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Countering Syria’s Lebanese power play

Pity poor Lebanon. Earlier this month, the murderous regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad imposed a government in Beirut dominated by the terrorist group, Hezbollah — which, as it happens, we were reminded just this morning, likely carried out the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005. Before our very eyes, the ...

By , a senior fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America and a former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney.
Salah Malkawi/ Getty Images
Salah Malkawi/ Getty Images
Salah Malkawi/ Getty Images

Pity poor Lebanon. Earlier this month, the murderous regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad imposed a government in Beirut dominated by the terrorist group, Hezbollah -- which, as it happens, we were reminded just this morning, likely carried out the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005. Before our very eyes, the Lebanon of not-so-distant memory -- pluralist, free-wheeling, open to the West and the values of liberalism -- is being snuffed out by U.S. enemies. And by all appearances, no one can really be bothered, including, sadly enough, the Obama administration.

Six months ago, the pro-Western Saad Hariri (Rafiq's son) walked into an Oval Office meeting with President Obama as Lebanon's prime minister. He walked out a mere caretaker. Syria and Hezbollah chose precisely that moment to collapse his government. The immediate cause was Hariri's refusal to comply with the demand that he terminate his government's support for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) -- whose first indictments, handed down today, finger Hezbollah for carrying out the horrific bombing that killed his legendary father.

But the gambit to take down Saad was also widely understood to have a more strategic purpose, a humiliating slap at Obama and the United States. The message could not have been clearer: Such will be the fate of the United States' friends who dare defy the ascendant Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah axis. Obama, and Washington, can do nothing to protect you.

Pity poor Lebanon. Earlier this month, the murderous regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad imposed a government in Beirut dominated by the terrorist group, Hezbollah — which, as it happens, we were reminded just this morning, likely carried out the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005. Before our very eyes, the Lebanon of not-so-distant memory — pluralist, free-wheeling, open to the West and the values of liberalism — is being snuffed out by U.S. enemies. And by all appearances, no one can really be bothered, including, sadly enough, the Obama administration.

Six months ago, the pro-Western Saad Hariri (Rafiq’s son) walked into an Oval Office meeting with President Obama as Lebanon’s prime minister. He walked out a mere caretaker. Syria and Hezbollah chose precisely that moment to collapse his government. The immediate cause was Hariri’s refusal to comply with the demand that he terminate his government’s support for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) — whose first indictments, handed down today, finger Hezbollah for carrying out the horrific bombing that killed his legendary father.

But the gambit to take down Saad was also widely understood to have a more strategic purpose, a humiliating slap at Obama and the United States. The message could not have been clearer: Such will be the fate of the United States’ friends who dare defy the ascendant Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah axis. Obama, and Washington, can do nothing to protect you.

Najib Mikati, an ambitious Sunni billionaire businessman with extensive international connections, was tapped by Syria and Hezbollah’s March 8 coalition to put the veneer of legitimacy on the new Lebanese order. For the next five months, the Assad regime seemed content to let Mikati fruitlessly spin his wheels trying to assemble an "independent" cabinet that, while giving due deference to Damascus’s interests, would not so antagonize the international community as to endanger Lebanon’s economy and foreign relations — particularly with key patrons in Saudi Arabia, France, the U.S., and Turkey.

Assad’s incentive to tread lightly with respect to Lebanon’s new government was further bolstered after Syrians took to the streets en masse in mid-March to protest his family’s four-decade dictatorship. At a time when he was killing hundreds of peaceful demonstrators at home, Assad was eager to avoid giving the world further cause to do what had already been done to Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya, by declaring his regime illegitimate and pulling the trigger on international sanctions.

By early June, however, the situation had significantly changed. Both the U.S. and Europe had moved to impose tough financial measures, including some against Assad personally. The IAEA concluded that Syria had in fact been building a secret nuclear reactor (destroyed in 2007 by an Israeli air strike) in violation of its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and referred the case to the U.N. Security Council for possible punitive action. Turkey, previously one of Assad’s biggest supporters, dramatically ratcheted up its condemnation of his regime’s relentless brutality against its own (mostly Sunni) citizens. Most importantly, the situation on the ground across Syria continued to deteriorate.

With both international and domestic nooses tightening around his neck, Assad decided it was time to take the gloves off with respect to Lebanon and secure some strategic depth. He moved swiftly to break the impasse over cabinet formation and impose a government whose first priority would be helping ensure his regime’s survival. In rapid succession, Assad summoned to Damascus Mikati’s brother (and business partner), Taha, and the leader of Lebanon’s Druze community, Walid Jumblatt. There, he served his marching orders in no uncertain terms: drop whatever remaining objections you have to a Hezbollah-dominated government and allow it to form post-haste.

Within days, the dirty deed was done. Yes, Hezbollah directly holds only two relatively minor portfolios. But its junior partners in March 8 and the pro-Syria/Iran camp — especially the Free Patriotic Movement of Christian leader, Michel Aoun — will effectively control at least sixteen more, including all the sovereign ministries that truly matter: defense, interior, justice, foreign affairs, telecommunications, and energy. As for the remaining twelve posts, they are divided between Mikati, Jumblatt, and President Michel Suleiman — all of whom, truth be told, have a long track record of being either sympathetic to Syria’s concerns, or easily cowed by its intimidation and threats.

Assad’s purpose seems clear enough: to put all Lebanon’s political, economic, and security institutions at his regime’s disposal, to help him manage the mounting pressures until his security services succeed in crushing the internal rebellion that threatens his rule — a goal shared, of course, by both Iran and Hezbollah, for whom the loss of their longtime Syrian ally would be a potentially devastating strategic setback.

Mikati’s proposed cabinet is packed with Sunnis from Tripoli, near the Syrian border, no doubt with the hope that they can help temper the support that Lebanon’s Sunni community provides its beleaguered co-religionists next door, who make up the bulk of the protesters demanding Assad’s head. Internationally, the new government will do what it can to use Lebanon’s current seat on the U.N. Security Council for purposes of obstruction, so as to shield Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah from further condemnation and sanction.

Lebanon’s internal security forces will surely be expected to show declining tolerance for anti-Syrian and anti-Iranian voices — especially once the powers-that-be achieve their stated demand of purging those leaders in the Interior Ministry who have worked most closely with U.S. and other Western intelligence services, including assistance to the STL. Just three weeks ago, Aoun himself openly threatened to "twist" the CIA in Lebanon.

Perhaps most importantly, Assad needs Lebanon’s new government to help shut down the Lebanese border to Syria’s opposition, while opening it wide as a channel for goods and services essential to his regime’s survival, including military equipment. As needed, Lebanon’s ports and airport will become Assad’s outlet to the outside world, a primary conduit by which he hopes to circumvent sanctions and break out of the tightening international vice. 

In this regard, Lebanon’s powerful banking sector will likely be assigned a special role in trying to blunt the impact of recently imposed U.S. and E.U. financial measures. Just this month, alarms bells sounded when Syria’s central bank took steps to open an account with its Lebanese counterpart. Regime assets are now rumored to be moving into some of Lebanon’s most important private banks in search of safe harbor. Many of Lebanon’s financial institutions, of course, have close links to leading members of Beirut’s political elite. Among these is Audi Bank, Lebanon’s largest lender, which maintains significant operations inside Syria — and which has as one of its major shareholders the M1 holding company, a firm founded by . . . Najib and Taha Mikati.

On this point, it’s worth noting the deep and longstanding business links that the Mikati brothers are alleged to have to the Assad regime. Indeed, their fortune was largely made through their telecommunications company, Investcom, which counted Syria among its most lucrative markets. And it’s widely believed that no one makes big money in Syria, much less in the telecom sector, without having significant connections to Assad’s bagman and cousin, Rami Makhlouf — who just happens to be up to his eyeballs in U.S. and E.U. sanctions.

Ever since Hariri was unceremoniously deposed in the middle of his White House visit last January, the Obama administration’s reaction has been distressingly muted, the mantra being that the U.S. will judge any new Lebanese government "by its actions." One might have hoped that the realization of a cabinet dominated by avowed enemies of the United States, and brazenly imposed by a hostile foreign power knee-deep in the blood of its own people, would be action enough to spur a more vigorous defense of U.S. interests.

The fact is that no matter what short-term formulation this new government concocts for international consumption to paper over its innate hostility to the STL, its consolidation will be bad news indeed for the United States. Beyond the ballast it will provide the Assad regime as it fights to stay afloat while carrying out a campaign of terror against the Syrian people, Lebanon’s new government, left unhindered, will inevitably solidify the country’s long-term consignment to the camp of the United States’ most vicious regional adversaries, led by Iran. Should that happen, the eventual emergence on Israel’s northern border of a full-fledged base of operations for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — one that may soon be equipped with nuclear weapons — will surely be a major step closer to reality.

More broadly, of course, standing by silently as Lebanon is subjected to an unbridled assertion of power by the United States’ foes can only accelerate the emerging regional narrative of U.S. decline and of a general disinclination to stick by our friends when the chips are down. Far better would be to take action now to signal our deep concern by using the not-insignificant leverage we possess to shape evolving events before being confronted with additional faits accomplis.

For example: A notice could be issued warning Lebanon’s financial institutions, the backbone of the country’s economy, not to let the Syrian regime abuse their services for the purpose of circumventing U.S. sanctions. An investigation might be opened to take a closer look at Mikati’s alleged dealings with the heavily-sanctioned Makhlouf. At long last, the Treasury Department could finally take action to designate the odious, anti-American Aoun for providing material support to a known terrorist entity, Hezbollah. Indeed, absent the patina of Christian cover Aoun’s backing provides, Hezbollah’s ascendance in Lebanon’s multi-sectarian political system would have been well near impossible. 

The administration could also throw its support behind Congressman Howard Berman’s Hezbollah Anti-Terrorism Act (HATA), which seeks to ensure that no U.S. economic or military assistance ends up benefiting the terrorist group (though, in light of the new government’s pro-Hezbollah face, and today’s STL indictments, the practical effect may well end up being the termination of virtually all U.S. aid). The administration could also look for easy ways to bolster the morale of our Lebanese friends. Saad Hariri hasn’t heard from President Obama since their ill-fated meeting six months ago. A phone call to consult and offer encouragement — perhaps to coincide with today STL indictments — would go a long way, a much-needed signal that the United States intends to stand by its allies, especially those who find themselves targeted precisely because of their willingness to defend our common interests and values.

Finally, of course, the U.S. should be far more vigorous going after the ultimate source of Lebanon’s problems, in Syria itself. Beginning with an immediate declaration of the Assad regime’s illegitimacy, the administration should be working closely with allies in Europe, Ankara, the Arab world and the Syrian opposition to craft a comprehensive strategy that leads as quickly, and as peacefully, as possible to Assad’s ouster and replacement by a more democratic, humane order.

It may of course be tempting to simply dismiss recent events as the usual mess of Lebanese politics, without much consequence for the United States. Unfortunately, that is not how much of the Middle East perceives it. For better or worse, the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah power play in Beirut is viewed as very much part and parcel of a much larger regional struggle, yet another test of U.S. resolve and credibility where the Obama administration is in danger of being found wanting. Certainly, history has shown that what happens in Lebanon, especially when engineered by those who would do the United States and its allies great harm, rarely stays in Lebanon for long. The U.S. would be well advised to take note and act accordingly.

John Hannah is a senior fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America and a former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney.

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