by Aurélie Daher
When protests began in Syria against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in 2011, the leadership of Lebanon’s Hezbollah did not play for time. It immediately and officially announced that it preferred the current regime but also encouraged both Assad and the newborn opposition to give priority to a political, negotiated solution. Two years later, in the spring of 2013, the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon (IRL)—Hezbollah’s paramilitary mother organization that fought Israeli occupation for 18 years in southern Lebanon (1982-2000)—set foot for the first time on a Syrian battlefield to back up the Syrian army. Focusing its intervention on only one part of Syria—the coastal North and western frontiers along Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley—the IRL has been fighting there less to save the Assad dynasty than to secure its own interests. Its strategic objective there is to set up a territory within Syria that would remain Hezbollah- and Iran-friendly if the Ba’ath regime were to fall.
One year later, numerous articles appearing in the Western press assert that Hezbollah finds itself in a state of irreversible decline if not eventual demise and disappearance. Citing what they insist are serious losses among Hezbollah’s fighters in Syria as well as the negative political repercussions of its intervention on its political position within Lebanon, these reports argue that Hezbollah is losing momentum in favor of its adversaries, mainly the (Sunni) Future Current and the (Christian) Lebanese Forces. Moreover, these articles cite the increasing number of terrorist attacks by Syrian jihadists in Shi’a regions of Lebanon—in retaliation for the IRL’s support for Assad—as turning the Lebanese Shi’a community, once extremely supportive of Hezbollah, away from the party. Needless to say, many of these same observers believe, as they have from the beginning of the Syrian civil war, that Assad’s fall will inevitably lead to Hezbollah’s implosion.
But a clear-eyed analysis of the facts on the ground and a careful reading of Lebanese news media suggests that these scenarios are more wishful thinking than grounded in reality.
Hezbollah in Syria
In the first place, there is a serious reliability problem regarding the sources of the IRL’s casualty figures in Syria. News outlets have tended to quote each other on this questioning, insisting that hundreds, if not thousands of IRL fighters have died. But a simple tally of burials by the IRL, which has never hidden its losses, shows that the casualties appear to be many fewer than what is being reported (around 200 dead in a year and a half, compared to the thousands of jihadists who have died). Reports from the field also cite how quickly and abundantly the dead have been replaced by Shi’a youth who appear increasingly motivated to settle scores with the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) as the events of late August and October had shown (see more below). Indeed, news reports about specific engagements involving the IRL and its jihadist foes suggest that the IRL has achieved an unbroken series of battlefield victories. And even Hezbollah’s most fervent critics agree that it was thanks to the IRL’s intervention that the strategic zones of Qusayr and Qalamun along the Lebanese border were recaptured from IS and JN by the Assad regime, thus “securing” almost the entire coastal north and western part of the country.
In other words, the IRL’s situation in Syria is, according to all reliable indicators, stable and showing no signs of destabilization thus far. Quite the opposite, actually. Its current force is on the Qalamun region, which is linked to Lebanon through—among others—Ersal, a Sunni Lebanese border town in the Bekaa. Ersal has, for more than three years, offered a relatively comfortable and welcoming rear base and haven for the Syrian opposition, including jihadists from IS and JN, as well as fighters from the various factions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Not only have they been able to come and go there for rest and resupply; many have settled their families there. Following a major offensive launched by IS and JN in the surrounding area in August, the Lebanese Army moved to close off access to Ersal, essentially confining the jihadi fighters to an arid, mountainous, and unpopulated pocket in the Qalamun. Hemmed in on the Syrian side of the border by the regime’s army and the IRL, these forces may not be able to hold out during the winter and could perish from the cold and lack of supplies. It’s no coincidence that IS and JN, which abducted more than 20 members of the Lebanese army and police during the battle for Ersal, have recently abandoned their former conditions for setting their hostages free in exchange for the reopening of the passage to Ersal. If they were to remain trapped at the border—caught between the IRL and the Syrian army on the one side and the Lebanese security forces on the other—that would certainly ease the IRL’s job.
Bad for Assad, Good for March 14?
More significantly, however, it is mainly in Lebanon, on both the social and political fronts, that Hezbollah’s situation is satisfactory according to its standards—if not improving. Indeed, the car-bomb attacks carried out since last year—by the Abdallah al-Azzam Brigades (an al-Qaeda-affiliated group), JN and IS in the northeast of the Bekaa and the southern suburbs of Beirut, which include two main Shi’a strongholds—have never succeeded in turning the Shi’a community against Hezbollah. In fact, since the first year of the Syrian uprising, the community has understood that the attacks against it by the jihadists are motivated as much by the perpetrators’ sectarian hatred for the Shi’a as they are by the IRL’s intervention in Syria. Accepting the notion that the IRL’s intervention was a “necessary evil” to keep IS and JNfar from Lebanon’s borders, and that Hezbollah and the IRL “had no other choice,” the Lebanese Shi’a have remained, in the end, loyal to their favorite party.
The horrors perpetrated by IS in Iraq against religious minorities and Sunni opponents in areas that have come under its control have, if anything, rallied Lebanese Shi’a behind Hezbollah, particularly in the absence of a strong Lebanese state and security forces that are able to protect the country. Indeed, Hezbollah has effectively come to be seen as the only armed group that can defend Lebanon against a possible “invasion” by the “beheaders gang.” (According to experts, the Lebanese army for all intents and purposes is chronically undermanned. Today it has 56,000 arguably under-trained troops, and it remains underfunded. At the end of the civil war in the early 1990s, the institution received large subsidies from the state, up to more than 20% of total budget expenditures, but not for modernization, equipment, or training. The aim instead was to lower the unemployment of recently disarmed militia members after they had been fighting each other for 15 years by integrating them into the army with generous socio-professional benefits.)
It is certainly on this particular point that Hezbollah has excelled since last summer. As a reminder, the Lebanese political scene has been divided since 2005 into two main coalitions. The first, the anti-Assad and pro-Western March 14 Coalition, is essentially represented by the (Sunni) Future Current (FC) of Saad Hariri, the (Christian) Lebanese Forces (LF) of Samir Geagea, and the (Christian) Kataeb of the Gemayel family. The second, known as the March 8 Coalition, favors a strategic alliance with Damascus and is led by (Shi’a) Hezbollah and AMAL, backed by the (Christian) Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) of Michel Aoun. Until 2012-13, the two fierce Christian rivals LF and FPM disagreed vehemently over Hezbollah, and specifically over the IRL’s retention of its arms, and the possible danger they represent for Lebanon in the event that these weapons—which Hezbollah argued were necessary to defend against Israeli aggression—were to be used one day against the Lebanese population. The LF declared them a “public and national source of threat,” demanded the IRL’s disarmament, and insisted that only the state and its security forces should be charged with securing the independence and defense of the nation. Noting that Hezbollah was far from being the only armed political group in the country, the FPM argued, on the other hand, that the IRL’s weapons were no more dangerous than those of any other militia and that, given the shortcomings of the Lebanese Army, an armed IRL was the only force capable of effectively deterring Israel.
The August 2014 attack on Ersal has, however, put that very fundamental disagreement on hold, and with good reason.
One month after June’s proclamation of the “Islamic State” by “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Imad Jomaa, a prominent Syrian jihadist, was arrested by the Lebanese army. IS and JN—whether working in cooperation or independently (it’s not clear)—used his arrest as a pretext to launch a massive attack on the Lebanese Army’s positions and checkpoints in Ersal. The attack was launched by 3,000-6,000 fighters, according to national newspaper reports. The modus operandi of the jihadists and the confessions made by leaders of both organizations held in custody soon produced an explanation for the attack. The IS, in particular, had apparently planned to turn Ersal into the first sovereign nucleus of an “Islamic State in Lebanon.” After a week of fierce battles, the Lebanese Army and police succeeded in repelling the attackers, but at the price of more than a dozen dead in its ranks, more than 80 others injured, and two dozen soldiers and policemen taken hostage.
The attack on Ersal provoked panic in Lebanon. It showed that the Islamic State’s plans for Lebanon were real—and imminent. A few weeks later, IS and JN launched a new attack from a few dozen kilometers to the south, in Brital, a Shi’a village close to the border. This time they were pushed back by Hezbollah, which, in turn, received support from nearby local villagers and residents who brought their household weapons to the battle. Twenty-two jihadists were killed.
Then, beginning on the evening of Oct. 24, IS and JN once again attacked army checkpoints in Tripoli, the predominantly Sunni capital city of the North, with a toll of 16 dead, including children, and over 150 others injured.
Given IS’s spectacular advances in Iraq since June, public fear was already on the rise at the end of the summer, especially among non-Sunni Lebanese. While recognizing that the national army should be their first line of defense, more and more people, from the average citizen to religious and political leaders, found it hard to ignore the fact that they are indeed relying on Hezbollah to defend their country’s territorial integrity.
Among Christians, this has caused a lot turmoil, as Geagea’s efforts to reassure the public that jihadists didn’t truly threaten Lebanon apparently failed to reduce the level of public anxiety. Even his own Lebanese Forces, whose members, after having loathed Hezbollah for years, now appear increasingly willing to admit that they are not that sad, after all, that Hezbollah exists and is well-armed.
Before the summer, rumors and reports were circulating about attempts to create Christian self-defense militias that would be armed by Hezbollah in many regions of the country, mainly in the northern Bekaa and in the South. After being widely criticized for nearly two years, the IRL’s intervention in Syria and its establishment of a defense buffer zone between Syria and Lebanon suddenly gained popularity. But after Ersal, it was none other than the Maronite patriarch himself, Beshara al-Rahi (who previously criticized the IRL’s fighting in Syria and refusal to disarm), who best summarized the views of most Christian Lebanese on the issue “If the Christians of Lebanon were asked today about their point of view on current events, they would all say that without Hezbollah, IS would have reached [the Christian coastal city of] Jounieh.”
Indeed, Hezbollah’s image since the end of this summer has gained as much in prestige and confidence as its main Sunni political rival, the Future Current (FC), has lost—and continues to lose. From the time when the Syrian protests began in 2011 to the first appearance of jihadists among the rebels, Saad Hariri’s party had presented itself as a force for moderation and legality, and as the defender of the non-Sunni communities, especially the Christians. Unfortunately, the challenge has proved too ambitious. Some of the party’s MPs, having taken advantage of Hariri’s self-exile from Lebanon and inspired by their anti-Assad passions, expressed sympathy for the Sunni dissident sheikh, Ahmad al-Assir, throughout the year of 2012-13 and did not hesitate to support him when he and his men attacked the army’s checkpoints in Saida in June of last year, killing 16 soldiers. A year before, in May 2012, this zeal had led many FC MPs to press the government for the release of Shadi Mawlawi, a dangerous jihadist leader from the North, and then to enthusiastically participate in his joyous homecoming. Both actions all too clearly demonstrated to the public that an important component of the party privileged their Sunni identity above their loyalty to the Lebanese nation and its security and judicial institutions.
Moreover, since last summer and the battle for Ersal, the party has been embarrassed by a series of scandals. Khaled Daher, MP of the North, was caught red-handed cordially associating with known IS and JN leaders living in the Tripoli region. He was reported to have “coordinated” with Ahmad Mikati, who sent him video clips of Sunni members of the army who had just deserted to join IS/JN. Daher’s answer was that “the army was just looking for a pretext to murder Northerners.” Nor did it help when the minister of justice, Ashraf Rifi—a former police chief and FC protégé—intervened personally in October to help two jihadist leaders, Shadi Mawlawi and Ahmad Mikati, who had been surrounded by the Army after three days of urban warfare that resulted in thousands displaced from the fighting. Instead of reassuring the country’s various confessional groups, especially its own Christian allies, the party’s leadership remained silent throughout the crisis, effectively presenting the public with an image quite contrary to that which Hariri had intended. The FC now appears internally divided, radical-friendly, unwilling to defend state institutions and the rule of law, and ultimately unreliable in the face of a massive jihadist offensive against the nation.
In a country like Lebanon, where everything lost by one side is won by the other, Hezbollah’s leadership thus has every reason to feel good about its current standing. The Western press should hence be careful that its antipathy for the group does not obscure the reality of its power and popularity. It is seductive to think that Hezbollah is being bled to death in a literal sense in Syria and in a political sense in Lebanon, but that’s simply wishful thinking.