Diplomacy

Support for Lebanon wanes as Hizbullah remains at table

By Al-Mashareq

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Hizbullah members take part in a ceremony commemorating the 42nd anniversary of Iran's Islamic revolution, beneath a cutout of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Rouhollah Khomeini, in the Bekaa Valley village of Hallaniya on February 7. [AFP]

European leaders were quick to rally around Lebanon in the aftermath of the devastating August 4 explosion at the Beirut port, with French president Emanuel Macron at the fore, but now their support is cooling, analysts said.

Six months after the blast, critical reforms that were asked for and expected have not been enacted, and Hizbullah continues to exercise control over the political decision-making process and in other key areas.

This has made it hard for the European Union and European governments -- long among Lebanon's principal donors -- to continue to stand by Lebanon.

Macron arrived at the scene of the blast on August 6, where he pledged that France would co-ordinate international relief efforts to help Lebanon, already struggling amid an economic, political and public health crisis.

World leaders pledged more than $298 million for Lebanon at an August 9 conference organised by France and hosted with the United Nations (UN), and affirmed their support for Lebanon at a follow-up conference on December 2.

And on January 12, the World Bank approved emergency aid worth $246 million.

From the outset, Macron and other European and world leaders stressed that the funds were intended for the Lebanese people, and underscored the need for political reform, including the formation of a new government.

Macron also warned Iran against any interference in Lebanon.

Discontent with Hizbullah on the rise

Even before the port blast, many Lebanese said Iran-backed Hizbullah was at the root of the country's problems, and blamed it for Lebanon's seeming inability to pull itself out of crisis.

The party -- designated a terror organisation by the United States and some European countries -- is widely considered to be the main reason why talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have stalled.

The IMF funds -- some $10 billion -- are critical to Lebanon's economic recovery.

Lebanon's government has said it needs $20 billion in external funding, an estimate that includes roughly $11 billion aid package pledged by donors at the CEDRE conference in Paris in 2018, in addition to the IMF fund.

Without an IMF rescue, donors are unlikely to pump money into Lebanon.

Inside Lebanon, there has been a growing rumble of discontent with Hizbullah and its ties to the Iranian regime, even among Shia circles.

At a protest in Beirut following the port blast, demonstrators demanded the disenfranchisement of the ruling political class and the disarmament of Hizbullah. Some even called for Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah to stand trial.

European countries, which have for the most part granted significant operational rights within the EU to Hizbullah, are also taking a harder line.

In recent years, an increasing number of countries, including Britain and Germany, have designated Hizbullah as a terror group, amid a growing acknowledgement that its political and military wings are one and the same.

Ending Hizbullah, Iran influence

Since 1992, Hizbullah has woven itself into the political fabric of the country, which allowed it to hold sway over key ministries and impede critical reform.

It has flagrantly violated Lebanon's policy of dissociation from regional conflicts through its participation in the Syrian war on the side of the Syrian regime.

And it has violated the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which calls for its disarmament.

It also has attempted to obstruct the mission of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) -- the peacekeeping mission established in 1978 in south Lebanon, which is mandated to assist the Lebanese forces in disarming Hizbullah.

The UN Security Council on August 28 said it will renew the mandate of UNIFIL until August 31, 2021, reiterating its condemnation of all attempts to restrict the free movement of its personnel or to attack its personnel and equipment.

It also called for full access to sites it wants to investigate, to which it has been consistently denied access, including those related to illicit cross-border tunnels used by Hizbullah.

Most of the illegal border crossings in Lebanon "are under Hizbullah's control and are used to smuggle light weapons, precision-guided missiles, fuel, livestock and food", political analyst Rabih Tlais said.

Smuggling operations are conducted under the supervision of Hizbullah, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Iranian forces, he said.

Rescuing Lebanon's economy will begin with the formation of a government of technocrats and the re-entry into negotiations with the IMF regarding a long-term reform programme, economist Violette Ghazal al-Balaa said.

This programme would address "the extension of loans and financial grants", she said, and should "stipulate Hizbullah's exclusion from the political equation and stifling of Iran's influence in Lebanon".

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