By Bilal Saab
Editor’s Note: The Lebanese Hezbollah has long been one of the Middle East’s most dangerous actors, and it has deeply embedded itself in Lebanon’s political system and economy. The Middle East Institute’s Bilal Saab details the different relationships the group has with various Lebanese constituencies and explains why some might begin to fray in the months to come.
It is a truism that militant substate actors thrive under conditions of state weakness. But what’s less clear is whether such actors, at least the larger and more ambitious types, are able to survive and achieve their goals under conditions of prolonged public governance failure and economic implosion. This is a question that currently applies to Hezbollah, the armed Lebanese political party with allegiances to Iran.
Since its inception in the early 1980s, Hezbollah has been a thorn in the side of the United States, constantly undermining its interests in Lebanon and elsewhere in the region in coordination with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). It is also suspected of perpetrating terrorist attacks against U.S. forces and personnel in the region, including the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks at the Lebanese international airport and two attacks targeting the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in 1983 and 1984.
Washington has tried a range of policy options to weaken the group over the years. It has pressured Hezbollah diplomatically by labeling it in 1997 as a terrorist organization. It has sought to obstruct Hezbollah’s fundraising activities worldwide and particularly in the United States and Latin America. It has tried to challenge Hezbollah’s rationale for maintaining an autonomous military—which the group justifies as a means of deterring Israel—by strengthening the Lebanese army. And it has applied economic sanctions, enabled Israeli military action through the provision of arms and diplomatic support, and pursued covert operations of its own against the group.
But nothing seems to have succeeded in limiting Hezbollah’s tremendous influence over Lebanese politics, reducing its military capabilities, or containing its regional clout in places like Syria, Iraq and Yemen. For many years, Hezbollah has acted as a kingmaker with so-called veto power over how Lebanese cabinets are formed and who becomes Lebanese president, and its sway at home and abroad has continued to grow.
Lebanon is now reeling financially and teetering on the edge of collapse because of the endemic corruption of its ruling elites and their persistent failure to implement political and economic reforms. How will this hurt Hezbollah? Understanding the key elements of the group’s staying power and whether those elements have changed recently will be key for U.S. policy and the Biden administration’s approach toward Lebanon.
Hezbollah’s Domestic Constituency
To survive,Hezbollah relies on a set of internal and external relationships that may be thought of as a set of concentric circles. The most critical and intimate of these relationships encompasses the Lebanese Shiite community. Without it, Hezbollah has no audience that can help turn its vision of a “resistance society” into reality. Without it, the group cannot fight, fundraise or engage in politics.
This constituency went through considerable hardship during the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, which lasted from 1982 to 2000. Hezbollah built much of its societal support and political and militant infrastructure during that period. Since the group’s liberation of the south, however, its actions have inflicted a severe toll on the community. Lebanese Shiites experienced incredible pain during a destructive 33-day war with Israel in 2006. And since 2011, they have struggled because of the grueling conflict in neighboring Syria, to which Hezbollah has committed a great deal of blood and treasure.
While increasing Lebanese Shiite unease with Hezbollah’s aggressive regional agenda has not led to a breakup or punishment at the polls, there have been some tensions in the relationship lately, as evidenced by Shiite demonstrations against Hezbollah throughout Lebanon. Lokman Slim, a vocal and well-known Lebanese Shiite critic of Hezbollah, was assassinated on Feb. 4 in his car in an area controlled by the group in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah’s leaders are sensitive about any kind of organized dissent or sociopolitical activism within the Shiite community. Though Slim had been active for many years, with Hezbollah facing new pressure from within its domestic base, the group may have concluded it could no longer tolerate his opposition.
Economically, Hezbollah’s ability to support its followers is believed to have diminished in recent years due to financial difficulties. But those difficulties shouldn’t be misdiagnosed or inflated. Hezbollah receives a good bit of funding from Iran, too, to the tune of probably $100 to $200 million per year. This rock-solid partnership with Tehran is the immediate next circle in Hezbollah’s relationships.
Iran offers Hezbollah a lot more than money—it also provides religious inspiration, strategic guidance, operational training, and a wealth of arms, some of which are quite sophisticated, including precision-guided missiles and unmanned systems. The military equipment from Tehran’s IRGC is no secret. Party chief Hassan Nasrallah has been quite transparent about it in his television appearances and speeches.
It’s unclear whether any of Iran’s financial assistance has had to be cut due to the country’s economic troubles and the Trump administration’s sanctions, which the Biden team will have to decide to either keep or lift depending on the outcome of prospective U.S.-Iran nuclear negotiations. If that stream has indeed been reduced, the question remains by how much and whether it has effectively hurt Hezbollah’s social standing and political interests at home.
Hezbollah uses those financial resources to ensure its military readiness and to pay for salaries, housing, schooling, health care, and a range of benefits to members and supporters. Although the group can’t rely on the Lebanese banking system due to U.S. sanctions, it does have its own financial arm, al-Qard al-Hasan Association, which it uses to provide small, interest-free loans to Lebanese Shiites and other domestic communal groups. Between its “bank,” its domestic and international criminal activities, donations from its Shiite constituency, and Iranian cash, Hezbollah can survive, but maybe not prosper and spread its wings as it once did.
Aside from Iranian help, Hezbollah needs Damascus to continue to serve as a key conduit for Syrian and Iranian arms. With Iran and Hezbollah’s firm footprint in Syria, they are able to exercise tight control over the Lebanese-Syrian border.
Hezbollah’s relationship with Syria has changed much over the past 16 years. When Damascus ruled Lebanon from 1990 to 2005, Hezbollah operated primarily under Syrian control and its militancy against Israel was in many ways subservient to Syrian priorities. But after Syrian troops were forced to exit Lebanon following massive Lebanese popular protests in March 2005, Hezbollah became more politically involved and independent at home, carving itself a larger sphere of influence while preserving its strategic relationship with the Assad regime.
Since the eruption of the Syrian civil war and Hezbollah’s intervention on the side of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, the balance of power has shifted in favor of the Shiite group. Without the military help of Hezbollah and Iran, Assad most likely would not have survived.
Beyond these core relationships, which are likely to endure despite U.S. sanctions, Hezbollah has important political ties at home, both within the Shiite community and across the country’s religious and ethnic cleavages, that are bound together by straightforward quid pro quos based on money and political power. National breakdown could significantly strain or break these ties and, as a result, pose problems for Hezbollah.
Staying within the Shiite community, Amal is a critical and long-standing partner of Hezbollah. This has been a mutually beneficial relationship since 1982 when Nabih Berri took over Amal. Hezbollah has ensured that Berri retains his position as the speaker of the Lebanese Parliament and has allowed him to run his corrupt government schemes without any accountability. In return, Hezbollah has received his full political backing on a range of issues, including blocking calls for the group’s disarmament. In addition, Berri has served as an effective ambassador of Hezbollah’s interests abroad. He is, as Hezbollah-watcher Randa Slim once described him, the group’s “eyes, ears, and voice.”
If and when the 82-year-old Berri goes, and financial uncertainty about Lebanon’s future remains, Hezbollah is likely to rely more on Amal. Lacking any proven skills in political governance or management of state finances, Hezbollah will need Amal to further integrate itself into the Lebanese state and exercise greater control over the political process. Amal is indispensable in this transition because it has experience in the affairs of the state, having been embedded in almost every organ of the Lebanese government for decades.
Two other domestic relationships that will affect Hezbollah’s future amid this period of national existential crisis are those with the Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) of Gen. Michel Aoun, the sitting Lebanese head of state, and with the Sunni Future Movement, headed by prime minister-designate Saad Hariri.
The first has allowed Hezbollah to claim it has a following beyond its Shiite base, which probably has aided its reputation in the eyes of some European governments that care about the fate of Christians in Lebanon. The second has largely kept the peace between Sunnis and Shiites in Lebanon.
These two relationships are based on narrow, mutually beneficial understandings. Thanks to Hezbollah’s political support, Aoun was able to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming president in 2016 in return for his party shielding Hezbollah from domestic criticism for its military role and regional adventurism. Hariri has agreed to accommodate Hezbollah—despite the latter’s suspected role in the 2005 killing of his father, Rafik, the former Lebanese prime minister—in return for preserving his political relevance.
With the Lebanese ship sinking, Hezbollah must evaluate whether these relationships can survive and the extent to which it needs them. Aoun’s likely successor to lead the FPM is his son-in-law Gebran Bassil who is hated by most Lebanese, even by many from the Christian community and his own party, for his blatant corruption, hunger for power, and abrasive style. He has little to no chance of being elected as the next president, and he’s persona non grata in Washington, having recently been the target of U.S. sanctions for his corrupt practices and entente with Hezbollah.
Hezbollah could afford to downgrade its partnership with the FPM, settling for ties with other Lebanese Christians, such as Sleiman Frangieh’s Marada party and other pro-Syrian Christian entities, like it did before Aoun’s return from self-imposed exile in France in 2005. But Hezbollah will still need the FPM to some extent. The FPM remains a useful check against the right-wing Lebanese Forces, which has always been at the vanguard of opposition to Hezbollah’s armed status and seems to have ascended within the Lebanese Christian community in recent years as evidenced by the party’s strong showing in the 2018 parliamentary elections.
What Hezbollah prizes the most in terms of intercommunal relations is a stable relationship with the country’s Sunnis, the majority of whom are represented by Hariri. As long as Hezbollah doesn’t object to Hariri preserving his dominance over the Lebanese premiership, the chances of Lebanese Sunni-Shiite violence are much reduced. This is a priority for Hezbollah; nothing worries and distracts it from its Iran-centered regional objectives more than the risk of a serious domestic disturbance.
Should Lebanon remain mired in a financial crisis or completely fall apart, Hezbollah’s ties with Aoun and Hariri might fray simply because there would be nothing left to squeeze from the carcass of the Lebanese state. This could lead to the domestic isolation of Hezbollah, but not its death, because support from Lebanese Shiites, Iran, and Syria would most probably remain.
Implications for U.S. Policy
This potential outcome for Hezbollah is less than ideal for the United States. But U.S. policymakers’ myopic focus on Hezbollah has been an obstacle to effective policy toward Lebanon. Going forward, the United States should pay more attention to the country’s systemic problems that have fueled Hezbollah and will allow it to survive.
Hezbollah benefits from the same lack of transparency, corruption, sectarianism, and patronage that the rest of the country’s politicians use to maintain their fiefdoms and positions. A wiser course of action for Washington is to try to gradually change the whole system for the better in partnership with reform-oriented actors in the country, including Lebanese civil society.
It will remain important to target Hezbollah, but the past four decades of U.S. policy in Lebanon demonstrate that this approach has limits. The political environment in which the group operates must be overhauled.
To be sure, no part of this will be easy, and it cannot be done by outsiders, including the United States. This is a generational challenge for the Lebanese to address. Washington can help—it still has important interests in Lebanon, including preventing a failed state and Iran from completely taking over the country—but first it needs a proper diagnosis of the problem. And the problem is not just Hezbollah;
sadly, it’s the entire Lebanese system. The longer U.S. officials ignore this, the further they are from effectively containing Hezbollah and helping Lebanon rebuild itself.
Bilal Y. Saab is senior fellow and director of the Defense and Security Program at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C.; an adjunct assistant professor in Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service; and an associate with the Netherlands-based Clingendael Institute.