Faced with a series of regional challenges and coming under intense international pressure to pull out from Syria, where its forces are involved in the country’s ongoing crisis, Hezbollah has been pushed to embark on an exercise of self-review and to make compromises at home.
Today, the group is Lebanon’s most dominant political actor. The party originally started as a resistance group fighting against an Israeli occupation of Lebanon that began in 1982 and opposing Western—and especially U.S.—involvement in the Middle East. Yet across the years, it has developed into a pragmatic, organized paramilitary group that has a key strategic and existential interest: to preserve its political hegemony over the Lebanese political system, largely through military means.
Despite setbacks and challenges, Hezbollah is unlikely to backtrack on the cornerstones of this political and military strategy.
Sources of Power
Hezbollah’s main method of maintaining political hegemony is by securing and using military power. The organization became the only Lebanese party allowed to maintain arms as a result of the Taif Agreement that ended the Lebanese civil war in 1989. This distinction gave the party the ability to expand its military powers greatly.
After the two-decades-long Israeli occupation of Lebanon largely ended in 2000 and Syrian troops that had been stationed in Lebanon as part of a peacekeeping force during the civil war withdrew in 2005, Hezbollah continued to maintain its arms. It also improved its readiness and ability to establish complete military control over the Lebanese territory when needed. The party’s massive military power exceeds by far that of the weak and ill-equipped Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF).
Hezbollah has consistently used the weakness of the LAF to support the legitimacy of its own arsenal, which has been guaranteed by the ministerial statements of all post-Taif governments. The tripartite formula of “army, people, and resistance” is a sacred theme in the party’s rhetoric, allowing it to maintain its weapons outside the purview of the Lebanese state.
Hezbollah’s ability to preserve its political and military hegemony depends on a number of factors. It needs a strong alliance with the Syrian regime to guarantee its access to weapons because Syria is the main thoroughfare for the transfer of weapons from Iran, Hezbollah’s largest benefactor, into Lebanon. And since the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, Hezbollah has become the seat of Baathist control over Lebanese constituents.
Hezbollah also seeks to secure and represent the Islamic Republic of Iran’s interests on the Mediterranean coast and especially along the border with Israel. The group is founded, trained, supplied, supported, and directed by Iran, and Hezbollah also has ideological ties to Tehran. It relies on the Islamic Twelver Shia ideology, which came to prominence in Iran with the 1979 Islamic Revolution, as a basis to demand more authority and a bigger share for Shia within the Lebanese political system.
Domestically, Hezbollah’s power depends on its ability to control the Lebanese political system and to have access to all of the state’s key political institutions. The party’s control over legislative power is guaranteed—the Lebanese National Pact, an unwritten agreement that regulates the distribution of power among sectarian groups, reserves leadership of the parliament for a Shia, and Hezbollah has succeeded in having this position filled by a close ally. Hezbollah has also attempted to control or weaken those leaders of the executive branch who represent rival political camps, such as the president and the prime minister.
But the party currently faces obstacles on all of these fronts. The challenges stem from its involvement in the Syrian conflict, confrontations with Sunni radicals, the U.S.- and Russian-brokered deal that Syria will give up its chemical weapons, the Iranian nuclear negotiations, international support for the LAF, and the Special Tribunal for Lebanon set up to investigate the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, which has indicted five members of Hezbollah.
The Syrian Conflict
At base, Hezbollah’s engagement in Syria is an attempt to secure its survival by preserving its military supply lines and supporting its ally, the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The instability caused by the Syrian uprising threatened the sustainability of Hezbollah’s weapons supplies. To preserve those supply lines, Hezbollah has stepped in to aid the Assad regime by entering into a direct confrontation with Syrian rebels.
Now Hezbollah is struggling to legitimize its engagement in the conflict. Lebanese society is sharply polarized on the issue, with a large number of Lebanese citizens opposing the Assad regime. This has led to nationwide campaigns against Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria.
To make the case for its participation in the conflict, Hezbollah advances a number of pretexts. It claims, for instance, to preserve Shia shrines in Syria that are under threat from anti-Assad-regime Sunni extremist groups. This pretext benefits the party by helping generate a strong sense of identification and belonging among Hezbollah’s supporters and militants. Generating such religious identification is a powerful way to recruit, motivate, and mobilize fighters.
At other times, Hezbollah says it is fighting Sunni Islamic extremists in Syria to keep these takfiris (extremist Sunni fighters aligned with al-Qaeda that consider other Muslims and non-Muslims heretics) and jihadists from entering Lebanon. Hezbollah’s rhetoric emphasizes that these forces threaten Lebanon’s security by orchestrating terrorist attacks on Lebanese soil in an attempt to establish radical Sunni domination over the country, which would threaten the Shia.
As Hezbollah is actively engaged in fighting alongside the Assad regime in Syria, it has adapted its rhetoric to include references to engaging in a “war on terror” to protect not only Lebanese territories but also Syrian constituents. This is an attempt to reshape its image among the Syrian public from one of a foreign aggressor in support of the Assad regime to one of a protector trying to ensure the safety of the Syrian community and preserve it from foreign terrorist groups coming from all over the world to fight in Syria.
Hezbollah has even urged its Lebanese opponents to fight the party on the battlefield in Syria in order to prevent domestic campaigns from escalating to military confrontation in Lebanon. The participation of its opponents in the Syrian crisis would also help legitimize Hezbollah’s involvement in the conflict—the party’s actions in Syria would be more acceptable to the Lebanese public because, in that case, Hezbollah wouldn’t be the sole group involved militarily in a conflict outside of Lebanese borders.
But Hezbollah has not achieved its legitimization goal. The negative repercussions the Lebanese population is experiencing as a result of the war outweigh the benefits. Syrian refugees have poured into Lebanon, posing huge economic and demographic challenges, while international pledges of assistance have largely been unmet. Syrian gunmen have also turned Lebanese border towns into launching pads not only for military operations against Syria but also for attacks on Hezbollah’s turf. This was manifested in several confrontations in the mountain range along the border with Syria and in towns in the north and the Beqaa Valley that serve as natural corridors and safe havens, facilitating attacks by Syrian gunmen on Hezbollah’s Syria-bound military convoys.
Hezbollah’s confrontations with Sunni extremist radical groups have also expanded to include a number of suicide bombings in Lebanon, particularly in Hezbollah’s strongholds of the southern suburbs of Beirut. Hezbollah has become exposed at home, and it is intensifying its security efforts to avert these dangers. For the second time since 1996, the party has mobilized fighters and deployed troops on all fronts, with a view to protecting its strongholds in Lebanon. Its aim is to effect real change on the ground, one that will enable it to avoid being marginalized politically, to maintain its security, and to continue its military operations.
Hezbollah will neither retreat nor pull out of Syria under these pressures. The party will not leave before wresting an overarching agreement from any new Syrian leadership to secure its military supply lines. Hezbollah will not budge from this pillar that has dictated its involvement in the Syrian conflict. Instead, it is practically entangled in an open confrontation with radical groups and will face difficult choices at home.
If Hezbollah is able to defeat its Sunni enemies on the ground, both in Syria and in Lebanon, and improve the Assad regime’s military standing or generate Syrian public support for the party’s involvement, it will have a good chance of clinching a key position in any possible future settlement—including one that does not include Assad. And to help secure that outcome, Hezbollah has escalated its military operations in the lead-up to every new round of peace talks in the Geneva conference, fearing that it could be sidelined in these ongoing negotiations.
The agreement Damascus struck with the international community in fall 2013 to destroy its chemical weapons challenged Hezbollah’s position as well. Syria’s chemical weapons have long been considered a deterrent to any all-out and direct Israeli confrontation with Syria.
To develop a formidable missile arsenal, Hezbollah has attempted, with Syria’s assistance, to build its own chemical weapons capacity, consistently using as a pretext a balance-of-terror with Israel theory. To do so, the party has used Syrian chemical weapons facilities and relied upon training by Syrian and Iranian experts. But UN Security Council Resolution 2118, which forced Syria to dismantle its chemical weapons program and destroy its chemical weapons and chemical weapons production facilities, means that Hezbollah will no longer have access to the logistical facilities needed to develop its chemical weapons capacity. Accordingly, the party’s future options to develop its conventional missile capacity depend on its possession of strategic ballistic missiles that could be deployed in any conflict with Israel.
Given the party’s military priorities, Hezbollah is unlikely to seek strategic ballistic missiles, even if it had the capacity to do so. If it possessed such an arsenal, Hezbollah would become a real threat to Israel, and Israel would not hesitate to strike the party. Under current circumstances, it is neither an interest nor a priority for Hezbollah to ignite conflict on Lebanon’s southern border with Israel and spread its military capacities across several fronts. The conflict in Syria is Hezbollah’s top military priority, as is maintaining the security of its strongholds in Lebanon.
Currently, Hezbollah is using the threat of Israel to its own advantage. Tensions in Lebanon ran high in February 2014 after a new government was formed in Beirut. Conflict emerged over competing visions for the ministerial declaration, a policy statement that sets the general guidelines for the new government. One proposal for this declaration would have required Hezbollah to cease its participation in the Syrian conflict and withdraw its forces from the country. The other would have preserved the formula of “army, people, and resistance” that has legitimized Hezbollah’s weaponry as a national need to resist any Israeli aggression and protect the Lebanese territory.
In the midst of this debate, on February 24, 2014, Hezbollah initiated the transfer of ballistic missiles from Syrian depots toward the Lebanese border. The trucks were intercepted by the Israelis and destroyed by an air strike. With this tactical move, Hezbollah brought the Israeli threat back to the attention of the Lebanese public—without the risk of opening a full-fledged front on Lebanon’s southern border. The Israeli strike allowed Hezbollah’s representatives within the committee drafting the ministerial declaration to justify the party’s dedication to the “army, people, and resistance” formula.
The Iranian nuclear deal has posed yet another challenge to Hezbollah’s position. Hezbollah has always been the greatest success story and key pillar of Iran’s foreign policy, which has consistently opposed the United States since the inception of the Islamic Republic.
But recent, behind-the-scenes U.S.-Iranian negotiations on Tehran’s nuclear program and the subsequent agreement on an interim deal have highlighted a radical shift in the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran—Tehran is opening up to the West.
This significant change was motivated by an economic downturn in Iran that was the result of sanctions imposed by the international community. Iran, the longtime patron of Hezbollah’s security, military, social, political, and religious institutions, has seen its economy weakened, and this has had a major economic effect on Hezbollah’s constituents.
As a result of this warming of relations between Tehran and the West, Hezbollah has toned down its rhetoric toward the United States, even aligning its own antiterrorism rhetoric with that of Washington.
Yet, despite this tactical repositioning, Hezbollah will not follow in Iran’s footsteps. It will neither initiate direct dialogue nor cooperate with the United States to achieve common goals, even if their interests converge, especially concerning al-Qaeda-related groups that are active in Syria. One of the founding principles of Hezbollah is to fight U.S. interests and involvement in the Middle East. Previously, the party benefited from al-Qaeda groups fighting Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan. And now, Hezbollah benefits from Sunni extremist groups fighting in Syria. The presence of these radicals is preventing U.S. policymakers from supplying the Syrian opposition with arms out of fear that these weapons could end up in the hands of al-Qaeda-affiliated groups.
In addition, Hezbollah will benefit from and take advantage of any U.S. political or military setbacks in the region, particularly in Syria and Lebanon.
Domestic Political Concerns
Meanwhile, Hezbollah faces significant domestic concerns, including an uptick of support for the Lebanese Armed Forces. Saudi Arabia recently gave a $3 billion grant to the Lebanese army, and the International Support Group for Lebanon, a UN-sponsored body dedicated to promoting stability in the country, pledged in March 2014 to continue supporting the LAF.
If a military force as strong as Hezbollah were to emerge, it might neutralize the party’s weapons, particularly as a counterforce to Israel, which would undermine Hezbollah’s standing. After all, Hezbollah uses the weak and poorly equipped LAF’s inability to defend Lebanon from Israeli aggression as a pretext for maintaining its own arsenal of weapons.
Rather than change course, Hezbollah is likely to attempt to use political channels to preempt any possible debate over the Lebanese state’s defense strategy and the future of the party’s weapons by managing and directing the LAF’s nascent power toward radical Islamist groups, which would help forestall possible clashes with Hezbollah. This would help Hezbollah fend off a real confrontation between its military wing and the LAF and ease domestic pressure, enabling it to put more resources into the conflict in Syria and into securing its strongholds.
Meanwhile, the beginning of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s (STL’s) trial proceedings in The Hague has pitted Hezbollah against a large segment of Lebanese society. On trial are members and leaders of Hezbollah’s military and security wing who were indicted in the assassination of Rafik Hariri.
Notwithstanding the international and domestic support for the STL and any evidence it may produce against the indicted men, Hezbollah will not cooperate with the tribunal investigation. The party is currently refusing to allow Lebanese authorities to execute any summons issued by bodies of the STL.
Hezbollah will not hand over its top brass accused of involvement in the Hariri assassination case. Such a move would hold the party accountable, sully its image as a resistance group in the eyes of the Lebanese public, and discredit it after it has accused the STL, since the tribunal’s inception, of being an external agent acting against the Hezbollah-led “resistance.” A constant of the party’s approach is that it will not renounce any of the core principles that affect its military and security interests. Unwavering, too, is its absolute readiness to counter any attempt to curtail its influence or encroach upon its interests, even if by domestic players.
The formation of Lebanon’s new government, deemed “a cabinet of national interest,” in February 2014 also challenged Hezbollah’s interests. Still, the fact that the party joined the government does not mean that Hezbollah will compromise on core issues.
On the political level, any governmental vacuum or paralysis of decisionmaking within Lebanese state institutions means that Hezbollah can attain its military goals without being held accountable by the state. The new government fills that vacuum. Such a government can shed light on Hezbollah’s role in Syria and apply pressure to the group, both domestically and internationally.
By joining the newly formed government, Hezbollah is not signaling that it has won concessions from others on its intervention in Syria. And it is certainly not indicating that there has been any agreement about whether to remove the “army, people, and resistance” reference from the government’s ministerial declaration—indeed, Hezbollah did not abandon its commitment to this formula, and the ministerial statement, which was approved by parliament in late March, did include a clear reference to the resistance. The formulation agreed upon in the drafting committee was enough for Hezbollah to maintain its legitimacy. While the party did compromise and relinquish some of its share of portfolios and ministries to its allies, Hezbollah will not allow any steps to proceed that are likely to undermine the legitimacy of its military power.
Through its participation in the government, Hezbollah is looking to defend its strategic interests by temporarily calming the internal political situation. This will allow the party to keep its primary focus on the Syrian conflict and obstruct the new government from within if it poses any threat to Hezbollah’s interests.
Hezbollah will also seek to protect its interests in the upcoming presidential election. The group will not allow this election to move forward without its consent and without its prior approval of the next president. With the same veto power it has enjoyed in previous governments, Hezbollah is capable of overthrowing the new government at any time. And that would ensure that the presidential seat is kept vacant.
Self-Reflection and Consistency
Hezbollah is still operating according to the old rules of the Lebanese political game, where minimal compromises are allowed in order to achieve bigger gains. Yet, the party’s self-review process did not lead Hezbollah to significantly modify its domestic behavior or to sacrifice its regional role as a force for long-promised Lebanese national unity and the rise of a strong Lebanese state.