From Lebanon to Iraq, leaders seem sincere but loyalties shift as opportunities arise
With their fiery speeches, threats and promises, politicians – from Lebanon’s Hassan Nasrallah and Michel Aoun to Iraq’s Nouri al-Maliki and Muqtada al-Sadr – sound sincere and principled. But a quick survey of their positions proves otherwise and shows their opportunism and political expediency.
“There are about 11 terrorist organizations in Damascus,” Lebanese President Aoun, then in exile in Paris, told the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), during his visit to Washington in September 2002. Aoun said that Hezbollah was one of these terrorist groups and was “under Syrian operational control.” In September 2003, Aoun visited Washington, again, and met with members of Congress, reiterating his position that he stood with America’s fight against terrorism and its spread of democracy. In November 2005, on his third visit, Aoun told his American audience that Hezbollah’s militia should be disbanded and the group transformed into a political party. Seventy six days later, Aoun met with the chief of the very organization that he had characterized as terrorist. In February 2006, Aoun and Hezbollah's Secretary General Nasrallah unveiled a memorandum of understanding, resulting in an alliance that, ten years later, installed Aoun as president.
It did not take Aoun long, after befriending Nasrallah, for him to radically change his position on Hezbollah. Shortly after the militia’s war with Israel, in August 2006, Aoun said that “Hezbollah was established in 1982 as a resistance institution that did not participate in the civil war… and that never turned its arms, and never will, [on fellow Lebanese] domestically.” In May 2008, the Shia Iran-backed Hezbollah invaded Beirut and Mount Lebanon, in a punitive campaign against Sunnis and Druze who had supported a cabinet decision to dismantle the party’s secret telecom network and replace the airport’s security chief with a Hezbollah appointee.
By entering an alliance with Nasrallah, Aoun was not the only turncoat. Nasrallah himself started his militia career with Amal, the party of Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri. Even though both are Shia, Amal and Hezbollah differ ideologically, and once diverged over regional alliances. Amal was founded to carve a place for the Shia in the Lebanese state, and — upon inception — struck an alliance with late al-Assad, then a rising regional star. Hezbollah, for its part, was founded on the idea of pan-Shiism, the idea that the Shia of the world form a political nation under the leadership of the Supreme Leader in Iran, regardless of national borders.
Al-Assad was unwilling to concede Lebanon’s Shia to Iran, and therefore Amal and Hezbollah engaged in a bloody war. Al-Assad even had his forces storm Hezbollah’s headquarters and execute two dozen Hezbollah members in 1987. When al-Assad engaged in peace talks with Israel on the principle of “land for peace,” Hezbollah supporters protested in Beirut, and al-Assad instructed his Lebanese protégés to shoot dead a dozen protesters. Even though they now seem inseparable, al-Assad and Iran fought over Lebanon, and so did their respective proxies Amal and Hezbollah.
Before Hezbollah existed, Amal fought the Iraqi Baath militia in Lebanon. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein positioned himself as an anti-Israel diehard and sponsored late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, one of al-Assad’s rivals. But as Saddam became preoccupied with his war with Iran, his militia in Lebanon, mostly Shia, disintegrated. Lebanon’s Shia Baathists, who lived a secular lifestyle, grew their beards, carried rosaries, and joined Hezbollah. Whoever pays the piper, calls the tunes.
Like in Lebanon, Iraqi politicians and militias have pledged allegiance to the highest bidder. When al-Maliki was Iraq’s prime minister, he enjoyed strong ties with Washington, which he visited many times, at one time delivering a speech before a joint session of Congress, an honor reserved for America’s closest allies. Al-Maliki refused to run for parliamentary elections on a pro-Iran, all-Shia ticket, and instead formed one of his own, which he called the State of Law Coalition. He also wanted militias, including those backed by Iran, disarmed and power consolidated in the hands of the state.
But when al-Maliki lost office, he switched sides and became an ally of Iran. Al-Maliki accordingly switched his position on militias, and supported their existence, even those that pledge allegiance to Iran. Long gone were al-Maliki’s days of the “state of law.”
Maliki’s flip flops pale compared to those of Muqatada al-Sadr, who says one thing in the morning and its opposite at night, which puts him in competition with Gaza’s Hamas, a group that was allied with Hezbollah and al-Assad, before supporting – in battles on the ground – the armed Syrian opposition. Hamas then went back to being Iran’s trusted friend and ally.
Money does make the world of these mercenaries go round. But when they shop around for sponsors, these mercenaries look for powers with steady hands. When America funded Iraqi Sunni militias that helped eject al-Qaeda, these militias did not realize that Washington was so utilitarian that it threw them under the bus, and handed them over to their Shia rivals, the minute the “mission was accomplished.” Mercenaries do change fast, but they also look for sponsors who play the long game. With Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in power since 1989, his game has so far proven to be the steadiest, but his dried up coffers might push his protégés to shop around for alternatives.