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Hezbollah’s domestic woes take confrontation with Israel off the table (for now)

OPINION: Tuesday’s blasts are likely to bring popular support for the ‘Party of God’ to new lows. More than ever, the group will be compelled to turn its attention inward

A cardboard cutout of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is hung in a noose during a demonstration in Beirut on August 8, 2020, following the deadly blast in the Lebanese capital. (Screen capture: Twitter)
A cardboard cutout of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is hung in a noose during a demonstration in Beirut on August 8, 2020, following the deadly blast in the Lebanese capital. (Screen capture: Twitter)

Last week’s massive explosion at the Beirut port, which devastated large parts of the Lebanese capital, comes at a time when public anger at the incompetence and mismanagement of the country’s ruling elites is already at an all-time high. The detonation left more than 160 people dead (with dozens still missing), injured some 6,000, and made hundreds of thousands of the city’s residents homeless.

On Saturday, thousands of Lebanese protesters expressed their anger and frustration at the country’s leaders and occupied several government ministries. In Martyrs’ Square, protesters set up cardboard cutouts showing several of the country’s leaders with nooses around their necks. One of those depicted was Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary General of Hezbollah, the Iranian-sponsored Shiite militia that controls the government in Lebanon. Just a day earlier, Nasrallah had categorically denied that his “Party of God” bore any responsibility for the single largest explosion in Lebanese history.

For Hezbollah, the timing of the blast could not have been worse. Tensions with Israel have been running high, especially after an Israeli airstrike in Syria killed a Hezbollah operative on July 21. Tuesday’s explosions have been the latest reminder, however, that Hezbollah faces far greater challenges than Israel, and that these are on its domestic front. As Lebanon is facing possibly the most serious economic and political crisis of its existence, more and more Lebanese have begun to openly question Hezbollah’s legitimacy and patriotic credentials.

Such domestic concerns are quite alien to a group that, until recently, enjoyed two decades of relatively steady political and strategic bloom. In 2000, Hezbollah forced Israel to retreat from Lebanese territory. Six years later, in the summer of 2006, it repeated the feat of standing up to the superior Israel Defense Force by winning the political battle in the Second Lebanon War. In recent years, it has vastly improved its missile arsenal in both quality and numbers, while gaining plenty of combat experience when it deployed forces to Syria in support of the Assad government. More importantly, Hezbollah managed to leverage its brand of “Islamic resistance,” which won it the admiration of the wider Islamic world–including of some on the proverbial Sunni Arab “street” –into political influence within Lebanon. Its clout culminated in the 2018 general elections, when the group and its allies – such as the overwhelmingly Christian Free Patriotic Movement and the Shiite Amal Party – won a majority in the Lebanese parliament.

Hezbollah’s tale is a cautionary one for similar armed movements in pursuit of political power: providing governance is far more difficult than fighting a guerilla war.

Hezbollah owes much of its power to the patronage it has enjoyed from Tehran. Since its foundation in the early 1980s, the group could rely on steady financial support from its Iranian sponsor to the tune of one billion dollars per year, according to some estimates. In return, Hezbollah served the Islamic Republic by conducting terrorist attacks in Lebanon and abroad, and, more recently, by sustaining the Iranian war effort in conflict theaters such as Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

Hezbollah’s dependence on a foreign benefactor, and the group’s public adherence to the Islamic Republic’s political doctrine, including calls for an Islamic revolution in Lebanon in the early years of its existence, has always stood in marked contrast to its self-portrayal as a national and patriotic force. In fact, the group spared little effort to present itself as a movement by and for Lebanese. Most crucially, following the end of the Lebanese civil war, Hezbollah went through a process dubbed “Lebanonization,” denoting the movement’s “acceptance of the multi-religious Lebanese state and the status quo of [its] political institutions.” In 1997 it established its own local surrogate force, a move that, as we show in a recent study, non-state actors typically employ to seek to reverse their own legitimacy deficit. In Hezbollah’s case, the group founded the so-called “Lebanese Resistance Brigades,” which it promoted as a force open to Lebanese of all sects willing to fight the “Zionist enemy.”

Unsurprisingly, the more the tide of war in Syria turned in favor of Assad – and hence, by extension, of Hezbollah – the more intractable the latter’s political predicaments have become. For once, aligning with Iran and the Assad government cost Hezbollah the sympathies it had previously enjoyed across the region. Several Arab governments, most of which had always been suspicious of the “Party of God” and its Iranian patrons, designated it as a terrorist organization. Hezbollah’s role in crushing the Sunni-led rebellion against Assad helped the group earn the moniker “Hizbul Shaitan,” the party of the devil. Meanwhile, several Arab regimes such as Iran’s main rival, Saudi Arabia, have applied considerable pressure on Lebanon in an effort to hurt the Shiite movement.

At home, Hezbollah has recently faced growing dissatisfaction, with even some of its core supporters questioning why Lebanese citizens would die on the Syrian battlefield. In the midst of its domestic woes, a protest movement emerged in Lebanon in October 2019. Originally sparked by a proposed tax on WhatsApp calls, the protest movement has since brought the faltering Lebanese economy to the point of collapse. Most alarmingly for the Shiite militia, many of the young protesters have singled out Hezbollah as being no less corrupt than other political parties, and as more interested in doing Iran’s bidding or funneling funds and resources to Syria than in building up Lebanon.

Amid a hyperinflation, that has been further exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19 and renewed US sanctions on Syria, Hezbollah is at risk of alienating its political allies and losing the popular support that it has long been accustomed to. In many ways, Hezbollah’s tale is a cautionary one for similar armed movements in pursuit of political power: providing governance is far more difficult than fighting a guerilla war.

Before last week’s explosion, a new conflict with Israel might have been a tempting option for Hezbollah. Another major confrontation with the Jewish state could have provided a welcome distraction from the domestic crisis unfolding, while rallying all of Lebanon around the flag of “resistance,” as Hezbollah has successfully done in the past. Tuesday’s blasts, however, are likely to bring popular support for the “Party of God” to new lows. More than ever, the group will be compelled to turn its attention inward. Hezbollah is now the principal backer of Lebanon’s new technocratic government that took the country’s reins in January 2020. Failure to devote a concerted effort – and significant resources – to address Lebanon’s political and economic problems could ultimately harm Hezbollah more than any military defeat ever could.

Michel Wyss is a scientific assistant at the Military Academy at ETH Zürich; a lecturer at the Department of Humanities, Social and Political Sciences at ETH Zürich; and a Ph.D. candidate at the Institute for History, Leiden University.

Assaf Moghadam is Dean of the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, Israel, and a Senior Researcher at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT).

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