by Gareth Smyth
In 1985 at the age of eight, Aurélie Daher moved with her family to Baalbek, in Lebanon’s Beqaa region. It was a formative time not just for her, but for Hezbollah, the Shia Muslim group listed by the United States as a ‘foreign terrorist organisation’.
In 1985, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was in the Beqaa, three years after it arrived to train militants prepared to take on the Israeli army, which had invaded Lebanon in 1982 and was occupying a swathe of the country’s south. “The Pasdaran (Guards) were rather discrete,” Daher tells me in an interview. “They weren’t organizing military marches in the street. You could see they were keen on not having the population feel they were there.”
The inquisitive eight-year-old is now Assistant Professor at Université Paris-Dauphine and at Science Po, Paris. But Daher has kept her interest in the ‘Party of God’, and her book Hezbollah: Mobilisation and Power is just out in English translation, four years after publication in French.
Daher’s work draws on hundreds of interviews with party leaders, activists and fighters. She assesses the charismatic leadership of secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah, and traces Hezbollah’s fortunes through the Syrian withdrawal after the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, the 2006 war with Israel, and its intervention, after 2013, in the Syrian war in support of president Bashar al-Assad.
Daher offers great detail on Hezbollah’s structure, centred on the ruling military council. Members, who must be male, receive no party card. All undertake compulsory weapons training. Some become fighters. Fewer become civilian employees as the Islamic Resistance (IRL, the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon) absorbs the vast bulk of resources. Daher concludes that Hezbollah is not a party with a militia, but an armed organisation in its essence.
Daher’s remarkable access to Hezbollah goes back to Baalbek: “At eight years old, in 1985, with Hezbollah barely three years old, I was going to school with guys who are now big toasts in the party.” This was a great advantage in her PhD research in 2006-10, carried out both in the Beqaa and in south Beirut, the so-called dahiyeh (‘suburbs’).
“These were five critical years for Hezbollah…I found myself in the middle of history happening, and having access to the guys. We grew up in the same town, so they knew I wasn’t a CIA or Mossad agent. They let me go around their institutions, spend all day there, even sometimes a week, doing what we call in sociology ‘participant observation’.”
Academics and journalists writing about Hezbollah have struggled with access going back to the 1980s, a time when Islamist militants in Lebanon bombed the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks. Early works, like Magnus Ranstorp’s Hizb’allah in Lebanon focused on hostage-taking.
Matthew Levitt, who has many times testified before Congress on Hezbollah, relied on Western and Israeli intelligence sources, as well as anti-Hezbollah Lebanese websites and Gulf-financed newspapers, for his 2013 Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God. In a review of the book for Lobelog, Daher highlighted its “simple errors”, argued it lacked empirical research in Lebanon, and pointed out that Levitt speaks no Arabic.
Levitt is among many ‘experts’ of ‘counter-terrorism’ who have weighed in on Hezbollah, while publishers have sought to tap the mystery surrounding the party and its ‘terrorism’. But explanations of Hezbollah’s motivation have often been implausible or partial. If it is purely a tool of Iran, why is it popular in Lebanon? If Hezbollah is so hell-bent on ‘liberating’ Jerusalem, how has it managed de facto agreements with Israel, including the U.S.-mediated 1996 memorandum that limited conflict along the border? Are Hezbollah’s efforts in developing social services and schools attempts to replace the Lebanese state?
Tellingly, Daher rejects simple explanations and is prepared to accept that Hezbollah may be inconsistent. She has no truck with the common argument that Hezbollah’s decision to stand for parliament in 1992, or to take ministerial positions in 2005, is part of an evolution into a ‘normal’ political party. She is also convinced it is far from an Iranian proxy and lacks a serious commitment to upend Israel.
The central thrust of Daher’s book is the importance of ‘mobilization’—which evokes the Iranian volunteer body Sazeman-e Basij-e Mostazafan (‘Organisation for the Mobilization of the Oppressed’), known simply as the Basij. According to a comprehensive study by Saeid Golkar, the Basij has 4-5 million members active with varying levels of commitment in education, politics and as a militia-cum-police force.
The Lebanese ‘mobilization’ began in 1982, largely in response to the Israeli invasion in June and only two years after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of Iran’s 1979 Revolution, had called for the establishment of the Basij in an improvised response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran.
Quoting an interview with Subhi al-Tufayli, Hezbollah’s first secretary-general, Daher says that 1000 young people were trained by the IRGC near Baalbek in the summer of 1982 before heading south to carry out operations against the Israelis. Contrary to what has often been supposed, most were political novices rather than former Communists or members of Amal, then Lebanon’s major Shia party.
Here was born al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya fi Lubnan (Islamic Resistance in Lebanon, IRL), long before Hezbollah emerged as anything resembling a political party. But the Pasdaran’s training was far from purely military, Daher writes:
The internal organization and operating mode of Hezbollah…in no small part derive from what the Iranian emissaries in Lebanon taught the parties founding fathers. The Pasdaran also taught ideological conscientization to the future Hezbollah cadres. Clerics from the Pasdaran detachment’s Cultural Unit made it their task to disseminate what would become known, especially in the 2000s, as ‘a culture of resistance’. The term describes a complete reciprocal social system, within which the militant, instead of limiting himself to simply preaching solidarity with the Resistance, will practice reciprocal solidarity, meaning in this case that if the ILR was to expect solidarity from society, it must help society. During the first half of the 1980s the Pasdaran were thus seen working on the land alongside the peasants and field workers of the north Bekaa, sowing, reaping, and helping farmers raise cattle and sheep…In this way the Pasdaran gained popularity among a population used to being overlooked by the Lebanese government…
Hezbollah’s hostility to Israel was shared by Iran—a feature many analysts regard as its central feature. But Daher’s conversations with Hezbollah members and fighters suggest that support for the Palestinians is in no way comparable to their commitment to defend Lebanon.
She explains: “I think the West has decided to interpret what Hezbollah would say about Palestine or Israel as a real serious, intended, planned project—while for them [Hezbollah] it’s rhetoric, discourse.” Daher recalls a conversation in 2009 in an east Beirut hotel where she had set up a meeting between a Hezbollah official and a visiting academic who bluntly asked when the party intended to attack Israel.
“The guy replied: ‘It’s not our job to liberate Jerusalem or wipe Israel from the surface of the earth. Our job is to protect Lebanon’s borders. If the Palestinians need help, training, money whatever, if we can do that, we will. But Jerusalem is not our capital, it’s not our country’. That was explicit.”
Daher presents Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria as essentially defensive: “Starting from the summer 2012, the Beqaa was regularly bombarded by proto-jihadi groups, at the time not yet called Jabhat al-Nusra let alone ISIS. Rockets fell next to my parents’ house, coming from Syria…When Hezbollah left for Syria, in May 2013, the people of Baalbek, the Christians too, saw it a necessary ill.”
But the outcome has benefited Hezbollah, fighters back from Syria have told Daher. “[They feel] If Bashar wants to stay in power, he knows he can’t impose anything on Hezbollah anymore… Iran and Hezbollah can now carry out their relationship the way they always dreamed of.”
To what end? If Hezbollah is not committed to an Islamic state in Lebanon, nor to a war-to-the-death to ‘liberate’ Jerusalem, then what are its long-term aims?
Daher thinks observers of Hezbollah are looking for something that isn’t there. “There is a big Lebanese expression used by the opponents of Hezbollah—they keep talking about ‘the Hezbollah project’. When you observe their decision-making process, they don’t work as a ruling, or government party, they work as a lobby. It’s not a party with a real program, objective or aims. It doesn’t have a vision for the future, contrary to what everyone says.”
But this itself, she insists, is typically Lebanese. “They’re exactly the same as any other party in Lebanon. Not a single one has any vision or plan or program. If they say they do, they have no idea how to achieve it.”
But Hezbollah has less interest than other Lebanese parties in the business of government. Contrary to what some analysts claim, Daher argues that Hezbollah has no intention of replacing the state: Hezbollah’s social services and schools, alongside the IRL, give the Shia, historically Lebanon’s poorest sect, a sense of dignity. But their main purpose is to raise commitment and support for ‘resistance’.
This is why Hezbollah is happy to leave Amal—with which Hezbollah allies in general elections—to battle within the confessional system to secure resources for the Shia and Shia areas. While this is not Daher’s main concern in the book, it strengthens her point that writers on Hezbollah have underplayed its deep Lebanese roots.
“Any Shia who needs wasta [a useful contact] within the state has to go to Amal,” a Lebanese friend tells me. “Hezbollah just isn’t any use to them. And although Hezbollah and Amal members dislike each other so much, they both seem to accept this [division of labor].” In the process, Hezbollah manages to keep intact a reputation for ‘purity’ and ‘self-sacrifice’ that would be tarnished by contact with the rampantly corrupt Lebanese state.
Part of Hezbollah’s raison d’être, writes Daher, is enhancing the status of Lebanon’s Shia (even if many Shia oppose it). The 2006 war with Israel, when Hezbollah fighters successfully resisted an Israeli onslaught, gave many Shia not just pride but a sense that—contrary to narratives that had portrayed them as close to ‘Persians’—they were “authentic Lebanese” or even “more Lebanese than the others.”
In that sense, Daher explains to me, resistance is both a means and an end. “Hezbollah are not the big bosses,” she says. “There is someone else pulling the strings and it’s not Iran. It’s the IRL. It’s a civil structure that’s working on protecting the interests of the military structure. The work of Hezbollah as a political group is to lobby the government, or block the parliament, whatever, in order to protect the interests of the IRL. The main objective is to do whatever can be done to prevent the IRL being disarmed. If needed, they will use their weapons to protect the weapons.”
Gareth Smyth, who has reported from the Middle East since 1992, was 2003-7 the chief correspondent of the Financial Times in Iran.