Small Wars Journal

Hezbollah

Hezbollah: Lying Low and Winning

As Syria implodes and Iran stands cornered, the ‘Crescent of Resistance’ that also includes Hamas and Hezbollah seems to many of its detractors to be on its last legs. While Hamas still has ‘leverage’ because the Palestinian issue is perennially imbedded in the Muslim and Arab consciousness, Hezbollah’s credibility as resistance organization seems to be truly under threat. Many were shocked when the Shia Lebanese organization turned its weapons against its own in 2008. Hezbollah’s identity as a ‘movement of the people’ was eroded more critically when the organization refused to emphatically sever its ties with the brutal Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad when it set about massacring its own citizens (in contrast, Hamas did). Moreover, local detractors primarily represented by the March 14th alliance have found a renewed voice in questioning Hezbollah’s legitimacy in maintaining its armed operations. But just as it seemed as the Arab Spring had all but squelched the group’s political project, the spill-over of the Syrian uprising into Lebanon has not only given Hezbollah another life line, but has once again proven its ability to maneuver through the minefields of Middle Eastern politics and emerge victorious.

When Hasan Ali Akleh from Al-Hasakah in northeastern Syria set himself on fire mimicking the Tunisian fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi who kicked off the Arab Spring, the streets of Beirut were rampant with fear of its implication for Lebanon, long-considered a playground for regional power struggles. With a fractured social fabric and domestic stakeholders historically invested in the same power struggle, it seemed only a matter of time before Lebanese factions would need to draw a line in the sand and stand on the ‘right side of history.’  Things appeared to be even more challenging for Hezbollah as it seemingly had a stake on both sides of the Syrian uprising, i.e., as movement of the masses and as one allied with the Syrian regime. Instinctively grabbing the opportunity, the March 14th alliance led by Sa‘ad Hariri was quick to rally support behind the uprising with the hope that a new Syria would result in a new Lebanon where Hezbollah would be demoted from its status as a political king-maker. Things were working for Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, and his cohorts until three quick events once again tipped the scales. First, on May 12th Sunni cleric Sahdi al-Moulawi was detained and charged with aiding terrorist groups. The arrest resulted in clashes between supporters of the cleric (who claim he was helping people flee the fighting in Syria) and the Sunni and Alawite supporters of the Syrian regime. Subsequently, streets of Tripoli echoed with sounds of gunfire and five were left dead with several more wounded. Second, on May 20th Sunni Sheikh Adbul-Wahid was killed near the northern town of Halba, by a Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) soldier. Reminiscent of the civil war (1975-1990) many were then left guessing about the religious and sectarian affiliation of the soldier in question. Nevertheless, like before, the immediate aftermath saw gun battles in Beirut between pro and anti-Assad factions. The funeral itself was littered with symbols of the oppositions, namely Syrian (old national flag) and Lebanese (March 14th banners). Finally, on May 22nd eleven Lebanese Shia pilgrims were kidnapped in the Aleppo region of northern Syria while on their way back from Iran. The alleged kidnappers were first thought to be members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) but were later categorized as a splinter group of the opposition. The news of the kidnapping led to spontaneous demonstrations by enraged residents in the Shia suburbs of southern Beirut resulting in the burning of tires and blocking of roads. Through this all, the Hezbollah strategy has been ‘slow and steady.’ Committed to the national strategy of dissociation, it has been hesitant to openly criticize the Syrian regime and has called for a peaceful resolution to the crisis. While Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah was quick to condemn the kidnapping, in a broadcast on national TV he insisted that blocking roads, violence, and individual actions would not help the situation. But above all, a key stance that has elevated Hezbollah above its Lebanese detractors is the fact that it has never drawn a correlation between the events in Syria and the situation in Lebanon. The March 14th alliance has openly condemned the Syrian regime and aided the opposition, reportedly within Lebanese territory, thus dragging the conflict into the country. In comparison, Hezbollah has been cunning enough to refrain from giving even tacit approval to the arrests and killings of anti-Assad activists and had repeatedly called for a tempered approach to the events. As a result, rising from the lethargy of its initial response to the Syrian uprising, Hezbollah has ironically emerged as the calming factor in Lebanon. At a time when the wishful thinking of the opposition led them to brashly allow the Syrian uprising to spill-over into the streets of Lebanon, Hezbollah has demonstrated a far more tactful political mind and diplomatic acumen that truly comprehends how Syria-related hostilities could misbalance an already fragile Lebanon that seems to be perennially on the ‘brink’.

On the one hand, Hezbollah’s success in the current crisis is testament to its already proven political maneuverability and ability to impact without participation, qualities displayed since the Lebanese civil war. But more critically Hezbollah has capitalized on the Lebanese’s worst fear, i.e., the country (once again) becoming the battleground for others’ war. While rhetorical hyperbole as engaged in by the March 14th Alliance may work to mobilize their core constituencies, when this translates into violent hostilities it becomes a reality that the Lebanese commoner will refuse to relive. It is this ‘red line’ that Hezbollah recognizes, thus enabling it to win another battle in the war for Lebanon.

Grandmother's Footsteps: Hezbollah Hedging

The recent alleged Hezbollah attack in Bulgaria against Israeli tourists and the capture of a Hezbollah operative in Cyprus are both very significant events.  If the former is proved to be true, as Israel claims their evidence suggests, then Hezbollah's strategy in support of Iran against Israel is unfortunately still very much alive and active.  If true, Hezbollah's actions go counter to the views of some Lebanese and Western analysts who suggest that since 2006 Hezbollah has been trying to wean itself off the role of being Iran's agent in the Levant.  Analysts thought and maybe hoped that Hezbollah was separating from Iran due to a range of domestic factors, and most recently the prospect of a future Sunni-led regime in Damascus which would most likely cut off the Iran-Hezbollah supply chain.  Some suggested, therefore, that Hezbollah was looking for a soft landing as it transitioned from violence into politics.  This may now not be the case.  These recent and significant developments need careful analysis if they are to be placed in context to be better understood.

At a strategic level, Hezbollah may be ready to disarm as a hedge against losing support from Syria.  Hezbollah understands that being armed is an obstacle to its political longevity, particularly as the Lebanese Armed Forces gain greater lethal capabilities. Yet, there was a recent spat between two key Hezbollah political allies, the Christian Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement and Shiite Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri’s Amal Movement, over contract workers at a state-run electricity company.  This has brought into question Hezbollah's ability to hold a cross-sectarian government. Member of Parliament Walid Jumblatt, head of the Progressive Socialist Party and also member of Hezbollah’s government coalition, suggested recently that while he does not plan to withdraw from the government, the relationship with Hezbollah is tenuous.

While Hezbollah might consider disarming as a strategic objective, at the tactical level they are clearly not. Why is this?  There could possibly be unseen disagreements within Hezbollah about its future.  Or perhaps this Shiite militia needs violence tactically to make their political-strategic activities more effective to maintain their domestic and regional relevance.  However, if Hezbollah continues to act violently it runs the risk of an Israeli strike into southern Lebanon.  Arguably the worst thing that could happen in the region right now is an Israeli strike against Hezbollah.  It is bad not only for Israel, who has wisely stood back and watched developments during the so-called Arab Spring as a non-participant, but also bad for Hezbollah who would be weakened militarily at a time their future arms supplies from Iran via Syria are in question.  It would also be bad for the Lebanese Armed Forces who would be significantly embarrassed by their inability to defend Lebanon from an Israeli strike which would, in turn, strengthen the case of the resistance. Getting Israel involved in the Arab Spring, using force to disarm Hezbollah and embarrassing the Lebanese Armed Forces would significantly destabilize the region further.

Most likely, though, Hezbollah's tactical actions in Bulgaria are in response to Iranian strategic pressure.  Iran wants Israel involved in cross-border skirmishes with Hezbollah as a strategic distraction to the attention currently focused on its nuclear program and its fate in Syria. Either way, it appears Hezbollah is hedging. They are continuing to use violence and politics to create the conditions of a better choice when decision time comes.  Like many entities that influence events in the region, Hezbollah is trying to think through the second and third order consequences of their actions.  Their high risk strategy demonstrates a mature way of thinking and a strong appreciation for the regional and global context within which they operate. Yet it also shows they are not yet willing to completely give up terrorism.

If Syria collapses more precipitously and violently than expected, Hezbollah's arms may become their sole raison d'etre in order to protect the Shiite population in Southern Lebanon.  Moreover, if Israel attacks Lebanon or Syria, Hezbollah will justify its resistance role and the net effect is at least a long-term delay to any talks of disarming.

Moving forward, therefore, the region is analogous to the British kids' game Grandmother's Footsteps.  In the game someone is “Grandmother” and the others try to creep up and touch her without being detected.  They can move when she is not looking but must freeze when she looks their way.  In the region all parties watch one another and inch forward toward their goals hoping to avoid detection.  But who is Grandmother?  Maybe not Israel, maybe not Iran or Saudi Arabia, but most likely the U.S.  Parties keep their eyes wide open observing competing entities who strive to out-maneuver one another. In the spirit of this analogy, the U.S. is unlikely to act decisively as Grandmother at least until after the Presidential election in November 2012, which means entities can ease forward assuming nothing will likely happen even if detected.  But shortly after the election, the U.S. may be more assertive in calling out Hezbollah and Iran for raising the stakes, notwithstanding the Iranian nuclear issue.  In the meantime, the U.S. may see the logic of continuing to increase its lethal support to the Lebanese Armed Forces and ensuring that Hezbollah does not hold Lebanon hostage to fears of an Israeli attack.  Those lethal capabilities are a determining factor for disarming Hezbollah in the long-term.  High stakes for all and for the poker players, not necessarily a winner-take-all pot on the table either.