Throughout its thirty six years of existence as an organization, Hezbollah has undergone significant changes and formative experiences that have impacted its current situation. These include the political situation in Lebanon, its joining the government and the murder of Rafiq Hariri, the wars in Lebanon and rounds of violence with the IDF, the pullout of Syrian forces from Lebanon, the civil war in Syria; and the regional upheaval alongside its ramifications.
The evolution of the organization from an Iranian creation to one with a Lebanese image, development of a culture of a military organization, the economic developments and the organization’s impact on Shi’ite society in Lebanon, religious devotion, moral decay and the onset of corruption - all of which entail weaknesses that can be exploited in order to restrain Hezbollah in Lebanon and curb its regional influence.
We can define the changes that Hezbollah has undergone by dividing the organization’s development into five key stages:
- 1982-1992 - “The gang” - From the establishment of the organization by Iran, its focus was on carrying out terrorist attacks against Western targets in Lebanon and abroad, guerrilla warfare against IDF forces in southern Lebanon, to the appointment of Hassan Nasrallah as Secretary General and the decision to enter the Lebanese political establishment (the parliamentary elections of 1992).
- 1992-2000 - “Establishing the resistance narrative” - During this period, LH established its power base in southern Lebanon, while constantly underscoring its narrative of resistance to occupation, rounds of violence and conflict with the IDF (1993 & 1996), until the IDF pullout from Lebanon in May 2000.
- 2000-2006 - “The golden age of resistance” - During this period, Hezbollah developed a deterrent balance against Israel and operated subject to a variety of pretexts (the Shaba Farms, border violations, the Lebanese prisoners and support to the Palestinian struggle), and gained both military and political strength (alliance with Bashar Assad and the assassination of Rafiq Hariri) until the withdrawal of the Syrian forces from Lebanon, the “Cedar Revolution” and the second Lebanon War.
- 2006-2013 - “A state within a state” - Hezbollah restored and even increased its military power following the war with both support and funding from Syria and Iran, reaching the point of an internal military conflict in Lebanon (2008), following a conflict regarding Hezbollah’s weapons of resistance and a demand to dismantle the independent communications network set up by the organization. However, Hezbollah was deterred from taking action against Israel from Lebanese soil.
- 2013-2018 - “Hezbollah’s Regional Role” - The main shaper during these years has been the ongoing Hezbollah presence and combat in Syria, which to a large extent took over from and sidelined the organization’s resistance to Israel. The combat effort exacted a heavy price from Hezbollah, resulting in thousands of fatalities and wounded amongst its fighters, and consumed immense economic resources requiring Hezbollah to significantly increase its combat force. At the same time, they are trying to expand their influence and regional outreach, including in Iraq and Yemen.
HEZBOLLAH WITH A LEBANESE IMAGE VS HEZBOLLAH AN IRANIAN ARMY
The first time Hezbollah used its arms against other Lebanese was on May 7, 2008 – a day that is described as the May 7 events – where Hezbollah and its proxies stormed West Beirut and the Druze mountains in an attempt to intimidate March 14 leaders, mainly Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblat. These events marked a very significant crossroad in terms of Hezbollah’s growing control over Lebanon. Immediately after these events, Lebanese politicians went to Doha, Qatar’s capital, to form the first National Unity Government. Since then, March 14 coalition was unable to govern; until they disintegrated and Hezbollah won the elections in May 2018.
Hezbollah did not win the recent elections in Lebanon because they were the most popular faction. Rather, they won because Hezbollah managed to eliminate opposition and empower allies by means of the threat of arms.
Until their involvement in Syria, Hezbollah’s’ support base was still intact. But the pillars that constituted this support base started to stagger. With the new sectarian rhetoric against Sunni terrorism to accompany their mission in Syria, their resistance rhetoric and action was put on hold, which has raised many questions within the Shia community. In addition, the social services budget decreased in order to orient more funds to the ongoing military operations in Syria and the region. The entire Shia community used to benefit from these services but today, only the close circle of Hezbollah and the fighters benefit from them. The only pillar that remained – and became heightened – is the sectarian Shia identity that became Hezbollah’s main tool to contain its support base.
However, the Shia who still vote and support Hezbollah today have adopted a more sectarian attitude, one that has contributed to their isolation as a community in their regional Sunni milieu. However, this has also strengthened their link to the Shia regime in Iran, which today presents itself as the main and strongest protector of the Shia.
This shift in mission and rhetoric has also influenced Hezbollah’s image in Lebanon and the region. The party of god is perceived as an Iranian arm rather than a Lebanese party or movement.
This organic link to Iran has been exposed on a number of occasions. Following the retaliation for the assassination of Jihad Mughniyah and his group in Quneitra, on 30 January 2015, Nasrallah said: “The Lebanese people, the region and the Israelis should know that none of this is tied to the Iranian nuclear issue. Neither the presidency of the Lebanese republic, nor the resistance, nor the decision of the resistance is about the response to any hostility. This is a Lebanese issue and the Islamic Republic of Iran respects this. It respects our interests and it respects our honor.”
Three years later, and on 12 March 2018, the conservative Iranian website Farda News published the full version of the speech delivered by Hezbollah Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah, at a conference of Iranian nationals' resident in Lebanon. In the speech, which according to the website, was delivered by Nasrallah on 10 March 2018, the LH Secretary General declared that his organization has pledged full allegiance to Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and that Hezbollah’s commitment to Khamenei goes beyond its obligation to the (Lebanese) constitution. In his speech, Nasrallah explained that Hezbollah is not only committed to the specific directives of Iran’s Supreme Leader, but also to his “suggestions and ideas”. According to Nasrallah, when Hezbollah’s Central Committee discusses a specific issue, it refrains from any action, if there is any possibility that Khamenei will not be satisfied with it. In an unusual step, Nasrallah’s speech was not published in neither the Lebanese nor Arabic media. Even in Iran, his speech was published in merely a select few news sites. A day after the publication of the speech (13 March 2018), Hezbollah published an official denial of the report in Farda News. In the denial announcement that was published on the Al-Mayadeen network, it was claimed that there was no basis for the contents of the speech attributed to Nasrallah during his alleged meeting with the Iranian community in Lebanon.
It should be pointed out that similar statements have been made in the past in interviews to the media both by Nasrallah’s deputy, Naim Qassem, and the former IRGC commander, Seyyed Yahi Rahim Safavi.
THE MILITARY ISSUE
During the initial years after its establishment, Hezbollah adopted a very centralized approach to C2 that had suited the relatively limited scope of fighters in the organization at the time, its limited deployment, mainly to the south of the Litani River and an MO that included acts of terrorism and guerrilla warfare.
Following the pullout of IDF forces from South Lebanon, Hezbollah had established a CONOPS based on mission command, which was implemented mainly during wartime and was designed to enable Hezbollah, now with a much larger ORBAT (both in terms of fighters and arsenal), to maintain synchronized action and sustain ongoing functioning over time.
However, the death of Imad Mughniyah in 2008 posed a substantial challenge to the organization’s ability to function. We may even claim that Hezbollah has yet to find a real resolution for this. To date, the organization has not succeeded to find a figure with comparable charisma, military experience and surrounding where there is such broad internal consensus. A figure, who can lead the organization’s military activity. The result of this deficiency was and still is that there has been a growing involvement and influence exerted by the IRGC advisors, alongside the immense burden on the Hezbollah Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah.
The lack of control has only been increasing since Hezbollah’s entry into the fighting in Syria and the ensuing need to significantly increase the combat forces there. Not surprisingly, this has led to a decline in the quality of those recruited into the ranks of Hezbollah, along with the use of non-Lebanese Shi’ite Militia Groups (SMGs). Further evidence of the lack of control is the nature of Mustafa Badr al-Din’s death, one of the organization’s senior commanders, who according to various publications, was killed on the instruction of Nasrallah and Qassem Soleimani.
THE SOCIO-ECONOMIC ISSUE
Due to the budget shifts, Hezbollah had to make undesired changes within its structure and fighting force. Hezbollah has never fought a long war before, and certainly not beyond the Lebanese borders. The Syrian conflict has stretched its limits and forced Hezbollah to loosen some of its standards when it comes to its recruitment strategies.
Many new fighters were recruited to fight in Syria. With a hurried training and an aggressive sectarian rhetoric, many of these fighters went to Syria with a very vague idea whom or why they are fighting. Before Syria, Hezbollah recruited fighters with ideological and religious commitments, who joined because they believed in the mission of the resistance. And they came from all social classes. Today, Hezbollah’s fighting force is mostly young men from very poor families, who see Hezbollah as a job provider. You do your job, you get paid – and they don’t ask questions.
Therefore, one way to contain Hezbollah’s recruiting ability is to provide economic alternatives to these young Shia. All other political or ideological alternatives or rhetoric have failed because they were never complemented with an economic project.
THE RELIGIOUS ISSUE
The largest branch of Shi’a Islam is the Twelver branch, which consists of two main trends:
- Persian Shi’a(Qom) - led by the Iranian Shi’ite clerics headed by Khamenei. The Persian branch espouses the principle of velayat-e faqih(the rule of the cleric) according to which the state is led by clerics who are deeply involved in politics. The most prominent state operating according to this principle is Iran.
- Arab Shi’a(Najaf) - led by the Iraqi cleric Ali Sistani who is considered the highest religious authority in the Arab Shi’a branch. Arab Shi’a is against the involvement of the cleric in state and political affairs.
After the death of the top ranking Lebanese Arab Shi’ite cleric Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah in 2010, the vast majority of the Shi’ites in Lebanon accepted Hezbollah’s religious concept, despite the religious differences.
Although Najaf’s influence has declined within Lebanon’s Shia community, Najaf still enjoys the Shia respect. One of the main reasons for this decline is Sistani’s preference to observe – instead of be involved – in politics in general, including Iraqi politics. Encouraging Najaf to be more involved via their institutions in Lebanon can go a long way in terms of enticing the disillusioned Lebanese Shia.
Today, with the involvement of Hezbollah in the region, primarily in Syria, the new generation of the Shia – mainly within Hezbollah’s support base – have adopted a sectarian attitude instead of the traditional ideological one. Iran’s ideology is still more influential compared to Najaf; however, the sectarian identity has taken over the religious and ideological doctrines.
THE MORAL ISSUE
Ostensibly, Hezbollah’s leadership renounces immoral behavior and corruption. In the speech delivered by the Hezbollah Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah, on 19 January 2018, he stressed that there is a strict religious prohibition against drug trafficking. Additionally, the daily newspaper Assafiron 13 June 2016 reported that Nasrallah in a conversation with operatives had spoken about the need to obey the ways of the prophet and the imams during war, and that Hezbollah operatives in Syria are showing concern for public and private property and are refraining from harming houses, commercial institutions and agricultural areas.
Yet, the organization is deeply involved in narcotics deals around the world; senior Hezbollah figures appoint their relatives and close associates to assume public positionsand there are numerous reports regarding the hedonistic lifestyles and flourishing private businesses of senior Hezbollah officials. According to the article in the newlebanon.info website (on January 3, 2018), the appointment of the son of Hezbollah member of parliament, Hussein Fadlallah (known for his criticism of corruption), to an administrative position in Lebanon’s DGGS (Directorate General of General Security), provoked much criticism within Lebanon, mainly from within the Shi’ite community. Moreover, a Hezbollah government minister, Hussein Hajj Hassan, was accused of failing to fulfil his promise to appoint the children of martyrs(shahids) to public positions.
HOW TO RESTRAIN HEZBOLLAH
Hezbollah has undergone significant changes and formative experiences that have impacted its current situation. Thus, its public image, organizational culture, social, economic and morals are not deterministic and have shaped since its inception.
While its military capabilities have grown significantly, other pillars that were considered a source of power, are now in regression: its Lebanese image, the socio-economic support, the religiosity and morals amongst its fighters.
A synchronized plan and execution can contribute to these trends and alongside the military efforts, have potential to restrain Hezbollah. A few concrete ideas to illustrate:
- Exposure of the depth of the Iranian involvement and its ensuing risks/dangers for Lebanon, alongside an effort to reveal how Hezbollah’s attempts to bolster its image as an essentially Lebanese entity are no more than a facade.
- Expose Hezbollah’s economic expenses regarding the budget – more weapon and fighters, less social services and Shi’ites prosperity.
- Exposure of the discrepancy between the clean image and the public statements made by Hezbollah leaders and the evidence of their involvement in corruption and immoral activity.
- Expose Hezbollah’s willingness to risk Lebanese people’s lives in its next war, by showing how Hezbollah hides its weapons and factories under/within civilian areas.
*Hanin Ghaddar is a Visiting Fellow at The Washington Institute, where she works on Shiite politics in the Levant. She was previously the Managing Editor of NOW.