After IS, a new tug-of-war emerges in Lebanon and Iraq

After IS, a new tug-of-war emerges in Lebanon and Iraq
Comment: In Lebanon and Iraq, non state actors loyal to Iran are impossible to dismantle in the absence of a regional agreement, writes Mona Alami.
4 min read
17 Nov, 2017
A poster in Lebanon, in support of the Iran-backed Hizballah leader, Nasrallah [AFP]
As the last Islamic State's (IS) strongholds fall in Syria and Iraq, regional consensus over prioritising the battle on the so-called caliphate is coming to an end. 

Signs of this significant change are already reverberating across Lebanon and Iraq, where a new tug of war is shaping up between regional powers and local militant groups.

In Syria, forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, including Lebanese Hizballah, backed by Iran, are preparing to storm Albukamal, in an attempt to expel IS from the Deir az-Zour region. In Iraq, Iraqi forces took over al-Qaim, one of the last remaining territories still held by the terrorist group. The fight against IS also involved Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU).  

These victories do not mean the end of conflict in the region, as tensions inside Lebanon and Iraq, point to new rivalries. Both Hizballah and the PMU are viewed by the US and Saudi Arabia as dangerous regional contenders, and a loyal force for Iran.

At the end of October, the US House passed new sanctions in response to Iran's support for Hizballah, as part of a legislative package against the Islamic Republic. At almost the same time, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called for Iranian-backed militias and foreign fighters - who helped to defeat IS - to "go back home".

On 4 November, Lebanon's prime minister Saad Hariri resigned from Riyadh, accusing Iran and Hizballah of sowing strife in the Arab world.

This sequence of events points to a significant escalation between Iran on one side, and the US and Saudi Arabia on the other.

In Lebanon, Hizballah has become a semi-state within the state

In both Iraq and Lebanon, governments are locked in a complicated balancing act between home-grown non-state armed actors loyal to Iran, and regional and international powers. If the situation escalates, it could wreak havoc in a region already weakened by years of war and instability.

Lebanon finds itself in a difficult predicament since the resignation of its PM, who has yet to return, amid rumors that point to his house arrest in Saudi Arabia.

Lebanon's foreign minister Gebran Bassil stated this week that Lebanon is seeking to resolve the latest crisis with Riyadh in a "bilateral" manner, and that Saudi Arabia should not act against all of Lebanon if it has a problem with Hizballah or Iran, adding that Hariri was not Hizballah.

Nasrallah [L], leader of Hizballah. meets Lebanese 
prime minister Saad Hariri in March 2006 [AFP]

Hariri's sudden resignation plunged Lebanon into political uncertainty, with a potential parliamentary vacuum on the horizon. In addition, an escalation between Saudi Arabia and Iran on Lebanese soil may target Lebanon's Achilles heel; its economy, which could have devastating repercussions for the country's already fragile state.

Tillerson's remarks on Iraq have also placed the government of Prime Minister Haidar Abadi in a tricky position. He needs American support in order to ward off Iran, but can also do little against the PMU, which falls in theory under the control of the government.

The Shia militias are divided into two groups, one loyal to Iran, the other pledging allegiance to Iraqi cleric Ali al-Sistani, or affiliated with Iraqi Shia political parties.

According to Niqash, Qais al-Khazali, who heads the League of the Righteous militia - part of PMU, said the US forces in Iraq had no excuse to be there any longer and that they should get out.

In both countries, nationally based non-state actors loyal to Iran are impossible to dismantle in the absence of a regional agreement. In Lebanon, Hizballah has become a semi-state within the state, with military forces more powerful than the national army, and representatives within the parliament and government.

In Iraq, Niqash quoted Abbas Bayati, a Turkmen MP, as saying that the PMU "are the country's third force after the army and the police".

An escalation between Saudi Arabia and Iran on Lebanese soil may target Lebanon's Achilles heel - the economy

While a series of sanctions is currently targeting the financing of Iran proxies, international powers should also work on building back state powers.

Both the PMU and Hizballah have been able to thrive thanks to the state's loss of legitimacy. It is only by reinforcing the security forces of these states through military support and training, exchange programmes the creation of new loyalties as well as more transparency, that regional powers can hope to hinder the growth of these militant groups. 

In conclusion, despite their nationalist slogans both Hizballah and the PMU know they cannot survive along sovereign home states.

Mona Alami a non-resident fellow with the Atlantic council covering Middle East politics with a special interest in radical organizations. 

Follow her on Twitter: @monaalami

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff