In the eyes of an observant analyst, “While it is customary to characterize Hezbollah as a ‘state within a state,’ it is more accurate now to define it as a ‘state within a non-state.’” The presence and continued strength of the Party of God are a function of a weak and eroding state in Lebanon, and its influence throughout the Middle East mirrors a region in turmoil. In short, the well-armed Hezbollah is merely a symptom of a region at war with itself and not a cause for all of its instability. The failure, so far, of attempts to curb and/or destroy it, militarily or through economic sanctions, is due to this basic misconception of the group.
Hezbollah came into being after Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, but the frustration that ultimately led to its formation has many causes, one of which was the Arab defeat of 1967 and Israel’s repeated violations and occasional invasions of Lebanon since its raid on Beirut International Airport in 1968 and destruction of planes of its national carrier, Middle East Airlines. That raid awakened Lebanese youth to their country’s weakness, and students from all confessions at the American University of Beirut and five other universities were aghast that Israeli forces could simply parachute into their capital’s airport, destroy planes on the tarmac, and leave without so much as a bullet fired at them by the Lebanese army or state security forces. They demanded the government’s resignation, strengthening of the Lebanese army, and developing better defenses for inhabitants of Lebanon’s south.
These and other political and socioeconomic conditions in the country helped the creation of today’s AMAL Movement (now led by longtime Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri). It was established by a charismatic Shia religious figure, Musa al-Sadr, who later disappeared on a trip to Libya in 1979. Sadr believed in nonviolent tactics and started a passive popular campaign to address public frustration and the general economic deprivation experienced by people in the south. In 1982, Amal’s approach to political affairs in the country led many of its youthful members to defect and start armed resistance against Israel. Those who did formed the nucleus of what would later in 1984 be formally launched as Lebanese Hezbollah with the assistance of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Sadr believed in nonviolent tactics and started a passive popular campaign to address public frustration and the general economic deprivation experienced by people in the south.
When the last Israeli troops, along with the Lebanese who supported them, withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, many politicians and political factions argued that the need for an armed militia was obviated. Hezbollah had the choice to abandon its weapons and disband its military wing or merge its forces into the Lebanese army so that it could become a purely political party. It chose not to do so. Its leaders justified their decision on the basis of the continued occupation by Israel of Shebaa Farms, a narrow strip of land between Syrian and Lebanese territories recognized by the United Nations as Syrian land taken by Israel in 1967. Syria, however, accepted Lebanon’s claim to the 28 square-mile territory. Beyond the farms, Hezbollah has clearly developed a post-occupation identity, framing itself as a part of an axis of resistance that now encompasses Iran, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Hezbollah’s use of force is no longer strictly speaking about resisting Israeli occupation but rather about supporting like-minded forces, to include Palestinian Hamas, in their regional struggles.
The US Department of State and other government agencies describe a growing association from the year 2000 onward between Iran and Hezbollah, which receives an estimated $700 million per year from the Islamic Republic and supplements that with roughly $300 million by raising funds on its own from Lebanon and supporters in Africa and Latin America. Beyond the funding, Hezbollah and the IRGC collaborate on fighting joint enemies throughout the region and occasionally in Europe. It is for such collaboration that many European countries consider the military wing of Hezbollah to be a terrorist organization, while the United Kingdom has said more recently that it no longer distinguishes between the political and military wings of the party, considering the entire group a terrorist organization.
The relationship between Hezbollah and Syria is now a symbiotic one, with the party aiding the regime there and Assad in turn supporting a lifeline of Iranian arms and a weapons-manufacturing industry guaranteeing a pseudo-balance of terror between Hezbollah and Israel.
Regionally, Iran and Hezbollah have partnered in buttressing the Assad regime in Syria through eight years of war during which the Syrian state ceased to exist for all practical purposes, except for a war machine aided by Iran, the party, and Russian forces. Hezbollah in particular played a critical role in retaking key cities from the opposition, and consequently fighting fierce battles against the so-called Islamic State in areas on the Syrian-Lebanese border. The relationship is now a symbiotic one, with Hezbollah aiding the regime in Damascus and Assad in turn supporting a lifeline of Iranian arms and a weapons-manufacturing industry guaranteeing a pseudo-balance of terror between Hezbollah and Israel. Because of this mutual dependence, the relationship is likely to continue and survive any changes in Syria’s foreign policy as the Gulf countries gradually rehabilitate Assad and bring him back into the Arab fold.
Among the most notable of Hezbollah’s interventions in the region is the assistance and political support the party has rendered to the Houthis (Ansar Allah) in Yemen. Tactical advisors and trainers have been helping the group fight the Saudi-led Arab coalition that was formed in 2015 to restore Yemen’s government to Sanaa. These Hezbollah operatives have been better adept at blending in Yemeni society than Iranian IRGC members and have therefore been the conveyors of technology, assisting in assembling rockets, manufacturing weapons, and advising on military strategy.
The refining of military strategy and the development of the Houthis’ missile and drone capabilities led to increasing attacks against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, endangering critical oil infrastructure and other sensitive targets, raising alarm not only in the Gulf but in the western world as well. Access to Gulf oil on which Europe in particular depends is a major cause for concern; the lives of western citizens and military advisors in the region are also at stake. From the Houthi perspective, raising the stakes for the Arab coalition and western countries that supply its members with arms could ultimately be the deterrent that stops the aerial attacks against them and the funding of anti-Houthi forces inside Yemen.
The relationship between the Houthis and Hezbollah, however, goes beyond material support to a more intimate level, with Ansar Allah leader Abdel Malek al-Houthi looking to the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, as a model and a mentor. At the public affairs and cultural levels, the exchange of clerical and media expertise blends social, cultural, and political messaging and binds the Houthi rank-and-file closer into the axis of resistance community.
For Hezbollah, support for the Houthis has become a part of its core strategy and belief.
For Hezbollah, support for the Houthis has become a part of its core strategy and belief—not only are the Houthis fellows in religion and sect (Zaidism being an offshoot of Shia Islam) but having fought Saudi and Emirati influence in Yemen, the Houthis have become an integral part of a region-wide struggle for power. As such, Nasrallah’s support for the Houthis has become something about which to brag to his party loyalists and allies in the resistance axis.
Back to Lebanon
Hezbollah’s sway in the Lebanese political system has affected the politics of other communities as well and forced its own preferences on the Lebanese state itself. For example, last January 24, former three-time Prime Minister Saad Hariri suspended his political career, essentially saying it was no longer possible to govern the country under normal rules of conduct. Torn between Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries’ demands that he exclude Hezbollah from any future government and a confrontation with the party at home that may trigger a civil war, Hariri chose to give up his impossible balancing act. His departure has so far left his Muslim Sunni community in disarray and his former allies looking for ways to make up for the loss of his political support.
Indeed, Hezbollah has over its forty-year history engraved itself on the minds and souls of at least one third of the Lebanese population, the Shia community, in addition to its political allies from other sectarian communities in the country. Through its vast network of social, economic, educational, and media services, the party has become deeply engrained in the sense of identity of a large swath of the Lebanese population. The question for its numerous, and well-armed supporters, is no longer whether an individual act of Hezbollah is right or wrong but the perception that any attack, small or large, against the party is an existential threat to them all.
Hezbollah has over its forty-year history engraved itself on the minds and souls of at least one third of the Lebanese population, the Shia community, in addition to its political allies from other sectarian communities in the country.
On February 24, the Lebanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement that condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In an interview, Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib defended the statement as expressing “a principled and solid stance that Lebanon has taken and will take in every similar crisis.” In another interview, he said that the original decision was made by his ministry in coordination with the prime minister and the president of the country. The minister’s interventions followed denunciations and criticism from Hezbollah and some of its allies who usually take positions close to those of the Syrian regime, which has defended and supported Russia. On Hezbollah’s position within the Lebanese state, Bou Habib said “ideally, the state should only have one army and decision-making should be its prerogative.” On the other hand, on April 8, Lebanon abstained from voting on the United Nations General Assembly resolution to expel Russia from the UN Human Rights Council.
Put simply, Hezbollah is so engrained inside the Lebanese polity that shaking it loose would involve shaking up the entire country and turning one institution against another and one large segment of the population against the rest. The Lebanese army, the security/intelligence network, and all political and administrative institutions have Hezbollah loyalists. In parliament, the party, allied as it is with AMAL and President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, currently enjoys a majority that may very well endure after the upcoming parliamentary elections on May 15.
The state of Lebanon never fully recovered from fifteen years of bloody civil war, but it has been especially suffering from paralysis over the past decade. Trump era sanctions on Hezbollah affected Lebanon as a whole and partly contributed to the collapse of the country’s banking system in 2019. However, it must be said that Lebanon’s corrupt elites bear the most responsibility for the current economic collapse, but sanctions by the United States and boycotts by some Gulf countries led by Saudi Arabia have cut off critical funds and derailed Lebanese exports. The recent return of Gulf ambassadors to Beirut—seen by the Lebanese government as a positive signal—may be due to a realization that the total collapse of Lebanon is in no one’s interest.
A Region at Sea
Nor is the region as a whole much healthier than Lebanon. The Arab states suffer to one degree or another from abusive rulers, poor governance, and discontented populations. The Arab uprisings of 2011 were snuffed out by resurgent authoritarian rulers and right-wing forces that contributed very little to either prosperity or stability of the populations of the region. Regional and international struggles for power have also complicated internal struggles from Syria to Yemen and from Libya to Iraq. It should come as no surprise that non-state actors of various shades and ideologies thrive in such chaos, political paralysis, and collapsed economies. Treating such groups as a mere security problem has not and will not work and lumping them all under one umbrella as terrorist organizations may be emotionally satisfying for some and politically convenient for others, but it is like trying to wish them all away by the mere virtue of classifying them as such.
Hezbollah expects that in an all-out war with Israel it will be joined by its allies in Iran, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. The impact of such a war would be devastating on all those concerned.
The risk of a region-wide conflagration mounts against this background of turmoil and polarization. Since their 2006 war, Israel and Hezbollah have avoided a direct confrontation, but this may only be temporary as both sides prepare for what can be seen as an eventuality. Hezbollah expects that in an all-out war with Israel it will be joined by its allies in Iran, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. The impact of such a war would be devastating on all those concerned.
Rebuilding collapsed economies and weakened centralized states is difficult enough, and weaning corrupt rulers off of corruption is well-nigh impossible in many cases. The United States has certainly proven unqualified at such undertakings. Yet, the challenge of good governance is exactly what the international community and civil society organizations in the affected countries must undertake no matter the long and hard path ahead. Only strengthening states and their institutions and helping the Arab region achieve its long-sought peace and stability will help address the existence and influence of non-state actors like Hezbollah.