Hezbollah’s place in Lebanese politics has not always fit neatly with the group’s ties to its Syrian and Iranian backers. Yet a paradox of Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict is that it has pushed the party to focus more on Lebanon’s political scene. This shift echoes a past debate over whether Hezbollah could become a primarily Lebanese actor that plays by national political rules or whether the group’s regional agenda would continue to hold sway.
As Syria’s conflict winds down, the question is whether Lebanese voters will impose such a domestic role on Hezbollah. Between its entry into Syria and the Lebanese parliamentary elections of 2018, Hezbollah faced rising dissatisfaction from the Shia community and from the Lebanese electorate as a whole because of deteriorating socioeconomic conditions. Lebanese voters are asking Hezbollah to address their domestic socioeconomic concerns and participate more in governance. Effectively, the sectarian backlash prompted by Hezbollah’s deployment in Syria has forced the organization to give itself domestic political cover in the hopes of being allowed to pursue its regional agenda uninterrupted. In the process, Hezbollah has struck deals with both allies and rivals so as to uphold Lebanon’s internal stability.
All the signs indicate that Hezbollah will find this transition risky and difficult, as the party may not have the means to reposition itself to execute a domestic agenda. Given Lebanon’s declining provision of services and faltering economy, domestic political actors risk being blamed for the governing system’s many shortcomings. Moreover, playing a more active role in domestic politics may transform Hezbollah’s interests and even its makeup—changes that may clash with the party’s priorities outside of Lebanon. Addressing these competing objectives will require a delicate balancing act. The main challenge arises from the possibility of clashing with allies, who are providing cover for Hezbollah’s regional role in return for full control over domestic policies.
Hezbollah’s Early Involvement in the Syrian Crisis
Syria was not the first Hezbollah deployment abroad, but it was the largest. In the early 1990s, more than one hundred Hezbollah fighters took part in an Iranian-led effort to train Muslims in Bosnia. A prominent veteran of the Bosnian campaign was Ali Fayyad, also knownas Alaa of Bosnia, who was killed while fighting in Syria in February 2016. Just over a decade later, Hezbollah was also deeply involved in Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003. The party trained Iraqi Shia militias that launched attacks against U.S. occupation forces. Most of these Iraqi groups later went to Syria to fight alongside Hezbollah and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Yet Hezbollah did not immediately choose a military option in Syria. In fact, the party first tried to find a political solution with the help of the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas. In 2012, Hamas mediated by reaching out to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood to try to secure a power-sharing agreement, but the effort failed when the Syrian government stipulated that the opposition lay down its arms first. As a senior Hamas official observed, “Our relations with the government in Damascus and the Muslim Brotherhood, along with our keenness to reach a peaceful solution to this conflict, prompted us to offer our services. Iran and Hezbollah had faith in our efforts, yet the Syrian government and the Muslim Brotherhood were reluctant as they both did not feel that they needed to offer concessions at that very early stage.”1
Hezbollah’s initial attempts to find a political solution were coordinated with Iran’s position in mind. Tehran regarded the Syrian crisis as a challenge to its regional standing and, hence, saw a need to intervene directly or through its allies. Hezbollah’s role in the Iranian decisionmaking process was revealed in the memoirs of Major General Hussein Hamedani, a deputy commander of the IRGC who was killed near Aleppo in October 2015. Hamedani recalled that, in the spring of 2012, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had asked him to consult with Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, who was said to be responsible for relevant axis of resistance policy in Syria. Nasrallah had met with Khamenei in Tehran in late 2011 to decide on the intervention, just nine months into the Syrian uprising. He had then returned to Beirut to begin preparations, given the need to frame the intervention properly in Lebanon’s already polarized political context.
Nasrallah hinted at a coming escalation on April 30, 2013, when he vowed that friends of Syria would not let the country “fall into the hands” of the United States, Israel, or jihadi groups. Hezbollah was already fighting alongside the Syrian Army in rural areas around Qusayr, a city in the governorate of Homs near the Lebanese border. In May 2013, the party reportedly sent around 1,700 fighters to support Syrian government forces in Qusayr. Nasrallah escalated matters further on May 25, the thirteenth anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon. He declared that Syria “is our battle, and we are up to it,” before underscoring that the Syrian government was “the back of the resistance, and the resistance cannot stand, arms folded, while its back is broken.” Lebanon’s involvement had entered a new phase. Nasrallah himself anticipated this in his speech, when he called on all parties to respect the country’s stability. He urged the Lebanese to settle their differences in Syria and to spare Lebanon further sectarian violence, saying, “As long as we have conflicting stances regarding Syria, then let’s fight each other there, not here.”
When Hezbollah intervened in Syria in 2013, its primary aim was to maintain stability in Lebanon as the party fought what it perceived to be an existential war next door. Hezbollah perceived the war in Syria as a vital threat because Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been a major regional ally of the party and of Iran. Syria is the main conduit for Iranian military assistance to Hezbollah, and it continues to play this role despite regional and international pressure. The feared overthrow of the Assad government, by potentially cutting off this assistance, could have weakened Hezbollah in Lebanon and the wider region, perhaps decisively. Such an outcome may have forced the party to adapt to a future without its weapons.
An Upswell of Violence
Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria provoked controversy in Lebanon. Most Lebanese Sunnis supported Syria’s opposition, while Hezbollah backed the Assad government. The long-standing rift of Sunni-Shia polarization grew. Many Lebanese saw Hezbollah’s foray into Syria as a breach of the Baabda Declaration of June 2012, which was drafted after national dialogue committee sessions at Lebanon’s presidential palace. The declaration was intended to dissociate Lebanon from regional conflicts, yet it had a minimal effect on the Lebanese parties involved in Syria. According to former Lebanese president Michel Suleiman, who presided over the sessions, “Hezbollah didn’t inform the government prior to its intervention in Syria, despite the fact [that it] had accepted the Baabda Declaration.”2
The spillover of violence from Syria revived feelings of enmity in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. Several rounds of fighting took place between pro-Assad Alawite militants in Jabal Mohsen and pro-rebel Sunni militants in the neighboring quarter of Bab al-Tabbaneh. In southern Lebanon, Ahmad al-Assir, a firebrand Sunni cleric sympathetic to the Syrian uprising, announced his opposition to Hezbollah and the Syrian government in Damascus. He confronted Hezbollah by organizing sit-ins on the main road connecting Beirut to the party’s stronghold of southern Lebanon. Assir’s movement gained support among Sunnis throughout Lebanon. In April 2013, as Hezbollah’s involvement in Qusayr unfolded, Assir and a cleric from northern Lebanon named Sheikh Salem al-Rafehi announced that they were going to send arms and men to fight in the Syrian city. Days later, in a further escalation with Hezbollah, footage circulated of Assir posing with weapons. In June 2013, a military confrontation occurred between Assir’s followers and the Lebanese Army in the suburb of Abra in Sidon. Hezbollah was accused of participating in the operation against Assir. The battle ended with Assir fleeing. He was later arrested while attempting to leave Beirut in August 2015.
Around the same time, a series of deadly bombings took place in Lebanon. Although the motives behind each attack were very different, taken together these attacks indicated that security conditions were unraveling rapidly. In October 2012, Wissam al-Hassan was killed by a car bomb in eastern Beirut. Hassan was the head of the intelligence branch of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces and a supporter of Saad al-Hariri, who would later become Lebanon’s prime minister. In July 2013, another explosion shook a busy street in Bir al-Abed, a Hezbollah bastion in Beirut’s southern suburbs. Other bombings targeted Tripoli. In another instance, a former minister named Mohamad Chatah was assassinated by a car bomb in downtown Beirut in December 2013.
Events took another turn for the worse in August 2014, when militants of the self-proclaimed Islamic State and the Nusra Front attacked Lebanese army positions in the Beqaa Valley, in the town of Arsal near the Syrian border. Several Lebanese soldiers were abducted or killed. Some of the soldiers were later freed in a prisoner exchange with the Nusra Front. The corpses of other soldiers taken by the Islamic State were recovered after an August 2017 military operation in which the Lebanese Army and Hezbollah tacitly fought together.
Political Turmoil and Public Discontent
Lebanon’s volatile security situation came amid a period of political turmoil. On March 22, 2013, then prime minister Najib Mikati resigned following a disagreement over a political appointment. For months, Lebanon was ruled by a caretaker government. Tammam Salam was designated as the consensus candidate to replace Mikati in April 2013, but he was not able to form a government until February 2014. The outward reason for this delay was a divergence of opinions among various factions over the distribution of policy portfolios, but in reality, the delay was mainly due to the Syrian war. Hezbollah sought a government that would not adopt a position contrary to its own with regard to Syria, while Hariri’s Future Movement was wagering that foreign intervention would bring about Assad’s downfall.
Between 2013 and 2016, Lebanon was plagued by a key political vacancy and various factions’ efforts to determine who would fill it. In May 2014, only three months after the Salam government was unveiled, Suleiman’s term as president ended with no agreement among Lebanon’s major political forces on who would succeed him. The ensuing power vacuum pushed the country’s parliament to extend its own term for the first time since the end of the Lebanese Civil War in 1990. Hezbollah’s sole presidential candidate was an ally named Michel Aoun, a former army commander who headed the Free Patriotic Movement and the parliamentary Change and Reform Bloc. To bring him into office, the party and its allies boycotted parliamentary sessions held to elect a president, perpetuating a vacuum that increased pressure on its adversaries to endorse Aoun. Former president Suleiman blamed the impasse on Hezbollah’s entry into Syria, saying, “Hezbollah’s intervention caused differences among the Lebanese, leading to the chaotic [Syrian] refugee presence and prolonging the term of the caretaker government and the presidential vacuum by two and a half years.”3
Despite the row over Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, the party was able to push through its bid to be a presidential kingmaker. In October 2016 (after a twenty-nine-month deadlock), Aoun was elected. This outcome transpired after Hariri, once an opponent of Aoun, supported his candidacy in exchange for being given the role of prime minister. Hezbollah’s actions compelled the party to consider its own internal positioning in Lebanon, even as its adversaries shifted course and demanded that Hezbollah withdraw from Syria, rather than demanding that the party disarm.
These political machinations coincided with an upsurge of public discontent with the Lebanese government’s performance. When citizens took to the streets in August 2015 to protest the government’s failure to solve a national garbage crisis, Hezbollah and its parliamentarians were among those that demonstrators denounced. The protests ended without much change, and public resentment toward the country’s major political forces lingered. Consequently, in the municipal elections of May 2016, Hezbollah was surprised by the electorate’s reaction. For instance, in the town of Baalbek (a party stronghold), the Hezbollah-backed candidate list won by only a small margin, while its rivals garnered 46 percent of the vote. This electoral outcome was a sign of voters’ discontent with the party’s local governing performance.
The dissatisfaction could still be felt in the run-up to the 2018 parliamentary elections. But Nasrallah took the lead in addressing this issue, promising a different approach after the election. Specifically, he told voters that the party would make fighting corruption a priority and that he would personally follow up on the matter. According to this public campaign, Hezbollah would demand a more active role in the cabinet. Nasrallah also vowed that the party’s future lawmakers would “work to secure political and administrative reform.”
The 2018 election results allowed Hezbollah to strengthen its bloc, as the party and its allies secured more than half of the seats in parliament. However, the mandate that the electorate gave the party was based on its regional agenda, not its domestic achievements. While Hezbollah only gained one additional seat, given Lebanon’s political system of proportionate representation, just keeping all its seats and adding another was seen as a relative success. The party’s popular base was told on several occasions that losing additional seats would imply that the resistance of Hezbollah was losing to the group’s enemies. In a speech in Baalbek on May 1, Nasrallah drew rhetorical links between his political rivals and Saudi Arabia, which situated the electoral battle in a regional context. Fearing that voter turnout would be low and reflect badly on Hezbollah, Nasrallah repeatedly highlighted before the election a sense of impending threat to the party’s so-called resistance environment so as to prompt unenthusiastic voters to cast their ballots.
The Challenges of Forming a Domestic Agenda
What might the future hold for Hezbollah? The party’s greater engagement in domestic governance could have a transformational effect on the party’s aims. After decades of focusing on security issues—countering Israeli threats, saving the Syrian government from collapse, and aiding Iraqi factions against, first, the United States and then the Islamic State—Hezbollah would have to seek to improve state services, stabilize government finances, spark regional development, and spearhead administrative reform. The party’s cadres and rhetoric would need to adapt to these new functions and priorities to live up to voters’ expectations.
Another major question is whether Hezbollah is capable of formulating social and economic policies that respond to the needs of its popular base, beyond party members and their families. This might represent a far more difficult task than fighting in regional conflicts because Hezbollah was not created to formulate such policies. Rather, it was established on the basis of an ideological vision that never offered a domestic approach to social and economic matters, let alone a vision for a divided sectarian country like Lebanon, where no community represents a real majority.
Delivering on its electoral promises poses serious dilemmas for Hezbollah. For one thing, the party will find it hard to formulate a governance model to fit Lebanon’s complexities. Not only that, but the party’s greater integration into the Lebanese governing system would mean fully embracing the country’s political game, with all its opportunistic compromises—a kind of wheeling and dealing that may make it more difficult to deliver on the vow to end corruption. The party is already facing questions about its greater commitment to domestic issues that it cannot readily answer. To address such issues, Hezbollah may decide to invest more in policy formulation, whether by establishing policy research centers or recruiting specialists.
Another thorny question is what the party’s expanding domestic portfolio would mean for its regional role. Hezbollah will continue to face tensions between its foreign and domestic priorities as long as its participation in conflicts and other activities around the Middle East affects the well-being of its Shia electorate. Whether the party has the latitude to cut back on its foreign involvement to concentrate on its own community is far from certain. Hezbollah’s genes may not allow it to successfully adapt to domestic governance or even sectarian issues. And it is difficult to imagine the party abandoning its regional role, which would affect its relations with key Iranian benefactors. These tensions notwithstanding, the party’s future will be largely defined by its ability to find a balance between the demands of its domestic and foreign agendas. Such a balance would need to allow Hezbollah to retain the support of domestic Shia voters while also maintaining strategic ties with Tehran.
Hezbollah’s Balancing Act
In reality, Hezbollah’s balancing act is not altogether new. Compare how Hezbollah operated in the 1980s, when it was fully outside Lebanon’s political system, with how the group operated in the 1990s, when it introduced members into parliament. This evolution gradually allowed Hezbollah to better make decisions based on domestic criteria. This shift was reflected in the party’s pursuit of greater legitimacy within the Lebanese state, despite its doubts about the country’s political system. Since the 1990s, this reorientation toward domestic affairs has accelerated. Given that Hezbollah’s parliamentarians and their allies now hold the majority, the organization will probably give greater weight to domestic Lebanese concerns, while not taking or allowing actions that undermine local stability.
Hezbollah understands well that, without a strong domestic front, it cannot advance its regional agenda. So, to some degree, the party must tackle delicate internal challenges with other Lebanese political actors. This necessity could pose problems for Hezbollah because its religious and ideological slogans will have little impact if the party fails to curtail corruption or if its members are involved in governmental wrongdoing. The same risk would apply if Nasrallah were to decide to combat corruption in ways that strains Hezbollah’s local alliances with partners like Amal. This could have dire implications for those allies’ commitment to Hezbollah’s aims, while the party’s retreat from confrontation could provoke serious credibility problems.
For years, Hezbollah has vowed to its supporters that it would win all the battles in which it is engaged, most recently in Syria. Yet, in the case of Lebanon, Hezbollah’s test increasingly involves not guns and rockets but the ability to navigate political minefields.
Ali Hashem is an Iranian affairs correspondent for the BBC World Service. He is a contributor to Al-Monitor, and his articles have also appeared in the Guardian, the Sunday Times, the National, and the Japanese magazine Facta.
1 Author interview with a senior Hamas official, Beirut, August 2017.
2 Author interview with former president Michel Suleiman, Beirut, December 6, 2017.