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The Syrian Conflict and its Impact on Hezbollah’s Authority
There is no shortage of literature on Hezbollah’s history, ideology and strategies, but comparatively less addressing the group’s involvement in the Syrian conflict. Moreover, much of the contemporary literature on Hezbollah is examined through foreign and ‘Western’ structures, pro-Israel or pro-Palestine viewpoints, or via stereotypical black and white worldviews that are often presented by media outlets. Having said that, a new field of literature is emerging that examines Hezbollah not solely as a terrorist organization, but also as a critical political component of Lebanon. This upcoming research paper will position itself within this new field of literature whilst bridging the current knowledge gap of Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, and its subsequent impact on Hezbollah’s influence in the Lebanese political arena. The paper’s methodology will be multidimensional: relying primarily upon secondary sources, although engaging with primary sources whenever possible. As such, this essay will provide considerable insight into: the internal criticism within Hezbollah’s traditional Shi’ite support base, the narrative the Party is utilising to counter the effects of the Syrian conflict, how Hezbollah is maintaining its strong political influence and finally how Hezbollah will maintain its strong military influence and dominance inside Lebanon in light of its participation in the Syrian conflict. This essay will argue that despite Hezbollah’s physical involvement in Syria and subsequent exacerbating tensions inside Lebanon, Hezbollah’s actions will have minimal impact on their Lebanese legitimacy.
Hezbollah’s on-going and escalating involvement in the Syrian conflict will continue to pose the organisation a serious challenge amongst its traditional support base in Lebanon: Shi’ites. The lack of public disconnect from the Shi’ite community in response to Hezbollah’s current geopolitical decisions highlight the strong support Hezbollah and its core holds within the Shi’ite community. This indicates that despite the ‘Shi’ite challenge’ and the many issues surrounding it, Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria will cost them very little influence in Lebanon. Hezbollah is deeply embedded in the Shi’a community and as such, its organisational ties cannot be easily removed (Norton 2007a, p. 157). Historically, Lebanese Shi’ites have been subjugated, disenfranchised and neglected through non-Shi’a domination and lack of internal coordination (Love 2010, p. 16). During the 1960s, the Shi’a community have become increasingly aware of their limited access to political power and wealth that has led to their demand for fairer distribution and just political representation (Haddad 2006, p. 23). Although no census has been undertaken since 1932, it has been suggested that Shi’ites account for 35 per cent of the Lebanese population, many of whom feel seriously under-represented in Lebanon’s economic and political system (Wiegand 2009, p. 670). For many Shi’a this protracted status quo was shifted by the emergence of Hezbollah in the 1980s. Notwithstanding its militant status prior to the Ta’if Agreement and recent armed conflicts since 1992, Hezbollah has skilfully inserted itself within Lebanon’s political structure as a political Party for Shi’ites (Azani 2012, p. 745). Through espousing a model of modernity (stepping away from its original goals of an Islamic State) and political empowerment, Hezbollah has managed to draw upon a broad number of supporters within Lebanon’s substantial Shi’a community that is estimated at 1.4 million in a country of only 4 million citizens (Norton 2007b, p. 475).
Hezbollah’s Shi’ite constituents are from varying socio-economic backgrounds. The party attracts and represents a notable amount of lower-class citizens, yet the majority of its support is derived from middle-class (Haddad 2006, p. 22). According to the Pew Research Center: 94 per cent of Lebanese Shi’ites hold Hezbollah in a favourable light (Pew Research Center 2012, p. 5). Furthermore, Simon Haddad reveals seven out of ten of his Shi’a respondents endorse Hezbollah’s activities and roughly two-thirds of the survey has completed volunteer work with Hezbollah (Haddad 2013, p. 22). Hezbollah has given these Shi’ites an individualised Lebanese Shi’a a collective memory and identity that is distinct from non-Shi’ite Lebanese (Haddad 2013, p. 19). These new collective Shi’ite frameworks have generated a sense of pride and self-worth amongst Hezbollah’s Shi’ite constituents (Harb 2010, p. 148). Hezbollah has become the trusted political party for many Lebanese Shi’ites, and without detracting entirely from the influence of Amal (Hezbollah’s main Shi’ite political ‘rival’), many Lebanese Shi’ites thank Hezbollah for their current position within Lebanon (Slim 2011, 0:13:40).
This trust and goodwill towards Hezbollah has derived from a number of factors such as social services, infrastructure, communication services, yet much of it comes from personal trust in Hezbollah’s third Secretary General: Hassan Nasrallah (Slim 2013b). Losing his son in a war against Israel has given him more influence when speaking to fellow Shi’ites that other leaders like Nabih Berri (Amal) do not possess (Slim 2013b). Supporters claim “Nasrallah and Hezbollah [have] delivered on every promise they made” (Slim 2013b). Having said this, there does exist Shi’ite opposition towards Hezbollah, especially regarding their involvement in the Syrian conflict. Many Shi’ites have expressed their disapproval of Hezbollah’s behaviour, such as Shi’ite cleric Sayyed Ali Al-Amin who has criticised Hezbollah using controversial terms (Mansour 2010, p. 103; LBC TV 2006). Al-Amin is undoubtedly one of Hezbollah’s strongest critics, but it remains difficult to locate any recent media establishing his position on Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict. Nonetheless, Al-Amin has called Hezbollah “the party of Satan,” blames Hezbollah for the 2006 Lebanon War while questioning Hezbollah’s mass popularity and suggesting Hezbollah’s various media mediums allow it to be loudest but not the largest Shi’ite representative (Patriquin 2006, p. 34). Strangely his criticisms do not extend to Nasrallah: a former classmate of his that he praises and assigns both intelligence and skilfulness to (Patriquin 2006, p. 34). Opposition to Hezbollah is not restricted to influential and powerful Shi’ites, ordinary Lebanese Shi’a have also expressed opposition to some of Hezbollah’s actions. This coupled with various internal Hezbollah financial scandals, embezzlement charges, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), drug manufacturing and distribution accusations have weighed heavily on Hezbollah supporters according to Haddad’s research (Haddad 2013, p. 27; Levitt 2012, p. 34). Haddad concludes that the party’s once solid standing within the Shi’ite community appears to be compromised due to these internal transgressions (Haddad 2013, p. 17). It is apparent Hezbollah was already facing an internal challenge from economic, political, cultural and social movements within its Shi’ite support base long prior to the Syrian conflict (Menassa 2013). Annie Barnard argues that Hezbollah is facing significant pressure from its Shi’ite supporters: some Shi’ites politically support Hezbollah yet are now resentful of its involvement in the Syrian conflict due to cross-border fighting disrupting their livelihoods and communities (Barnard 2013). Traditionally in times of existential conflict Shi’ites have mobilised around Hezbollah, although it remains difficult to juxtapose a conflict that involves a threat to Lebanese sovereignty with an external conflict characterised by voluntary involvement (Norton 2007a, p. 27). Hanin Ghaddar makes a sweeping generalisation that Hezbollah’s popular support base is immensely angry at the party’s current behaviour (Ghaddar 2013, 0:09:50). Conversely Slim provides a more nuanced understanding of this challenge by proposing the Shi’ite community’s dynamic and thus is in a constant state of fluidity and flux (Slim 2013b). She concurs that Hezbollah still has a very strong core of support (20-30%) within the Shi’a community that supports their actions within Syria (Slim 2013b). Accordingly, Hezbollah will be able to rely upon this solid core to maintain their influence inside Lebanon (Slim 2013b).
Furthermore, battles like Al-Qusayr (Syria, April – June 2013) that cost the lives of a countless number of Hezbollah fighters do not resonate well within the Lebanese Shi’ite community. According to Slim, many Hezbollah supporters can understand the need to capture and hold Al-Qusayr as it provides a safe buffer zone along the Syria-Lebanon border, but do not authorise the involvement of Hezbollah in Aleppo (Slim 2013a, 0:16:10). She asserts Lebanese Shi’ites will make Hezbollah ‘pay’ for pushing beyond Al-Qusayr (Slim 2013a, 0:40:00). Ghaddar claims that during the battle Hezbollah fighters began to realise they are not killing Sunnis and dying for the protection of Lebanon, this is something that Shi’a Lebanese cannot accept (Ghaddar 2013, 0:11:00). Many Shi’a Hezbollah supporters (excluding many of the inner core) now believe Hezbollah is mixing its priorities with the Party no longer ‘protecting its home’ (Slim 2013a, 0:17:40). Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict is bringing them into ‘uncharted territory’ full of political gambles and exacerbating internal discontent from their Shi’ite supporters (Khouri 2013). Inevitably time will tell how many more deaths and subsequent repercussions it will take before the Shi’ite community has had enough. Without strong internal Shi’ite support, Hezbollah will have little influence and political manoeuvrability inside Lebanon (Slim 2013a, 0:53:00). Both Hezbollah and Nasrallah are attempting to counter these grievances by framing the conflict with various narratives (e.g. survival, religious etc.). Regardless, Hezbollah is facing a serious challenge from non-core supporters (i.e. political). Currently it has had little impact upon Hezbollah’s influence inside Lebanon. However, with the steady continuation of losses for Hezbollah, and without proper management, the Party may face a decrease in internal legitimacy and authority within both the Lebanese Shi’ite community and greater Lebanon.
Thus far, Hezbollah’s use of framing has been incredibly effective. The Syrian Conflict is not the first time Hezbollah has attempted to frame conflicts in a particular way (e.g. Israel 2006) while prescribing beneficial narratives. Since its formation Hezbollah has successfully employed a narrative of ‘resistance’ that is intended to guide Hezbollah and its constituents’ decisions: framing many of its conflicts accordingly (Saad-Ghorayeb 2001, p. 126). According to Scheifer, Hezbollah has at times delivered contradictory narratives to it domestic supporters: a mixture of secular, Islamic, Shi’a specific and national liberation frames (Schleifer 2006, p. 269). The current set of frames has been a gradual revolution for Hezbollah as they become increasingly aware of the need to bring their constituency and subsequent endorsements (i.e. segments of the March 8 Alliance) with them into Syria (Slim 2013a, 0:06:50). Hezbollah, and particularly Nasrallah, have implemented two distinct narratives: one directed at all Lebanese citizens that emphasises the necessity of Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria for the protection of Lebanon, as well as a cosmic framework directed at the Lebanese Shi’ite community.[i] Historically Hezbollah have utilised such narratives when fighting Israel with the intention of uniting the greater population of Lebanon through identifying Israel as a common enemy to all. This is done in the hope that Hezbollah would receive internal legitimacy (Schleifer 2006, p. 270). Hezbollah has been attempting to secure the support of all-Lebanese citizens through portraying their involvement in Syria as a national struggle, as opposed to sectarianism (Wehrey 2002, p. 58). Further, a primary interview by Barnard reveals that some Lebanese trust the narratives Hezbollah has constructed. Barnard’s interviews refer to the conflict as a ‘regrettable necessity,’ whilst others remark that “if we didn’t [fight] they will come to us [inside Lebanon]” (Barnard 2013).
In addition, Hezbollah is attempting to salvage its internal influence by applying a cosmic framework to the conflict that ordinary Lebanese Shi’ites can connect with. The Shi’ite cosmic narrative can be broken into various elements, each with their own importance and references to Shi’a Islam. The challenge Hezbollah will face in the effective implementation of this strategy is shifting a narrative from a conflict that was initially considered as political choice to shore up a long-term ally, to one that necessitates war for the protection of Shi’ites [i.e. fighting Syrian Sunni Opposition] (Slim 2013b). As Norton demonstrates within his book, cosmic framing has been successfully utilised by Hezbollah in the past. Following the 1996 Israeli Defence Force (IDF) shelling of Qana (Southern Lebanon), Hezbollah supporters erected banners within the village accusing Israel of genocide and terrorism whilst invoking axioms from key Shi’ite figures (e.g. Imam Hussein) (Norton 1998, p. 152). Moreover, Hezbollah convincingly linked Qana to Karbala (the location Hussein martyred himself in the year 680) (Norton 1998, pp. 152-3). According to Norton, these cosmic frames incite further hatred toward Israel that Hezbollah had intentionally instigated (Norton 1998, p. 153). As a result, Nasrallah has been publically declaring it a duty of all Shi’ites to protect their fellow Shi’ites in Syria and the subsequent holy Shi’ite sites inside Syria (e.g. Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque in Damascus) (Slim 2013a, 0:04:30). At times Nasrallah has even attempted to be altruistic in his cosmic framing by claiming Hezbollah’s active armed protection of Shi’ite shrines in Syria is an attempt to prevent a wider Sunni vs. Shi’ite conflict (Slim 2013a, 0:04:48). However, some of these cosmic frames are being undermined by Hezbollah themselves through conspiratorial narratives (e.g. CIA infiltration in Syria).
The latest cosmic framework attempts to classify Syrian opposition groups and supporters as ‘takfiris’. That is, a Muslim who denounces another Muslim as an apostate, an unbeliever and thus infidel (Eickelman & Piscatori 1996, p. 131). Whether these cosmic narratives are being received positively remains difficult to confirm. Haddad’s research expressed that 70% of Lebanese Shi’ites consider themselves as moderately religious, 89% said they prayed regularly but the most significant 53% of respondents were considered highly religious when a number of related questions were combined (Haddad 2013, p. 23). Further, rooted in his study of 1000 Lebanese citizens Corstange identified that Shi’ite Hezbollah supporters are more likely to take comfort in their religion than their fellow non-Hezbollah Shi’ite equals, yet are no more likely to hold conservative religious outlooks (Corstange 2012, p. 151). With this data Haddad suggests Hezbollah sympathisers and partisans exhibit higher level of religious involvement before actively participating in Party activities (Haddad 2013, p. 24). The religiosity data provided is difficult to interpret with regards to the Syrian conflict, yet with only 53% of the Shi’ites being classified as deeply religious one could theorise that the cosmic framework currently being spun by Hezbollah may be ineffective due to the relatively moderate Lebanese Shi’ite community.
However, this does not mean Hezbollah’s influence inside Lebanon is being compromised. According to Weimann, Hezbollah has some fifty plus websites in which the Party can widely distribute its narratives and therefore maintain influence (Weimann 2008, pp. 9-13). In addition to this, Hezbollah maintains its television network: al-Manar (the Beacon). Hezbollah uses al-Manar to legitimise the Party’s behaviours, broadcast Nasrallah’s speeches and circulate narrative (Jorisch 2004, p. 301). Nonetheless, the potency of al-Manar should not be overstated. In his study of media usage within the Lebanese Shi’ite community Matar’s research indicated that Lebanese engagement sought a diverse range of media to see how that outlet was reporting the same event (Matar & Dakhlallah 2006, p. 36). This diversification and critical thinking could have a dire impact on Hezbollah’s narratives and consequently its influence inside Lebanon. Having said that, Slim, herself Lebanese, argues there is a deficiency of credible Shi’ite counter-narratives that are ultimately leading to the positive consumption of Hezbollah’s narrative (Slim 2013b). This is exacerbated when ‘independent’ Shi’ites question Hezbollah’s narratives: remaining isolated from each other and often discredited by the mass of Shi’ites because of their largely foreign funding (i.e. the Gulf) or political associations (Slim 2013b). Together with the lack of counter-narratives, Hezbollah uses the Shi’ite education system to construct a new ‘mentality’ within pupils from a young age (Harb & Leenders 2005, p. 190). Simultaneously, through its ‘Information Unit,’ the Arts Organisation and related agencies within Hezbollah have managed to produce iconography, and memorialisation through Dahieh (a Hezbollah stronghold and majority Shi’ite area) that directly correlates Hezbollah’s narratives to historical Shi’ism (Harb 2010, p. 145).
To Hezbollah’s misfortune, much of Lebanon has not positively received the Party’s conflict framing, yet large segments of Hezbollah’s constituency and Shi’ites in Southern Beirut have seemed to buy into elements of it (Slim 2013b). How Hezbollah’s impact inside Lebanon will be affected depends heavily upon whether Lebanese, but more importantly whether Shi’ites, accept Hezbollah’s narratives, and thus continue to support the Party. Moreover, oppositional groups inside Lebanon influence this process greatly. Emerging videos of Jabhat al-Nursa fighters killing 12 Alawite Syrian soldiers at close range, an opposition soldier eating the heart of an enemy soldier (Alawite or Shi’a) and threats to Nasrallah from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) commanders (e.g. General Salim Idriss) all mutually reinforce Hezbollah’s narratives (Slim 2013b). The continuation of such rhetoric and behaviour will undoubtedly continue to encourage support for Hezbollah within large segments of Lebanon, and as a result maintain Hezbollah’s strong influence inside the country.
Along with implementing conflict frames with the intention of preserving their influence inside Lebanon, Hezbollah is also carefully and strategically managing its political influence within Lebanon in light of its involvement and diversion into the Syrian conflict. Currently Hezbollah and its relevant political partners (e.g. Amal and FPM) are efficiently managing to preserve Hezbollah’s political influence and curb any blowback from the Party’s involvement in Syria. Nonetheless, Hezbollah will inevitably face some future political challenges due to their participation in Syria that will lead to a loss of political clout inside Lebanon. In 1998 Norton contended that Hezbollah’s viability as a political player within Lebanon was certain (Norton 1998, p. 157). In an ABC interview Khouri states that Hezbollah has been tested politically and that their involvement within Syria is a serious political gamble (Khouri 2013). The latter is definitely correct, although Hezbollah has been and will continue to deal with political tests effectively. Hezbollah will be a permanent feature within Lebanese politics: the Party already proving its ability to ‘play politics’ and win elections (Norton 2007a, p. 6).
With the intention of generating broader legitimacy for its platforms and resistance, Hezbollah decided to enter mainstream Lebanese politics in 1992 (Saad-Ghorayeb 2001, p. 1). Some authors have attributed the term ‘Lebanonisation’ to describe Hezbollah’s decision to involve themselves in mainstream Lebanese politics and step-away from the rumoured control of Iran to a more nationalist focus.[ii] Such terminology is not without its complications. Slim is sceptical as to whether Hezbollah’s political entry (1992) was genuine, instead arguing that it was a move to protect to its weaponry (Slim 2013b). Alagha provides a more nuanced understanding of Hezbollah’s involvement in mainstream politics. Hezbollah’s shift is evident in its adjusted practical political program despite their ideology still advocating Velayat-e Faqih (Alagha 2006, p. 13). During the 1990s, Hezbollah and particularly Nasrallah began to recognise that the rules of Lebanese politics were changing and they had a better chance of preserving their interests and realising their objectives if the organisation was to ‘adopt’ the rules and work within the system (Azani 2012, p. 743). According to Naim Qassem (Deputy Secretary General), the decision to engage in elections involved intense internal debate, disagreements and the eventual realignment of the Party (Qassem 2005, p. 187). The most notable objection was from Subhi Tufayli (Secretary-General 1989-1991) who claimed that participation in Lebanon’s non-Islamic government betrayed Hezbollah’s original principles (Norton 2007a, p. 99). As Hezbollah has become deeply intertwined within Lebanon’s political system, the organisation has been forced to discard its prior public commitment to establishing Islamic rule within Lebanon (Norton 2000, p. 2). Hezbollah has been steadily advancing to become a true Lebanese political powerhouse. The Party has been attempting to embrace non-violent action and dismiss violence as its number one choice when physical and political conflict arises (Haddad 2013, p. 24). During the 1990s Hezbollah began reorganising itself into a parliamentary party whose ministers, leaders, and decision makers are indistinguishable from other Lebanese parties (Norton 2000, p. 1).
Mainstream politics has had a substantial impact upon the organisation. Its participation in ‘ordinary politics’ has forced it to be more pragmatic in its decisions and behaviour (Norton 1998, p. 156). Accompanying this pragmatism was a lengthy public relations campaign aimed at convincing Lebanese citizen that the Party was no longer a radical Islamic militia and espousing the authenticity of its metamorphosis to a mainstream political party (Harik 2005, p. 3). Without question there was an element of authenticity behind Hezbollah’s decision, although it is not black and white. Political engagement was a strategic decision that allowed Hezbollah to gain both official acceptances as a political organisation, as well as a position at the table to deflect any troublesome initiatives directed towards the organisation (Norton 2007b, p. 481). In 2008 such opposition became evident when Hezbollah’s political prowess failed to prevent the Lebanese Government declaring its secret communication network illegal. As a result Hezbollah responded with violence by confronting state security forces for six-days in Beirut and killing 65 people (Wiegand 2009, p. 677).
Hezbollah’s active involvement in the Syrian conflict has had unavoidable political consequences (e.g. internal disagreements with various political groups inside March 8 and 14) where the Party’s domestic influence will be challenged. However, Hezbollah’s extensive presence in politics has provided the Party various means to counter such challenges. Hezbollah’s participation in the Syrian conflict is undoubtedly an impediment to its political ambitions. Further, regarding its influence inside Lebanon, Hezbollah has been successfully managing this through various partnerships and political channels. Since becoming involved in mainstream politics Hezbollah has skilfully produced a balance between its nationalist dimensions and its less public Islamic identity (Alagha 2006, pp. 212-3). This balance has enabled Hezbollah to build political relationships with a range of groups. The Party actively negotiates with other sectarian groups, and its Shi’ite ‘partner’ Amal like all mainstream political parties (Harb 2010, p. 13). Nasrallah, with the backing of Iran’s President Muhammad Khatami, was critical in enabling Hezbollah to form new political ties with other sectarian parties (Wehrey 2002, p. 59). Despite much internal debate, these new political partnerships and allegiances are enabling Hezbollah to maintain its political influence inside Lebanon whilst it is involved in the Syrian conflict.
Both Ghaddar and Slim claim that Hezbollah has little interest in Lebanon as long as the Syrian conflict is raging (Ghaddar 2013, 0:35:40; Slim 2013a, 0:45:30). Despite an element of truth to these statements, Hezbollah’s political actions speak to the contrary. In order to protect their political influence in Lebanon, Hezbollah has used their established political partnerships to hold the Lebanese Government and subsequent institutions in a state of uncertainty (Ghaddar 2013, 0:22:00). This is not the first time Hezbollah has used its strong political alliance to paralyse Government. During 2006 Hezbollah and Amal representatives collectively resigned as Government ministers in an attempt to delegitimise the Siniora Government due to their attempts at promoting UNSC Resolution 1559 (disbarment of militias), and an investigation into Hariri’s murder (Azani 2012, pp. 748-9). Through ‘subcontracting’ their political movements to the March 8 Alliance, Amal and its leader Nabih Berri, Hezbollah believes it will be able to maintain its strong political influence inside Lebanon whilst it is involved in Syria (Slim 2013a, 0:45:30). As a result of this ‘subcontracting,’ Hezbollah are concurrently encouraging Berri (Speaker of the House) and Shi’ite rival (Amal) to take advantage of Hezbollah’s current position and gain further power and influence (Khashan 2013, p. 79). Berri has recognised the predicament Hezbollah is in, and has remained silent on the Syrian conflict in order to secure him political power if, or when, Assad exits and Hezbollah is subsequently weakened (Khashan 2013, p. 79). This consideration could have a substantial impact upon Hezbollah internal influence if the Syrian Conflict and Hezbollah’s subsequent involvement continues for an extended period.
Currently Hezbollah faces little challenge from Lebanon’s Sunni political forces, as Slim claims: there is a lack of political leadership amongst the Sunni community able to seriously challenge Hezbollah’s influence (Slim 2013a, 0:00:10). Sunni opposition to Hezbollah have lost the strong leadership and leverage it once had. This erosion of power has been intensified by the 2006 ‘Paper of Common Understanding Between Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement [FPM – Michel Aoun’s Political Party].’ Aoun believes his alliance with Hezbollah could eventually guarantee him the Lebanese Presidency (Khashan 2012, p. 82). When one examines the memorandum between FPM and Hezbollah, it is apparent that it is more than a document outlining the need for transparency and understanding between the two parties, but rather an agreement with the intention of ‘neutralising’ Sunni political power and opposition (Khashan 2012, p. 79). Both Nasrallah and Aoun may personally detest one another, but they have set this aside in a pragmatic attempt to ally themselves against the Lebanese Sunni population (Khashan 2012, p. 81). Such an alliance between Aoun and Hezbollah will enable Hezbollah to maintain a large segment of political influence whilst being involved in Syria. Nevertheless, both Nasrallah and Aoun seem to underestimate the extent to which their alliance and Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria is radicalising Lebanese Sunnis and generating a strong political opposition against both parties (Khashan 2012, p. 84).
Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria will have a momentous impact on the growth and radicalisation of Sunni influence at the expense of Hezbollah. With Hezbollah distracted in Syria and Sunni opposition lacking, Sunni states from the Gulf (particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar) have begun to challenge Hezbollah’s political influence by ‘reportedly’ directing resources to Sunni groups in Lebanon (Barnard 2013, pp. 5-6). However, one must be careful not to conflate mainstream Sunni opposition and Salafist opposition. Nonetheless, while Hezbollah continues to fight inside Syria the violence has seen more refugees flow into Lebanon. The growing number of refugees will begin to have a serious impact upon Lebanon’s delicate demographic composition and ultimately Hezbollah’s influence (Slim 2013a, 0:33:00). Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict will undoubtedly lead to an incremental loss of political influence inside Lebanon. Having said that, Hezbollah through its numerous political alliances is doing an excellent job of freezing the Lebanese Government in an effort to maintain their political influence within the country. Although despite the current lack of effective Sunni opposition within Lebanon, Hezbollah may feel a little more opposition in the distant future from these Sunni refugees. However, this will not threaten Hezbollah’s influence inside Lebanon anytime in the near future.
In addition to maintaining its political influence, Hezbollah will keep much of its military dominance and influence in spite of some future challenge as a consequence of their involvement in Syria. Hezbollah is without doubt the most powerful military force inside Lebanon and will continue to be after the Syrian conflict ceases. Since its inception, Hezbollah has been a highly equipped military power inside Lebanon and this was only strengthened in 2000 when Bashar al-Assad became Syrian President (Rabil 2007, p. 45). Hezbollah is rumoured to possess ten to twelve thousand rockets and impressive anti-tank and surface-to-air missile capabilities that were demonstrated against Israel in 2006 (Mooney 2007, p. 37; Talbot & Harriman 2008, p. 37). According to Khalaf, Syria is the sole route for Iranian weaponry to reach Hezbollah in Lebanon (Khalaf 2002, p. 319). Several commentators and scholars believe the Syrian conflict is compromising this route and Hezbollah’s military influence inside Lebanon.[iii] However, this view could be considered somewhat inaccurate in light of the following. Between the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war and the present, Hezbollah’s military assistance and support has increased significantly from both Iran and to a lesser extent Syria (Addis & Blanchard 2011, p. 17). In addition, Hezbollah receives funding and resources from both a variety of external and internal sources disconnected to Iran and Syrian arms route (Love 2010, p. 27). Furthermore, with Hezbollah’s active involvement in the Syrian conflict sophisticated Syrian arms are conceivably falling into Hezbollah’s hands (Barnes-Dacey 2012, p. 6). Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, Iran has sent numerous high-level delegations to Lebanon to meet with Hezbollah and is rumoured to have increased its strategic support to Hezbollah in the likelihood that Assad will eventually fall (Haddad 2013, p. 26). Although post-Assad is beyond the scope of this paper, Iran has already bolstered its support for Hezbollah, and is expected to significantly increase support (financial, militarily etc.) for Hezbollah post-Assad (Barnes-Dacey 2012, p. 5).
Oren Barak analyses the controversial, sometimes openly confrontational (e.g. 2008) and complex relationship between the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and Hezbollah (Barak 2010, p. 193). At times it is a fair question to ask who exactly controls the LAF (Slim 2013a, 0:58:00). To an extent one could argue Hezbollah and the LAF are ‘natural allies’ as both parties have been bound by familiar threats (i.e. Israel and the preventing the spill-over from Syria) (Addis & Blanchard 2011, p. 28). Adding to this is the trouble in recruiting Sunni individuals into the commissioned ranks of the forces, therefore leaving Shi’ites and Christians in decision-making positions (Slim 2013a, 0:59:00). Even if the LAF decided to challenge Hezbollah’s authority while in Syria, there are a number of challenges that would confront them. Firstly, the LAF’s weaponry is out-dated and indisputably inadequate compared to that of Hezbollah’s (Blanche 2006, p. 21). Hezbollah’s superior military capacity and the LAF’s lack of military aptitude was exemplified in 2008 with Hezbollah’s successful armed takeover of West Beirut and Rafiq Hariri International Airport (Barnes-Dacey 2012, p. 3). Such an outcome is a result of a deep mistrust of the LAF within political and societal circles. Due to its apparent collusion with elements of Syrian governments forces the LAF has squandered its legitimacy in the minds of many Lebanese Sunni and March 14 members (Khashan 2013, p. 77). Despite the recent $3 billion grant from Saudi Arabia, the length of time associated with its implementation means that the extent of its impact will not be realised for years to come. Besides the LAF, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) may pose a complication in the unlikely event Hezbollah or another belligerent attempts (e.g. Jabhat al-Nusra Lebanon) to violently capture military influence inside Lebanon (Norton 2007b, p. 484). Nevertheless the UNIFIL is bound by strict UN command and guided by foreign governments that could incapacitate its potential action and influence (Norton 2007b, p. 484). Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict is creating a situation within Lebanon where anti-Hezbollah and anti-Assad Sunni groups are radicalising and militarising rapidly. The Brigades claim Hezbollah is ‘toying with their [Lebanese] security’ (International Institute for Counter-Terrorism 2013, p. 13). In addition, the Brigades also demanded Sunnis within the LAF to support them and physically attack Hezbollah within Lebanon (International Institute for Counter-Terrorism 2013, p. 13). These remarks are all very reminiscent of Imam al-Assir who, following his clash with the LAF and Hezbollah supporters, is now missing. Many of the opposition groups have grown as a result of the Syrian conflict but for the foreseeable future they will not threaten Hezbollah’s military influence. It is Hezbollah’s forté to defend their home ground and influence (Khouri 2013). Hezbollah’s obvious heavy military investment in the Syrian conflict has lead to a series of anti-Hezbollah attacks throughout Lebanon. Having said that, Hezbollah is too strong and closely intertwined with the LAF to allow itself to lose any military influence inside Lebanon because of its involvement and diversion into Syria.
Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian Conflict will undoubtedly impact aspects of its influence and authority inside Lebanon. However, Hezbollah will remain a major player with considerable influence. Further, the extent of this loss of influence and authority has been limited due the Party’s political prowess, alliances and the lack of effective Sunni opposition. Therefore, Hezbollah has and will continue to successfully manage its involvement in Syria and maintain its influence at home with little impact.
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[i] For a discussion of cosmic frames and war see: Juergensmeyer, M 2003, Terror in the Mind of God, University of California Press, London, pp. 267-97.
[ii] See: Ranstorp, M 1998, 'The Strategy and Tactics of Hizballah’s Current “Lebanonisation Process', Mediterranean Politics, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 103–34; Sobelman, D 2010, 'Israeli Counter-Insurgency Strategy and the Quest for Security in the Israeli- Lebanese', in C Jones & S Catignani (eds), Israel and Hizbollah: An asymmetric conflict in historical and comparative perspective., Routledge, New York, p. 54.
[iii] See: Slim, R 2013, Hezbollah's Plunge into the Syrian Abyss, Middle East Institute, Washington D.C., 28/09/2013, <http://www.mei.edu/events/hezbollahs-plunge-syrian-abyss>. 0:09:20; Talbot, BJ & Harriman, H 2008, 'Disarming Hezbollah', Mediterranean Quarterly, vol. 19, no. 4, p. 45.