Strengthened by War, Hezbollah Displays Regional Power

Posted July 29th, 2017 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing


[Published at The Century Foundation.]

By Thanassis Cambanis and Sima Ghaddar

Hezbollah’s battle against ISIS and like-minded jihadis this month has not attracted as much attention as the ongoing campaigns in Raqqa and Mosul, but it signals an important shift in the Middle East order.

At the end of July in less than a week, Hezbollah quickly dislodged a jihadi stronghold on the border of Lebanon and Syria in the Lebanese town of Arsal. Significantly, Hezbollah, or the Lebanese Party of God, orchestrated a long political and public relations campaign before the offensive, and ultimately put together a military campaign that featured a strange, but effective coalition of government armies essentially led on the ground by a transnational non-state actor.

In this case, Hezbollah quarterbacked a campaign that featured its troops, battle-hardened after five years on the front lines in the Syrian conflict, fighting with support from the Syrian and Lebanese militaries. Hezbollah and the Syrian armed forces have been working together closely for years, but Hezbollah’s partnership with the Lebanese military is more circumspect. Hezbollah and the Lebanese Armed Forces coordinate extensively but zealously guard their autonomy. To boot, the Lebanese army receives extensive support from the United States, which considers Hezbollah a terrorist group—making it all the more pressing for the Lebanese army to keep its distance from Hezbollah.

All these factors make the July offensive in Arsal all the more remarkable. Lebanon’s Sunni prime minister Saad Hariri, who is an outspoken critic of Hezbollah’s regional expansion and role in Syria, ultimately signed off on an operation which highlighted the new balance of power emerging in Lebanon and the Levant.

Hezbollah, arguably, played a more pivotal role than any other Syrian ally in keeping Bashar al-Assad in power when his rule was threatened by the uprising that began in 2011. Since then, Hezbollah has grown more open about its role training and sometimes fighting with militias in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria—a regional expansion that it has undertaken in tight partnership with Iran.

Western Perceptions

The United States and western countries have maintained a hard rhetorical line against Assad and Hezbollah—but at the same time, have clearly decided they prefer Assad’s alliance to the alternative. Early in the Syrian war, Assad and Hezbollah presented themselves as the pluralistic, religiously tolerant bulwark against Sunni Islamist fundamentalist jihadis. That might have been a misleading description in 2012, but now—in large part because of the Syrian regime’s starvation sieges and a Western failure to support non-jihadi rebels—that binary has edged closer to the truth.

Hezbollah’s dual role might make Western governments uncomfortable, and it might force them to undergo rhetorical gymnastics in order to continue their relationship with Lebanese state institutions while ignoring the reality of Hezbollah’s central role in the state and the region. However, it is nonetheless true that Hezbollah has emerged from the disarray in Syria as an indispensable national and regional actor with reach, strategic vision, and capacity. That’s why Hezbollah, and not the Lebanese army, led the campaign to liberate Arsal from jihadi fanatics who have held sway there since 2014.

Hezbollah’s Coalition

On Thursday, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah declared victory in Arsal. “We are doing our victory and expect no victory,” he said. He also ignored the previous day’s press conference in Washington, in which President Trump appeared to believe that Lebanon was fighting to disarm Hezbollah, rather than fighting alongside Hezbollah to disarm Al Qaeda.

The details of Lebanon’s campaign against Al Qaeda, ISIS, and other jihadists are important. So too are the complexities of America’s relationship with the Lebanese state and its institutions, which ought to be reinforced despite their deeply intertwined and sometimes ambiguous relationship with Hezbollah. Even more important, however, is the strategic picture that has been getting clearer and clearer as the war in Syria has progressed toward a resolution that favors Assad’s government and his allies: Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia.

Hezbollah’s campaign in Arsal holds important clues to the regional order taking shape as the war in Syria winds down and new coalitions fill the vacuum created by an America’s growing distance. A mature, transnational Hezbollah quarterbacked a delicate and tense offensive that in practice coordinates two national armies that would appear nearly impossible to place in the same order of battle: the Lebanese national army, whose main supporters these days are the United States and Great Britain, and Bashar al-Assad’s military.

Emerging as a Regional Leader

The coalition in Arsal is a remarkable bellwether for several reasons. It showcases Hezbollah (and by extension, Iran) in a leadership role in an anti-terror coalition. For years, Hezbollah has been trying to persuade Western governments that it is a natural partner in the global campaign against extremist groups that tend to come from the Sunni takfiri milieu. The campaign also formalizes the de facto balance of power in which Hezbollah operates autonomously in both Syria and Lebanon—and in which Hezbollah has enough political sway to set terms for governments in both Damascus and Beirut.

The battle for Arsal holds plenty of clues for the template of Hezbollah’s influence going forward. As a dominant, transnational force, Hezbollah can now hold its own among the region’s nation-states; but as the complex mechanics of its role in Arsal underscore, it is also not a giant, able to dictate terms to those around it. It had to wait and assuage concerns from political and military leaders, in order to persuade the Lebanese army and the Lebanese government to get on board with an offensive that would be perceived in some communities in sectarian terms, as an anti-Sunni attack by a Shia coalition. Hezbollah has displayed strategic patience, biding its time and keeping its eyes on long-term goals that will benefit it organizationally and also help their coalition partners, especially their closest ally and vital sponsor, Iran.

Around this time last year on July 16, 2016 after multiple suicide bombers snuck from the outskirts of the Lebanese northeastern border town of Arsal and targeted the northern village of Al-Qaa, Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary general, said Lebanon is in dire need of an official national defense strategy to fight terrorism. When “others” abandon their responsibilities, he then added, people must assume the responsibility to protect themselves. “The responsibility of the state is our responsibility too,” he said, but always alongside the Lebanese Army and the Lebanese security apparatus.

Since its intervention in Syria, Hezbollah has glorified the role of the Lebanese Army in fighting terrorism in the outskirts of Arsal, but has dictated and directed the terms and conditions of that fight knowing very well the army cannot handle a heavy load and is dependent on both British and U.S. funding. For months now, Hezbollah has independently negotiated settlement deals with an opposition group at the outskirts of Arsal and neighboring Qalamoun region, known as Saray Ahel Al Sham, to relocate refugees and arbitrate with the terrorist groups, Hay’t Tahrir Al Sham (Al-Nusra) and ISIS. However, to no avail. Hezbollah came under attack after Nasrallah recently pledged to clear the town’s outskirts of Syrian militants and rebels with a coordinated air raid campaign by the Syrian regime.

Through all these crises on the border, Hezbollah has steadily built its capacity and deepened its relationships with institutions and governments, making clear that it is de facto a peer, rather than a player in a less significant category simply by dint of being defined as a non-state actor.

When Hezbollah dived headlong into Syria’s civil war, many observers of the Middle East wondered whether the adventurist gamble would the undoing of the Lebanese Party of God.

Instead, it appears that five years of open international warfare have strengthened Hezbollah’s regional position, consolidating its transnational military and political organization. The Party of God entered the Syrian war as a dominant force inside Lebanon; it appears set to emerge from it as a decisive regional player, likely to be as powerful in the coming period as most of the Middle East’s full-fledged states.

Leave a Reply