BEIRUT (AP) — As President Donald Trump recently stood beside the Lebanese prime minister praising his government for standing up to Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militants were busy demonstrating just how wrong he was. They were clearing the country’s eastern frontier from al-Qaida fighters in a sweeping offensive and negotiating a complex prisoner deal with the group.
Far from being an ally in the fight against Hezbollah, the Lebanese government headed by Saad Hariri is based on a partnership with the Shiite group, whose clout and dominance in the tiny country is on the rise.
“Lebanon is on the front lines in the fight against (the Islamic State group), al-Qaida and Hezbollah,” Trump said at the press conference in Washington, lighting up social media with comments from Lebanese who ridiculed his perceived ignorance of Lebanese politics.
Trump aside, there is much about Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon that is sometimes difficult for outsiders to understand.
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The Iranian proxy is the single most potent military and political force in Lebanon, with an arsenal surpassing that of the country’s army. By many accounts, Hezbollah has brought disaster to the country by engaging in destructive wars with Israel, and, as Trump himself noted, it has fueled the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria where it has sent thousands of its fighters to shore up President Bashar Assad’s forces.
But to its many supporters, the group is a stabilizing force in a fragile country with a historically weak central government that has been repeatedly battered by Israel and struggled against Sunni militancy, particularly since the eruption of the Syrian civil war.
The party, founded in the early 80s to fight Israeli occupation of parts of Lebanon, enjoys a support base that extends well beyond its Shiite constituency. It has been a mainstay of Lebanese politics for the past few decades, taking part in governments and offering state-within-a-state services to followers in its strongholds without trying to impose its religious views on the country’s pluralist society.
The group has its own secure telecommunications network and a reach that extends across vital Lebanese installations and infrastructure, as well as veto power in the Lebanese cabinet.
Its decision to send fighters to Syria in 2013 remains highly controversial in Lebanon, but the group has to a large extent…