Lebanon, Bosnia, Iraq, Iran, Libya and Syria.