Since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, political developments in Lebanon have been closely linked to events in Iran. The Islamic revolutionary message inspired and mobilized Shi’a populations from the Gulf to Afghanistan, but it resonated with particular strength among Lebanon’s Shi’ites, who traditionally saw themselves as victims of persecution and political discrimination.
Like Shi’ites elsewhere in the region, Lebanese Shi’ites splintered into several groups with different theological interpretations. In this context, the followers of Amal (Battalions of Lebanese Resistance), a movement that had suffered heavy casualties in the initial stages of the civil war in Lebanon, went through a process of division and militancy. Led by zealous Shi’a clerics, one of these groups revolted and set up in the Bekaa Valley. There, they received an Iranian delegation—which included hundreds of members of the Revolutionary Guards—sent by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, to whom they pledged loyalty. These events would eventually lead to the creation of Hezbollah, the “Party of God,” which was officially announced in 1985.
Hezbollah had thus found a key source of ideological and logistical support in Iran. In exchange, Iran gained massive influence over a movement that eventually became a state within (or above) the Lebanese state, a powerful ally at the heart of the Arab–Israeli dispute and against US interests in the region. In the early 1980s, the agendas of revolutionary Iran and of Hezbollah converged with that of Alawite-led Syria, which aimed to expel Israeli troops from Lebanon and to preserve its interests there. Syria became the vehicle through which Iran channeled its support to Hezbollah.
Today perhaps more than ever, the road from Tehran to Beirut runs through Damascus. In the eyes of Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad and Hezbollah’s third secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, this strategic–ideological link—central in the concerns of those fearful of the so-called Shi’a Crescent—has become chiefly about survival. While the Gulf states, as well as Americans and Europeans (in a rather limited fashion), have supported the rebels, Iran and Hezbollah have thrown their military and economic weight behind Assad, concerned about the costs they would bear if he were to fall.
Hezbollah’s leadership took several months to officially confirm its involvement in the Syrian war. Nasrallah repeatedly denied his men were fighting alongside Assad’s. Hezbollah operatives killed in Syria were entitled to symbolic funeral ceremonies while the causes of death were concealed. But then came the battle for the city of Al-Qusayr, an Alawite stronghold strategically located between Damascus and the Syrian Mediterranean coast. Faced with heavy casualties, Nasrallah was compelled to acknowledge, in a typically heated evening speech in late May, what was already well known: “It’s our battle, and I promise you victory. . . . We will bear all responsibilities,” he added, warning that “if Syria falls, so will Palestine, the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem. We will enter a very dark phase.”
There are various compatible explanations for Hezbollah’s decision to make Assad’s plight their own, and the risks involved for both the future of the movement and the stability of Lebanon are potentially enormous.
Beyond group survival
The year 1943 was a historical landmark on Lebanon’s road to self-rule and away from French domination. In line with a tradition of informal power-sharing agreements between the country’s diverse sects, the Christian Maronites led by President Bishara Al-Khoury and the Sunni Muslims led by Prime Minister Riad Al-Solh settled the basic terms of what came to be known as Al-Mithaq Al-Watani (the National Pact). Among other things, it guaranteed that in the future the president would always be a Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni, and the speaker of the house a Shi’ite. It also divided the Council of Ministers along sectarian lines.
Although the intention was partly to prevent too much power concentrating in the hands of one sectarian group at the expense of others, this agreement contributed to the institutionalization of Lebanon’s sectarian outline and further weakened the sense of national identity. The office of the president retained the decisive executive powers while at the same time there was no mechanism for presidential accountability.
Another significant feature of the National Pact was the informal understanding that all factions should strive for a neutral foreign policy, independent of Lebanon’s sectarian composition. This was an attempt to tame the various external influences and counter the eagerness of Lebanese Christians to privilege close ties with the West and of Lebanese Muslims to seek strong relations with their Middle Eastern allies.
Despite the efforts to keep Lebanon free from outside pressures, pan-Arabism and the Arab–Israeli conflict loomed over the country’s politics until the full outbreak of the civil war in 1975. The final blow to the goal of a neutral foreign policy had come six years earlier, with the signing of the Cairo Agreement. This document gave the Palestine Liberation Organization a free mandate to conduct military operations against Israel from Lebanese territory.
After a devastating 15 years of civil war, multiple Israeli offensives and retreats, and the long lasting presence of Syrian troops until Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination in 2005, Lebanon remains hostage to the ghosts of its past. Hezbollah’s active role in the Syrian conflict shattered the Baabda Declaration that the movement and all leading political factions in Lebanon signed in June last year, pledging non-interference in the conflict next door. In fact, the current civil war in Syria may well become a perfect storm for both Lebanon and Hezbollah.
Although well aware of the deep repercussions that its actions in Syria might have in Lebanon, Hezbollah decided to get fully involved in supporting Assad’s war effort. Probably the most conventional explanation for such a move is survival. Without an allied government in Syria, Hezbollah would risk losing access to Iranian supply lines. The movement’s internal hegemony and its military predominance over all other groups in Lebanon, the Lebanese army included, would be seriously jeopardized.
Hezbollah’s survival concerns cannot be read in isolation from the wider ideological and sectarian tensions in the region. Iran’s influence over Hezbollah is immense, and a decision of such magnitude would not be taken without the green light from Tehran. In this perspective, if the Beirut–Damascus–Tehran axis were to collapse, Iran would lose its strategic presence in the Mediterranean, and the Shi’ites and Alawites in Syria and across the region would face a bleak future. In this regard, it is pertinent to note that one of Hezbollah’s top military priorities has been the defense of the Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque in a southern suburb of Damascus, one of Shi’a Islam’s holiest shrines.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Vera Yammine, a prominent figure in the Marada Party (part of the March 8 Alliance), says that “involvement”—Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria—has a negative connotation. According to Yammine, Hezbollah’s actions are about “defense,” not “involvement.” The decision was taken “not only in defense of religious shrines, but in defense of Lebanon in the shadow of repetitive threats by many,” and also for the sake of “the entire axis of resistance.” By way of example, she mentions Abdul Halim Khaddam, a Sunni Muslim who was vice president of Syria until he fled the country in 2005, who said the Free Syrian Army “will enter Lebanon and remove Hezbollah.”
Yammine explains that the issue goes beyond Nasrallah’s ideological or strategic decisions: “It falls within a broad coalition represented by a resistance front” whose vision is related to the goal of “restoring international balance.” She adds that if the issue was purely ideological, “in the narrow sectarian sense, this front wouldn’t include several secular and geographically distant countries (some located in Latin America)”. She also notes that there are “other parties” and “so-called aid groups’’ in the Syrian conflict.
When asked about the internal political impact of Hezbollah’s “involvement” in Syria, former brigadier general Amin Hoteit also rejects the notion that Hezbollah got involved. Instead, the well-known pro-Hezbollah political commentator told Asharq Al-Awsat, “The conflict was imposed on the party, according to the belief that if they don’t fight in Syria today, their enemies will move to Lebanon tomorrow. Therefore, the party believes its impact will prevent its enemies from cutting its strategic lines in the future.”
Related with the ideological–sectarian dimension of the conflict in Syria is the presence of thousands of Salafist jihadists from across the Middle East, as well as Europe and Central Asia. This sense of threat seems to be shared by some ordinary Lebanese citizens who spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat. A Christian student from the old Achrafieh district of east Beirut says: “There is a Salafist threat in the entire region, as we have seen. In this context, Hezbollah’s presence is an advantage.”
In line with the rhetoric of the “axis of resistance,” a Syrian refugee believes that the Salafists are in bed with Israeli interests: “Hezbollah’s actions are just and noble. They have defended our country from the Zionist enemy. The involvement in Syria isn’t just about support for President Assad; it is so that insurgents and terrorists don’t take over our beloved Syria.”
A Beirut-based Shi’ite government employee agrees: “The enemy is Israel, and Shi’ites and non-Shi’ites should both appreciate what Hezbollah is doing to protect and defend our country.”
Others, however, see Hezbollah’s support to the Syrian government as a move that has little to do with Lebanon’s national interests and which will only generate more violence and instability. A Sunni nurse at Beirut’s Clemenceau Medical Center thinks their involvement “is to protect Shi’ite shrines in Syria, because it doesn’t reflect Lebanese interests, but rather Shi’ite interests.” She adds that there have always been divisions within Lebanon in terms of who supported and who opposed the Syrian regime, “but to actually get involved is absurd.”
A human rights activist believes “people like Assir” feed the idea of an extremist threat. But she does not believe there is a Salafist threat in Lebanon. (Ahmed Al-Assir is a Lebanese radical Sunni cleric based in the Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque in Sidon, south Lebanon, who has been a staunch detractor of Hezbollah’s actions in Syria.) She says that “even Lebanon’s conservatives will avoid such extremism, and it would be difficult for a Salafist group to penetrate.”
The Christian student from Achrafieh says that most non-Shi’ites will have the same reaction: “We want stability and development, and as long as a guerilla group is armed and has authority in our country, we will not be happy.”
“We are a minority, and minorities always bear the brunt of everything,” laments another student, a Druze from the Chouf district of Mount Lebanon. “Hezbollah risking the stability of our country from one side, and Salafist groups in the region who have always been lingering from the other side. . . . We just want to carry on peacefully living in and for Lebanon, not Syria or Iran,” he adds.
Lebanese Sunni radicals have also been crossing the border to fight in Syria alongside the rebels. However, Hezbollah is the only prominent Lebanese political group to have decided to openly and fully support one side in the Syrian conflict against the other(s).
Regardless of the most important motives behind Hezbollah’s decision, tensions related to that decision have been mounting within Lebanon. Last Thursday a powerful car bomb exploded in Beir el-Abed, a Hezbollah stronghold in southern Beirut, killing more than 20 people and wounding roughly 100. This was the latest, and deadliest, of a number of car bombs and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that have gone off in southern Beirut and along the border with Syria.
Clashes between Syrian rebels and Hezbollah members have taken place in the eastern Bekaa Valley, also near the Lebanese–Syrian border.
The northern city of Tripoli, used to violence between armed groups and where many anti-Hezbollah Sunni Islamists reside alongside the Christian and the pro-Assad Alawite minorities, has experienced the heaviest clashes in recent history.
Violent incidents have also been reported between Hezbollah supporters and followers of Assir. In late June, the Lebanese army—which Assir accuses of being in bed with Hezbollah and ignoring the group’s involvement in Syria—was forced to intervene after Assir’s supporters attacked an army checkpoint, killing two officers and four soldiers.
In May, rockets were fired at Hezbollah’s headquarters in Beirut by unidentified individuals. Recently, more rockets hit Amal and Hezbollah strongholds, as well as a Lebanese army post located within the security perimeter of the presidential palace.
In July, Mohammed Darrar Jammo, a prominent Syrian supporter of President Assad and who often went on TV talk shows to criticize the Syrian opposition as traitors, was killed by dozens of bullets in his home in the Lebanese coastal town of Sarafand.
Together with increasing violence and instability, the wave of Syrian refugees into Lebanon (estimated at more than 650,000) has contributed to a sharp slowdown of the Lebanese economy and an aggravation of the budget deficit.
So far, violent spillover from Syria’s conflict into Lebanon has been relatively limited. The scars of the civil war probably work as a reminder that that is a route to be avoided at all costs. Nevertheless, the political effects of the Hezbollah–Assad alliance are already a genie out of the bottle.
A political suicide?
“They say that the consequences of Hezbollah’s involvement depend on the outcome of the wretched Syrian conflict, but this is not true,” a journalist from a Beirut newspaper told Asharq Al-Awsat. “Hezbollah’s involvement is outwardly deepening sectarian divisions either way. Call it March 8 versus March 14, pro-Assad versus anti-Assad, Sunni versus Shi’ite, liberals versus conservatives. . . . The group’s involvement promotes all of these divisions,” he claims with concern.
Hezbollah’s bold move is being presaged by observers of the Lebanese political scene as a watershed moment—one that might mark the decline of the movement’s hegemonic position in Lebanon. In the eyes of many Arabs, it shatters the group’s resistance slogan against Israel, imperialism and oppression. This image is replaced by that of an armed militia guided by Tehran to support Assad, a dictator willing to see Syria burn to remain in power.
Hezbollah’s actions violate United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, which called for the disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon and emphasized that the government of Lebanon should exercise full sovereignty and authority. The GCC states have imposed sanctions on Hezbollah that target the group’s financial and business activities and the residency permits of their members. The European Union has placed Hezbollah’s military wing on the EU’s list of terrorist organizations.
Within Lebanon, the political tensions over Hezbollah’s open support to Assad are growing. In March, the then acting Sunni prime minister, Najib Mikati, resigned after a cabinet dispute with Hezbollah over the preparations for the parliamentary elections and the extension of the term of a senior security official. Yet Hezbollah’s choices in relation to the Syrian conflict also played a role in the rift with Mikati. At the time of his resignation, he called for the setting up of a national unity government to rescue the country from “regional fires and. . . internal divisions”.
Saad Al-Hariri, a former prime minister of Lebanon and leader of the Sunni Future Movement, characterized Hezbollah’s decision to get involved in the Syrian conflict as “political and military suicide.”
During his speech during the celebration of Army Day on August 1, Michel Suleiman, the president of Lebanon, criticized Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria. He talked about the need to “reconsider [the country’s] defensive strategy, especially after the resistance [Hezbollah’s] weapons went beyond the Lebanese borders,” and to work towards strengthening the Lebanese army. Former prime minister Fouad Siniora, who heads the Future Movement, the largest member of the March 14 Alliance, praised Suleiman’s words; a Hezbollah spokesman said the statement would only add fuel to the fire.
Criticism is also coming from the group’s support base. In June, a delegation representing the families of Hezbollah fighters killed in combat met with Mohammad Yazbek, a member of the Shura Council, the movement’s highest authority. The delegation delivered the message that in the past they had been proud to see their children fight against Israel, but that Hezbollah’s defense of Assad’s government was “flawed and intolerable” and would only heighten sectarian divisions in Lebanon.
Some well-known Shi’a figures inside and outside of Lebanon have been adamant in their opposition to Hezbollah’s presence in Syria. Iraq-based Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, hugely influential among Shi’ites worldwide, has rejected the idea that the participation of non-Syrian Shi’ites in the Syrian conflict can be legitimate.
In an interview with Al-Arabiya News, former Hezbollah Secretary-General Subhi Al-Tufayli, who split from the movement after criticizing it as “too moderate” and lenient in its dealings with the Lebanese state, condemned the movement for its intervention in Syria. He said that it “had provoked the whole world” and that “Hezbollah’s project as a resistance party that works to unify the Islamic world has fallen.” He added: “It is no longer that party that defends the Umma [Islamic nation]; instead it plagues the Umma.”
Since the Cedar Revolution in March 2005, the Lebanese political scene has been dominated by the March 8 and March 14 alliances. Both emerged in the context of massive public demonstrations, both for and against Syria, following the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Last month, Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri announced officially the disintegration of the March 8 Alliance. Although it seems that the alliance has not really disintegrated, it has been shaken by disagreements over internal politics, namely the extension of the parliament’s term and over the extension of the mandate of Lebanon’s Army chief, Gen. Jean Kahwagi. However, the tensions between Hezbollah and the secular Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) led by Gen. Michel Aoun and predominately supported by the Christian community, over the former’s presence in the Syrian war have also been a source of contention within the alliance.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Rami Rayess, the official spokesman for the Progressive Socialist Party led by the Druze Walid Jumblatt, says that Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria did shake the March 8 Alliance. He notes that even Berri “said the March 8 Alliance has been affected by this, despite previously announcing that the disagreement is related to internal issues and not strategic ones.” Nevertheless, Rayess does not sense any major transformations taking place in the Lebanese political arena.
Hoteit says that to assume that the March 8 Alliance disintegrated “is a common mistake, because the alliance does not include the FPM, who did not come down to Riad El-Solh Avenue on March 8, 2005, to say ‘thank you Syria’ like the rest of the parties within the alliance have done.” He explains that the FPM and Hezbollah developed an understanding on ten points, “including topics such as resistance to Israel and conservation of the resistance,” but that the FPM never agreed on all components of the alliance. According to Hoteit, “All March 8 groups support Hezbollah’s participation in the Syrian war.” He adds that any confusion that might have arisen over this was later clarified by FPM’s “acceptance of the resistance’s right to defend itself.”
Tensions over Hezbollah’s support to Assad are also interfering in the efforts of the prime minister-designate, Tammam Salam, to form a new cabinet, thus contributing to the sense of uncertainty that surrounds Lebanon’s political future. There have been attempts by some factions of the March 14 Alliance to isolate Hezbollah. Samir Geagea, the leader of the Christian right-wing Lebanese Forces party, which is part of the March 14 Alliance, called for Hezbollah’s exclusion from the future cabinet so as to safeguard Lebanon’s international standing. This generated a response from leaders of the FPM, the Progressive Socialist Party and the Shi’a Amal, who claimed that Hezbollah’s exclusion would only increase instability in the country.
Asked about how Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria affects the efforts to form a new government, Hoteit retorts that “Hezbollah maintains its call for dialogue, but its position became firmer after the EU’s decision” to include Hezbollah on its list of terrorist organizations, because “leaving the government would seem like a response to or support of this decision.”
According to Rayess, “There is no doubt that Hezbollah’s intervention makes the process of forming a government even more difficult, though the pitfalls of the process are not limited to this.”
Hezbollah’s official position towards the Syrian conflict means there is no turning back. As the conflict drags on and the repercussions in Lebanon worsen, the likelihood of Lebanese Shi’ites to shift their support to Amal, which is also Shi’a, increases.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat in June, Sheikh Mohammad Al-Hajj Hassan, head of Lebanon’s Free Shi’a Movement (part of the March 14 Alliance), affirmed that more than 300,000 Lebanese Shi’ites opposed Hezbollah’s controversial move.
Nevertheless, Hezbollah enjoys a very loyal support base. On the existence of divisions within the movement over its involvement in Syria, Rayess explains that “there is little room for change” within the organization “and whatever changes do occur are not announced or leaked.” When it comes to Hezbollah’s declining popularity among Shi’ites in Lebanon, he “can’t imagine that any of Hezbollah’s actions, whether internal or external, will have any significant effect on the party’s popularity, especially since it enjoys political and financial support from Iran, which makes its operational capabilities much better than those of its rivals.” Rayess adds that there is not enough unity among independent Shi’ite movements to provide an alternative, which leaves “the bulk of power to Hezbollah and Amal.”
Hoteit describes a similar picture of unity and impermeability of the movement: “Divisions are propagated and desired by others, but the nature and structure of Hezbollah doesn’t allow division.” He explains that “after decisions are made, everyone must abide by them, and whoever doesn’t must leave the party as opposed to splitting from it.” Hoteit says that “in 2000, the year of liberation, the percentage of Shi’ite citizens supporting Hezbollah was 40 percent.” But with “scenes of burning neighborhoods and images of beheadings and hearts being eaten” in Syria, the number of Shi’ites supporting Hezbollah has gone up because it is “the only resistance party and it is facing the threat of terrorism.”
In 2009, Hezbollah’s new political manifesto promoted the group’s greater willingness to be integrated into the Lebanese state and institutions. As outside circumstances continue to be more influential in dictating the group’s choices, this notion has fallen to the ground. It has been replaced with an image of a struggle to adapt to a changing environment and reconcile its ideology with the need for political pragmatism. The question remains whether the Party of God has become too powerful for a resistance movement, but carries on being too radical to be part of government.
Nadine Makarem contributed reporting