In the political culture of Lebanon, usually recognized for its maze-like complexity, the alliance between the Iranian-backed Hezbollah armed group and the predominantly Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) stand as an even further oddity. FPM is a political formation revolving around the former Lebanese Army commander Michel Aoun, with accountability, transparency, and the creation of a state of institutions as its announced goals. Hezbollah, in demonstrable fact, is the actual negation of all these goals ― engaging as a non-state armed actor in internal and external use of force and coercion, with absolute opacity, no accountability, and creating its own structures parallel to national institutions, all at their detriment. Yet repeatedly, in instances during which Hezbollah entered into open conflict either with state institutions or with democratic forces, FPM was steadfast in confirming the alliance and in providing proactive media and material support for Hezbollah actions. As events unfolded in Syria from March 2011, Michel Aoun and the FPM were dismissive of the popular and peaceful character of the uprising, and together with Hezbollah provided steady support for the Damascus regime version of events describing the plight of Syria as “punishment” for Damascus, conceived in the West and financed in the Gulf, for its support of the “Resistance” (Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine).
Explanations for Michel Aoun’s positions have ranged from attributing utilitarian purposes to them ― given Aoun’s declared presidential ambitions ― to describing them as measures to safeguard Lebanese national unity. An alternative assessment, albeit one that is often politely avoided in the charged atmosphere of Lebanese politics, is that the FPM-Hezbollah pact fulfills the call of ideologues ― past and present ― for an alliance of minorities in the face of an alleged Sunni regional hegemonism. What is undisputed, however, is that despite a considerable track record of both political and armed opposition to the Syrian regime in past decades, Michel Aoun has dramatically repositioned himself and his movement as strategic allies of both Damascus and Tehran.
While often resorting to a populist discourse aimed at their Christian constituency about the impending rise of a Sunni extremism, which would constitute an existential threat to Christianity in the Middle East, FPM analysts have absorbed and recycled Iranian-style anti-Israeli and anti-United States discourse. They see the current conflict in the Middle East as one that opposes two coalitions: The United States, Israel, Arab Sunni regimes, and Turkey versus Iran, the regional minorities (including Middle Eastern Christians), and the “BRICS,” Russia in particular, as a counterweight to the West.
This analytical framework is understood as depicting a strategic reality. It is repeatedly phrased in terms of the decline of the West in general, and the “defeat” and retreat of the United States in Iraq, Afghanistan, and eventually from the region as a whole. The more ideological proponents of this line of analysis anticipate the inevitable disappearance of Israel from the map of the region ― which is the argument that the Iranian president Mahmud Ahmadinejad had clumsily attempted to formulate. Israel, according to this common understanding, is a historical aberration that is artificially maintained through the leveraging of U.S. and Western power, and would dissipate organically with the end of Western hegemony. The role of Hezbollah (or even a putative nuclear Iran that would emulate the Israeli ambiguity about its possession of nuclear weapons) is merely to hasten the process of disintegration of Israel by inducing emigration ― primarily through psychological warfare.
Michel Aoun and his FPM supporters may be agnostic about this enhanced vision of the consequences of the decline of the West, but they do accept its premises, and continue to explain their political alliances and positions on its basis. While the justification often circulated to Western interlocutors about their alliance with Hezbollah refers to the need to secure national unity, to inject moderation into Hezbollah, and to incorporate it into the political process, the fact is that the FPM-Hezbollah alliance has enabled the Iranian-backed party to continue its transformation of the Shia Lebanese community into a totalitarian fiefdom, and to strengthen and expand its anti-U.S. and anti-Israel rhetoric, with virtually no objection or qualification from the FPM. In fact, the FPM has itself adopted such rhetoric, albeit often with the plausible deniability cover of claiming to target “neoconservatives,” and not the United States in its totality.
In fact, FPM and other allies of Hezbollah from leftist and nationalist formations have labored to develop a model of understanding of U.S. politics that has gained wide acceptance in the Middle East (while mirroring fringe polemical analysis in the United States itself). According to this model, the weakness of the “United States/Israel/Sunni regimes” front stems from the fact that a major faction in the United States itself is fundamentally aligned with the vision of the opposing Iran-led camp. The faction in question is none other than President Barack Obama and most of his progressive appointees and advisors. The victory of Obama in the elections, they assert, is a victory for Hezbollah and Iran. If Obama has not acted so far accordingly, it is due to political, electoral, and other forms of internal pressure to which he was subjected. It is thus with euphoria that the Obama-Medvedev open microphone incident ― during which Obama spoke of having “more flexibility after the elections” ― was received. It is also with distinct feelings of vindication that reports about an Obama “Grand Bargain” about to be offered to Iran are read.
Whether the recent Grand Bargain reports have any foundation in truth or not, the maximal understanding of such a Grand Bargain in circles sympathetic to it in Washington may include the release of frozen Iranian assets, the progressive lifting of sanctions imposed on Tehran, de-escalation measures, the acceptance of a closely monitored civilian nuclear program, and may be a path to a restoration of diplomatic relations, in exchange for an iron-clad verification of the end of Tehran’s nuclear military ambitions and the end of its support to terrorism. According to the version promoted in the pro-Hezbollah Lebanese media, however, the putative Grand Bargain has a distinctly different flavor. It would include the recognition of Iran as a regional super-power and would concede to its suzerainty over (at least) Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
This line of analysis, endowed with the conviction that the realization of the expanded version of the Grand Bargain is only a matter of time and timing, has transformed many Lebanese analysts and intellectuals (of various religious and ideological backgrounds) into firm believers that the Syrian regime will ultimately prevail. The horizon of some may be limited to the realization of the U.S.-conceded Pax Iranica in parts of the region. Others ― the core ideologues in Hezbollah and Iran ― view it as merely the initial step for the final defeat of the United States and its allies in the region (or even beyond). Hezbollah media and its support network are thus implicitly promoting the notion that the anticipated Grand Bargain (in its exaggerated form) will thus be accepted in an unabashed bad faith, with further escalation in the direction of the eradication of Israel and the toppling of the Arab monarchies to follow. While from a U.S. perspective, these cumulative constructions may appear to amount to little more than political fiction, on the ground in the Middle East they do inform policy and its public reaction.
Prior to its U-turn, the FPM had a wide pool of contacts and supporters amongst the U.S. political class. For the Hezbollah ideologues, these links are valuable as means to mollify U.S. policy and further hasten the advent of both the Grand Bargain and the ultimate vision of a “Middle East void of the United States and Israel,” as phrased by Hasan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah Secretary-General.
In anticipation of the Grand Bargain, Christian Lebanese figures may be seen in Washington, reassuring their contacts that Hezbollah is not a threat to the interests of the United States, but is a necessity for minorities in the Middle East. These are flawed but sincere arguments serving, albeit innocently, the sinister ulterior motives of a destructive world view, one of political despotism and socio-religious regimentation that would inevitably spell the end of Middle Eastern Christianity.
Hassan Mneimneh is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC.
Image by the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM)