Medics evacuate the body of prominent Lebanese activist and intellectual, Lokman Slim, from the spot where he was found dead in his car, on February 4, 2021. (Photo by MAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Is Hezbollah protected by the Lebanese political system?

And does Lokman Slim’s murder indicate a change in Hezbollah’s deployment of violence?

Earlier this month, Lokman Slim, an activist and writer, was murdered in Lebanon. He was found in his car, shot five times. As an unprompted assassination of a nonviolent man, this act was formally deplored by many and greatly condemned. After Slim’s death was confirmed, there was an outpouring of anguish from beyond Lebanon. In life Slim was a witty critic of Hezbollah, a fixture of his country’s public sphere, and a source and a friend to many.

There was little doubt who had killed him. Hezbollah was a frequent target of Slim’s activism and media appearances. His documentary Tadmor, about the brutal Syrian prison system of Hezbollah’s ally, the regime of Bashar al-Assad, angered his domestic opponents and their foreign patrons. Hezbollah’s own press had denounced him as an aider of foreign governments, and a ‘Shiite of the embassies’, a traitor to his religion. When he died, pro-Hezbollah social media gloated and said that he had got what he had courted for so long.

Slim did not expect to be killed. He lived in the Beirut suburbs openly, even though his home and garden were the site of protests, and continued to do so amid all the threats aimed in his direction.

Alex Rowell, the Beirut-based editor of al-Jumhuriya, writes that in their last meeting years ago, ‘Engulfed in his cigarette smoke, with his trademark wide grin on his distinctly reddish face, he laughed in his deep, raspy voice that Hezbollah’s outlandish claims against him – that he was a “traitor” and “Zionist agent,” and so on – had gone from being an accusation (tihme) into a mere joke (nikte); something nobody seriously believed or really cared about anymore, even among the Party’s base’.

Slim ‘never truly imagined Hezbollah would bother to do him physical harm’

Slim, Rowell concludes, ‘never truly imagined Hezbollah would bother to do him physical harm. He’d got away with it all for long enough, after all’.

I spoke to Rowell about whether this represented a change in Hezbollah’s deployment of violence. He said Slim’s murder ‘marks the first killing inside Lebanon of a prominent critic of Hezbollah since 2013, when two such murders took place: those of the student activist Hashem Salman, in June 2013; and the veteran politician Mohamad Chatah in December 2013. So it certainly appears, at face value, as though it may herald a resumption of the kind of political assassinations that had ceased to occur for almost eight years.’

This satisfies the question of who killed Slim, and goes some way to explaining why they did so.

But exact prompt for Slim’s murder remains murky – if there was a single reason why he was suddenly deemed worthy of assassination.

Rumours, so far without corroboration, swirl about both pro- and anti-Hezbollah media surrounding one story. In Rowell’s words ‘One answer has been proposed by the journalist Mona Alami in al-Arabiya, who says Slim confided to her in the days before his killing that he was helping to facilitate the defection of a Hezbollah money launderer to the United States’.

No external proof has emerged to support this theory, but it is widely believed.

Phillip Smyth, Soref fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told me that in killing Slim, Hezbollah is ‘sending multiple messages. The first is domestic, they can send a message to their domestic foes – particularly fellow Shia – that they can act with impunity. The second is regional, that Iran’s proxies will act and act harshly when dealing with any opposition.’ Their third message is intended to push America, Smyth said.

To understand why this is one must appreciate Hezbollah’s strange, multi-dimensional position.

It is at once a foreign proxy of the Iran regime, a terrorist group of the most violent kind, an army-for-hire in neighbouring Syria, a political party in Lebanon, and a low-grade mafia wherever its influence can be tangibly felt.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain, a journalist resident in Washington, D.C, told me: ‘Murder does not indicate there is any change in Hezbollah policy and behaviour, but rather an entrenchment of its rules that it imposed on Lebanon since 2005: Speak against us and we’ll kill you. And this is becoming the norm everywhere Iran can reach, whether in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, or Belgium, France and Austria.’

For all its violence, being enmeshed within Lebanon’s political system gives Hezbollah cover and protection. It is a necessary part of a fractured polity, with strong support among sections of Lebanese society. Any foreign government can, should it wish, overlook Hezbollah’s excesses and find a willing partner rather than a terrorist enemy.

Any foreign government can, should it wish, overlook Hezbollah’s excesses and find a willing partner rather than a terrorist enemy

Abdul-Hussain worries that the new American administration is too sympathetic to Iran and the stories of many of its proxies to mount much opposition to Slim’s killing.

With American media and politics so relentlessly partisan, and the Trump White House setting its public face against Iran, the Democratic party often sounded for the past four years like Iran’s friends in Washington. Its people opposed sanctions against the Iranian state and its proxies, (mutedly) wondered about the necessity of killing Iran’s leader of foreign operations Qassem Soleimani, and elevated Iran’s adversary Saudi Arabia to the level of an equal or greater evil.

For some Democrats, ‘fixing the world means inverting the current order’, Abdul-Hussain summarised.

‘As long as the Democrats think the order should be inverted, they will always attack Israel, Saudi, make a fuss out of [Jamal] Khashoggi [a journalist killed by Saudi Arabia in 2018], but don’t expect them to make a lot of noise about Lokman.’

The Biden state department produced a brief statement last week, ‘condemn[ing] the heinous assassination of prominent Lebanese activist Lokman Slim and join[ing] the international community in calling for his killers to be brought to swift justice’. It well knows that this will not happen.

Not while Hezbollah continues to enjoy patronage from Iran and impunity in Lebanon, and while this murderous group is able to hold political power and to operate as a mafia at the same time.

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