by Hanin Ghaddar*
When Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah declared August 28 Lebanon's "Second Day of Liberation,” part of his speech suggested a desperate attempt at legitimacy and credibility. The First Liberation was in year 2000. Hezbollah then liberated the South of Lebanon from the Israeli occupation, and they enjoyed the support of many people and countries in the region. Things have gone downhill since then, and Hezbollah today has lost most of the legitimacy it had seventeen years ago, mainly due to its participation in a deadly and long sectarian conflict that has spread throughout the region.
Nasrallah’s declaration of the “Second Liberation” – referring to Lebanon's recent victory over the ISIS - sounded like a longing for those days, when Hezbollah was seen as the hero of the Arab world. Today, the cheering in Lebanon is going to the Lebanese Army, who actually won the battle without any help, and proved to the Lebanese and the International Community that it can be the legitimate protector of Lebanon, and that it is not as weak as Hezbollah often likes to indicate.
Hezbollah’s reaction to this victory is very telling. From Day one of the battle, Hezbollah insisted on associating themselves with the Lebanese Army’s offensive on ISIS, although it was obvious that Hezbollah was only present on the Syrian part of the border. Hezbollah also accepted a deal with ISIS and singlehandedly implemented it – without coordinating with the Lebanese army. As part of the deal, Lebanon agreed to transfer hundreds of ISIS militants from the Lebanon-Syria border to their stronghold of Deir Ezzor, in eastern Syria, in exchange for the bodies of eight out of nine Lebanese soldiers kidnapped in 2014 and ultimately slain by ISIS.
These attempts show that the Party of God is desperate for a victory, and won’t let the Lebanese state take credit for it. But more significantly, they show that Hezbollah will do whatever it takes to achieve its goals in Lebanon and Syria, without taking into consideration Lebanon’s sovereignty.
VICTORIES AND ACCOMPLISHMENTS
On the surface, this sounds strange as Hezbollah looks like they’ve won the battle in Lebanon and the region, and do not really need to take credit for the army’s victory. They have managed to save the Assad regime for now, expanded their influence in the region, and grew their weapons arsenal from 33,000 rockets and missiles before the 2006 war to an estimated 150,000. In addition, they have recruited more fighters because of the long war in Syria and their changing role in the conflict. It is estimated that their numbers have increased from a few thousand members in 2006 to an estimated 20,000-plus.
The war in Syria has also provided these fighters considerable combat experience and exposure to Russian military planning, and they receive today better weapons from Iran. There are reports that they have now their own arms factories in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, where they can manufacture their own weapons.
Hezbollah and Iran managed – with the help of all the Shiite militias in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and not to forget the Russians – to stop the Free Syrian Army from expanding. They have also managed to shift the International Community’s priorities to focus on Sunni extremism such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda, leaving the Shia extremist militias free to roam Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.
They have made it. The Quds Force lobbied every Shia ready to fight from around the globe and succeeded in achieving their goals. And it doesn’t seem that they are going anywhere or that anyone is trying to stop them. But we must not forget that the battle is not over and the victory is temporary. Hezbollah and Iran’s Shia militias are still facing challenges and will be facing more challenges as they go.
LOSSES AND CHALLENGES
Despite all the aforementioned victories and achievements, Hezbollah and Iran have lost a lot. Many of its losses cannot be compensated or made up anytime soon.
For example, Hezbollah has lost some of its highest-ranking officials in Syria. Many of them were trained for years and fought in numerous wars with Israel. Hezbollah compensated by recruiting more fighters, but many of those are young and untrained. A large proportion of them are also undisciplined as the process of recruiting – which used to be very long and meticulous – had to be cut short and provided fighters who do not fit the usual Hezbollah recruiting standards.
Also, Iran’s funding to Hezbollah and other Shia militias is now focused on the military part, which means that most of the party’s social services networks had to cut services. Today, only the Hezbollah fighters and their families still benefit from these services, leaving out many Hezbollah employees, members, and supporters. This, and the long draining Syria war, has increased the level of discontent among the Shia community of Lebanon, who are fed up with death and wars, while their livelihoods are getting worse every day. Some reports suggest that Hezbollah has struggled to pay compensation to families of fighters killed or injured in Syria.
Hezbollah has also incurred financial losses from targeted sanctions and increased military expenditures. Several governments also linked Hezbollah to international drug trafficking rings and money laundering, leading to sanctions that limited Hezbollah’s financial resources abroad. In 2016, Lebanese banks began to comply with a US law targeting Hezbollah's finances, closing down hundreds of Hezbollah-linked accounts, and it is expected that another wave of US sanctions are going to hit Hezbollah later this year.
Tensions between Hezbollah and Arab states and people also soared. Although Hezbollah was condemned by most Arab governments for its "adventurism" in the July 2006 war, it still enjoyed considerable popular support across the Arab world, however, for fighting a common enemy - Israel. But today, the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) all branded Hezbollah a "terrorist" organization. In the eyes of predominantly Sunni Arab Gulf states, Hezbollah transformed into a Shia force killing Sunnis in Syria. Hezbollah has lost its Arab depth, and the Lebanese state, the people and Shia community are suffering the consequences.
In Syria, although the regime is safe for now, the battle is not over. And despite all the achievements, Hezbollah still couldn’t declare a total victory in Syria and bring its soldiers home safe to their families. The battle for Deir Ezzour is still going on and it’s not going to be an easy ride. The challenges are many, including the rough terrain. Also, the advance of the Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by the international coalition led by America, in Raqqa and the possibility of further advancement into Deir Ezzour, could make things complicated on the ground.
Even if they managed to take over Deir Ezzour, the increased Iranian presence and power in the region, and its plan to complete the Shia Crescent that would stretch from Tehran to Beirut, will still be considered a threat by many of Iran’s opponents in the region, mainly Israel and the Gulf States. So any victory is temporary and any achievement is vulnerable.
But more significantly, Hezbollah has lost the people’s support that it has enjoyed for a very long time, and selling the Lebanese and the Arabs the victory against ISIS is becoming more and more complicated as the sectarian conflicts spread through the region. That’s why Hasan Nasrallah is trying so hard to associate Hezbollah with the Lebanese Army’s victory, and will keep on trying to take credit for any victory in the region, even if it is not deserved.
Hezbollah strives for victories, because victories bring about power and public support. Today, they managed to come out stronger, but their successes are too vulnerable, and their small victories are just too exposed. The time of “divine victories” is definitely over.
*Hanin Ghaddar is the inaugural Friedmann Visiting Fellow at The Washington Institute.