Split Personality: Hezbollah’s Role in the New Middle East

Members of the Free Syrian Army-linked Suheda-ul Islam clash with Hezbollah forces. Damascus, Syria, March 25, 2015. (Macd el Ahmed/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Hezbollah in 2015 is in a peculiar situation as both a state- and non-state actor. It is balancing non-state activities such as providing armed forces, social services, and private telecommunications to its Shia community with its role as a dominant part of the Lebanese government. Its armed forces are also heavily involved in the Syrian war, while Lebanon’s formal policy is dissociation with the same conflict. This poses the question: how are such incongruous responsibilities affecting Hezbollah as a political movement?

In answering, it is best to start with some historical reminders: Hezbollah’s rise in the 1980s was precipitated by the heavy involvement of Amal—Lebanon’s dominant Shia political faction at the time—in the Lebanese civil war, which left a gap open for leading the country’s resistance against Israel. Hezbollah emerged as a political movement when a group of South Lebanese Shia clerics traveled to Iran for support during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. The group was formally established in 1985 but most observers believe key founding figures cut their teeth in the deadly twin attacks on the American and French military barracks in Beirut in 1983. Although denying any involvement, Iran was likely the driving force for those attacks.

Since then the relationship between Hezbollah and Iran has been close and strategic, particularly in providing Hezbollah with access to modern and effective weapons, which are essential for its role as a resistance movement against Israel. Relations with Syria have in turn been instrumental as the main access route for Iranian money and munitions. However, it is wrong to say Hezbollah is solely an instrument for Iran. It is also a political party with genuine support from large and poor segments of the Lebanese Shia community and responds to their economic and political grievances.

While Iran’s ambition remains to export its Islamic revolution, Hezbollah turned away from the idea of an Islamic state in the 1990s and instead focused on providing Islamic resistance against Israel. By combining this resistance with concerns for neglected and poor populations in the south of Lebanon, it built its constituency as well as broader legitimacy as a social movement protecting Lebanon’s dispossessed against Israeli aggression. This shift of strategy led Hezbollah into domestic politics, giving its marginalized constituency a political voice, as well as providing jobs, welfare and security.

The peak of the movement came in the 2006 war, when it was able to stand off Israel for 33 days and gained a reputation as a professional militia. In the aftermath, Hezbollah aimed to transform its military victory and the concomitant popular support into political influence. Soon it became the dominant part of Lebanese (pro-Syrian) opposition. Its growing influence was seen in the establishment of a tent-camp in downtown Beirut aimed at toppling the government and, more dramatically, the 2008 takeover of West Beirut in response to the government’s moves to shut down its internal telecommunication system. By 2011, Hezbollah had maneuvered into a dominant role in the government and forced the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Hezbollah has since tried to use its growing influence to reduce the UN Special Tribunal on Lebanon’s (STL) influence and room to move by denying the legitimacy of the court. Yet the STL continues to investigate Hezbollah’s role in the assassination of Saad’s father and prime ministerial predecessor Rafik.

What happened next, however, was probably not part of Hezbollah’s plan: Entangled in the complex international relations with Iran and Syria outlined above, the group did not have much choice but to become involved in the current Syrian war. Although Hezbollah always aimed to be a regional player, this was only intended to extend to the fight against Israel. Instead, it came to be seen as the main supporter of the Assad regime. As the Syrian conflict grew more sectarian, it was considered to be fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong country, which diminished its earlier role in building bridges towards the Sunni population in Lebanon and the wider region.

Hezbollah has been involved in Syria since 2011, long before its role became publicly visible, in 2013. It justified its early engagement on the premise of protecting Shia shrines and Shia brothers under attack. Again, this fundamentally changed its image beyond its core constituency. Where Hezbollah had previously been seen to protect overall Lebanese interests, it was now perceived to be solely protecting the Shias. It tried to mend this rift in the second phase of Syrian engagement, by arguing it was ideologically and strategically allying against foreign conspiracy in the region. The third stage of Syrian engagement was related to the fight against Daesh (also known as Islamic State) and its rapid advancements and successive land grabs of 2013 and 2014. This engagement was not least undertaken to avoid fighting Daesh at home.

While it was necessary for Hezbollah to play the sectarian card to justify initial involvement in Syria, this also compromised the security of Lebanon, which conflicted with the group’s role of being the dominant political force there. Within this role, Hezbollah had agreed to a non-involvement policy towards Syria and was also expected to deliver security, governance and a sound economy domestically. It was probably not ready for this role, and was particularly unprepared to be blamed for not delivering according to general expectations. Hezbollah remains primarily interested in delivering services to its own followers and hesitant to expand its responsibility beyond that.

Hezbollah might have had little choice in supporting the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, but by doing so it has broken Lebanon’s power-sharing model of 1943, the National Pact, which was designed to include all major religious sects in governing the country. This is significant considering that earlier violations of the agreement have led to civil war. It happened in 1958 when Christian president Camille Chamoun sided with the West, and Muslims supported Egyptian President Nasser and Pan-Arabism, during the Suez Crisis. And it happened again in 1975 when Sunni Muslims felt obliged to support the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s (PLO) fight against Israel.

There is however one major difference between the Lebanon of 1975 and that of today: In 1975 no religious group or militia had a monopoly on the use of force, while today Hezbollah is not only the sole non-state professionally armed group in Lebanon, but is also considered to be the best organized and most heavily armed group in the region. While Hezbollah’s domestic strength has seen Lebanon become more resilient to external influence than it was in 1975, at the start of the 15-year-long civil war, its breaking of the national pact has still reignited deep grievances in the country.

Hezbollah’s painstakingly built dominance over Lebanon, not only militarily, but also politically, unraveled with the events of the Arab Spring and the descent into the Syrian Civil War. Although the initial popular uprisings seemed to fit well with its image of protecting the weak against oppressive regimes, it delegitimized this by supporting Assad. The sectarian dimension of the Syria crisis further contradicted Hezbollah’s aspirations of building bridges across Lebanese divides, particularly towards Sunni Palestinian refugees in the country. It now has to balance those external military activities with being part of the Lebanese government.

As Lebanon seemed to edge closer to war in 2013, Hezbollah attempted to gain more room to maneuver. By inviting Hariri’s Sunni faction back into the government, it could proclaim national unity in a time of crisis, as well as spreading risk and blame.

Lebanon’s model of sectarian balance has otherwise proved to be very resilient when faced with these messy situations. The country as a whole has weathered the war in Syria for four years, despite the influx of more than 1.2 million Syrian refugees, and it seems all players in the country are determined to continue these efforts. Attempts to prevent sectarian conflicts have been implemented by all factions at all levels of society, including local mediation to prevent small conflicts to escalate and low key security cooperation between Hezbollah, the Lebanese Army and other security forces.

As it stands, Hezbollah faces significant challenges in managing its dual roles. In particular, with its elite forces and other resources employed inside Syria, it has to depend more on the Lebanese Army domestically, including protecting the borders where Sunni extremists such as Daesh and the Nusra Front increasingly are staging attacks. Here there are at least positive signs that cooperation is increasing, with a national dialogue to develop an anti-terrorist strategy having commenced, although the parties are unable to agree on a new president leading to a paralyzed parliament. Hezbollah remains central to the future stability of Lebanon, but will only be successful in this role if it can extricate itself from the long and debilitating campaign in Syria. For Lebanon’s and its own survival, Hezbollah cannot allow Syria to become its Vietnam.

Mona Christophersen is a researcher at Fafo and a Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute.