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A Divided Hezbollah? Meaning and Implications  

Lebanon’s Shiite movement Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah addresses a crowd during commemorations for Ashura in a southern Beirut suburb on October 12, 2016.
Hezbollah held a procession to mourn the seventh-century killing of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson.
/ AFP / Patrick BAZ (Photo credit should read PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images)

by Benedetta Berti*
The possibility of Hezbollah announcing a formal separation between its political party and its military wing would represent an enormous departure from the group’s history and narrative.
Since its early entry into politics in the aftermath of the Lebanese civil war, Hezbollah has been consistent in its self-portrayal as a military, political and social movement. What is more, over the years, the group evolved into a complex, multi-layered and integrated organizational machine.
In the group’s own analysis, there was never a contradiction between participating in politics and operating as a resistance movement outside the political sphere. To the contrary, all these parallel activities have been consistently seen as mutually-reinforcing.  In a 1992 interview, Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah made this clear: “[W]e were, and will always be, the party of the resistance that [operates] from Lebanon. . . . Our participation in the elections . . . do[es] not alter the fact that we are a resistance party; we shall, in fact, work to turn the whole of Lebanon into a country of resistance, and the state into a state of resistance[.].” 
So what could prompt such an announcement? Domestically, it is hard to see which additional benefits the movement could reap by breaking into a political and a military branch; given that Hezbollah can already freely operate as a politico-military entity and that it does at time rely on its military power to back its political role. Within the context of the organization’s extensive involvement in the Syrian civil war, one could speculate that a politico-military separation could be aimed to shield the group’s domestic role and political status in Lebanon from the impact of its fighting alongside Bashar al-Assad’s regime (whether this move would be effective is an entirely different question). At the same time, this could also better position Hezbollah’s military wing for a prolonged cross-regional role in both Syria and Lebanon.
Internationally, a formal separation could serve the purpose of deflecting ongoing and future economic sanctions and to increase the group’s standing and legitimacy in the international arena. But how would the international community, and especially the European Union and the United States initially react to such a move?
From a European perspective; perhaps ironically, not much would change from a legal standpoint. Indeed, the European Union already formally distinguishes between Hezbollah’s political party and its military wing. In July 2013, the European Union Council designed Hezbollah’s ‘military wing’ as a ‘terrorist organization’ on the basis of Council Common Position 2001/931/CFSP (CP931) “on the application of specific measures to combat terrorism,” itself based on UN Security Council Resolution 1373 (2001)). That decision itself was taken following a heated debated between EU member countries who wanted to see Hezbollah included in the EU list of terrorist organizations, on the basis on both its involvement in the Syrian civil war as well as because of its reported operations on European soil, including the July 2012 attack in Burgas (Bulgaria). On the other hand, other members of the EU resisted taking that course of action worrying it may jeopardize the EU’s ability to deal with the Lebanese government, while also risking to destabilize Lebanon and to put EU UNIFIL soldiers in harm’s way. The EU decision was in this sense an act of political compromise; allowing to impose freezing of assets and bans of money transfers to individuals, groups, and entities deemed affiliated with Hezbollah’s armed wing without however affecting the political relations with the party. But while the legal framework would remain unaltered by an announcement of a politico-military separation; still it is plausible to foresee that this decision would be welcomed by the EU and its member states and that it would increase Hezbollah’s political legitimacy and standing within Europe.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the United States has however historically had a much more stringent position with respect Hezbollah: there the group is designated since 1997 as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” (FTOs) and as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” organization since October 2001. Significantly, following Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria and after the US-Iran deal, the US administration has also stepped up its pressure against Hezbollah, chiefly through the “Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act” (HIFPA), passed by Congress in December 2015. This last measure is especially biting as it applies also to foreign financial institutions that engage in business transactions with Hezbollah, generating specific pressure not only on the Lebanese-Shiite organization but also on the Lebanese banking sector at-large, struggling to comply.
In theory a formal declaration of a separation between Hezbollah’s political and military branches could ease this pressure: if the United States were to adopt the EU model, then the entire sanctions apparatus could be revised and directed only towards the group’s military wing. Concretely this would mean that Hezbollah’s political party could fundraise legally and that Hezbollah MPs’ accounts would not need to be shut down by Lebanese Banks to comply with HIFPA. It would also increase the group’s international legitimacy.
But in practice, an American decision to automatically revise its designation of Hezbollah should not be taken for granted. To the contrary, the United States’ historical tension with Hezbollah and its recent clashes over Syria would represent powerful deterrents towards amending the US policy, at least in the short-term. Likewise, it would be reasonable to expect significant Israeli and Saudi lobbying against any change in policy when it comes to Hezbollah. As a result, it would seem more likely for the US to take a ‘wait and see’ approach and to observe the before taking any steps to alter the legal framework in place.
*Benedetta Berti is an Italian foreign policy researcher and analysts, and the author of three books, including Armed Political Organizations: From Conflict to Integration (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).

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