Hezbollah In Lebanon
In this article, we rall discuss Hezbollah in Lebanon, and in the context of Middle Eastern politics and international relations. We shall discuss the origins of the organization, the domestic politics of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s international relations with neighboring countries (that include but are not limited to Iran, Israel, Syria, etc…), as well as its current political situation as it pertains to these regional issues. We will discuss Hezbollah actions in Syria, their role related to Saudi-Iranian relations, Hezbollah related to the Yemen conflict, as well as their relations with Israel.
Origins of Hezbollah in Lebanon
The group Hezbollah formed primary as a result of the Israeli invasion into Lebanon in 1982. One of the key objectives was to remove Israeli soldiers from Lebanese soil. Israel became involved in Lebanon in 1982 in order to remove the Palestinian Liberation Organization, who historically carried out attacks in Israel, then coming back into Lebanon. Israel hoped that this war would be the end of the group. Interestingly, even some within the Israeli government admitted that their invasion led to Hezbollah. For example, “former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s comment in 2006 is apt: ‘‘When we entered Lebanon . . . there was no Hizbullah. We were accepted with perfumed rice and flowers by the Shia in the south. It was our presence there that created Hezbollah” (in Norton, 2007).
Instead, Israeli’s invasion was one of the most controversial foreign policy actions of the country to that date. While Israel was fighting the PLO, they also faced resistance in Southern Lebanon, which is where many of Lebanon’s Shia Muslim populations lived (and lives). A number of fighters from one of the first resistance groups, Amal, moved into what came to be a new group, Hezbollah.
Hezbollah’s foundational roots began in 1982, and motivationally, also a few years early in 1979. Hezbollah, a Shia group, centered their activities on religion. Namely, Hezbollah believed in a clerical governance structure, something they were now seeing at top levels of the government in Iran. In fact, Individuals who came to be within Hezbollah were directly inspired by the Islamic revolution in Iran throughout 1978 and then early 1979. Thus, Iran saw the ability to have a group that it could build relations with. As Norton (2007) explains, “For Iran, the creation of Hezbollah represented the realisation of the revolutionary state’s zealous campaign to spread the message of the self-styled ‘‘Islamic revolution’’, whereas for Syria the Shia party was a fortuitous instrument for preserving its interests: Syria’s alliance with Iran presented it with the means to strike indirectly at both Israel and the United States, as well to keep Lebanese allies, including the Amal movement, in line” (477). Thus, the new Iranian leadership was very willing to support Hezbollah, and its fight against Israeli military presence in the country.
Unlike Amal, who was not as openly supportive of the Palestinians with regards to the Israel-Palestine conflict, Hezbollah was the opposite, and took up their cause against the Israeli occupation in Lebanon. Thus, they quickly gained the backing of many within the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Palestinians elsewhere.
And, through continued Hezbollah calls, as well as statements by some political leaders in Israel, in 2000, Ehud Barak withdrew all of Israeli forces from the country. In fact, a number of fighters, who saw the 1979 Iranian revolution a few years earlier, joined together, away from the then Amal organization, and to a new group–Hezbollah, to counter the Israeli military in the country. Even many within the Israeli leadership have admitted as much. For example, “…former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s comment in 2006 is apt: ‘‘When we entered Lebanon . . . there was no Hizbullah. We were accepted with perfumed rice and flowers by the Shia in the south. It was our presence there that created Hezbollah” (in Norton, 2007: 478).
The Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon was highly supported by those in Lebanon. And no group seemed to benefit from this as much as Hezbollah. Whether completely accurate or not, Hezbollah was viewed as being responsible for removing Israel from its borders. Hezbollah used this to build up their reputation, as well as political and military power.
Hezbollah in Lebanese Politics
Following the end of the 1982 war, and the beginning of Israeli withdrawal from parts of Lebanon in 1985, Hezbollah turned a great deal of attention to local domestic politics in Lebanon. Here, throughout the 1980s, Hezbollah conflicted with Amal over control of parts of southern Lebanon, as well as south Beirut. However, along with fighting for territory, Hezbollah, similar to many Islamist organizations, was quite active in building up their role as providers of social services in the country. For example, throughout these years, “Hezbollah was busing creating efficient institutions, including an array of public services, such as clinics and construction companies…” (Norton, 2007: 477-478).
This is very important to understand with regards to the rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hezbollah began establishing these institutions, which continued to build public support. Meanwhile, Amal maintained the patronage structure (Norton, 2007) that many were critical of (and not included in). Thus, Hezbollah built trust within neighborhoods and communities in southern Lebanon.
Hezbollah has been a member of the March 8 coalition in the country. Today, there are tensions between the March 14 Coalition and the March 8 coalition parties. For example, “In November ”, Hezbollah rival Future Bloc said it would only form a cabinet if “Hezbollah returns from Syria“; Nasrallah called this an “impossible condition,” and as of January 2014, the government remained gridlocked while Beirut appeared to be turning into a proxy battleground for the neighboring civil war” (CFR, 2014).
Hezbollah’s Military Arsenal
There has been a great deal of discussion about Hezbollah’s military capabilities, particularly following the 2006 war with Israel. Following the 2006 war, not only does Hezbollah continue to exist as an organization, but it is argued that they are much more powerful than they were a decade ago. For example, Byman and Saab (2014) say that “Hezbollah maintains a vast network of tunnels to hide its forces and rocket launchers as well as secure communications, all in preparation for an Israeli strike. Hezbollah has roughly twenty thousand men under arms, of which five thousand are elite fighters. Hezbollah can call on thousands more in a pinch; it has deliberately kept the size of its forces limited to ensure a high level of training and commitment” (4).
In addition to their increased number of potential fighters, there is also a belief within the Israeli military that Iran is continuing to provide Hezbollah with weapons. For example, “Speaking at the Israel Air and Missile Defense Conference in Herzliya [in March of 2015], Col. Aviram Hasson, who is involved in preparing IDF air defenses, said Iran was converting Zilzal unguided rockets into accurate, guided M-600 projectiles by upgrading their warheads” (Lappin, 2015). He went on to say that Iran is “manufacturing new and advanced ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. It is turning unguided rockets that had an accuracy range of kilometers into weapons that are accurate to within meters” (Lappin, 2015). Moreover, with regards to Hezbollah’s capabilities, he believes that they are much stronger than during 2006 Israel Hezbollah War.
It seems that Hezbollah itself has said as much about their military arsenal. For example, as reported in Christian Science Monitor (2014), Naim Qassem, who is the deputy head of Hezbollah, was quoted as saying: ““They [the Israelis] are well aware that Hezbollah is in possession of missiles with pinpoint accuracy, and thanks to the equipment Hezbollah acquired, and with the Islamic Republic’s support and Hezbollah’s readiness for any future war, [the next] war will be much tougher for the Israelis[.]”
According to reports, Iran has historically (and currently) invested a great amount of resources to build up Hezbollah’s military and military arsenal. And it does seem that their arsenal has increased exponentially compared to its capabilities a couple of decades ago. For example, “Twenty years ago, Hezbollah’s arsenal of unguided 12-mile range rockets allowed it to pepper parts of northern Israel only. Today, the missiles suspected to be in Hezbollah’s arsenal could slam half a tonne of high-grade explosive into specific targets in Tel Aviv, such as the Israeli defense ministry or Ben Gurion International Airport” (Blanford, 2014). This seems to give Hezbollah a target range that they have not had with regards to Israel before. Blanford explains this upgraded missile arsenal for Hezbollah when he says: “The specific missile system…is likely to be the 4th-generation version of the Fateh which has a range in excess of 186 miles and can carry a 1,430 pound warhead. Armed with that missile, Hezbollah could launch it from its camouflaged bases in southern Lebanon and hit Israel’s nuclear reactor at Dimona in southern Israel, 140 miles south of the border with Lebanon, achieving a degree of reciprocity for any Israeli air strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.”
They have been bringing pieces of these missiles into Lebanon through Syria, and have been doing so in such a fashion so that they can hide from Israeli strikes against them being moved into Lebanon (Barnard & Scmitt, 2014) (the Israeli military carried out at least 5 strikes in 2013 to stop the weapons from being moved to Lebanon0) (Barnard & Scmitt, 2014). And the belief was that because many of these higher powered and more accurate missiles have been moved into Lebanon, this has further bolstered Hezbollah’s capabilities compared to their arsenal in 2006. Plus, they have also moved the weapons because of increased insecurity in Syria, as Al-Assad continues to fight against rebel (and other) forces.
There have been many reports speaking about the sorts of missiles that Hezbollah has acquired. As Stuster (2014) explains, “The new weapon in Hezbollah’s arsenal keeping Israeli officials up at night, according to the Wall Street Journal, is a set of Russian Yakhont anti-ship cruise missiles. Russia delivered 72 Yakhont missiles to Syria in December 2011, along with 18 mobile launch vehicles designed to be stationed along the coast, and Syrian state news televised the Syrian Navy test-firing the missiles. Moscow then followed up in May 2013 with an additional shipment of even more advanced, more accurate, radar-equipped Yakhont missiles. They have a range of about 180 miles, fly close to the sea at Mach 2 to evade radar, and are usually armed with an armor-piercing or high-explosive warhead.” These are quite different from the types of rockets Hezbollah used in 2006 in the war against Israel. The difference is that these are seen to be far more precise, and can travel much longer distances (Stuster, 2014). Again, it has been for these reasons that Israel has struck within Syria on multiple occasions in hopes to stop the bringing in of these weapons into Lebanon (Stuster, 2015). And while the United States has told Russia to stop delivering these weapons, Russia has argued that it is merely fulfilling its earlier orders placed by Syria (Stuster, 2014).
One of the other key points with regards to Hezbollah’s military arsenal is not only the range of its rockets, but the sheer number of rockets that they have. For example, it is believed that Hezbollah has over 120,000 rockets at its disposal, which is over 12 times that amount that Hamas was believed to have before the 2014 Israeli invasion. And some, such as Israeli Defense Minister Gilad Erdan, in 2013, stated that he believed Hezbollah in Lebanon had over 200,000 rockets that could strike any Israeli target (Times of Israel, 2013). In addition, while most of these could strike Northern Israel, it is also believed that “several thousand missiles that can reach Tel Aviv and central Israel and hundreds more that can strike the entire country” (Times of Israel, 2015).
So, according to reports, Hezbollah seems to have increased the overall number of missiles that it has, the missile range, as well as the capacities (including both the anti-cruise, and anti-tank and aircraft missiles). This varies greatly from 2006, where they were said to have roughly 30,000 rockets. Again, while individuals have offered different numbers as to just how many missiles Hezbollah has, it seems that everyone is in agreement that the number is much higher than it was just a decade ago.
Hezbollah and Iran
One of the key relationship with regards to Hezbollah’s power and financial support is with regards to Iran. From its beginning, many have argued that Iran has supported and continued to fund Hezbollah, providing it not only with financial support, but also military backing. In fact, “In its infancy, the movement obtained critical financial support and training from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards” (CFR, 2014). This relationship was made much more public a few years after its founding when “Hezbollah issued its founding manifesto in 1985, around the time that analysts believe the group coalesced into a unified organization. The platform vowed Hezbollah’s loyalty to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini; urged the establishment of an Islamic regime” (CFR, 2014). It is said that Iran provided Hezbollah with upwards of 200 million dollars a year (CFR, 2014).
Hezbollah in Lebanon served (and still serves) a number of benefits for Iran. As Norton (2007) explains, “For Iran, the creation of Hezbollah represented the realisation of the revolutionary state’s zealous campaign to spread the message of the self-styled ‘‘Islamic revolution’’” (477). They found in Hezbollah a group that was not only inspired by the Islamic Revolution and subsequent Islamic revolution, but also a group who political interests (with regards to Israel and the United States) was similar to those of Iran. Namely, Iran can use Hezbollah as a proxy to fight Israel. In addition, by having a powerful Hezbollah, Iran can benefit, since any potential strike on the country (due to its nuclear program) could be met with a response by Hezbollah (Blanford, 2014).
It is for this reason that the Iranian leaders continue to show their support for Hezbollah and their actions. For example, in an article published in the Jerusalem Post on April 20th, 2016, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei uttered praise for Hezbollah, countering criticism by rival Saudi Arabia and others who are questioning Hezbollah’s decision to become engaged in Syria. Khamenei was quoted as saying that “Hezbollah and its faithful youth are shining like the sun and are a source of honor for the Muslim world” (Solomon, 2016).
Furthermore, following a declaration of victory against the Islamic State, a major General, in a letter directly to the Ayatollah, spoke of the “strong and pivotal” role of Hezbollah in Syria (Bassam & Perry, 2017).
Hezbollah and Israel
Hezbollah and Israel have been against one another since the formation of Hezbollah in 1982. Again, it formed as a response to Israeli presence in Lebanon. And in its 1985 manifesto, it called for the end of Israel, stating: “Our primary assumption in our fight against Israel states that the Zionist entity is aggressive from its inception, and built on lands wrested from their owners, at the expense of the rights of the Muslim people. Therefore our struggle will end only when this entity is obliterated. We recognize no treaty with it, no cease-fire, and no peace agreements, whether separate or consolidated” (CFR, 2014). In addition, Hezbollah also became an active organization supporting Palestinians in the mid 1980s, something that the local Amal was not doing. This increased Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon, as well as built up their ties with Palestinians and Palestinian groups (Norton, 2007).
Again, in 2000, following the election of Ehud Barack, Israeli forces completely withdrew from Lebanon. Thus, when this happened on May 24th, thousands celebrated, many who had to leave their homes were returning, and Hezbollah (and Nasrallah) were cheered by many in Lebanon (Norton, 2007). However, this withdrawal was far from the end of conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. Despite Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, regional actors found ways to continue to portray Israel as an aggressor in Lebanon. One way that this was done was through the Shebaa Farms. Shortly after the withdrawal, Syria, with an interest in keeping Hezbollah active against Israel, spoke about farmland–the Shebaa farms–located in the Israeli Occupied Golan Heights. And while Hezbollah itself did not pay much attention to the land before 2000, they used this issue as a pretext for further conflict with Israel for years afterwards (Norton, 2007).
2006 War in Lebanon
During the summer of 2006, Hezbollah crossed national borders and went into and attacked Israel, killing eight Israeli soldiers, as well as capturing two on the border by Lebanon. The reason seems to be that Hezbollah was trying to get back a few prisoners that Israel had. However, following their incursion into Israel, Israel responded by attacking Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israeli objectives during this war were to end Hezbollah (thus allowing Lebanon to function without Hezbollah as a key actor in the country), as well as to get back two Israeli soldiers that Hezbollah was holding. It seemed that they also wanted to limit Iran’s influence in the region and nuclear possibilities by ending the “Iranian Western Command” (Cordesman, Sullivan, & Sullivan, 2007: 6).
Many were initially critical of Hezbollah’s action in Israel, and the U.S., as well as a number of Arab states (such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia), spoke against Hezbollah. However, shortly following the imitations of the conflict, Israeli support dropped quickly (Norton, 2007) due to its onslaught of Lebanon, and the civilian death tolls. In addition, Israel, while initially limiting the conflict to airstrikes, later embarked upon a ground invasion. It was very shortly after the ground invasion that Israel agreed to a cease-fire (Cordesman, Sullivan, & Sullivan, 2007).
As Cordesman, Sullivan, & Sullivan (2007) explain, “When the war ended, what had begun as a Hezbollah raid into Israel had become a serious conflict. Although the precise numbers may be revised over time, Israeli reports indicate that an attack by Israel initially designed to destroy Hezbollah’s long-range missile force eventually led the Israeli Air Force (IAF) to fly some 15,500 sorties and to attack roughly 7,000 targets. The IDF fired some 100,000 tank and artillery rounds, and it committed at least 15,000 of its troops to attacks in Lebanon, out of a force that rose to well over 30,000: (6). In addition, it is said that Hezbollah shot about 3,970 rockets.
This was was highly controversial, both for Hezbollah’s initiation by going into Israel, and the Israeli response, which overall, depending on figures, suggests that over 1,125 civilians were killed (HRW, 2007). Hezbollah was said to have killed 117 to 119 soldiers, as well as 37 civilians being killed (Cordesman, Sullivan, & Sullivan, 2007).
In addition, many in Israel were also critical of the government for their lack of stated objectives for the invasion. Following the war, the government established a Winograd Commission to look into actions during the war. Here, the commission found that not only did they [the Israeli government] not have a unified position with regards to their actions in Lebanon, but that the military was also not ready for Hezbollah’s response. Some in the military thought that airstrikes against rocket and missile storage facilities would be sufficient; these individuals did not expect or advocate ground invasion (Cordesman, Sullivan & Sullivan, 2007). Furthermore, they found a lack of experience amongst civilian leaders, and ineffective military management. This together greatly hurt Israel’s effectiveness. For example, Cordesman, Sullivan, & Sullivan expand on these issues discussed above, saying:
“Many critics felt, during and after the war, that [General] Halutz presented the Israeli cabinet—which generally lacked military and war-fighting experience—with an unrealistic picture of what airpower could accomplish in the initial Israeli attack, and Halutz then proceeded to promise more than it could deliver as the fighting escalated. They criticize Halutz for (a) lacking an understanding of the need for a ground phase and ground battle, (b) exaggerating the ability of air-power to target and destroy an asymmetric opponent, (c) exaggerating the influence that airpower could have in forcing the Lebanese government to take control of the south and to disarm the Hezbollah, and (d) lacking an understanding of the political and grand strategic realities affecting Lebanon and of the Syrian and Iranian influence in that country” (7).
This war not only led some in Israel to admit the strength of Hezbollah, but it also increased the popularity of Nasrallah and the group in Lebanon and in many other parts of the Middle East. Furthermore, Hezbollah was able to replenish their weapons from Iran, and according to reports, continue to train in preparation for another potential conflict with Israel (Byman & Saab, 2014).
Hezbollah and Israel Today
And Hezbollah and Israel, while not at a full out war currently, have still had instances of conflict between one another. For example, in January 2015, an Iranian general, as well as a Hezbollah commander and five other Hezbollah fighters and commanders (Dehghan, 2015) where killed by an Israeli strike in Quneitra (Beaumont, 2015). Hezbollah then shot two rockets into the Golan Heights, and then, also in January, Hezbollah attacked an Israeli patrol vehicle (Rosen, 2015) killing two Israeli soldiers.
This in turn led Israel to fire over 50 artillery shells in Lebanon (Beaumont, 2015). It was believed that Hezbollah used updated anti-tank weaponry for this attack, targeting Israeli jeeps. These weapons are upgrades from earlier anti-tank weaponry, and the new forms are said to have come from Iran. In fact, Iran has built what is called the Dehlaviyeh, which can is not only laser guided, but can hit low targets (Rosen, 2015). And because of such weapons, some have argued that this might be reason enough for Israel to take pause before considering a ground invasion into a county such as Lebanon.
As Rosen (2015) argues: “The Israelis have plenty of reasons not to want to chase Hezbollah into Lebanon at this particular moment. Such a move could play into the plans of Iran and the Assad regime — the real power behind Hezbollah and Israel’s most militarily threatening enemy. An incursion could damage Israel’s already tenuous international standing. It could also mean Israel’s second ground war in 5 months, something the country might not want.”
In response, Israel has been building complex missile defense systems. They already have the Iron Dome in place, which, at the cost of 70,000 dollars per missile, can shoot down short range missiles. They have also established another missile defense system called “David’s Sling” which can intercept medium-range missiles. As Melman (2015) writes, “The big challenge for David’s Sling will be to intercept barrages of rockets with maneuvering capabilities, and that’s before taking into account the cost. The system is a very expensive one. While one Iron Dome interceptor missile costs some $70,000, the estimated cost of a David’s Sling interceptor missile is approximately a million dollars. Therefore, if the issue of cost vs. cost effectiveness is important, but not critical in the case of Iron Dome, when it comes to the David’s Sling, the issue of cost will play a considerable part in deciding when to operate the system.”
Israel also recognizes the difficulty of fighting such a conflict. It has been pointed out that Hezbollah in Lebanon has as many as 41,000 fighters, which could theoretically pose serious challenges to Israel on the border (Ben-David, 2016). In addition, it has also been said that “Hezbollah also has more firepower at its disposal than 95 percent of regular militaries in the world” (Ben-David, 2016).
Again, scholars and analysts have argued that following the 2006 War in Lebanon with Israel, Hezbollah has not only continued to built up their rocket arsenal (both in terms of numbers as well as projectile distance), but that they have also been learning on how to conduct a better war in case one happens in the future. As Daniel Nisman (2014) argues writing in July of 2014, “After eight years of quiet that preceded the Second Lebanon War, the Shiite Islamist group is studying Israel’s strategy on all fronts as it prepares for its own future round with the Israeli military.” And some of this studying seems to include examining Israel’s invasion into Gaza in the summer of 2014. Nisman (2014), speaking on Hezbollah’s examination of Hamas, for example, says that “first and foremost, Hezbollah likely is studying Hamas’ military failures. Though relations between the two groups cooled for a two-year period because of differences over the Syrian conflict, Hamas is employing the strategy, tactics and training that it received by Hezbollah and Iranian agents. The same can be said for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which remained in Tehran’s good graces throughout the Arab Spring.” According to Nisman’s (2014) discussion, Hezbollah tried to see what they would do similarly to Hamas, and what they would differ on, which includes seeing where the Iron Dome was highly effective in intercepting Hamas’ rockets.
Tensions between Hezbollah and Israel continued to escalate in 2017. Israel projected that Hezbollah would be severely weakened with large scale activity in Syria. While they have lost over 1,5000 fighters (Bassam & Perry, 2017), this move seems to have paid off for Hezbollah, who not only kept Al-Assad in power (and in turn the weapons corridor), but they also increased their military knowledge, something many believe Hezbollah felt they needed to do in the case of a new war between them and Israel. Israel was particularly concerned at the rising presence of Iran and Hezbollah on the Syrian border. For example, “Amid threats by Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, that Israel would intervene rather than allow Iran or Iranian-backed groups to establish themselves on Israel’s border, the sense of growing risk of conflict has been given added impetus in the recent convergence of Israeli, Saudi Arabian and US rhetoric against Iran.”
And in Israel itself, there were conversations about what another war with Hezbollah would mean, “with top military and political figures detailing the probable shape of a future conflict, and Israel’s then air force chief suggesting that Lebanon could be subjected to a huge aerial bombardment in the opening days of a campaign with civilian casualties highly probable. “If a war breaks out in the northern arena we need to act with full force from the beginning,” Israel’s outgoing air force commander, Maj Gen Amir Eshel, told the Herzliya conference in June shortly before stepping down”” (Beaumont, 2017). Some within Israel are worried that Saudi actions in Lebanon have been a way to try to increase tensions between Israel and Hezbollah (Beaumont, 2017).
Hezbollah and Syria
Hezbollah’s relationship with Al-Assad in Syria is well know. Al-Assad (with Iran) has been a large supporter of Hezbollah in Lebanon. This also goes back to earlier decades where Syria has tried to become more involved in the domestic politics of Lebanon. So, for scholars, it is not a questions of where Hezbollah’s allegiance lies in the conflict in Syria. However, what was initially questioned was whether Hezbollah would be willing to go into the Syrian conflict to help the regime stay in power. The reasons that this was a question has to do with Hezbollah’s initial reason for formation. They were created to specifically fight Israeli occupation. Thus, shifting attention to Syria would very different from what they have traditionally focused on. In addition, some questions whether this would lead them to lose some credibility, given that Syria is not the threat that they frame Israel as. For example, Levitt (2014) explains that “After Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah gave a speech in August 2013, defending the group’s activities in Syria as part of its “resistance” against Israel, one Shiite Lebanese satirist commented that, “Either the fighters have lost Palestine on the map and think it is in Syria (or) they were informed that the road to Jerusalem runs through Qusayr and Homs,” locations in Syria where Hezbollah has fought with Assad loyalists against Sunni rebels” (101).
It is of no surprise that Hezbollah has indeed been very active in the civil war in Syria. Hezbollah, long supported by Bashar al-Assad and Syria, has went into the country to fight on behalf of the government. And while their numbers are said to not be that high, they see it as a point to support Al-Assad, as well as “defending the Lebanese Shiites living in over 20 border villages inside Syria, notably al-Qasr, home to Lebanese Shiites and Christians which has come under attack by fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra” (ABC News, 2015). For Hezbollah, Al-Assad has been a key backer, one who has provided support in the forms of money and weapons, which has helped Hezbollah survive and grow in power. So, for them, if Al-Assad loses power, this could have stark implications for Hezbollah.
The Sayyida Zaynab Shrine
However, along with supporting Al-Assad, Hezbollah has also tried to argue that they are in Syria in order to protect the Shia community, and Shia shrines in Syria. One such place that Hezbollah states it wants to protect is the Sayyida Zeinab shrine which is in Damascus. As Levitt (2014) writes: ” While the Sayyeda Zeinab shrine is indeed a major Shi’a pilgrimage site, Hezbollah has more than just spiritual ties to the shrine. As early as the 1980s, Hezbollah used the shrine as a place at which to spot potential Shi`a recruits. For Saudi Shi’a recruits in particular, the Sayyeda Zeinab shrine served as a transfer hub and as a cover for travel between Saudi Arabia and training camps in Lebanon and/or Iran” (103). Moreover, if Al-Assad falls, then groups like the Islamic State may be interested in expanding in Lebanon, and they may continue to attack Shias, which could also pose a threat to Hezbollah and others in the country (Byman & Saab, 2014; ICG, 2014).
In addition, “…The ornately decorated shrine is where the granddaughter of the prophet Mohammed is buried, a highly sacred place for Shiites that normally sees pilgrims visiting year-round” (ABC News, 2015). Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has even spoke about a Hezbollah response if the burial site comes under siege (ABC News, 2015). However, this is not the only site revered by Shias that have come under attack. For example, Jabhat al-Nusra fighters–who are linked to Al Qaeda–ruined the burial site of “Hujr bin Uday al-Kindi, one of the prophet Mohammad’s companions, widely revered by Muslims, Shiites in particular” (ABC News, 2015). Here, they not only ruined the burial site, but took out the remains, upsetting both Iran and Hezbollah, who are both Shia.
(It was reported on June 12, 2016 that the Islamic State took responsibility for a suicide bomb, as well as a car bomb that went off near the shrine. There have been many attempts to hit this shrine, with a previous attack occurring on April 25th, 2016) (Al Jazeera, 2016).
But Hezbollah’s work at Sayyida Zaynab extends beyond its direct military support for Al-Assad. In A Foreign Policy article published in mid-May, 2016 entitled A Hundred Tiny Hezbollahs, James Harkin argues that Hezbollah’s presence in Sayyida Zaynab is one that includes offering additional military training services that Al-Assad could only previously do. Hezbollah is also offering a particular form of fighting that is useful to those going against the Islamic State and other anti-government forces, which is asymmetric fighting. It is for this reason that many view Hezbollah fighters as being more effective in Syria compared to Al-Assad’s government forces (Harkin, 2016).
Along with supporting Al-Assad, and protecting Shia Muslims (in Syria and potentially in Lebanon), there are additional reasons as to why Hezbollah is active in Syria. One, related to working to keep Al-Assad in power is the importance of maintaining the status quo in terms of border openness. As is, Syria and Lebanon have been able to move weapons across the border (both in terms of land, and air) from Iran. Hezbollah (and Iran) do not want to risk losing Al-Assad, and thus, cutting off a critical line for transportation of materials (Levitt, 2014).
Related to this, Hezbollah is also involved in the Syrian conflict so that it help its larger ally, Iran. For Iran, they have few allies in the region, and very few who hold political power in a national government. However, Al-Assad is this for them. So, they do not want to to lose their influence in Syria. So, Hezbollah, who is largely backed by Iran, is willing to take up activity in Syria so as to help Iran (Levitt, 2014). By securing Syria, they can help maintain Iran’s power, and Iran’s influence is also a positive for the Shia theocratic (and Ayatollah) rule, something Hezbollah adheres to (Levitt, 2014).
In addition, others have suggested that Hezbollah is also in Syria because it is looking to send fighters into the country to build up their military training and experience. With limited action since the 2006 War with Israel, some believe that fighting in Syria will make them better prepared for any potential future conflict with countries such as Israel. As one commander in Syria said, “Hezbollah has gained from the experience of working with armies and managing numerous weapons systems simultaneously–air power, armored vehicles, intelligence, and drones; all specialties of conventional armies…” (Bassam & Perry, 2017)
During their fighting, Hezbollah has been in conflict in Syria not only with secular Syrian “Sunni Sunni rebels are supported by the Islamist rulers of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, as well as the U.S., France, Britain and others,” as well as fighting other groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS. It has been reported that Hezbollah has had upwards of 5000 fighters in the country. According to reports, Hezbollah has been quite effective for what their interests (as well as Iran, Russia, and Syria’s interests) are. In addition, as we discuss elsewhere, it has been reported that Hezbollah is picking up military training from Russia, which they feel can help them in their conflict with Israel. Again, while they have taken losses, they have also increased their ability to fight (Byman & Saab, 2014), something Israel worries could make them even more dangerous should another conflict between Israel and Hezbollah break out.
And while some suggest this activity in Syria could lead to a loss of influence in Lebanon, Hezbollah is able to counter any negativity by continuing to be active in Lebanon by providing extensive social services, which helps maintain their support in Southern Lebanon. Furthermore, without a unified opposition, Hezbollah’s risk in Syria may not be as damaging (Byman & Saab, 2014) as some have suggested. Thus, for them, as the Islamic State continues to be a serious risk to Syria and the region, there is more and more acceptance in Hezbollah’s actions in neighboring Syria.
This strategy has seemed to pay off for Hezbollah. Most importantly to them (and ally Iran) is that they were able to keep Bashar Al-Assad in power. This allows Iran to send weapons intended for Hezbollah into Syria. Furthermore, Hezbollah can use Syria to store additional weapons that are not brought into Lebanon.
Hezbollah has also gained military experience from the fighting in Syria. For example, it has been reported that the group has had access to weapons (and using weapons) that they previously have not used internally in Lebanon, or with their 2006 war with Israel. Sending fighters into Syria has allowed them to learn new battle tactics. They have also learned to organize fighting units (doing so with Iran and Russia) (Cunningham & Loveluck, 2017). Moreover, they have also taken the lead in their organization with the Lebanese Army; “Hezbollah has led offensive operations against Sunni extremists on the Syria-Lebanon border, coordinating with the Lebanese army but also relegating it to the background.” This has increased Hezbollah’s standing in the eyes of its supporters in Lebanon, but also the military, who seems to understand the power that Hezbollah has.
Hezbollah and the Arab States in the Middle East
While Hezbollah has been supporting Al-Assad and the fight against the Islamic State in Syria, many Arab states in the Middle East have been critical of Hezbollah, in large part because of their ties with Iran. And thus, many of the states in the region have spoke out against Hezbollah, and their activities in the Middle East. For example, in March of 2016, the Arab League (through the Arab Parliament) declared Hezbollah a terrorist organization, viewing their activities as problematic and destabilizing. For example, the Arab Parliament put out a message speaking against “direct Iranian interference and the indirect Hezbollah interference in the affairs of the Arab countries” (Times of Israel, 2016). This placement of Hezbollah on a terror list is in line with the position that the United States have taken with the group since 1997 (Times of Israel, 2016). And, as we discuss below, events in November 2017 in Lebanon were attempts by Saudi Arabia to reduce the influence of Hezbollah in Lebanese politics.
Hezbollah in Lebanon
While much of the attention to this article has been on the history of Hezbollah, and their international relations, it is also important to examine Hezbollah in domestic politics in Lebanon. Hezbollah continues to control much of southern Lebanon, and still maintains a large armed force outside of Lebanon’s national military.
However, there is a growing concern by some that Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria are leading to a destabilization of Lebanon. On June 12th, a bomb went off in the Verdun area (the al-Hamra area) of Beirut. While many initially thought it was the actions of the Islamic State, later, fingers began to turn towards Hezbollah as the group responsible (Crowcroft, 2016).
As it has been noted, “The US recently announced a raft of new sanctions against the Shia terrorist group, stepping up pressure on Lebanese banks to block accounts linked to Hezbollah or its members or face blacklisting by the American authorities” (Crowcroft, 2016). This bank was believed to be closing accounts of individuals that they believed might have links to Hezbollah (Crowcroft, 2016).
Lebanon continues to face economic challenges, and while Hezbollah is not the only one responsible for this, some feel that they are making matters worse with their unwavering ties to Bashar Al-Assad. As Crowcroft (2016) argues, “Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria is believed to be behind the decision of Saudi Arabia to put $4bn of aid into the Lebanese army, which relies on support from both Riyadh and the US. Hezbollah is backed by Iran, Saudi Arabia’s biggest regional rival, and the spat has seen tourism from the Gulf drop off almost entirely at a time when Lebanon needs tourist dollars more than ever.” Couple this with continued political instability, and a lack of effective governance (is we discuss in our article on the elections in Lebanon, the country has made little progress in matters such as appointing a president).
In addition, “As a result of this stalemate, Lebanon has been governing as “a presidency of 128″ since 2014, with the result that nothing can be done. Lebanon has not had a budget for 12 years because Hezbollah object to a small portion of the Ministry of Justice funds that are contributed to the investigation of the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005 – widely believed to have been carried out by Hezbollah on the order of Assad” (Crowcroft, 2016).
2017 Developments in Lebanon
There were a couple of major events in Lebanon during 2017 that suggest a rise in Hezbollah power and influence in the country.
In October of 2016, Hezbollah gained a major victory when Hezbollah ally Michael Anoun was able to get the Lebanese presidency. This move was seen as a point of weakness by Hariri, with many arguing it was just one of many inabilities to challenge the power of Hezbollah in Lebanon (Daoud & Brodsky, 2017). As Daoud & Brodsky (2017) note, “Hariri swallowed that bitter pill to end Lebanon’s then two-year presidential vacuum, which was benefiting Hezbollah by paralyzing the country and delegitimizing its institutions. He also likely thought the opportunist Aoun would at least curtail the Shiite group’s most egregious activities and keep Lebanon regionally neutral—either out of a sense of patriotic duty, or even debt to Hariri. But, a year later, Hariri saw that gamble had clearly failed. Aoun—the former Lebanese Army general—wouldn’t even respond to his Iranian counterpart belittling Lebanese sovereignty late last month, let alone limit Hezbollah.”
While he has support from many Christians and Sunnis in Lebanon, Hezbollah seems to be portraying his behavior as influenced by Saudi Arabia, which could greatly affect his success in 2018 (Daoud & Brodsky, 2017).
On November 4th of 2017, a surprise announcement was made, as Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri flew to Saudi Arabia, and from there, publicly announced his resignation from the Lebanese government.
There are many questions as to why he left. Some argue it was a move by Saudi Arabia to destabilize Lebanon, and hopefully pushing the government to fail, and in turn, weakening Hezbollah. Other theories suggest a possible threat of assassination by Hezbollah (Daoud & Brodsky, 2017).
However, Hariri came back to Lebanon, and reversed course on his resignation, saying that he would not step down from his post, where, supposedly, President Anoun refused to accept his resignation, telling him to continue with the position (Ward, 2017). The Saudis in” Riyadh [have] three main demands in exchange for agreeing on Hariri retaining his premiership: one, a clear public statement by Hezbollah that it will pull its fighters out of Syria, Iraq and Yemen; two, the strict adherence to the policy of dissociation that preserves the neutrality of the Lebanese government’s foreign policy; and three, the withdrawal of Hezbollah from the Lebanese cabinet” (Macaron, 2017).
Hezbollah, and others felt that the Saudis were doing this in attempts to not only weaken Hezbollah, and were upset that the Saudis were trying to get involved in Lebanese politics (BBC, 2017), even attempting to put Hariri’s brother Bahaa in power (Macaron, 2017).
Hassan Nasrallah went on television and condemned Saudi actions, saying “The resignation was a Saudi order, forced upon him and was not his wish or his desire,” Nasrallah said. “We know how Prime Minister Hariri talks and his political phrases, this was unlike him”” (Younes & Mandhai, 2017) and that, “In short, it is clear that Saudi Arabia and Saudi officials have declared war on Lebanon and on Hezbollah in Lebanon, but I have to say this is a war on Lebanon” (in BBC, 2017).
So, “According to U.S. and Lebanese officials, Saudi Arabia forced Hariri’s resignation, shattering Lebanon’s coalition government, which included Hezbollah ministers. Saudi Arabia hoped the move would undermine Iran by paving the way for more aggressive action against the Shiite militants, the officials say. Instead, it rallied Lebanon in support of its prime minister and cast Hezbollah as the stabilizing force” (Cunningham & Loveluck, 2017).
Given that Lebanon’s political system requires that the Prime Minister always be a Sunni Muslim (with the President being a Christian), some wondered whether this move was an attempt by the Saudi’s to threaten the longevity of the current government; there have been questions as to whether any other Sunni Muslim would take the position with Hezbollah also represented in the state (Younes & Manhai, 2017).
Thinking that the government would collapse, this misjudgment only strengthened Hezbollah’s hand in Lebanon (Cunningham & Loveluck, 2017), since “Hariri’s absence gave Iran-backed Hezbollah space to take even more control of Lebanon’s government in the short term” (Ward, 2017). Now, Hariri (and presumably the Saudi Arabian regime) know that they cannot easily remove Hezbollah from government, nor have they had any success in weakening Hezbollah’s military power in Lebanon and Hezbollah’s influence in the Middle East (in areas such as Syria and Yemen).
In addition, as Nakhoul (2017) notes, “the move backfired as Western states censured Riyadh over a step they feared would destabilize Lebanon, despite their shared concerns over the regional role of the heavily armed Hezbollah.”
Moreover, “no matter what Saad Hariri will say or do moving forward, the prevailing narrative in Lebanon might continue to be that the new Saudi leadership holds sway over him, whether through his business or immediate family still remaining in the Kingdom” (Macaron, 2017). This sort of perception may be enough to greatly affect the 2018 Parliamentary elections (Daoud & Brosky, 2017), where Lebanese citizens could vote against what many see as a President who is not only aligned with Saudi Arabia, but one that might be controlled by the Kingdom.
These moves continue to suggest Hezbollah’s power in Lebanon. One of the continued points that Hezbollah refuses to negotiate on is on the issue of disarmament; Hezbollah says that they will not disarm, and that they need the weapons in order to protect Lebanon. Hezbollah’s ally Iran continued to say as much, with chief commander Mohammad Ali Jafari said that “”Hezbollah must be armed to fight against the enemy of the Lebanese nation which is Israel. Naturally they should have the best weapons to protect Lebanon’s security. This issue is non-negotiable” (Daily Star, 2017).
Moreover, the weaker the Lebanese government is, the better this bodes for a group like Hezbollah (Heiko Wimman, in Cunningham & Lovelock, 2017). Since Hezbollah already has very extensive social services set up in Lebanon, any government failures to provide such services, or any national instability at all does little to hurt Hezbollah’s influence. When the government fails to provide social services, they will be blamed, but since Hezbollah is not the main actor in the state, they will not face the same critique. Moreover, they have continued their grassroots operations, which has led to increased popularity, even without effective national governance.
It is evident that Hezbollah is a political Islamist organization that has been quite active in the politics of Lebanon and the greater Middle East for decades. What we are seeing now is Hezbollah expanding to operate in Syria. They are doing so in order to protect their interests, whether it is Al-Assad, Iran, or the inflow of weapons and other resources.
In addition, there are thoughts that their activities might be taking place so that they can better equip themselves against a strong Israeli military. And Israel itself understands Hezbollah’s intentions in Syria. It is for this reason that the Israeli government itself is active in Syria. Namely, the Israeli leadership (under Netanyahu) has admitted to going after weapons meant to be delivered to Hezbollah. Specifically, Israel “wants to prevent transfers of Syrian and Iranian arms to Hezbollah, particularly for systems like surface-to-air missiles, anti-ship cruise missiles, or even chemical weapons that might significantly increase the threat to Israel” (Byman & Saab, 2014: 5). However, they are careful to become to involved in a large scale conflict, which could drag them into another conflict with Hezbollah, something that neither Israel (Byman & Saab, 2014), nor Hezbollah, seem to want.
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