Unwanted Ally: Hezbollah’s War against the Islamic State

Andrew McGregor

January 26, 2016

“There is no future for ISIS. Not in war and not in peace.” These words were spoken not by Barack Obama or Vladimir Putin, but rather by Hezbollah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, whose Lebanese Shi’a supporters are engaged in a growing battle against the Sunni militants inside Syria (Press TV [Tehran], November 14, 2015). Despite this, few analysts have considered how Hezbollah’s commitment to defeat Sunni extremists in Syria would fit into a larger Western and/or Russian-directed military intervention to destroy the Islamic State terrorists, especially when the movement is itself considered a terrorist organization by many Western states.

Hezbollah Patrol in SyriaHezbollah Patrol in Syria

Nasrallah insists his movement is conducting pre-emptive military operations designed at preventing Sunni extremists from entering Lebanon, but many Lebanese (including some Shi’a) accuse Hezbollah of drawing the terrorists’ attention to Lebanese targets by acting at the command of the movement’s Iranian sponsors (Reuters, September 6, 2013; Jerusalem Post, September 6, 2013) .

Hezbollah (“the Party of God”) addresses these accusations in two ways: by stating that the Syrian intervention is intended to defend all Lebanese, and by describing the Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front as tools Israel uses to destroy regional opposition, thus bringing the intervention within the larger anti-Israel “Resistance” agenda that has formed the movement’s core ethos since its formation (Reuters, August 15, 2014).

Hezbollah is correct in one sense; Lebanon and its delicate ethnic and religious balance will indeed be in the Islamic State organization’s gun-sights if it succeeds in establishing a secure base in neighboring Syria. Nonetheless, since joining the war in 2013, Hezbollah has lost lives, resources, and most of the moral authority it once commanded even in Sunni communities in the Middle East after repelling an Israeli incursion into southern Lebanon in 2006.

There was relatively little in the way of confrontation between Hezbollah and the Islamic State organization for some time as Hezbollah tended to operate mainly in western Syria while the Islamic State is strongest in the more lightly populated east. This all changed when the Islamic State took the war to Hezbollah on November 12, 2014 by deploying a pair of suicide bombers against the Burj al-Barajneh district of southern Beirut, a mixed but largely Shi’a neighborhood where Hezbollah has a strong presence, killing and wounding scores of civilians. Eager to punish Hezbollah for its Syrian intervention, the Islamic State promised “the Party of Satan” much more of the same (al-Manar TV, November 12, 2015).
On December 3 2015, US Secretary of State John Kerry admitted that the Islamic State cannot be defeated without ground forces, but suggested these should be “Syrian and Arab” rather than Western in origin (Reuters, December 23, 2015). Washington’s efforts so far to assemble and train a politically and religiously “moderate” rebel army have been “a devastating failure” according to Nasrallah, who insists that air strikes alone will do nothing to eliminate the Islamic State organization (AP, September 25, 2015).

Who, then, should these ground fighters be? They will certainly not be British Prime Minister David Cameron’s mythical 70,000 “moderate” rebels (Independent, December 1, 2015). Saudi Arabia and the Gulf nations regard American-led efforts to restore order in Syria as ineffective and are unlikely partners in a Western-led military initiative; besides, their own resources are currently committed to the ongoing military struggle for Yemen. Syria’s Kurdish militias are capable, but have displayed little interest in campaigning outside their own traditional territories. This leaves regime forces and their allies as the only local groups currently capable of tackling the Islamic State in the field.
Saudi Arabia’s clumsy attempt to create a Saudi-led anti-terrorist military alliance of 34 Islamic nations – mainly by announcing its existence to the surprise of many nations the Kingdom claimed were members – further escalated tensions between Shiite and Sunni communities when it was observed that majority Shi’a nations like Iraq and Iran were noticeably absent from the list of members.

Though Lebanon’s Sunni prime minister Tammam Salam declared Lebanon was part of the alliance, membership was immediately rejected by Hezbollah and most Lebanese Christian parties, the latter correctly pointing out that Lebanon had no status as an “Islamic nation.” A Hezbollah statement claimed the Saudis were unsuitable as leaders of an anti-terrorist coalition as they were involved in state terrorism in Yemen and supported terrorist organizations there as well as in Syria and Iraq. The statement went on to question whether the new alliance would confront “Israeli terrorism” or instead target “the Resistance” (Hezbollah, Iran and Syria) (Al-Manar, December 17, 2015; AP, December 17, 2015). Salam claims to have since received assurances from the Kingdom that the Islamic State and not Hezbollah will be targeted, but vital questions remain concerning how the Sunni alliance would interact with Hezbollah and other Shiite forces on the Syrian battlefield (Daily Star [Beirut] Dec 16 2015). Saudi Arabia’s recent decision to execute Shaykh Nimr al-Nimr, a leading Shiite opposition leader, will only embitter the struggle between Shiites and Sunnis in Syria – Nasrallah described it as “an appalling event” (Reuters, January 3, 2016).

Hezbollah Fighter in Syria

Hezbollah Fighter in Action against Free Syrian Army (AP)

With growing calls for greater Western military intervention in Syria and even to set aside the anti-Assad rebellion in order to allow the Syrian Army to focus on the elimination of the Islamic State, it must be understood that at this point of the war there is no functioning Syrian Army that can be separated and deployed independently of Hezbollah and the Iranian military advisers now running Syrian Army operations.

With few exceptions, Syria’s war does not unfold in a series of set-piece battles, but rather in small actions, “a battle of ambushes, of surprise attacks” as one rebel colonel described it (Reuters, October 30, 2015). This daily war of attrition and a rash of desertions has greatly reduced the size and effectiveness of the Syrian national army. Now most operations are planned by Iranian and Hezbollah advisors using well-trained Hezbollah fighters to stiffen Syrian units in the field.

Hezbollah now has an estimated 6000 fighters in Syria, mostly experienced light infantry well-suited to the war’s pattern of small-level clashes punctuated by the occasional major battle. While losses have been heavy at times, the deployment has given Hezbollah valuable battlefield experience in operating on unfamiliar terrain and in cooperation with the regular forces of other nations (Syria, Iran and Russia).

Hezbollah’s war aims are both declared (protecting Shi’a shrines in Syria) and undeclared, the latter including keeping supply lines from Iran open, preserving the friendly Assad regime and keeping Sunni extremists (al-Nusra, Islamic State, etc.) from entering Lebanon. To mollify those who claim the Syrian adventure has little to do with the anti-Israel “Resistance” agenda, Nasrallah claims that Zionists and Sunni extremists have the same goal – “destroying our peoples and our societies” (AFP, October 18, 2015). The Hezbollah leader also insists that any political solution in Syria “begins and ends” with President Bashar al-Assad (AFP, June 6, 2014).

Though Hezbollah has a polarizing effect on Lebanese politics and a record of terrorist attacks, the movement, unlike the Islamic State organization, is no wild-eyed band of religious fanatics ready to slaughter everyone that does not share their religious preferences. As a political party with a strong social-welfare arm, Hezbollah’s leaders have deftly created a political alliance with Maronite Christian factions, secular Druze and even Shi’a of the Amal Movement with whom Hezbollah waged a bitter war in the 1980s.Lebanese sources indicate that Hezbollah began recruiting Christians, Druze and Sunnis for the fight against the Islamic State in late 2014 (Daily Star [Beirut], November 12, 2014). Nonetheless, opposition to Hezbollah within Lebanon cannot be understated.

To counter the political “normalization” of the movement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has proclaimed Hezbollah a global threat that has organized, with Iran, a terrorist network spanning 30 countries on five continents (AFP, July 28, 2015). Nasrallah, in turn, has emphasized the “ISIS monster’s” threat to Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, some of them important sources for private donations to the Islamic State and other Sunni extremist groups. According to Nasrallah: “This danger does not recognize Shiites, Sunnis, Muslims, Christians or Druze or Yazidis or Arabs or Kurds” (Reuters, August 15, 2015). Jews are notably absent from the Hezbollah leader’s list of ethnicities under threat as Hezbollah considers Israel’s Jews to be in league with the Islamic State terrorists.

Last month, President Netanyahu abandoned Israel’s traditional policy of refusing to confirm or deny involvement in foreign air-strikes, acknowledging that Israel was targeting Hezbollah arms shipments to prevent the transfer of “game-changing” weapons from Syria to Lebanon. When Israel believes it has missed a weapons transfer, it attacks Syrian arms stocks, inhibiting the Syrian Army’s ability to combat the Islamic State and other rebel groups (DefenceNews, November 18, 2015). Israeli airstrikes have not targeted Islamic State forces or installations in Syria; like al-Qaeda, ISIS appears reluctant to attack Israel directly, insisting that America must first be weakened and an Islamic state established in Iraq and Syria before Israel can be addressed (Arutz Sheva 7, October 7, 2014).

This reluctance to strike Israel only reinforces Hezbollah’s belief that there is cooperation between Israel and the Sunni extremists (Tasnim News Agency [Tehran], December 10, 2015). Bashar Assad himself has joked that no one can say al-Qaeda doesn’t have an air force when they have the Israeli Air Force to attack regime and Hezbollah positions (Foreign Affairs, January 25, 2015).

Last summer, Hezbollah and Syrian government forces succeeded in driving rebel forces from their last positions in the Qalamun region alongside the border with Lebanon after nearly two years of fighting. Islamic State and al-Nusra fighters had used the region for attacks within Lebanon. Since then, Hezbollah has intensified its war against the Islamic State and Assad’s other enemies in coordination with Russian airstrikes. Though initially criticized for focusing on Syrian Turkmen communities and American-supported units of the Free Syrian Army, Russia has expanded its target list to include the Islamic State, the Nusra Front and the Jaysh al-Islam militia.

So far, Russia appears to be tolerating Israeli strikes on Hezbollah targets, but has also been accused by Israeli military sources of supplying anti-ship cruise missiles to Hezbollah, whether directly or indirectly through Syrian middlemen (al-Manar TV [Beirut], January 15; Jerusalem Post, January 14). Moscow’s deployment of powerful S-400 ground-to-air missiles in Syria means Russian objections to specific air operations over Syria will have to be taken seriously. Russia and Israel have made extraordinary efforts to avoid running in to each other in Syrian airspace – the consequences of an accidental clash could be significant; a Russian military alliance with the “Resistance Axis” of Hezbollah, Syria and Iran would change the strategic situation of the Middle East. Russia has indicated it considers Hezbollah to be a “legitimate socio-political force” rather than a terrorist group, suggesting it is prepared to work with the group in Syria (Reuters, November 15, 2015).

Regardless of the number of “moderate” rebels in Syria, Hezbollah remains better trained, better armed and better led. The moderates cannot operate effectively against the Islamic State until and unless they can disengage from their conflict with the Syrian Army and the rest of the “Resistance Axis.” The West’s contradictory war aims in Syria have been noted by former UK chief of defense staff General David Richards, who suggests that the anti-Assad rebellion needs to be set aside in order to allow the Syrian Army, Hezbollah and their Iranian backers to focus on the elimination of the Islamic State (Guardian, November 18, 2015). However, this plan would require somehow persuading anti-Assad factions to abandon or postpone their struggle as well as cooperation with anti-Assad Kurdish forces to be successful, not to mention a degree of political flexibility in the Western allies that does not exist at present.

So what are the West’s options? Hezbollah might be persuaded to leave Syria if it was guaranteed that capable military forces (preferably not Western in Hezbollah’s view) would serve as their replacement in the defense of the Assad regime. There is little political appetite for this proposition in the West at the moment, despite an increasing number of voices suggesting that the Islamic State organization rather than Assad might be the most pressing problem in Syria.

An alternative is to try to find a means of combating the Islamic State on the ground without recognizing or coordinating with Assad/Hezbollah forces engaged in the same battle, a tricky bit of military manoeuvering that is likely to end badly.

A third option would be to confront Assad regime/Hezbollah/Iranian forces simultaneously with attacks on the Islamic State to create a “New Syria,” a move that would run a high risk of confrontation with Russia and Iran, incite international opposition and the expansion of the conflict well beyond Syria’s borders. The resulting power vacuum in the ruins of Syria would be worse than that experienced in Libya and would in the end pose a direct security threat to both the West and the Middle East.

To resolve the Syrian crisis it is essential either to come to terms with Hezbollah or to confront it, knowing in the latter case that the bulk of the movement and its leadership will remain in Lebanon with the means to strike back at its international antagonists. Ignoring its existence or its role in confronting anti-Shi’a Sunni extremist groups like the Islamic State will not be an option in any ground-based effort to crush Islamic State terrorists.

This article first appeared in the January 26, 2016 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

The Hezbollah Wild Card in the Conflict in Gaza

Andrew McGregor
August 7, 2014

The ongoing Israeli military operations in Gaza have benefitted from the knowledge that Israel’s northern border with Lebanon is not being threatened by the Shi’a Hezbollah movement of Lebanon, the senior partner in the anti-Israel “Resistance” movement. With Hezbollah occupied with its own military operations in Syria and Lebanon’s Beka’a Valley (and possibly now in Iraq), the frontier has remained largely quiet throughout Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” in Gaza, with the Lebanese Army and UN peacekeepers working to prevent rockets from being fired into Israel from southern Lebanon. In late July, Hamas’ political bureau deputy chief, Dr. Musa Abu Marzuk, appealed to Hezbollah to intervene in the Gaza conflict: “We hope the Lebanese front will open and together we will fight against this formation [Israel]… There’s no arguing that Lebanese resistance could mean a lot” (RIA Novosti, July 30).

Musa Abu MurzuqDr. Musa Abu Murzuq

Hezbollah was once able to present itself as the defender of Lebanon and the champion of the anti-Israeli Resistance, but circumstances prevent Hezbollah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah and the rest of the Hezbollah leadership from resuming these roles. Lebanon is now experiencing severe economic problems while hosting over a million refugees from the Syrian conflict. Hezbollah fighters are deeply engaged in the Syrian conflict as well as assuming an important role in preventing Sunni jihadists from Syria from operating in the hills surrounding the Beka’a Valley in north-eastern Lebanon (al-Arabiya, July 26; for Hezbollah attempts to reposition itself as an anti-terrorism force, see Terrorism Monitor, April 18). Other factors working against Hezbollah support for Hamas include local suspicion and resentment arising from Hezbollah’s Syrian intervention and the current strained relations between the two groups. There are also perceptions within Lebanon that Hezbollah has a controlling influence over the Lebanese military and security forces. These forces are currently overstretched and awaiting the supply of $1 billion worth of new French weapons in a deal financed by the Saudis (Daily Star [Beirut], August 5).
Nasrallah’s first public remarks on the current Gaza conflict were not made until July 25, when the Hezbollah leader warned Israel against going to the level of “suicide and collapse” by continuing its campaign in Gaza, while assuring “our brothers in Gaza” that “we will do everything we can to support you” (AP, July 25). Nasrallah elaborated on his remarks in an interview a few days later:

We in Hezbollah will be unstinting in all forms of support, assistance and aid that we are able to provide. We feel we are true partners with this resistance, a partnership of jihad, brotherhood, hope, pain, sacrifice and fate, because their victory is our victory, and their defeat is our defeat… As far as the situation on the battlefield goes, we are winning. Yes, the correlation of forces is beyond comparison, but we have men who are capable of stopping and vanquishing the aggressor (RIA Novosti, July 30).

Nasrallah had earlier made calls to both Hamas chief Khalid Mesha’al and Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Abdullah Shalah to express his support for their struggle against Israel (Daily Star [Beirut], July 22). Despite an increasing political distance between the Sunni Hamas movement and the Shi’a Hezbollah movement due to growing sectarian tensions throughout the Middle East (particularly in Sria) and Hamas’ ties to the now-deposed Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, there are claims that the military arms of the two movements continue to cooperate (Al-Monitor, July 24).

Islamic State Fighters in ArsalIslamic State Fighters in Arsal

The northeastern Lebanese border town of Arsal has been the scene of bitter fighting in recent days as Lebanese troops of the mechanized 5th and 6th Brigades and the light 8th Brigade move into the region to combat an estimated 4,000 Sunni gunmen of the Nusra Front, most of whom arrived from Syria (al-Manar [Beirut], August 4). Also operating in the Qalamoun region are Islamic State forces under the command of local amir Abu Hassan al-Filastini (al-Akhbar [Beirut], August4). Hezbollah is working alongside Lebanese Army troops around Arsal while also working with the Syrian Army to destroy Islamist forces (particularly the Nusra Front) operating in Syria’s Qalamoun region. Hezbollah is reported to be aided in the region by a group of advisors from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard who arrived there in mid-July (Daily Star [Beirut], July 22).

The anti-jihadist operations are intended in part to pre-empt a planned Islamist offensive (Laylat al-Qadr – “Night of Power) against Lebanese border villages intended to abduct hundreds of Lebanese citizens to give the jihadists a bargaining chip in obtaining the release of dozens of their comrades from Lebanon’s Roumieh Prison. Other residents of the region were to be slaughtered in order to provoke a sectarian conflict within Lebanon (Daily Star [Beirut], July 22; July 26; July 27). The planned operation came after an earlier scheme to enable a jailbreak by blasting the Roumieh Prison gates open with a car-bomb was foiled by Lebanese intelligence (al-Sharq al-Awsat, July 5). Lebanon’s Sunni Prime Minister, Tammam Salam, has ruled out any kind of political deal with the Sunni gunmen on the frontier (Reuters, August 4).

Fighting in the area began following the arrest of Imad Juma’a (a.k.a. Abu Ahmad Juma’a), leader of the Sunni militant Fajr al-Islam Brigade (allied to the Islamist Nusra Front). Juma’a recently declared his allegiance to the Iraqi-Syrian Islamic State and its leader, the self-declared “Caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (al-Akhbar [Beirut], August 4).

Hezbollah has cut the jihadists’ supply lines in the region between Qalamoun and Arsal while the Syrian Air Force conducts air-strikes against concentrations of gunmen in the mountains in anticipation of a major joint Hezbollah-Syrian Army-Lebanese Army operation to flush out the gunmen and eliminate their presence in the border region. While likely to be militarily effective, the prospect of Hezbollah operating closely with the officially secular Lebanese Army has alarmed many Sunni leaders within Lebanon. In addition, Arsal is predominantly Sunni and generally in sympathy with the Syrian jihadists, leading to the possibility of a joint operation as described sparking a sectarian confrontation within Lebanon (Daily Star [Beirut], July 31).

With most of its best fighting cohorts operating in Syria or northern Lebanon, Hezbollah is reluctant to renew hostilities with Israel at this time. A war on two fronts would not be sustainable, and Hezbollah is well aware that the Israeli Defense Forces have been using their repeated ground offensives into Gaza to develop the new methods and tactics necessary to avoid a repetition of their failure to overcome Hezbollah forces in 2006.

This article first appeared in the August 7, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

In a Shifting Political Landscape, Hezbollah Repositions itself as the Anti-Terrorist Defender of Lebanon

Andrew McGregor

April 18, 2014

The growing perception in the Arab Middle East that Syria’s military has recently gained the upper hand in Syria’s civil war over an armed opposition that includes a number of politically dangerous extremist groups is leading to a number of new diplomatic initiatives aimed at resolving the Syrian crisis in a manner that will ensure security and stability for its neighbors. In Damascus there is a new confidence, with preparations underway for presidential elections in July and the war expected to finish by the end of the year. In the Hezbollah headquarters in southern Beirut, movement leaders are working on efforts to overcome the party’s politically-damaging military intervention in Syria by repositioning Hezbollah as Lebanon’s first line of defense against Syrian-based jihadists and terrorists. According to Hezbollah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, “The problem in Lebanon is not that Hezbollah went to Syria, but that we were late in doing so” (al-Jazeeera, March 29).

Intervention in Syria

Hezbollah entered the Syrian conflict in 2012 by sending small numbers of fighters to protect the Shrine of Sayida Zaynab (revered by Shiites) in south Damascus. The Hezbollah deployment escalated sharply in April 2013 as the movement played a major role in the battle for al-Qusayr (al-Jazeera, April 6).

Inside the Shrine of Sayida Zaynab, Damascus

Militarily, the movement has had a number of notable successes in Syria in recent weeks, ranging from the mid-March capture of the rebel stronghold at the strategically vital town of Yabroud, close to Lebanon’s Beka’a Valley, to the April 9 capture of the Syrian border town of Rankous, part of an effort to consolidate control of the Damascus to Homs highway. Both operations were conducted in cooperation with forces of the Syrian national army. These successes permit Hezbollah and the Lebanese Forces an opportunity to secure the Syrian-Lebanese border from further suicide bombings and other attacks by Sunni jihadists operating in Syria. Syrian opposition forces crossing the Lebanese/Syrian border are already restricted to using the most difficult mountain routes to cross the frontier (al-Sharq al-Awsat, April 11).

Hezbollah is currently cooperating with the Lebanese Army in a security crackdown in the Beka’a Valley, home to a significant number of Shiites (Daily Star [Beirut], April 11). The region has witnessed numerous retaliatory attacks by Syrian opposition forces on Hezbollah operatives since the Hezbollah intervention began. There have also been a number of incidents of sectarian violence in northern Lebanon (particularly the port city of Tripoli) that the Lebanese Army is working to eliminate. Lebanese security forces have also warned of a recent infiltration by al-Nusra Islamist fighters into the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, where they are able to avoid ongoing security sweeps and plan bombings within Lebanon and Syria (Daily Star [Beirut], April 3).

Hezbollah deputy leader Shaykh Na’im Qasim says the recent battles in Syria have left the international community with a choice:

Either have an understanding with Assad to reach a result, or to keep the crisis open with President Assad having the upper hand in running the country… America is in a state of confusion. On the one hand it does not want the regime to stay and on the other it cannot control the militants which are represented by ISIS and al-Nusra. This is why the latest American position was to leave the situation in Syria in a state of attrition (Fars News Agency [Tehran], April 10).

Elsewhere, Qasim has noted that Assad retains the support of Syria’s religious minorities and suggests that political realities in the region must be addressed: “There is a practical Syrian reality that the West should deal with – not with its wishes and dreams, which proved to be false” (Fars News Agency [Tehran], April 12).

The Intervention and Hezbollah’s Domestic Standing

The former head of the opposition Syrian National Council, Dr. Burhan Ghalioun, predicts that Hezbollah will soon pull out of Syria due to heavy combat losses and growing dissent within the movement (al-Watan [Abha, Saudi Arabia], April 10). While possible, Ghalioun’s prediction runs counter to Hezbollah’s determination to preserve the Assad government for various reasons vital to the movement’s future success and overlooks Tehran’s importance in encouraging further Hezbollah operations in Syria. Nonetheless, Hezbollah has adapted its tactics to reduce battlefield losses by emphasizing reconnaissance and secure communications (AP, April 13).

Hezbollah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah believes there is a growing recognition within Lebanon and even his own movement of the necessity for Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria: “We do not face a problem with our people about our participation in Syria, on the contrary, there was a group that was hesitant, but it has settled its choice with us… I can say that some [anti-Assad] March 14 partisans support our involvement in Syria to protect Lebanon from terrorist takfiri groups” (Daily Star [Beirut], April 7).

Already strong in its military and social service divisions, Hezbollah is now seeking to expand its political influence in Lebanon beyond its representatives in parliament.  Nonetheless, Hezbollah pulled out of Lebanon’s national dialogue in March after President Michel Sulayman criticized the movement’s involvement in Lebanon. Shaykh Na’im Qasim has stated that the movement will rejoin the talks only if four conditions are met:

  • All parties must recognize that Israel is a threat to Lebanon
  • No single group can monopolize power in Lebanon
  • Political parties must resist linking the fate of Lebanon to the regional crisis
  • Presidential and parliamentary elections must be held on schedule (Daily Star [Beirut], April 5).

Hezbollah has also emerged as a major player in the selection of a new Lebanese president. The candidate of the Christian Lebanese Forces Party (part of the anti-Syrian March 14 coalition), Dr. Samir Geagea, is a traditional opponent of Hezbollah and Syria (with the latter being behind his 11 years spent in solitary confinement in a windowless basement cell). However, Geagea is now seeking a more collaborative relationship with Hezbollah, which he insists should abandon its weapons and become a full-fledged political party. A former militia leader, Geagea does not agree with Hezbollah’s argument that it must retain its weapons so long as the Lebanese Army is incapable of defending the nation against Israeli incursions:

They are not the ones to make that decision. Lebanon will be an effective state that makes decisions or it will cease to exist. They cannot make decisions on our behalf. Hezbollah cannot assume that weapons are the best way to protect Lebanon… Talking about resistance is no longer convincing… If you take a look at the military’s weapons capabilities as it currently stands, the military is more than 50 times better armed than Hezbollah… The military’s Special Forces (the Marine Commandos, Mountain Commandos and Strike Force) outnumber Hezbollah’s Special Forces two to one or more. Hezbollah’s constituency will be the greatest beneficiaries of a stable, secure state that will allow the Lebanese economy to recover and create new opportunities for development projects (al-Sharq al-Awsat, April 9).

Hezbollah, however, is supporting the as yet undeclared candidacy of Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) leader and former Lebanese Army commander General Michel Aoun for president (the office is restricted to Christians under Lebanon’s national pact; Aoun is a Maronite Christian). The movement is expanding its political role in Lebanon by building alliances with the Shiite Amal movement and other elements of the pro-Syrian March 8 coalition (which includes both Hezbollah and the FPM). Sayyid Nasrallah insists his movement is seeking a “made-in-Lebanon” president, chosen without foreign interference (al-Akhbar [Beirut], April 8).

The Anti-Terrorist Agenda

A generally pro-Hezbollah Beirut daily’s description of the movement’s current security role provides some idea of how Hezbollah is positioning itself as Lebanon’s first line of defense against “takfiri” terrorists:

The Lebanese army cannot succeed in its current and future plans without at least moral support from Hezbollah. It would not be possible to eliminate terrorist and takfiri groups in Syria without the party. Security actors are aware of the important intelligence role played by the party in uncovering bombs and networks aiming to terrorise Lebanon and ignite strife. The party and its allies form a heavy political force, making it impossible to take any major national political decision against the party or without it (al-Akhbar [Beirut], April 11).

According to Sayyid Nasrallah, Hezbollah is not a substitute for the state, “even in the matter of resistance. When the state becomes capable and strong enough to defend Lebanon, we in the Resistance will go back to our schools and our universities and affairs” (as-Safir [Beirut], April 8). There are few signs, however, that anyone in the Hezbollah leadership believes that time is near. In the meantime, movement officials emphasize the movement’s success in closing a number of car-bomb factories threatening Lebanon during recent Hezbollah military operations in Syria’s Qalamun region, close to the Lebanese border.

The Shifting Diplomatic Landscape

There are indications that Iran and Saudi Arabia are beginning to develop contacts with the goal of eventual discussions on the Syrian issue (al-Akhbar [Beirut], April 9). Nasrallah has stated he supports reconciliation between the two nations (as-Safir [Beirut], April 8). Iran is reported to be proposing a ceasefire, the formation of a national unity government, gradual transfer of presidential powers to a national government and finally presidential and parliamentary elections (al-Akhbar [Beirut], March 31). There is little doubt that Hezbollah would welcome any steps towards finding a Syrian solution; the movement’s participation in the conflict has come at an enormous human and financial cost to Hezbollah’s Lebanese constituency.

While the movement’s leadership maintains support for their role in Syria is actually increasing, it is also clear that Hezbollah’s commitment in Syria cannot be open-ended. While Nasrallah sees a turn-around in the fortunes of the Assad regime, he is also aware the conflict is entering a dangerous phase for his movement if no settlement is in sight: “In my opinion, the phase of bringing down the regime or bringing down the state is over… [The armed opposition] cannot overthrow the regime, but they can wage a war of attrition” (as-Safir [Beirut], April 7).

Hezbollah’s relations with Egypt also appear to be thawing after a complete breakdown during the rule of former Egyptian president Muhamad Mursi. With the discredited Muslim Brotherhood out of the way, Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy met with Hezbollah MP and Industry Minister Hussein al-Hajj Hassan on March 20. Hassan is said to have explained Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria as a response to the dangers posed by cross-border terrorism (al-Akhbar, March 31). While the groundbreaking meeting was far from an Egyptian endorsement of the movement, it did represent an important, if tentative, step towards improving relations and developing a more cooperative policy on the Syrian issue (Egypt opposes Hezbollah’s military intervention). With Egypt working closely with Saudi Arabia, its main financial backer during the political transition, and Hezbollah working closely with the Iranian regime, further talks could be the beginning of a gradual reduction in the dangerous tension between the often overlapping Shiite and Sunni spheres of the Middle East.

The Anti-Israeli Resistance

Hezbollah is aware that its military commitment in Syria could be interpreted as an opportunity by the Israeli military and has therefore remained active along the border with Israel to demonstrate it can still mount operations against Israel while supporting the Assad regime within Syria. Israeli strikes such as the air attack on two Hezbollah trucks carrying missiles in late February are politically useful to the movement, which characterizes such strikes as attacks on the Lebanese nation that confirm Israel’s “aggressive nature” (Daily Star [Beirut], February 27).

A Hezbollah attack on an Israeli unit in the disputed Shaba’a Farms region on the border was carried out on March 14 in response to an Israeli Air Force raid a week earlier (Jerusalem Post, April 11). Nasrallah said the attack “sent a message that the Resistance is still capable of fighting Israel” and added that the operation was “about deterrence” (as-Safir [Beirut], April 8).

Financial Distress?

There are signs that Hezbollah is undergoing financial stress at the moment due to several factors, most notably cuts in funding due to Iranian austerity measures. While the movement continues to receive financial assistance from the independent budget of Supreme Guide Ayatollah Khamenei, funding from the Iranian Foreign Ministry is reported to have stopped five months ago (al-Sharq al-Awsat, April 9).

A bipartisan bill before the U.S. House of Representatives, the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act (H.R. 4411), is designed to “cripple” Hezbollah and eliminate its threat to Israel by extending new financial sanctions, penalizing satellite providers carrying Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV and dual designations as a narcotics trafficking organization and transnational criminal organization  (Daily Star [Beirut], April 6). [1] Economic investments and an expanding commercial element are important sources of revenue for Hezbollah that may be threatened to some extent by the proposed U.S. legislation.

Hezbollah’s deployment in Syria is also a financial drain on the movement. While Iran covers the costs of the actual military deployment, the costs of responding to associated attacks by Sunni militants within Lebanon are borne by the movement, which also provides $50,000 in cash to the families of each Hezbollah member killed in Syria, as well as housing for those families who need it. The result has been cutbacks in various Hezbollah programs, especially allocations to media groups belonging to allied Sunni and Christian currents (al-Sharq al-Awsat, April 9).

Donations from the Lebanese Shi’a diaspora are another important source of funding, but this source is also under duress. On April 8, German authorities banned what they described as a Hezbollah front organization that had raised $4.5 million in Germany since 2007. The ban was accompanied by a series of raids as Interior Minister Thomas de Maziere explained: “Organizations that directly or indirectly from German soil oppose the state of Israel’s right to exist may not seek freedom of association protection” (Daily Star [Beirut], April 9).

Conclusion

Hezbollah is confident it can regain the respect and influence it had in the region after it repulsed the Israeli military in 2006 by positioning itself as not only an anti-Israel resistance movement but also a shield against (Sunni) jihadist groups preparing cross-border terrorist attacks in Lebanon. Overlooked in Hezbollah statements is the fact that it is Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria that attracts many (though by no means all) of these attacks. Though the movement is undergoing great stress from its military campaign in Syria and Western efforts to interrupt its funding, the movement has demonstrated great resilience in the past and is likely to support diplomatic efforts to end the costly conflict in Syria. Resolution in this sphere promises to bring greater regional acceptance for the movement and will enable it to continue its move from Lebanon’s political periphery to its political center in Beirut.

Note

1. See Rep. Mark Meadows, “Cut Off Hezbollah’s Lifeline to International Financing,” Washington Examiner, April 10, 2014, http://washingtonexaminer.com/cut-off-hezbollahs-lifeline-to-international-financing/article/2547025; Rep. Paul Cook, “Rep. Paul Cook Cosponsors Bills to Sanction Hezbollah, Block Terrorist from Entering the United States,” Press Release, April 9, 2014, http://cook.house.gov/media-center/press-releases/rep-paul-cook-cosponsors-bills-to-sanction-hezbollah-block-terrorist

This article first appeared in the April 18, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Low Expectations Surround Lebanese Military Deployment in Tripoli

Andrew McGregor

October 31, 2013

The latest intervention of the Lebanese Army into the coastal city of Tripoli to force an end to armed clashes between the impoverished Sunni Bab al-Tebbaneh and the Alawite Jabal Muhsin districts of Tripoli has not been accompanied by high expectations. The military is making its 18th intervention in Tripoli since May, 2008, with none of the earlier operations so far having had any significant impact on the sectarian conflict between the two neighborhoods. The Army is already overstretched in dealing with security disturbances across Lebanon, including cross-border shelling by both sides in the Syrian conflict, engagements with Sunni gunmen in southern Lebanon and a wave of car bombings. Tripoli, a city of roughly 200,000 people, is 80% Sunni with Christian and Alawite minorities making up the difference.

The latest round of violence began on October 21 following a televised speech by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in which the Syrian leader appeared to say Jabal Muhsin was part of Syria, forcing the Lebanese Army to return to the city to restore order (al-Manar TV [Beirut], October 23; al-Sharq al-Awsat, October 29). Sniper fire from both sides greeted the arrival of the troops, who acting Prime Minister Najib Mikati said would “be strict and impartial” in dealing with the ongoing violence (al-Jazeera, October 28). Seventeen people have been killed and more than 100 wounded in fighting that has derailed a forthcoming disarmament campaign in the city (al-Jazeera, October 28). Intense at times, the conflict has seen the use of rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns and mortars.

Lebanese troops moved further into the conflict zone on October 29. After a short and relative calm, fighting broke out again on the evening of October 30 after Al-Hizb al-Arabi al-Dimuqrati (HAD – Arab Democratic Party) founder Ali Eid (father of HAD secretary-general and effective current leader Rifaat al-Eid) was called in for questioning by the Internal Security Forces’ (ISF) Information Branch in connection with the bombings. The HAD declared that the call was nothing less than the declaration of “a new war against Jabal Mohsen” (Daily Star [Beirut], October 31).

In the 1980s, Syrian support allowed the HAD and its armed wing of the time, al-Fursan al-Hammur al-Arabi, to develop Jabal Muhsin as a strategic stronghold overlooking the city of Tripoli, giving the small Alawite community an enormous advantage over the more numerous Sunnis. While the ongoing civil war in Syria has inflamed tensions in Tripoli, it is not solely responsible for inter-communal clashes that have practically become a way of life in parts of Tripoli over nearly four decades.

Preliminary investigations into the twin car bombings of Tripoli’s Sunni al-Salam and al-Taqwa mosques that killed 47 people on August 23 indicated the bombings had been carried out by elements from Jabal Muhsin with the support of Syrian intelligence services. The summons for Ali Eid came after Ahmad Muhammad Ali, a personal guard and driver for HAD leader Rifaat Eid, confessed to army intelligence that, working under Rifaat Eid’s orders, he had helped Ahmad Merhi flee to Syria from Jabal Muhsin (Daily Star [Beirut], October 30). Merhi has been identified as the driver who planted the car bomb outside the Taqwa mosque. Rifaat Eid, meanwhile, has suggested that the charges were prompted by Saudi demands as a means of taking revenge for Hezbollah participation in the Syrian conflict (al-Safir [Beirut], October 18).

Seven suspects in the bombings were charged by a military prosecutor on October 14, though four of the suspects remain at large. One of the detainees, HAD associate Yusuf Diab, is reported to have confessed to driving the car bomb that exploded outside al-Salam mosque (Daily Star [Beirut], October 14). Ziad Allouki, a leading Sunni militia leader in Bab al-Tebbaneh, has warned of intensified clashes if the Army does not arrest Rifaat al-Eid in connection with the August mosque bombings (Daily Star [Beirut], October 28).