The Syrian war has transformed the Shiite movement, which has shown itself to be able to adapt: it is now both a regional military player and an arbiter of political balance in Lebanon
Last update: 2022-04-22 09:34:38
From the moment Hezbollah stepped into the Syrian conflict alongside the pro-Assad front in May 2013, the Lebanese Shiite party and armed group has undergone a surprising transformation.
After effectively turning the tide in several battles in Syria – first and foremost al-Qusayr (15 kilometers Southwest of the Lebanese border) in 2013, when the party made official its involvement in the conflict – Hezbollah has undoubtedly taken on a new an unexpected role, one that goes beyond the traditional “resistance” (muqāwama) against Israel in Southern Lebanon.
A fundamental pillar of the Bashar el-Assad counter-revolution in Syria and marker of territories unknown until 2014 – such as Iraq or Yemen, countries in which the party led by Hassan Nasrallah offered technical counseling to Iraqi Shiite militias as well as to the Yemenite Houthis – Hezbollah has become a major player in the region. Yet, even if the party remains commonly viewed as more attached to Iran and tangled in a sectarian Shiite identity that would propel it “transnationalization” towards being an armed group, there are many elements which would indicate instead a more decisive “Lebanization”.
In other words, as Hezbollah has become, since 2013, a growingly decisive player at the regional military level, the party has also strengthened its political role in Lebanon. Ever more able to manipulate the local relationships between allies and foes, Hezbollah has truly become a de facto arbiter within the Lebanese political system.
Rather than a shift in role from a national to a regional level, Hezbollah’s change should be read as a transformation from resistance to establishment. The transformation is not recent, it is in fact tied to a process that dates back at least to 2005 – but with a notable acceleration in 2011 – and one that is not necessary linear. This change is managed by the group’s elite and not always “understood” by the group’s base which is in part still connected to an anti-Israeli resistance culture and inclined to accepted a sectarian Shiite approach. The group’s shifting identity is personified by its charismatic leader, Hassan Nasrallah, able to bring together the different souls that compose the organization and its base of approval.
However, if Hezbollah appears to be versatile and able to adapt in order to survive, the main threat to the party’s continuity is the Trump-Israel-Saudi Arabia axis against Iran and its allies.
The rhetoric of the “war on terrorism”
Formally speaking, the anti-Israeli rhetoric in solidarity with Palestine has always been present in the official Party of God stance. Much stronger has been instead the replication of a “war on terrorism” rhetoric, based on a securitarian discourse not far from the positions held by Western leaders, and largely amplified by the party’s official tv station, al-Manar, and other media ideologically close to it.
If this new communication strategy has clearly contributed to justify the controversial decision to enter the Syrian conflict alongside the dictator Assad, it is worth dwelling on how Hezbollah maneuvered several registers. It carved out for itself the role of security guarantor based on a state-like morality, founded on border protection and the preservation of the status quo. This turn in terms of identity and ideology has allowed the party to wink not only to its more conservative allies but, informally, also to international intelligence.
The invention of a new moral role for the party after 2013 was a necessary change. If at the time of the “July war” (harb tammūz) with Israel in 2006, Hezbollah appeared as the representative of the people betrayed by the corrupt Arab establishment, increasingly more opportunistically distant from the Palestinian cause, with the entry into the Syrian war alongside Assad the Party has chosen to side with the dictatorship and oppression of the Syrian people, generating skepticism even within its own ranks.
Hezbollah made the classic discourse of the war on terrorism his own, opposed a rhetoric of pluralism (al-ta'addudiyya) among religious confessions to the “barbarism” of the takfīriyyīn (formally “Muslims accusing other Muslims of apostasy”, even though the term has become almost a synonym for stigmatizing Sunni jihadists). In this way, the movement has presented itself as the protector of Lebanon, evoking the inter-religious coexistence theoretically represented by confessionalism (ta'ifiyya) as the foundation of the state. In promoting this new function to justify Hezbollah’s right to continue to bear arms, Nasrallah aimed in particular at a Christian and Shiite audience, capitalizing on the victimism with which their leaders had supported the need to preserve the status quo of the Damascus regime and to stigmatize the Syrian uprising.
This position is dictated by the triumph of Salafist-Jihadist armed groups in the Syrian conflict, but this fact has marked the transformation of Syrian violence since 2012 and certainly not the origins of the anti-regime revolt (February-March 2011) and its militarization (July-August 2011). Moreover, although in some contexts the party’s elite has used a clearly sectarian discourse, for example defining the intervention in Syria as “sacred defense” (al-difā 'al-muqaddas), Nasrallah has sought to justify Hezbollah’s presence in Syria as being part of a national strategy to defend the borders and institutions of Lebanon from the totalitarian project of the Islamic State.
Hezbollah has evoked the “preventive war”, stressing the exceptional burden of the threat of ISIS
This is a particularly crucial step in the justification strategy. While until 2013 the ambiguous relationship between Hezbollah and the State was based on the need for a national resistance against Israel - all governments, until 2011, took office by formally recognizing, albeit not without controversy, the legitimacy of Hizb’s weapons contained in the formula “army, people, resistance” (al-jaysh, al-sha'b, al-muqāwama) -, Hezbollah’s entry into Syria was seen as an arbitrary attempt to drag the whole country in someone else’s war.
To rebut these accusations, Hezbollah has evoked the “preventive war”, stressing the exceptional burden of the threat of ISIS and other jihadist groups on Lebanon, as well as the opportunity to keep its secret and independent weapons as a complement (al-takāmul) of an army – the Lebanese army – forced into a position of strategic weakness by the international community close to Israel.
In practice, by negotiating its cohabitation on the Syrian-Lebanese border with the army, Hezbollah has often claimed the merit of counterinsurgency actions against fighters of the Islamic State, which in fact had been partly managed or “prepared” by the army. The most striking example is that of July 2017, in which Hezbollah proclaimed the victory against ISIS in ‘Arsal (a town in the upper Bekaa valley in Lebanon), where the jihadist group had conquered an enclave in 2014.
With the army deployed along the border and a mission of British and American armies in support of the Lebanese military to strengthen border security in the framework of the “global war on terror”, Hezbollah’s “liberation of ‘Arsal” (symbolically sanctioned by two flags – that of the “resistance” and the Lebanese one – hoisted together on the “liberated territory”) aimed at linking the party to praxis and to the neo-sovereign moral discourse of the war on terror.
Not surprisingly, especially during the war against ISIS under the presidency of Barack Obama, the measures against Hezbollah – on the U.S an E.U. terrorism blacklist – were moderate and limited to a few financial sanctions. In December, a controversial report in the United States showed that the Obama Administration had hindered the work of a task force working on drug trafficking – that Hezbollah uses to finance its operations – in order to facilitate the Iranian nuclear deal. Alongside a regional geopolitical calculation, several signals seem to suggest that the United States has on more than one occasion cooperated with Hezbollah indirectly (through the Lebanese army) in counterinsurgency operations in Syria and Lebanon.
The limits of political strategy
Despite the common characterization of Hezbollah as an organization in the hands of Iran and Syria, the Lebanese party has actually assessed its regional intervention on its own domestic interests.
In spite of many speculations about an expansion of the group in the region, Hezbollah has preserved the exclusivity of the Lebanese identity of his fighters. It is true that several organizations were born in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere, inspired by the Lebanese party. However, the group led by Nasrallah remains a discrete political-military entity on its own.
Rather, Hezbollah’s recent regional involvement, mainly framed within the war against ISIS, allowed the movement to consolidate its political influence on the Lebanese system. First of all, it strengthened its relations with the Free Patriotic Front, a party led by the Maronite Christian leader Michel ‘Aoun, Hizb’s ally since 2006. After more than two years of having an empty chair at the presidential palace of Baabda in Beirut, ‘Aoun’s election to the presidency of the Republic in 2016 demonstrated the ability of the Party of God to mediate between the two main parliamentary blocks (now increasingly less defined) of the March 14th and March 8th alliances (from the date of two opposite demonstrations – for and against the Syrian presence in the country – in 2005).
Hezbollah remains the dominant player in the Lebanese political system
After the election of ‘Aoun, Hezbollah has also been very skilled in re-establishing pragmatic relations with old rival Sa’ad Hariri, supporting his election as prime minister and the formation of a government that still includes Hezbollah’s ministers. Especially after the (failed) resignation of Hariri in November 2017, most likely imposed by Saudi Arabi, and withdrawn in extremis by the prime minister himself, it seems that Hezbollah has shown loyalty to political agreements with Hariri much more than his historical allies, who instead tried to capitalize on his potential vacant chair. Hezbollah’s position was, in fact, extremely moderate and supportive of Hariri, undoubtedly favoring a deflation of the announced escalation and fostering the continuity of the current government.
Hezbollah remains the dominant player in the Lebanese political system, able to maneuver alliances and rivalries to his advantage. Furthermore, his political power feeds on his military power: Hezbollah presents and imposes himself as the main pillar of Lebanon’s security and government stability – as a guarantor of Lebanon’s traditional establishment against potential homines novi and increasingly against requests of change coming from below.
Rather, the dilemma about the party’s future comes from the outside: in particular, from the cooperation among Israel, Saudi Arabia and the new American administration of Donald J. Trump. Founded on the anti-Iranian obsession, this unprecedented triangle of interests aims to undermine Tehran’s strategy in the Middle East, of which Hezbollah is considered the main pillar.
On this level, Nasrallah’s party has tried so far to keep a low profile and to be cautiously careful not to “encourage” excessive reactions which would be counterproductive for the party at this time. Proof of this is the mild response that Hezbollah gave to the unilateral proclamation of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel made by the White House: an invitation to launch a “social media campaign” is a limited reaction for the heart of the muqāwama with the culture of “martyrdom”. In this moment, Nasrallah’s party aims at consolidating its military successes to strengthen its political position within Lebanon.
Despite the price in terms of popular reputation, Hezbollah seems increasingly clever at strategically interpreting a politics of establishment that effectively compensates for the party’s detachment from a culture of resistance.