Lebanon News

Why Lebanon is unlikely to be arena of response for Iran, proxies

Hezbollah supporters listen to the speech of Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah in Beirut's southern suburbs, Jan. 5, 2020. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

There is fear among Lebanese residents and officials over the repercussions of an Iranian response to the killing of Qassem Soleimani and then a response to that response.

This was evident Tuesday when Lebanese President Michel Aoun said he would not allow the killing of the IRGC’s Quds Force leader to destabilize Lebanon.

Aoun stressed during a meeting at Baabda Palace with United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon Jan Kubis that he was committed to maintaining the nation’s security.

The president also met with UNIFIL chief Maj. Gen. Stefano Del Col, to whom he underlined the perils of allowing Lebanon to be affected by developments in the wider region.

The recent U.S. drone strikes in Baghdad that led to the assassination of Soleimani has instilled fear among Middle Eastern and Gulf countries that Iran would retaliate on the soil of one or more of these countries.

As Soleimani was the architect of non-state militias and Iranian proxies in the region, his ties to Hezbollah and its leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah is believed by some to have serious implications for Lebanon’s stability if the proxy carries out an attack to avenge Soleimani’s death.

But for Lebanon, a rare and fortunate status quo in the country makes it seem highly unlikely that it will be used to retaliate against the United States.

During a memorial service for Soleimani held in Beirut last Sunday, Nasrallah said that U.S. bases, troops, officers and warships were all “fair targets.”

In Lebanon, the U.S. does not have an official military base.

There are uncertain figures of the number of U.S. soldiers in Lebanon with some military sources saying around 300, including Special Forces. Others say the number is lower than 100 and in the “high double digits.”

Hamat Air Base, in northern Lebanon, is home to the biggest number of U.S. soldiers, while Rayaq Air Base has a number of others. These are both Lebanese Army bases. Additionally, there are a number of military personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Awkar.

And while there are U.S. soldiers stationed at the two air bases, they sit side-by-side with Lebanese soldiers. It is doubtful that Hezbollah, which Nasrallah called a “resistance” group, would order a retaliation with Lebanese soldiers in the line of fire.

The bigger fear or threat that made rounds were those against American civilians in the region. However, Nasrallah said U.S. civilians living, working or studying in the region wouldn’t be targeted so as not to “serve [U.S. President Donald] Trump’s interests.”

The number of U.S. civilians in Lebanon is perhaps much higher than American soldiers.

Apart from this, Hezbollah is also keen on the formation of a new government in Lebanon in order to have its political cover, among other reasons.

Responding in a manner that could drag Lebanon into a conflict that it can’t afford at this stage, due to its decrepit economic and political situation, coupled with nationwide anti-government protests, could be the final blow for Lebanon.

But the concern remains over what Iran does to avenge Soleimani’s death, and how.

Nasrallah distinguished the response of “resistance” groups from that of Iran, which will take action in its own way.

The Hezbollah leader said, “Iran responds the way it wants.”

And depending on what type of initial Iranian response there is and an ensuing American response to this continues to put Lebanon and the entire region at risk of an all-out confrontation.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 08, 2020, on page 2.

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