Evidence of Hezbollah’s presence in Lebanon wasn’t hard to come by as I travelled in the country a few years ago. Visiting the world-renowned ruins of Baalbek, for instance, meant entering Hezbollah-controlled territory in the Bekaa Valley. On the way to the archeological site, I passed numerous yellow and green Hezbollah flags and banners, posters of Hezbollah’s leader Nasrallah, as well as sundry Shia ‘martyrs’. The women we passed along the road were all dressed in black: a sign that we were in Shia territory. I must confess that I was tense as we approached the checkpoint, but we were waved through without any problem.
Columns of the Temple to Jupiter
The city of Baalbek had its origins in the 3rd millennium BC as a Phoenician place of worship to the god Baal. In 47 BC Julius Caesar made Baalbek capital of his Roman colony here. Over the next 200 years a succession of Roman emperors oversaw the construction on the site of temples in honour of Rome’s gods. The columns in the photo above are what remains of a temple dedicated to Jupiter. A trip to Baalbeck is a must-see for any visitor to Lebanon.
Evidence of Hezbollah on the way to Baalbek (I have no idea what the Arabic on the Hezbollah banners says.)
At the time I visited Lebanon, Hezbollah held sway largely in the Bekaa Valley. Today, Hezbollah, incredibly, is the most powerful member of Lebanon’s current ruling coalition. How could this have happened?
The answer is, in one word, Iran. The Shiite militia group hizb’allah, ‘party of Allah’, or Hezbollah, was formed in 1985, aided and abetted by the Islamic Republic of Iran, as a resistance group to counter Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. At the end of Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990), Hezbollah was the only major militia allowed to retain its weapons, in spite of a UN Security Council resolution to the contrary. In 1992, Hezbollah began running candidates for Lebanon’s government. In 2000, when Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon, Hezbollah claimed the credit for driving the Israelis out. In 2005, Lebanon’s Sunni prime minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated by a car bomb. More recently, Hezbollah has seen more than 1000 of its members killed fighting on the side of Bashar Assad and Iran in the Syrian civil war.
Hezbollah’s influence only keeps growing, not just in Lebanon, but in the wider region. Hezbollah is working with Iranian-backed forces in Iraq, and is allegedly arming and training the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen as well. Returning the favour, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is said to be building underground arms factories right in Lebanon itself. Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon now constitutes Iran’s most valuable proxy in the Middle East.
Is it still possible, even at this late date, to wrest control of Lebanon from the clutches of Shiite Iran? That is what Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) appear to have in mind. On 4 November, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri was summoned to Riyadh, pressured to resign (most likely), and is now being held against his will (allegedly). It is believed that King Salman removed PM Hariri–a Sunni Muslim and a citizen of Saudi Arabia as well as Lebanon–because he failed to adequately deal with Hezbollah. Hariri’s ‘kidnapping’ is merely the opening salvo in a tug-of-war between the Sunni Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran over Lebanon’s future. There’s more to come, for sure.
Iran is very open about its ultimate goal: the destruction of Israel. I mentioned earlier how I saw signs of Hezbollah’s presence in Lebanon. I also saw signs of Hezbollah’s presence on the other side of the world, in Buenos Aires, in a park.
On 18 July 1994, a Hezbollah suicide bomber from south Lebanon detonated a car bomb in front of the Jewish Community Centre in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The explosion killed 85, wounded 300, and destroyed the building. The scene of what was once a cruel terrorist attack on innocent people has been turned into a place of quiet contemplation.
Being Iran’s proxy in the region makes Lebanon extremely vulnerable in any coming confrontation with Israel. When I was in Lebanon, I encountered people so opposed to the Shiite militia/terrorist organization that they literally spat out the name, “Hezbollah.” For their sake and Lebanon’s, I hope it’s not too late.