Hizb’allah’s old and new trajectories

Recent events seem to confirm an already settled pattern of deep changes in the Party of God’s nature and after its involvement in current regional stakes. What uncertain future awaits one of the most complex Middle East actors and what reactions by the international community shall we expect?

The approval, on December 18, of the Lebanese Hizb’allah “International Financing Prevention Act” by the US Congress is a further measure confirming the “Party of God” is still considered, by most of the international community actors, as a terrorist organization to all intents. The measure aims to expand economic sanctions on Hizb’allah, preventing the party from access to credit and inhibit its financial operations. Many observers noted how these measures have not affected significantly the Party, charged with drug trafficking and money laundering. The measure had the only effect of increasing the pressure on banking institutions, already crumbling due to the financial crisis. Lebanese banks have now to cope with new political pressures, since Hizb’allah’s spokesmen warn about US interference in Lebanese internal affairs, while the opponents of the party urge for excluding its members from access to credit. Hizb’allah therefore sees its position more precarious, in a time when tensions between its supporter Iran and the international community have loosen, after Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal. In spite of the fact that the consideration that states and institutions give to this non-state actor has not changed much over time, observers are largely unanimous in recognizing some transformations in its own nature and praxis.

Since the historical events that led to its mobilization, the Shi’ite party has faced numerous challenges. The socio-economic disadvantages of the Shi’ite community and its increasing regional isolation were the catalyst allowing the movement to proudly give back to the Shiite community a position of political and social importance – as well as the Civil War, that was a pitch of an ideology consolidation and of a newly acquired legitimacy in the eyes of the Lebanese citizens. This was true until tensions exploded in the ongoing war of liberation territorial intelligence and counterintelligence against Israel, which evolved in various political crises in Beirut. One of these saw an international court investigating the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and formally accusing four Hizb’allah members.

Hizb’allah’s position in Lebanon has long resisted, also thanks to its foreign sponsors of the Shi’ite axis, Iran and Syria. However, considering the Party only as a proxy manipulated by Iran for its own interests might distract us from considering other important prerogatives for an accurate analysis about this actor. After the civil war ended, its entry into politics, holding important government positions, has exposed Hizb’allah to the interaction with other religious groups. This Infitah (openness), prevailing over ideological and religious rejection of the political compromise, allowed the party to further consolidating its power in the suburbs of Beirut and in southern Lebanon. The Manifesto of 2009, unlike the previous ideological manifesto (the Open Letter of 1985) contains no reference to an Islamic republic in Lebanon, but it actually points out the Koranic verse according to which “there shall be no compulsion in religion” (Surah II, verse 256). The current discourse, then, seems to be the result of a mature political integration of the Party. The shift in Hizb’allah’s identity has not only resulted in the creation of a political party and its paramilitary fringe, but also of a public actor who owns effective social and economic instances that show its strong links with the local people. Furthermore, with its participation in the executive power Hizb’allah has transformed its relationship not only with the state but also with the LAF (Lebanese Armed Forces), recognizing its role and accepting its deployment in southern Lebanon in 2006.

However, it remains difficult to answer questions about the sustainability of these changes and  Hizb’allah’s margin of evolution. Of course, although the movement has acquired more autonomy from Iran since the 1980s, certainly the support of its allies is crucial, since the group still relies on Iranian training, weapons and funding. Indeed, without the continuous support of Iran and Syria, Hizb’allah would not have been able to become a formidable regional force. The decision to intervene militarily in Syria in 2012 is a consequence of this. Despite this, however, Hizb’allah military action in Syria could be more related to the circumstances that see Lebanon gripped by regional tremors, that always shake this country exceptionally hard. Lebanon is navigating on Middle East’s troubled waters, deeply felt by the large and still increasing number of Syrian refugees that everyday cross the border (until now they are up to 1,2 millions – a little more than a quarter of the total population) and by a sectarianism more and more salient. Civil war in Lebanon could reignite if sectarianism continues to grow and the Syrian war spills over in greater intensity.

These are urgent concerns for Hizb’allah, which, unlike other Lebanese actors, has had the means and the tenacity to intervene in the conflict. On the other hand, Hizb’allah’s involvement in the Syrian civil war has damaged its position in Lebanon and even led to question within its Shi’ite base. First, because, the party cannot now trust the mainspring of the resistance to wage warm, as it did when the enemy was Israel. Then, because by intervening in Syria alongside Assad, Hizb’allah got on a collision course with Sunnis in Syria as well as in Lebanon, and elsewhere in the region. Shi’ites have been always disadvantaged by regional demographics, even the keenest Lebanese Shi’ite supporter of Hizb’allah would prefer peace with their fellow Sunni Lebanese to conflict.

But the apparent tensions within Hizb’allah’s camp should not be exaggerated. Shi’a sentiment in Lebanon is still pro-Hizb’allah, primarily for security reasons. Sunni jihadists have attacked Shi’ites in Lebanon many times (the bombing of the Iranian embassy on November 19, 2013; the attack of Shiite neighborhood in Beirut, on November 2015). Hizb’allah, in coordination with the LAF – which has no interest to confront the Shi’ite group – has shown resiliency in containing the threat by battling with jihadist militants across the Syrian-Lebanese borders, in order to prevent infiltration. Consequently, this had repercussions on the internal front.

Domestically, indeed, Hizb’allah’s relations with the Shi’ite Amal and the Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) of Michel Aoun could deteriorate as a result of worsening security conditions in Syria. The FPM might reconsider its alliance with Hassan Nasrallah, given their dissimilar values and beliefs. Already, the first signs of change of direction within the Aoun’s party came after a surprise alliance between Aoun and the Maronite party, the leader of the Lebanese Forces (FL) Samir Geagea. More than a real historical reconciliation, this ‘rapprochement’ seems to obey to mere political objectives, given the upcoming presidential elections that see Michel Aoun as a candidate. In any case, the hypothesis that Hizb’allah would be cornered by such a move – and that this is the first step towards a progressive political isolation of the Party of God – appears implausible, since its militias are a credible protector against Sunni extremists and the Lebanese government does not intend to give it up in such difficult circumstances.

The Syrian conflict has transformed Hizb’allah, allegedly turning it into a more cautious foe of Israel. Neither Hezbollah nor Israel seems to have an incentive to engage in open conflict at the present time. Nevertheless, conflict might still break out. Given that Israel still threats Hizb’allah weapons supply routes, the chances of escalation remain considerable. The anti-Hizb’allah Lebanese population claims that the deployment of the Shiite forces on Syrian territory on the border with Lebanon could warn Israel about a possible rockets attack, recalling the casus belli in 2006. As a matter of fact, the most imposing threat to Lebanon, especially after the recent events, remains that of a jihadist awakening and, therefore, the urgent need is to contain pressures from Syria.

The Syrian civil war is challenging also the party’s regional position. If in such a scenario the “Russian, Iranian, Hizb’allah military triangle” is victorious in its aim to destroy ISIS in Syria, Hizb’allah will not only be confirmed as a strategic partner in the geopolitics of the Middle East, but it will also enjoy of a new consideration by the international community. Curiously going from being an internationally recognized terrorist group to an “internationally recognized” anti-terrorist force — although such an outcome is far from guaranteed. What is certain, is that its Islamic and paramilitary nature, is not necessarily immutable and does not make the party impervious to internal or, especially, external influences. Nowadays, two main lines of action dominate international politics of states and institutions towards Hizb’allah. The first one is a partial – if not total –  rejection of any contact with the group, in order to isolate it and gradually undermine its cohesiveness. For example, in 2013, the EU decision to put Hizb’allah’s military branch in the blacklist came with this purpose. But some member states had contested the strategic value of this measure, which may heighten tensions in the framework of the UNIFIL and jeopardize the safe continuation of this relatively functioning mission. The second kind of approach is a more moderate line which tries to facilitate the normalization of Hezbollah and integrate it into the Lebanese political process. Both approaches have produced only modest results, but undoubtedly the structural fragility of Lebanon makes this country and its population particularly vulnerable to all political and religious divergences. To maintain Lebanon’s situation steady becomes a priority more and more urgent. More prudent approaches towards this actor could give some successful results in this purpose, as few have already observed.

Daniela Musina

Bachelor’s degree in Cooperation, Development and International Studies (University of Turin)


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