CAIRO – 4 December 2017: “All roads lead to Rome,” they say. Not so much in the Middle East where, increasingly, all roads lead to Lebanon. While Saudi Arabia and Iran remain the bastions of power in the Middle East, they do not find sense in employing their hard and soft power tools head-on in a bid to save face and territorial integrity. Lebanon continues to find itself in the center of such disputes.
Under the guise of proxies across the region, Iran is making it clear that territorial sovereignty is not absolute, and that anything is open to re-interpretation if Iran so wishes. Iran is in the process – successfully I should add – of re-interpreting the essential power dynamics of the Middle East. While Saddam Hussein provided an effective buffer between Iran and the rest of the Arab world, with his removal in 2003, Iranian eyes were once again set on the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Aden, and beyond.
The conflict in Yemen provided Iran with the opportunity to challenge Saudi Arabia’s southern border while conflict in Syria and Iraq allowed Iran to cement influence in the Levant, and directly on the Kingdom’s northern border.
Although the conflict in Syria does not directly challenge the Kingdoms territorial integrity to the north, the Iranian threat to Saudi interests remains significant.
Houthi fighters in Yemen chant slogans as they take part in a gathering in the capital, Sana’a. AFP/Mohammed Huwais
In Yemen the rebel Houthi movement have continued to trouble the Kingdom, and only recently fired a ballistic missile towards Riyadh. Although intercepted, this was taken by Saudi Arabia as a “declaration of war” by Iran.
In Iraq, directly on the northern Saudi border, Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi militias have played a substantive role in holding back ISIS in the country. In September, following the widely condemned Kurdish vote for independence, Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi militia supported Iraqi security forces as they pushed into disputed areas taken over by the Kurdish Peshmerga since they held back ISIS advances in 2014.
Regardless of Iran’s “covert” military action and political pressure in the aforementioned countries, Hezbollah remain undoubtedly Iran’s largest puppet-threat to peace in the region. Saudi Arabia has already declared Hezbollah’s aggression a “declaration of war”, and has taken drastic steps in recent weeks to curb this threat.
Who, or what, is Hezbollah?
Hezbollah is a Shi’a Islamist political, military and social group based in Lebanon currently led by Hassan Nasrallah after the death of Abbas al-Musawi in 1992. The group has transformed from its fractured origins during the Lebanese Civil War in the 1980s, and now wields considerable political and military power in the country and throughout the region.
The group operates predominantly in southern Lebanon, headquartered in the notorious Bekaa Valley, however has the capacity to conduct transnational operations.
Lebanese army soldiers patrol a street in Labwe, at the entrance of the border town of Arsal, in eastern Bekaa Valley, Lebanon July 21, 2017. REUTERS
In an exceptional move, Hezbollah’s political wing has risen up the ladder to achieve top status in Lebanon’s formal political structure. It currently holds 12 seats in parliament and two in the cabinet; a condition thought impossible just 30 years ago.
The military wing represents the biggest threat to peace perceived by Saudi Arabia and her allies. With an estimated annual income of around $1 billion and a fighting force upward of 25,000 men, Hezbollah’s military is arguably the most powerful non-state actor not just in the region, but in the world.
Importantly, Hezbollah possesses a vast amount of military hardware, including armored vehicles and missiles all provided by Iran. Not just funded by Iran, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRCG) and its Quds Forces provide essential training and non-military support to the group.
What are its motives?
Hezbollah’s constitution of 1985 outlined several fundamental goals of the group: to destroy Israel, to expel Western influences from Lebanon and the wider region, and to combat their enemies within Lebanon – in the context of the Lebanese Civil War this fell primarily on the Phalanges Party. The 1985 manifesto had a strong Islamic rhetoric, and listed the Ayatollah Khomeini as the leader whose "orders we obey".
The simple presence of a manifesto showed that the newfound group had political aspirations which looked to legitimize the group far beyond the war.
Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s current leader, described the group at a basic level and identified "two main axis”: “firstly, a belief in the rule by the just jurisconsult and adherence to Khomeini's leadership; and secondly, the continued need to struggle against the Israeli enemy."
The simple presence of a manifesto showed that the newfound group had political aspirations beyond the war.
Secretary General of Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah. AFP/Haitham Mussawi
For the first time since Hezbollah formally joined the Lebanese political process in 1992, the group published a new manifesto in 2009. The new manifesto shifted its direction slightly in order to appear consistent with the changed climate.
In contrast to the 1985 manifesto, the new political vision contains a dialed down Islamist rhetoric. The new manifesto omits reference to establishing an Islamic order in Lebanon, and focuses more on community integration and acceptance of Lebanon’s diversity.
Nevertheless, the tough line against Israel and the United States is maintained.
“Israel represents a constant threat and an impending danger to Lebanon,” the document reads. "We categorically reject any compromise with Israel or recognizing its legitimacy."
“The American administration’s unlimited support to Israel... places the American administration in the position of the enemy of our nation and our peoples,” the document continues.
“The U.S. terror is the root of all terror in the world."
American soldiers stand near armoured fighting vehicles contributed by the U.S. government to the Lebanese army at Beirut's port, Lebanon, August 14, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
It’s easy to view Hezbollah as simply a political party, yet this doesn’t scratch the surface of the group’s exploits. Hezbollah is a designated terrorist group by the United States, European Union, Arab League, and Israel to name a few.
- United States (designated October 8, 1997)
- European Union (designated July 22, 2013)
- Gulf Cooperation Council (designated March 2, 2016)
- Arab League (designated March 11, 2016)
- Organization of Islamic Cooperation (designated April 14, 2016)
The founding of Hezbollah must be viewed in the context of the Lebanese Civil War; a 15-year-long war from 1975-1990 which ravaged the country as foreign armies and sub-state actors endured the road to domination.
Shiite Muslims in Lebanon were mostly left out of the state formation process when Lebanon gained its independence in 1943. A confessional political system was introduced in the 1943 National Pact, in the belief that it was appeasing the diverse range of identifiable groups in Lebanon, whether being Maronite, Sunni, etc.
The National Pact was founded on an outdated 1932 census, which was misguided in representing the demographics of the country and failed to provide fair political representation in the executive and legislative branches, leaving the growing Muslim majority vastly under-represented.
It was established that parliamentary seats would be divided on a 6-to-5 ratio of Christians to Muslims, in addition to a Maronite President; a Sunni Prime Minister; and a Shi’a Speaker.
Deeply rooted within society was a hierarchical social structure, in which certain groups were gifted more social and economic privileges than others. To this extent, the Shiite community was often economically and politically marginalized.
Distributing political and institutional power proportionally among confessional communities is a risky road to walk down; time only skews proportions. Following the so-called Black September in 1970, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was expelled to Lebanon and joined the 200,000 or so Palestinian refugees in south Lebanon and around Beirut. They proceeded to establish a recognizable state-within-a-state in Lebanon, militarizing refugee camps and areas under its control.
Here the foundation of the conflict was shaped, which pitted Muslims against Christians initially in the form of the Lebanese National Movement/PLO and the Phalange respectively. Many groups and foreign armies joined the conflict in the coming weeks, months and years.
Palestinian fighters unfurl a Lebanese flag at the Holiday Inn after they dislodged Lebanese Christian forces on March 26, 1976. The hotel was a battleground throughout the 1975-'90 Lebanese war, with its upper floors used as snipers' nests. AFP/Xavier Baron
Israel joined the conflict in 1978 and 1982 after repeated attacks and counter-attacks between the PLO operating in southern Lebanon and the Israeli Defense Forces, which had caused civilian casualties on both sides of the border. Israel remained as an occupying force in certain areas after both invasions.
A plethora of groups emerged during this conflict in the quest for supremacy; of these, Hezbollah emerged in the early 1980s. While some people point to 1982 as Hezbollah’s founding date, its official manifesto was not released until 1985.
Although Hezbollah has fundraising networks across the region and the globe, as well as vast sources of legitimate financing domestically, its primary sponsor is undoubtedly Iran. Since Hezbollah’s foundation in the civil war period, Iran and the IRGC – specifically the Quds force – have played a significant role in training, funding, and equipping the group.
Advanced by the Quds Force, the Special Forces unit of the IRGC responsible for Iran’s extraterritorial operations, Iran is growing increasingly skilled at entrenching support links beyond Tehran’s legitimate reach.
Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani (C) attends Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's (not seen) meeting with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) in Tehran, Iran on Sept. 18, 2016. AFP
Headed by the infamous Qasem Soleimani, the Quds Force appeals to Shiite sympathies throughout the Middle East, inflating sectarian tensions in the already unstable region.
Hezbollah is the greatest military threat Iran has control over beyond its border, with a vast arsenal of relatively sophisticated weapons and a strong, loyal army. Israeli intelligence suggests that Hezbollah has stockpiled over 100,000 rockets and missiles of various capabilities, however some estimates put this number at 150,000.
“Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, Israel’s deputy chief of staff, told foreign journalists that Hezbollah has developed capabilities that present ‘unprecedented’ threats to Israel. Israel estimates the group has over 100,000 rockets and missiles in its arsenal,” reported the Associated Press in April 2016.
“In any future crisis, they are not going to see a small war in Lebanon. It’s going to be decisive. It’s going to be a full-scale war,” Golan said.
In a process often referred to as the “Lebanonization of Hezbollah,” after the 1975-1990 war Hezbollah transformed from a revolutionary force, to a political group.
The premise of this notion is that during the 1990s Hezbollah began a process of integrating into Lebanese society, and formally into the parliamentary democracy and political process.
Hezbollah’s political wing, the Loyalty to the Resistance Bloc, ran in national elections for the first time in 1992, winning eight seats in the parliamentary elections. The last general election was held in 2009, where the Loyalty to the Resistance Bloc won 13 seats.
Along with the Free Patriotic Movement and Amal, the party dominates the March 8 Alliance, the largest alliance in the Lebanese Parliament, and since 2012 has held two seats in the Lebanese cabinet.
While entrenching its influence domestically, Hezbollah has been engaged in almost constant cross-border conflict, whether covert or overt.
From 1982-2000, Lebanese Muslim guerrillas groups, mostly led by Hezbollah, have been engaged in also constant conflict with Israeli military forces. After Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 to oust the PLO to put a stop to these attacks, Hezbollah took charge.
Israeli soldiers carry their belongings in an area near the Israel-Lebanon border January 29, 2015. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
This conflict was typified by surprise Hezbollah attacks on Israeli troops and rocket attacks on Israeli civilians, followed by a disproportionate Israeli response.
While it is argued that Iran sent several thousand IRCG troops to support Hezbollah in the campaign, what is certain is that they provided the essential military and financial backing.
In what would prove to be a turning point in Lebanese politics, in 2005 the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated. An international tribunal investigating the assassination indicted five Hezbollah members over his killing.
The voice of moderation was removed; his assassination distorted and transformed Lebanon’s internal dynamics. In a country where conflict and assassination have become commonplace, the hope that Hariri’s assassination could be forgotten about quickly did not prevail, and over a decade later the country is still feeling the effects.
His death paved the way for Hezbollah to increase its influence in Lebanon through both political and physical mechanisms as it emerged as the most powerful political and military force in the country.
Nevertheless, the relative peace of 2000 to 2006 was knocked back in July of 2006. Hezbollah fighters fired rockets into Israeli border towns as part of an attack on two armored Israeli Humvees patrolling the Israeli side of the border fence, killing eight Israeli soldiers and taking two hostages.
Israeli retaliation led to a month long war, which is believed to have killed around 1,125 Lebanese and 164 Israelis. However, Hezbollah faired surprisingly well, and claimed a victory since Israeli failed to overcome the group.
In the 11 years since the July 2006 war, Hezbollah has expanded its domestic influence while becoming entangled in Syria's civil war
Hezbollah’s political power has increased as a result. After Hezbollah initiated clashes in Beirut in 2008 with government supporters, negotiations with the government led to Hezbollah acquiring a significant veto power in the cabinet which it has used to great extent; most significantly, to prevent the election of a Lebanese president whom it does not favor.
Hezbollah fighters put Lebanese and Hezbollah flags at Juroud Arsal, Syria-Lebanon border, July 25, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
The current Lebanese, war veteran President Michael Aoun, is a Maronite Christian in adherence with Lebanon’s confessional political system. Yet, his cooperation with Hezbollah exemplifies its influence in all spheres of government.
With the uprising against Hezbollah’s ally Bashar al-Assad in neighboring Syria, Hezbollah began sending military advisors across the border in 2011, and confirmed in June 2013 that it had deployed combat forces to support the regime. While at first these forces were concentrated on the Lebanese-Syrian border to counter the activities of extremist groups, by 2015 there were reports of Hezbollah units operating in widespread areas of Syria, including Idlib and Aleppo.
Hezbollah, a Shi'a Islamist political party, terrorist and militant group based in Lebanon that wields vast power throughout the region, sits under the thumb of its masters in Iran. It remains the most significant example of an Iranian proxy in the region, and has been the source of horrifying terrorism in the past and increasing tensions in recent months.
The group is sprinting towards the finish line in Lebanon, and while not there yet, it is finding regional events largely falling in its favor. It is to not surprise the region and the world is worried of Iran’s growing influence.