RODGER SHANAHAN — As the country wobbles, Lebanon’s “Party of God” advances narrow, sectarian interests as its regional capabilities increase.
Since Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah committed his organization to defend the Assad regime, its character as a national resistance movement has been challenged. As it grows increasingly mired in Syria’s civil war, how have Hezbollah leaders re-conceptualized their new role, that is, do they head a Lebanese nationalist organization or a group more interested in protecting Shia interests throughout the Middle East?
Hezbollah will always be — or at least continue to portray itself as — Lebanon’s resistance movement to Israel. Certainly the situation in Syria has presented the organization, and the Lebanese population more generally, with a series of difficult choices. In the early days of the conflict Nasrallah, along with his Iranian allies, were quite circumspect in their language about Assad. They felt, as many people did at the time, that Assad might fall quite quickly — or at least be removed from power — and were reluctant to throw their weight behind him. Yet as the conflict continued the Iranians decided to back Assad, at which stage Hezbollah followed suit. Hezbollah forces on the ground have provided the decisive fighting advantage, well-evinced, for example, during the 2013 Battle of al-Qalamoun. One might argue that the introduction of Hezbollah ground forces shifted the fight’s momentum in favor of the Assad regime at a tactical level.
Yet there remains some division within Hezbollah leadership regarding the fighting in Syria. Some officials believe the Syrian Civil War was beyond the organization’s remit. Others see the fight in a defensive light. Anti-Assad opposition forces had taken the fight to Hezbollah in the south of Lebanon, firing rockets into the country and sending a suicide bomber against the Iranian embassy in Beirut. Reports of atrocities committed by rebel forces began to filter through to Lebanon’s Shia population. Lebanese Shia have shifted their view of the Syrian conflict. At first, many believed Assad’s regime had to be toppled, and that the uprising was legitimate. Today, however, Lebanese Shia overwhelmingly believe that Islamists have hijacked the revolution, creating an existential threat to Lebanon’s Shia community. Hezbollah leaders respond to these fears.
Many Lebanese Shia today are, if not actively supportive of Hezbollah’s actions in Syria, at least understanding of them. For example, some have expressed pride after relatives crossed into Syria to protect the Sayyidah Zaynab Shrine in Damascus — an important Shia shrine. Of course, once these fighters cross the border it is impossible to control their actions effectively. Whether they are actually protecting the shrine is perhaps a moot point. Yet the general shift in Shia popular opinion inside Lebanon is critical. Many communities believe that if the anti-Shia threat is not confronted inside Syria, rebel groups will bring the war into Lebanon. Internal Shia resistance to Hezbollah acting beyond its original operational remit has largely dissipated.
For the broader Lebanese community, Hezbollah’s actions have raised important questions about the organization’s ability to represent a national resistance movement post-Syria. If it is defending Shia communities against Sunni militants, how can it also represent non-Shia populations in Lebanon, which comprise Sunni populations? Syrian soldiers occupied Lebanese soil until 2005. After supporting the Assad regime — fighting alongside an army that once acted as Lebanon’s overlord — it seems impossible for Hezbollah to maintain its image as a national movement. It will drop the nationalistic banner quite easily when under pressure. It is, at its heart, a communal-based organization that was founded to advance narrow, sectarian interests.
Although Hezbollah’s origins are hazy — born from disparate groups of fighters resisting Israeli occupation in the 1980s — these organizations immediately received support from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. How have Hezbollah’s military capabilities evolved since the 1980s to create an organization with broad regional clout acting as a weapon for Tehran in conflicts like Syria?
Iran aspires to a degree of influence across the Middle East region which they consider to be commensurate with their glorious civilization, advanced society, and sense of national power. They have faced three significant hurdles in achieving this goal: wrong ethnicity, wrong religion, and wrong language. They have thus been forced to work through proxies.
During the 1950s and 1960s in Najaf (Iraq), a Shia political consciousness developed, which found itself transplanted to Lebanon in the afterglow of the Iranian Revolution. After 1979 Shia leaders believed Iran’s revolutionary model could be exported across the region. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 gave Iranian leaders a perfect opportunity to build up a proxy force that might become a standing militia — something they had failed to do in the Gulf region. Hezbollah’s use around the region has since been quite interesting. Some politicians and scholars have accused Hezbollah of acting outside Lebanon alongside the Iranians. Yet these operations have never been very successful.
Hezbollah’s forces have significant combat experience and discipline, which sets them apart from any of their competitors. The organization has often been employed in advisory or training roles within the region, but outside Lebanon: there has been a free flow of Hezbollah influence across borders. After nearly two decades of fighting the Israelis in southern Lebanon, the organization has managed to develop good small-group tactics and planning capabilities. Yet they remain reliant on the Iranians for logistics support.
In Syria, Hezbollah fighters have been deployed as forward bodies in offensive operations — a role to which they have not previously been exposed. These operations have given Hezbollah hitherto impossible access to offensive assets from regime forces. The organization’s militants have been fighting what amounts to a conventional war in built-up areas — the most difficult operational scenario — creating a “next generation” of soldiers. Hezbollah officers have gained experience in medium to high intensity warfare across Syria, and advisory experience in Iraq. The organization will likely emerge from the current conflicts more capable of mounting conventional assaults against Israel, as well as expanding operations throughout the Middle East. Depending on how Tehran wants to employ Hezbollah, there is potential for much greater military activity outside Lebanon.
Recent debates within the Lebanese government about the shape of national defense strategy have largely ignored the fact that the state does not hold a monopoly over the use of violence within its borders. How can Beirut incorporate Hezbollah’s capabilities into its strategy, and determine an appropriate role for the organization to play within the state structure — can the Lebanese government continue to operate independent of Hezbollah?
It is perhaps impossible for Lebanon to remain in a situation whereby two armed groups are vying for control of the country. National dialogue has never really addressed the issue of disarming Hezbollah — Hezbollah is in a stronger position than the Lebanese government.
Optimists argue that Hezbollah might be convinced to engage in Lebanese political discourse, trading increased political power for their weapons. The organization may soon find itself in the position of kingmaker in the country — by engaging in the political systems, Hezbollah might emerge even more powerful than it is now. The resistance movement might be integrated into the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF); by assuming a powerful governmental role, the organization will be able to dictate military policy. Although this outcome does not rid Lebanon of Hezbollah’s confrontational ideologies, it would at least result in the absorption of an armed militia inside the LAF, and unified government control over the means of violence inside the country.
Pessimists claim that Hezbollah — even if it is demilitarized and freed of direct Iranian influence, which is very unlikely — would act as just another corrupt political party inside Lebanon. Developments ten years in the future might also leave Hezbollah in a weakened political position, this time without the security of an armed militia to protect its interests. These concerns would leave Hezbollah leaders reluctant to give up their arms at all. Ultimately, Hezbollah sees no way that it could emerge stronger domestically by giving up its armed wing. Iranian pressure compounds these concerns. As long as the Islamic Republic remains adversarial towards Israel, their only means of maintaining direct military pressure on Jerusalem will be through Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and Syria. The LAF cannot be expected to adopt this role — nor even an entity only badged as LAF.
At a funeral for Hezbollah fighters killed in Syria, Hashem Safieddine — head of Hezbollah’s Executive Council — said: “The challenges we face from Israel, America, and the Arab countries are huge — and that Arab countries are spending money to destroy Hezbollah.” Does Hezbollah face such an existential crisis today, after decades of belligerence in Lebanon?
Reality is often divorced from rhetoric. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, in particular, have linked Hezbollah with Shi’ism to delegitimize the organization’s political claims. When it acts purely as a resistance force against Israel they are popular amongst the Arab World. Yet Arab rulers have a very difficult time moving beyond the group’s relations with Iran — they see Hezbollah as the Arab muscle behind Tehran’s regional interests. Under current circumstances, the notion of an “existential threat” is too strong. Hezbollah is a very popular political party as well as an armed resistance movement — this character makes it difficult for Arab states to target the organization. These countries will attempt to limit Hezbollah’s influence outside Lebanon, but they are not in any position to destroy it. Ultimately, they do not perceive Hezbollah as a threat either — only an extension of a broader regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and their co-sectarian allies.
Hezbollah commanders have expressed their fear that if Assad’s regime falls, the Lebanese state will follow. Yet their estimates are closely tied to sectarian-based considerations of Lebanon’s place in the region. Does the Beirut government’s survival depend on the same sectarian outlook that Hezbollah’s does?
The Lebanese central government relies on strong communal leadership. The emergence of communal tensions is threatening this source of legitimacy. The Christian community remains hopelessly divided. The Sunni bloc is also becoming a problem because of the lack of strong leadership. Nevertheless, the Lebanese state is quite resilient, partially due to painful memories of civil war. Internal brinksmanship may push politicians to a certain point, but it will probably never spark inter-sectarian violence on the same scale as in 1975-1990. The spillover from Syria, while feared in Beirut, has remained relatively well-contained. The LAF has shown itself capable in places like Arsal of confronting incursions from Syria, and maintaining a degree of internal stability. It was able to occupy areas in northern Lebanon where it has traditionally been absent. Ultimately, while the country might wobble, it will not collapse completely.
RODGER SHANAHAN is a Research Fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, and is on the staff of the National Security College, Australian National University. He is the author of The Shia of Lebanon: Clans, Parties and Clerics.