Lebanon reacts following Nasrallah speech

Supporters of Lebanon’s Hezbollah were divided over its leader’s speech following the killing of top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani, with some saying Hezbollah must react and others saying the Iranian strikes at the military bases in Iraq were enough.

al-monitor Supporters of the Shiite Hezbollah movement hold posters of slain Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani as the movement's leader Hassan Nasrallah delivers a speech on a screen, in the suburbs of Beirut, Lebanon, Jan. 5, 2020.  Photo by ANWAR AMRO/AFP via Getty Images.

Jan 11, 2020

The sound of people chanting filled the air as supporters of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement expressed their anger toward the United States during a speech given by Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

Nasrallah gave his first speech of the year following the deaths of Qasem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps unit called the Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy chief of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units in Iraq, by a US drone strike near Baghdad International Airport Jan. 3.

For supporters of the group, Nasrallah’s speech was a way of giving them hope that Soleimani would be avenged.

Mariam, a supporter of Hezbollah who doesn’t want to reveal her full name, told Al-Monitor the speech gave the group’s followers "some strength that they will take revenge.”

For Nour (also refusing to give out her full name), who supports Hezbollah as a resistance movement but opposes their politics, the speech was what she expected but was also a way for the group to differentiate themselves from US President Donald Trump when it comes to retaliation.

“It personally met my expectation and reinforced the principles that Hezbollah abides by in war: targeting military bases and not civilians,” said Nour, adding, “His speech was evidently drafted as a way to contrast Trump's, to show that Trump is unethical in his strategies compared to Iran's and its allies' [strategies].”

However, for others this seemed just like any speech Nasrallah has given in the past, with the only difference being it was taking place following the death of Soleimani.

“I didn’t see it different from his other speeches, since he always challenges Israel and the US,” Marwa Harb, a former supporter of Lebanon’s Sunni Future Movement, told Al-Monitor. “And in this case, the challenge was on a higher level. What I mean, if you checked what happened in summer regarding the Israeli drones [that entered Lebanon’s airspace], in his speech he was threatening Israel; so in this case, like what happened in Iraq, his speech will definitely be aggressive toward the US and setting further actions.”

Independent journalist and editor for Beirut Report Habib Battah agreed with Harb’s reaction, adding the reason for such speeches is often used to have an effect on those listening rather than to actually declare anything.

“I think we’ve seen speeches like this before in times of confrontation where Nasrallah wants to position himself from a place of strength,” Battah told Al-Monitor. “It’s very psychological, these speeches. They’re often more about the psychology of those listening to them than they are about things that actually happen on the ground.”

Battah also pointed out that chants attacking the United States have decreased over recent years and only tend to appear during times of heightened tensions.

“They don’t come out with every speech,” he said. “They had really died down over the years — the ‘Death to America’ chants and rhetoric has really died down. But occasionally it does kind of pop up again. And this time it shouldn’t be that surprising when the US is directly involved in attacking, in some ways, the hand that feeds them (Hezbollah).”

In his speech, Nasrallah called for retaliation against US forces in Iraq in order to force troops out of the country.

“It is the US military that killed Hajj Qasem, and they must pay the price,” Nasrallah commanded.

“The true, just retribution for those who conducted this assassination is an institution, which is the US military,” the Shiite group’s leader later added. “We will launch a battle against those killers, those criminals.”

These comments made by Nasrallah were what Battah found the most interesting about the entire speech, as it contrasted with Trump’s tweets where he said that the United States will target Iranian cultural sites in the event of an Iranian response.

“In some ways,” Battah said, “it’s a much more moderate position than most militant movements or militant Islamist movements who don’t really come out and say that ‘We’re not attacking Americans. We’re only targeting soldiers.’ And Iran as well only targeted military targets. Iran and Hezbollah have made it clear they are only going after military targets. It kind of makes Trump look like more of an extremist than any movement in the Middle East because he is actually specifically saying that he wants to target cultural sites. It’s kind of ironic that we tend to consider these groups terrorists when the rhetoric coming out of the US administration is far more about targeting average people and nonmilitary targets.”

However, supporters of the group differed in opinion when it came to whether or not Hezbollah should play a role in the retaliation. For Mariam, Soleimani was a symbol and leader for all resistance movements, citing the war between the group and Israel in 2006 as an example of how he was part of Hezbollah.

“Soleimani is a leader for all the resistance,” she said, “and he is considered as a leader for Hezbollah also since he helped in the war committed by Israel in July 2006.”

For Nour, Hezbollah’s role remains solely as a force meant to protect Lebanon, and they should remain within the country’s borders and not go beyond that.

Despite the outrage from Lebanon’s Shiite community following Soleimani’s death, Battah argued that the majority of Lebanese Shiites did not know who he was before his death.

“I think it’s a stereotype to say that all Shiites in Lebanon know the ins and outs of Iranian politics and the entire power structure,” he argued. “I think that a lot of people got to know Qasem Soleimani, even the Shiite community, much more because of his death than in his life where he was a figure who was not very public. He was not a figure like Nasrallah. I think more Lebanese Shiites would be more familiar with their local members of parliament and local leaders of Hezbollah than they would be with the Iranian leaders other than the actual presidency. There might’ve been a lot of mourning and a lot of commemoration. And I think, in a way, he’s been propped up with the events that happened, and people discovered a lot more about him in his death.”

While there was no agreement on what role Hezbollah should play exactly, the belief that US troops should leave Iraq transcended sectarian borders.

“I think this is the only thing that Iran should do to bring justice to Soleimani,” Nour said. “I'm not with a one-for-one killing, I'm with kicking out all US military forces from the [Middle East North Africa] region. They interfered as a way to ‘enforce democracy and peace,’ but US intervention in Libya, Yemen, Iraq, Somalia and even Lebanon begs to differ.”

Even though Harb believes US forces should leave, she acknowledged they were there for a reason and expressed concern that something bad could happen in the event of their withdrawal.

Edgar Maalouf, a member of Lebanon’s parliament for the Free Patriotic Movement, told Al-Monitor the killing of Soleimani was a massive and unexpected occurrence, but since Lebanon has no US soldiers based in the country, it would allow for the Mediterranean country to stay out of any possible future conflict.

“The death of Soleimani is a big thing,” Maalouf explained. “He used to come and go without any special or secret methods. He came from Syria on a plane. In Lebanon, most of the parties don’t want Lebanon to be in this storm. Even in Sayyed Hassan’s speech, he was clear that maybe Lebanon will not be a real part of what’s going to happen. Especially since we don’t have American soldiers. When the target is to remove the American soldiers from the Middle East, automatically, we’re going to be on the side of the action.”

For Maalouf, Lebanon’s ongoing economic crisis is what should take precedence over regional conflicts.

“With the huge economic problems that we have, having another military problem would be disastrous,” he said. “The banking system needs to see how it is going to change. We cannot continue with the same habit that we have had for the last 30 years.”

Several days after Nasrallah’s speech, in the early morning hours of Jan. 8, missiles fired from Iran struck two military bases in Iraq that housed US troops but resulted in no US or Iraqi casualties. According to Mariam, this is enough of a response to Soleimani’s death.

“Hezbollah won’t give a response because Iran is taking revenge,” she explained. “So Hezbollah only gave Iran moral support. Hezbollah is a resistance made by Iran, so if Iran will respond, then that’s enough.”

However, Nour believes there is more to come.

 “It depends on the US to be honest,” she said. “I don’t think there will be World War III. … People don’t believe in wars for ‘self-protection’ like before.”

The following day, Trump held a press conference where he said the United States would be implementing further sanctions against the Islamic Republic and that Iran appeared to be “standing down.”

 Maalouf hopes that following this press conference, there will be “calm in the region and a good economic future for Lebanon and a new government.”

However, Battah believes there are no guarantees that things will de-escalate or escalate.

 “It could go either way,” he explained. “A lot of this is psychological. We have to take these fiery speeches with a grain of salt. This is psychological posturing. You want your enemies to imagine the worst possible scenario. Whether you’re actually going to act on that or not, there’s a strategic value in maintaining a sense of fear among the enemy.”

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