How is Hezbollah changing in the region? A point of view

Monday, 13 April 2015 12:57
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by Giuseppe Provenzano*
EPOS Insights


After the ending of the 2006 Hezbollah-Israeli confrontation, few would have predicted that the border between Lebanon and Israel could have become one of the quietest fronts in the area, but against commonly held fears, it did. This outcome cannot be attributed merely to the pragmatic way the UNIFIL operation is run, but relies mainly on a rather unstable equilibrium that has been reached between the two hostile parties, an equilibrium constantly deteriorating and readjusting through crisis, like the one that unfolded between January and February in the Occupied Golan Heights.

This unlikely loose ceasefire rests on a deterrence effect, which should be rather unlikely according to classical political analysis as it is expected to originate from rational actors like states, while it is rarer for it to stick when the other side is not a formal government but a religious party-cum-militia.

I argue that certain indigenous and exogenous conditions have rendered Hezbollah a very rational and politically disingenuous actor capable of self-restraint and long-term strategies. Such features are not to be lost to regional analysis, as any effort to build a working path to peace in the Levant will have to take into account all the players of a certain political (and military) weight as pragmatically as possible.

In the political discourse, Hezbollah’s leader Nasrallah is able to differentiate discourses and tools for mobilization. Ethnicity and religious affiliation play obviously the greatest role for rallying core constituencies to Hezbollah’s banner, but the official discourse is not limited to that. On the contrary, it is sometimes downplayed in order to underline the national, Muslim and solidarity (towards Palestine) arguments. Their national formula of “the people, the army, the resistance” does not even compute the Islamic dimension of the latter. Even the current (and dead-end according to many) dialog with the Future movement, a leading Christian group, accounts for a certain ability to reach out of merely Islamic boundaries. The existence itself of Hezbollah in political coalitions in Lebanon further accounts for this ability.

The mere structure of Hezbollah frustrates in a certain sense the ability of the Lebanese state to strengthen itself and become the main decisive actor inside its own borders as it fails the Weberian rule of monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force. Being both posed as a representative of Lebanese resistance against foreign threats and a partisan contestant in the political arena, the Party of God is increasingly becoming the Kingmaker in Lebanon, especially since the topmost governmental institution is constitutionally assigned to the divided Christian demographic. The internal political strife, the external military challenges and the constant looming fear of reignition of the devastating civil war is exposing Hezbollah to a huge number of contrasting challenges that could make or break the group.

I argue that the centrality of the leadership in the organization, the systemic constraints, the homogeneity of its constituencies contrasted by hostile “others” and specific historical features and contemporary innovations in Shi’a Islam have given the leadership significant leeway that have fostered flexibility and pragmatism as long as they didn’t endanger the group’s goals. This casuistic approach, essentially adopting a day to day approach to events and decisions according to its own values and goals, has made Hezbollah able to survive in the constant turmoil of the region while avoiding a complete meltdown of the Lebanese state and, hopefully, a new plunge into violence.

The best exemplification of this stance is the de facto loose stabilization of the south border. By allowing UNIFIL to operate in Lebanon as a buffer force and by abiding to unwritten rules with Israel, Hezbollah has avoided a new war after 2006, because both sides came to realize that it would have meant a high price to pay for both of them.

By minding its position as a Shi’a minority in a predominant Sunni region, the group has had many reason for trying to appeal to a wider Islamic identity postured on solidarity with Palestine and unity against terrorists, which are, according to Nasrallah, mainly Jabhat al-Nusra and Da’esh (ISIS). The group leader has recently called for all regional states to unite against them in Syria, trying to use the common cause against the “takfiri” forces (i.e. Muslims accused of apostasy by other Muslims) in the same way he has used Israel as a common cause for all Muslims.

A focal point in how Hezbollah is changing at the regional level is that these new enemy forces are not winning many sympathies for them among the Arab public, or at least not as many Israel did. By choosing to (and being forced to, pragmatically speaking) take sides in the Syrian civil war and by fighting Islamist forces, Hezbollah is increasingly being seen as a partisan actor and it has dissipated its political capital among Sunni forces that have approved of its resistance against Israel in 2006. While violence is slowly trickling down in Lebanon as movement of people in and out of Syria brings back home resentment among the different sects, the dialogue with the Future movement can be seen as a very rational way to try and avoid contamination of violence.

As comparatively small force, even if effective and properly trained, as it is the case for Hezbollah, this involvement could actually be its undoing. More than 5,000 of its fighters are reportedly fighting in Syria, and are especially active in the Golan front. On this regard, we can interpret the strong Shebaa Farms counterattack to Israel (after the killing of an Iranian general and some Lebanese fighters) as a way of expressing that it still retains its offensive capabilities against the Jewish state, even if it is currently occupied on an additional front.

Some worrisome trends seems to be mounting and putting Hezbollah in an increasingly dire environment: a small trickle of violence among the fault lines between Shi’a and Sunni areas in Lebanon, the effort led by Saudi Arabia to create an anti-Iranian coalition and its effect on the Syrian civil war and the possibility of an overreaction by Israel to a possibly unified front from the Golan to the Mediterranean sea.

It remains to be seen if the group will be able to jostle between its dues with the Axis of Resistance and its strategic geopolitical imperatives, and the need for maintaining peace and stability in Lebanon. If the scenario gets too ugly, Hezbollah could actually succumb to it, especially given the relatively small number of its main constituencies (Shi’a Arabs in Lebanon), but the pragmatic and evolving approach displayed by the group in the recent years hints that this war might not be the end for the party-cum-militia of God. It will just be a turning point, for better or for worse.


*Giuseppe Provenzano has an MA in International Relations of Asia and Africa and is currently an MA student of the School of Government at LUISS University. He is an expert in MENA affairs and "Shia Crescent" issues. Additionally, he manages a news page on Facebook, named Focus MiddleEast


DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect EPOS WorldView’s

Last modified on Sunday, 19 April 2015 13:33
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