Hezbollah has been steadily increasing its political and military strength in the past few years, and the ever changing dynamics in the region have helped it become one of its most important players. In its effort to achieve this status, Hezbollah shifted the focus from the resistance against Israel, treating it perhaps as a secondary issue. In Lebanon, since 2000, and after the withdrawal of the Israeli army from the territory -for which Hezbollah took full credit -the organization has adopted a more active role in Lebanese politics. It participated in the general elections and eventually achieved gaining executive and legislative positions, being part of the Lebanese government since 2005. Hezbollah has been constantly attempting to present itself as the protector of all Lebanese people, trying to defuse any sectarian animosity against it. It has used its provision of social care to many Lebanese, not exclusively Shiites, as a tool for gaining legitimacy within the Lebanese society. Hezbollah simply took over from the state, in offering people basic health care, education and jobs. Since the Lebanese state can’t or won’t help impoverished communities, especially to the southern regions of the country, Hezbollah presents itself as an alternative solution to state inadequacies, and essentially as a protector of the community. In order to accentuate this notion, Hezbollah established it on a national narrative, rather than on a religious one, thus establishing itself, first and foremost, as a Lebanese resistance movement. Hezbollah has been successful - to a certain extent - in communicating this narrative. However, its increasing support to Shiite movements across the region, has put the narrative of national unity to the test.
The exponential growth of Hezbollah, both on a political and a military level, has propelled it into appearing as a dominant political force in the country today, but also as an important player in the region. The increased confidence in the clout that Hezbollah enjoys is more than apparent in its support towards the Bahraini Shiite minority, the help to the Shiite rebels in Yemen, and in its participation in the Syrian civil war on the side of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. This is a period of transformation for Hezbollah. It wants to achieve a higher regional status, and it is willing to dwell into areas it hasn’t before. It is the first time Hezbollah is fighting a war outside Lebanon (skirmishes inside Israeli borders excluded). It is also the first time it fights against the Arabs, and not Israel. Hezbollah was founded as a resistance movement against the Israeli army’s occupation of south Lebanon since 1982, and has presented itself as such since. By choosing to fight in the Syrian war, it put its narrative as a “resistance movement” under scrutiny. Nevertheless, Hezbollah, in light of the recent rise and the advancement of Sunni movements in the region, such as the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria, and the al-Qaeda branch in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, has succeeded in presenting itself as an opposing force, i.e. as the protector of Shiites across the region, and in gaining support in Lebanon and abroad.
Notwithstanding its willingness to participate in the Syrian war, one might argue that Hezbollah was “dragged” into the conflict. There are two factors that support this argument. Firstly, the deep strategic bond of Hezbollah with Iran and Syria has made its participation almost mandatory. Hezbollah is largely dependent on both countries, in terms of financial aid (as it receives millions of dollars in assistance) and in terms of military support. Syria provides to the organization financial aid, strategic support, and valuable access to Iran for the procurement of arms. If the Assad regime was to fall, Hezbollah would be severely hurt, both in financial as well as in operational terms. Secondly, the shift of the conflict from a civil uprising to a sectarian civil war, mainly due to the brutality of the Assad regime, forced Hezbollah to join the fight. The primary reason given by Hezbollah for its involvement in the war was the protection of Shiite monuments and Shiite villages from Sunni rebels. As its presence there solidified, the argument was modified to accommodate changing realities on the ground. With Sunni terror attacks in Lebanon already a reality, Hezbollah argues now that it continues fighting in Syria, as a means of preventing Sunni extremists from taking the fight to Lebanon.Hezbollah’s participation in the war has helped immensely to exacerbate the sectarian tensions, and has in its own way helped in transforming the nature of the Syrian opposition.
As of yet, Hezbollah’s involvement in the war has served its interests. It has enhanced its profile as a strong Shiite force in the region, it has made its presence considerably more noticeable, and it has offered valuable combat experience. Assad has also benefited greatly, as Hezbollah has helped him rally as well as score important victories, as for instance the retaking of al-Qussair in 2013, and has helped him significantly to hold on to power. However, the prolonged presence of Hezbollah in Syria, and its commitment to the strategic alliance with Iran and Syria may also be interpreted as a burden on the organization. The need to maintain supply routes to an army of several thousand fighters in Syria is putting a heavy strain on Hezbollah’s budget. The increasing number of casualties and the obligation to compensate their families adds to that weight.
The greatest threat that Hezbollah has to face is the fear of a spill-over of the Syrian war in Lebanon, one that is already happening to a degree. Its entrance in the war at the battle for al-Qussair, in late 2012, has turned the organization into a legitimate target for Sunni extremists, with Lebanon along with it. There have been a number of terror attacks by the al-Nusra Front in Lebanon that have been claiming lives for the past two years. The most recent one, in January 2015, was a suicide bomb attack in a café in Tripoli, which killed at least seven people, while there have been attacks even in the southern suburbs of Beirut, in Hezbollah-controlled areas.Al-Nusra Front commander Abu Muhammed al-Julani,in November 2014, openly threatened Lebanon with retaliation. He was quoted saying: “The real war in Lebanon is yet to begin and what is coming is so bitter that Hassan Nasrallah[leader of Hezbollah] will bite his fingers in remorse for what he has done to Sunnis”.
The anxieties growing in Lebanon, due to the ongoing attacks in the country and the Sunni threats, have placed Hezbollah in a difficult position. While Hassan Nasrallah has been calling the war in Syria “a great victory”, its political opponents in Lebanon have been condemning its involvement. The Future Movement, a predominantly Sunni political movement led by Saad Hariri, the son of assassinated former prime minister of Lebanon, Rafiq Hariri, and main political opponent of Hezbollah, has been vehemently accusing Hezbollah of inciting sectarian tensions in the country, and holding it responsible for the increase in terror attacks. Even members of the Shiite community have been critical of Hezbollah’s conduct in Syria. Shiite opponents of Hezbollah, who have been marginalized in recent years by the organization, have questioned its continuing presence in Syria, and criticized its involvement in the war, where it is risking so much for a very uncertain outcome.
Hezbollah’s policies have been somewhat contradictory. On the one hand, it chooses to continue fighting in Syria, exacerbating sectarian tensions in the region and in Lebanon itself, all the while making Lebanese Sunnis extremely suspicious of its true intents. On the other hand, Hezbollah, as part of the government, is actually working towards the appeasement of these tensions in the country. In recent weeks, Hezbollah and the Future Movement have had direct talks, trying to agree on measures that would defuse an already tense atmosphere, and hopefully come to an agreement for the election of a new President, an issue that remains unresolved for the past nine months, due to the end of term of President Michel Suleiman on May 2014. In essence, Hezbollah chooses to deliberate with the Future Movement, in order to project an image of Lebanese unity, and because it suits its purpose at the moment. While it is strong enough to function autonomously and is in a position to impose policies on the Lebanese government, as it did with its involvement in the Syrian war, Hezbollah prefers to preserve the calm in the country. It can only benefit from it, as its attention right now lies elsewhere, i.e. in its continuing presence in Syria, and most recently in the southern borders of Syria.
An Israeli attack, in the month of January, within Syria’s southern borders, killed 6 Hezbollah members, including Jihad Mugniyeh, the son of slain Hezbollah top commander Imad Mugniyeh, and an Iranian general. Hezbollah responded a few days later, claiming the lives of two Israeli soldiers. These skirmishes indicate the potential building of a new battleground in Syria, with Hezbollah and Syrian troops on one side, facing an opposing axis of the al-Nusra Front and Syrian rebel troops on the other. Reports in Syrian newspapers indicate that the al-Nusra Front is trying to form an alliance with various al-Qaeda affiliated Sunni groups in the country. The Syrian part of Golan is under control of the al-Nusra Front at the moment, and there have been reports that the Syrian army and Hezbollah have been conducting operations in the area, attempting to recapture parts or its sum. The multitude of actors, state and non-state ones, in the region make for a flammable combination, which could possibly lead to the eruption of a larger scale regional conflict.
The presence of so many non-state actors in the region, and their increasing influence in the shaping of regional politics should not go unnoticed. The example of southern Syria is a case in point. Non-state actors that operate in Syria, such as Hezbollah, the Islamic State, the al-Nusra Front and others, have become equally important (if not more) in forming developments, as traditional state actors do, such as Israel and Syria. The presence of so many empowered non-state actors is making it extremely difficult to examine regional politics under a state-lense, as was the case only a few years back. It also makes it very problematic for all actors in the region to form consistent regional policies, given the unpredictability of non-state actors. Hezbollah is operating inside Lebanon as a state within a state. It has a proclaimed goal of protecting the Lebanese borders, as a national Lebanese resistance movement. At the same time,it is in a position to undermine the weak Lebanese state and act on its own will, when it serves its interests. Outside Lebanon, Hezbollah functions as a regional military force, bound on the protection of Shiites across the region, and indifferent of territorial boundaries. This indifference may be the most important aspect of the rise of the non-state actors as players in the geopolitical arena of the Middle East. Borders that were drawn almost a century ago seem to become irrelevant quickly as of late, and regional conflicts are transforming from ones between nation-states, to conflicts that are mainly characterized by sectarian animosity.
All links accessed on 25/2/2015
Cammett, Melani, “How Hezbollah helps (and what it gets out of it)”, The Washington Post, (2/10/2014) http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2014/10/02/how-hezbollah-helps-and-what-it-gets-out-of-it/
Mackreath, Helen, “What does the increasing power of Hezbollah mean to the Lebanese state?”, Open Democracy, (4/6/2013) https://www.opendemocracy.net/helen-mackreath/what-does-increasing-power-of-hezbollah-mean-to-lebanese-state
Byman, Daniel and Saab, Bilal Y., “Hezbollah in a time of transition”, Center for Middle East Policy, (November 2014) http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/papers/2014/11/hezbollah%20in%20time%20of%20transition%20byman%20saab/hezbollah%20in%20a%20time%20of%20transition.pdf
Mroue, Bassem, “Hezbollah faces hard choices between fighting Israel, Sunnis”, Associated Press, (3/2/2015) http://bigstory.ap.org/article/ee1854aeea3d46a58b01f1b4fa69ce65/hezbollah-faces-hard-choices-between-fighting-israel-sunnis
Byman, Daniel and Saab, Bilal Y., op.cit.
Siddiq, Nazih, “Suicide attack at Lebanese café kills at least seven”, Reuters, (10/1/2015) http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/01/10/us-lebanon-attack-idUSKBN0KJ0ML20150110
Zambelis, Chris, “Hizb Allah’s Lebanese Resistance Brigades”, CTC Sentinel, Vol. 7, Issue 11, November/ December 2014, p. 10 https://www.ctc.usma.edu/v2/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/CTCSentinel-Vol7Iss11.pdf
Naylor, Hugh, “Hezbollah leader delivers defiant speech, defends group’s role in Syrian war”, The Washington Post, (4/11/2014) http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/hezbollah-leader-delivers-defiant-speech/2014/11/04/5da02d85-6ef0-4abc-afd0-4d3aa28ed0d6_story.html
Hezbollah and the Future Movement have already agreed in removing political posters from the streets of major cities in Lebanon, and have also both condemned random gunshots in the streets of Beirut (especially in Hezbollah-controlled neighborhoods) that create unnecessary tensions. There has also been coordination between Hezbollah and the Lebanese intelligence agencies in dealing with terror attacks in the country. Dakroub, Hussein, “Future, Hezbollah take steps to defuse sectarian tensions”, The Daily Star, (4/2/2015) http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2015/Feb-04/286344-future-hezbollah-take-steps-to-defuse-sectarian-tensions.ashx
The forming alliance includes the al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, the al-Muhajirin Brigade, and the al-Muhajirin and al-Ansaarmy.Abdullah Suleiman Ali, “Al-Qaeda combines its ranks in Syria”, As-Safir, (13/2/2015)http://assafir.com/Article/20/401795
Noe, Nicholas, “The battle for Southern Syria has been joined and a regional conflict may just be the main event”, Huffington Post, (12/2/2015) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nicholas-noe/the-battle-for-southern-s_b_6668744.html
Mackreath, Helen, op.cit.