If history is any guide — and in the Middle East, it usually is — sometime in the next few weeks, Joe Biden will be “tested” by Iran or their proxies in Syria and Lebanon. Four years ago, they tested Donald Trump when President Assad used poison gas in Syria and militias attacked U.S. outposts with rockets. The U.S. responded with force, which defined the limits of provocation for Iran and Hezbollah. The point is to see how far they can go in tweaking the lion’s tail before the lion chomps down.
On Tuesday, a previously unknown militia was responsible for a rocket attack on some military contractors in Erbil, Iraq. The militia is loyal to Iran so it could hardly be a coincidence.
Now, Hezbollah has assassinated one of Lebanon’s most prominent anti-Hezbollah activists. Lokman Slim was not a household name in the U.S. but he was revered in Lebanon for his fearlessness in criticizing Hezbollah and for his anti-corruption campaign that brought millions into the streets to protest. He was found dead in his car, shot 4 times in the head.
Slim becomes another victim of Hezbollah political violence that began in 2005 with the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. There followed a dozen assassinations of prominent political foes of Hezbollah in business, politics, and journalism.
A similar period of unrest has gripped Lebanon in the last year as anti-corruption protests gripped the capital of Beirut. And following the massive explosion that killed more than 200, injured 7500, and caused $15 billion in property damage. The government response to the crisis was so feeble that people took to the streets again, despite the pandemic.
And they blamed Hezbollah.
For the first time since they were formed in the 1980s, Hezbollah was not seen as the nation’s protector against Israel, but rather a domestic enemy. That was enough to make any critic a target for killing.
Slim’s assassination sends a message to local critics and activists, but it could also be a way to test the limits of the international community—to see when and how the Biden administration would draw its red lines. Many of Slim’s fellow activists are today worried that Hezbollah might start a new wave of assassinations, similar to the ones that followed the 2005 killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and which only stopped when Hezbollah took control of state institutions in 2008.
One of the by-products of U.S. sanctions on Iran has been a growing difficulty for Iran to finance their terrorist allies in Hezbollah. That’s why Iran is agitating and threatening the U.S. about rejoining the nuclear deal. They want the sanctions lifted before they even deign to sit down with Biden.
Hezbollah is struggling to maintain its militia as well as fulfill its social obligations to Shias in Lebanon. With half the country living below the poverty line, the need outstrips Hezbollah’s resources.
And the Beirut blast may have been a tipping point.
Hezbollah knows what that means in the long run. Parliamentary elections are coming in May 2022, and based on the various university and union elections that took place in 2019 and 2020, Hezbollah, its allies, and all political parties in Lebanon are likely to lose a significant part of the Parliament.
Meanwhile, investigations into the Beirut Port explosion are ongoing. Although the local authorities have been purposefully slow and ineffective, some information from local and international sources and investigative reports indicate a link between three Syrian businessmen who backed Bashar al-Assad and a shell company that bought the explosives and stored them at the port in Beirut.
If it’s found that Hezbollah was in any way responsible for that blast — accidental or not — they may be forced to either give up power or take over the government and turn it into a military dictatorship.
The U.S. should keep the sanctions on Iran if only to prevent Tehran from fully resupplying the terrorists in Lebanon.