Speaking at a gathering in southern Lebanon last month, Hezbollah deputy leader Sheikh Naim Qassem reiterated the movement’s readiness for war with Israel. At the same time, the sheikh made clear that war this summer would not take place unless Israel initiates it.
In his speech, Qassem, who is considered the chief ideologue of Hezbollah, recalled the “divine victory” of the movement, which brought about Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon in May 2000. He asserted, in a reiteration of the movement’s “muqawama” or resistance doctrine, that the 2000 withdrawal had begun the period of Israel’s decline. This period, he suggested, will end with the Jewish state’s disappearance.
So far, so predictable. The latter point is classic Hezbollah rhetoric. The movement’s “resistance” doctrine inherited the old Pan-Arab and then Palestinian-nationalist viewpoint, according to which Israel’s physical strength was belied by an inner weakness that would ensure its eventual defeat.
But, this time, the rhetoric was being used to frame a rather pacifist message – the supposedly weakened and doomed enemy would not be attacked unless Hezbollah was provoked.
As Qassem went on to develop his theme, the reason for this contradiction became clear. In a rather strained rhetorical jump, he exposed the current strategic dilemma Hezbollah faces. What was the reason for the “divine victory” of 2000, he asked. Answering his own question, he declared: “We did not defeat Israel because of the rifle, but because we have educated our children against the international takfiris [apostates]. God gives us victory because of their faith, and today we are honored with the land, thanks to this belief.”
Hezbollah has a variety of not very flattering terms for Israelis and Jews. takfiris, however, is not one of them. Rather, it is a term favored by Shi’a Islamists for their Sunni jihadi enemies. It references the attempts of the latter to declare other non-Muslims apostates and implicitly links today’s Sunni jihadis with extremist sects in the early Islamic period, which normative Islam opposes.
With a rhetorical sleight of hand, Qassem was seeking to establish a sort of seamless link between the Zionist enemies who suffered the “Divine Victory” of 2000, and the takfiri (Sunni jihadi) enemies against whom the movement is mainly engaged today.
This link does not work in logical terms. But Qassem’s reasons for wanting to make it are nevertheless entirely understandable. How simple things must have seemed for Hezbollah only a decade ago. And how much more complicated now.
Iran’s Crown Jewel
In the aftermath of the 33-day 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, the movement and its Iranian backers appeared on the edge of a major strategic breakthrough. Established by Iran in the first years of the 1980s, Hezbollah was the prototype of the Shi’a political-military organizations through which Teheran has sought to advance its interests across the Middle East.
Hezbollah was the jewel in the crown of this array. It gave Iran entry to the Pan-Arab and Pan-Islamic cause of the war against Israel. In May 2000, the movement ended a long guerrilla insurgency with success as Israel ended its occupation of southern Lebanon. In the summer of 2006, a confused and flailing Israeli campaign could again be plausibly depicted as an achievement for Hezbollah and hence the cause of Teheran.
The tactical goals, of course, were the departure of Israel from south Lebanon before 2000, and the preservation of the movement’s ability to continue to strike at Israel in 2006. Strategically, however, these events had a greater significance.
Following the 2006 war, the popularity of Hassan Nasrallah and Hezbollah soared, according to all available measures. The 2008 Annual Arab Public Opinion Poll, conducted at the very height of Hezbollah’s prestige in early 2008, found that 26 percent of respondents cited the Hezbollah leader as the most-valued world leader outside of their own country. President Bashar Assad of Syria was second at 16%. The latter’s increased popularity was also almost certainly due to his close association with Hezbollah.
Hezbollah’s perceived achievements appeared to justify the long Iranian investment in the movement. If the Palestinian cause was the way to the hearts of the Arabs (even for a Shi’a, non-Arab power like Iran), and if Arab support was essential for Iran’s goal of regional leadership, the strategy of using Hezbollah as a generator of legitimacy appeared to be paying dividends.
Hezbollah’s growing strength was significant in other ways. The 2003 US invasion of Iraq had the inadvertent effect of turning the country over to the country’s Shi’a-Arab majority. The Iranians offered active support to Shi’a insurgency against Western occupation from the beginning. Groups such as the Badr Organization and Ktaeb Hezbollah followed the, by now, well-known formula of combining political and military activity to serve the local Shi’a and Iranian interest.
The rise of Shi’a dominance of Iraq raised the possibility of the emergence of a contiguous line of pro-Iranian states stretching through Iraq to Syria and thence Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea. The achievement of this situation would give Teheran domination of a great swathe of the heartland of the Arab Middle East, access to the Mediterranean, and a direct, contiguous route to the frontline with Israel.
In the feverish period following the 2006 war with Israel, such a prospect appeared within reach. The Lebanese Hezbollah was set to play a starring role in this production –as the exemplar to the Arabs that Iranian methods produced victories against the Jews, and hence as the factor that would trump anti-Shi’a and anti-Persian sentiments.
Things Fall Apart
Then, almost imperceptibly at first, things began to go awry. They did so, predictably, along the lines of the sectarian fault line.
In May, 2008, Hezbollah turned its hard power against its local Sunni rivals. Since the Syrian withdrawal under pressure from Lebanon in 2005, a contest had been under way for the country’s future. Facing the armed camp of Hezbollah and its allies was a Sunni-led, pro-western alliance called March 14. In May 2008, Hezbollah reacted with force to an attempt by the then March 14-led government to restrict the autonomy of the movement’s independent security infrastructure in Lebanon.
In a matter of days, Hezbollah and its Amal allies took over West Beirut, delivering a clear, hard power message to their pro-western rivals that no attempt to brook their authority would be tolerated.
Hezbollah’s force could not be resisted. But the movement’s claim to represent a Pan-Islamic and Pan-Arab spearhead against Israel and the West suffered a severe dent. In the 2010 version of the Arab Public Opinion Poll, Nasrallah’s popularity had shrunk from 26% to 9%, a year before the outbreak of the Arab Spring.
It is, of course, the events in Syria, and the wider emergence of sectarian conflict and rivalry as the key dynamic of the current Middle East that has brought Hezbollah to the confusing impasse at which it now finds itself – of which Qassem’s latest speech is an exemplar.
Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria was born out of dire necessity. Had Assad fallen, both the movement itself and the Iran-led regional bloc of which it is a part would have faced disaster. Syria, after a rebel victory, would have been ruled by its Sunni majority and aligned with Sunni regional powers. Such an outcome would have left Hezbollah isolated on the Mediterranean, cut off from any hinterland and from any possibility of resupply by the Iranians in the event of war. For Iran, Assad’s fall would have meant the end of any hope of a contiguous link to the Mediterranean or the chance to intervene forcefully against Israel via Hezbollah.
Therefore, Teheran, and its client, were determined to prevent this. Furthermore, the specific difficulty Assad faced was one Hezbollah was uniquely well placed to help remedy.
Assad, in Russia and Iran, had capable and supportive allies who were prepared in the Russian case to support him diplomatically and sell him arms, and in the Iranian case to provide money and expert advice.
Neither state, however, was willing to address the issue of most pressing concern to Assad – namely, the absence of determined and capable infantry in sufficient numbers willing to engage on his behalf. On paper, Assad possessed an army, when fully mobilized, of 510,000 soldiers. In practice, he was unable to mobilize a large part of this force. Sectarian considerations (the army, like the population, was overwhelmingly Sunni Arab in composition), meant he could not trust a large part of it.
As this problem grew more acute in the course of 2012, so Iran elected to mobilize its regional proxies to assist Assad. Hezbollah, by far the ablest of Teheran’s clients and also the one with the greatest interest in seeing Assad survive, played a vital role in this mobilization.
According to a US Treasury designation dated August 2012, Hezbollah had by that time “directly trained Syrian government personnel inside Syria and has facilitated the training of Syrian forces by Iran’s terrorist arm, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps ‒ Qods Force (IRGC-QF). Hezbollah also has played a substantial role in efforts to expel Syrian opposition forces from areas within Syria.”
In the course of 2013, Hezbollah’s role in Syria increased dramatically. Fighters of the movement began to play a direct role in combat. Hezbollah also took responsibility for training a new, largely Alawi paramilitary force, the National Defense Forces, which would play a crucial role in filling the gap caused by the regime’s lack of reliable infantry in sufficient numbers.
In April 2013, Hezbollah took primary responsibility for a vital ground operation in central Syria – the taking of al-Qusayr, a mainly Sunni town in Homs province close to the Lebanese border. Around 1,700 fighters took part in the operation, which saw Hezbollah for the first time taking part in urban combat on a large scale. The rebels withdrew from al-Qusayr some two months later. Hezbollah’s victory was costly, however. Around 200 fighters died in the course of the operation.
The movement also played a vital role in fighting in Aleppo province, in the Damascus area and in the Homs province at this time. The increasingly direct involvement came with a heavy price. Senior commanders and veteran fighters such as Ali Fayad and Mustafa Badreddine were killed in Syria. More than 1,000 Hezbollah men have died in Syria.
Hezbollah fighters played a vital role in the reconquest of the Qalamoun mountains area, and later in the regime offensive in Latakia and Idleb provinces in late 2015.
Aware of the difficulties to its image resulting from its being engaged in a war against fellow Muslims, Hezbollah sought to justify its involvement in various ways. For a while, the supposed need to protect the shrine of Saida Zeinab in Damascus from the destructive attentions of Sunni Salafis (who regard all such shrines as un-Islamic) was stressed. Subsequently, Hezbollah has tended to frame its engagement in terms of the need to protect Lebanon from the threat of the takfiris by engaging them in Syria.
As of now, Hezbollah remains fully committed to the regime effort in Syria. Around 6,000 fighters of the movement are deployed in the country at any given time. With the Geneva negotiations stalled, the Syrian war appears to be nowhere close to conclusion. This means that Syria looks set to be Hezbollah’s main focus for a considerable period to come. The pro-Iranian camp of which Hezbollah is a part remains centrally committed to the survival of the Assad regime.
The problem is that while they are sufficiently strong to prevent Assad’s destruction, they do not appear to be able to deliver the rebellion against him a final defeat. So Hezbollah fighters will be needed to fight the takfiris in Syria for the foreseeable future. The martyrs’ funerals will continue. The faces of ever younger men killed in Syria will continue to appear on the movement’s posters in the villages of south Lebanon.
For the movement, all this has a number of implications, most of them not positive.
Firstly, while Hezbollah remains dominant in Lebanon, the role it is playing in Syria has effectively put an end to its strategic function as a generator of legitimacy for its patron, Iran.
Hezbollah is now seen throughout the Arab world as a Shi’a sectarian force, engaged mainly in the killing of Sunnis. For as long as the Syrian war continues, it will be impossible for Hezbollah to shake this image. There are also indications of growing discontent even among Hezbollah’s own Lebanese Shi’a community at the seemingly endless bloodletting in Syria and the movement’s role in it.
Secondly, for as long as the movement remains committed in Syria, aggression against Israel is unlikely.
Hezbollah has rearmed and expanded since the war of 2006, and Israeli planners consider that it now possesses as many as 150,000 rockets and missiles. But with so many fighters committed to essential tasks in Syria, opening a second front against a vastly more powerful enemy than the Syrian rebels is likely to be a luxury neither Hezbollah nor its Iranian patron can afford.
Thirdly, Hezbollah’s ability to retaliate for actions against it also may be limited because of its desire to avoid entering major confrontation with Israel. A number of prominent movement members have been killed over the last couple of years including Hassan Lakkis, Samir Kuntar, Jihad Mughniyeh and, most recently, Badreddine. In all but the most recent of these killings (Badreddine’s), Hezbollah blamed Israel.
But the movement’s retaliations, when they have come, have been small scale. Once again, the modest nature of Hezbollah’s counterstrikes probably derives from a desire not to risk open confrontation with Israel at a time when the movement is engaged in Syria.
Hezbollah’s predicament reflects the broader situation of the Iran-led regional bloc. In terms of hard power, the Iranians and their allies are doing passably well across the current strife-filled Middle East. They have not yet won any of the conflicts in which they are engaged (in Yemen, Iraq and Syria), but the Iranian client in each of these contexts is not close to defeat.
But, Iran today constitutes, and is seen to constitute, one side in a Shi’a-Sunni sectarian war.
As of now, the Iranians appear unable to develop strong alliances outside of the Shi’a communities of the Arab world. But the region cannot be dominated through the Shi’a alone.
If the Iranians once hoped to use Hezbollah and its fight against Israel as a way to generate legitimacy among non-Shi’a Arab populations, as of now Hezbollah itself is seen by Sunnis as an alien, sectarian and hostile force. When forced to choose between the imperative of preserving the Assad regime, and the ambition to be seen as a Pan-Islamic force, the Iranians, and hence their clients, unsurprisingly chose to favor immediate material interests over broader strategic goals.
The result of all this is that Hezbollah today faces the prospect of continued involvement in the mincing machine of the Syrian war, hemorrhaging personnel and legitimacy (though gaining, of course, experience and expertise). For as long as this situation pertains, one may expect Hezbollah leaders to continue in their speeches to recall distant “victories” against Israel, and to seek to clothe their current struggle against Sunnis in the finery of the previous war.
The present phase will not necessarily last forever, of course, and Hezbollah remains by far the most formidable non-state military actor facing Israel. But Hezbollah’s Pan-Islamic “resistance” narrative may be numbered among the casualties of the Syrian civil war.
The grinding conflict to Israel’s north has conclusively laid bare the stark sectarian realities underlying political loyalties in the Middle East. Hezbollah, as a result of the Syrian war, is now exposed before all as what it always was: namely, a sectarian Shi’a Islamist proxy of Iran – neither more nor less.
Jonathan Spyer is director of the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.