What Does the Future Hold for Hizbullah After Syria's Conflict?
17 Nov 2016
The Iran-backed Shia militia is on a long and bumpy road from millennial revolutionary zeal to Lebanon's confessional realpolitik.
The start of the Syrian uprising in March 2011 saw Lebanon's Shia militia Hizbullah transition its vaunted military machine from its past resistance to the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon into full-fledged involvement in the ensuing armed conflict in Syria.
Syria's conflict may not be about to end, but it is bound to end at some point. The regional powers fueling the fighting are also active in Lebanon, and they are destabilising it. Syria and Lebanon are twin countries, and stabilising them as the conflict is hopefully wound down must happen concurrently. Given Hizbullah's experience in Syria, and given its role in Lebanese society, this process of stabilisation will have a major effect on the group's future direction.
Hizbullah did not seek to involve itself in Syria's conflict.
The strange turnabout that brought Hizbullah into the Syrian conflict did not happen abruptly. Following Israel's unilateral withdrawal in May 2000 from its self-declared security belt in the south, Hizbullah shifted its anti-Israel mission to smuggling arms to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza, as well as transferring to them its guerrilla warfare tactics. These efforts did not spare Hizbullah the criticism of Lebanese Christians and Sunnis, who argued that its maintenance of a military wing had upset the country's precarious sectarian balance. The attempt of the then-Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, a Sunni, to use his executive powers to curtail Hizbullah's military preponderance led to its invasion of west Beirut in May 2008 and the liquidation of the Future Trend Sunni militia.
Hizbullah made its debut in 1982 when Iran sent a token contingent of ideologically zealous revolutionary guards to the northern Bekaa Valley, in a show of solidarity with Lebanon, as it faced Israeli invasion and subsequent occupation of the Shia heartland. After successfully instilling the tenets of Wilayat al-Faqih in the minds and hearts of a handful of religiously driven Shia followers of Ayatollah Khomeini, Hizbullah formally launched in February 1985. The group's manifesto made its ideological nexus with the Islamic Republic of Iran absolutely clear. The emergence of Hizbullah served both the interests of the Iran's revolution and religious Lebanese Shia searching for a political identity and a sense of belonging.
Immediately after the triumph of the revolution, Iran introduced its Arab policy, which became the most important component of its foreign policy. Khomeini aspired to spread his revolution throughout the Muslim world, but the fact that the vast majority were Sunnis precluded the possibility that they would accept a Shia interpretation of true Islam. Thrown into the midst of civil war and weathering the consequences of Israeli military action, Lebanese Shia became increasingly amenable to Iranian patronage. Tehran's financial handouts, together with the stream of arms to Hizbullah, eventually gave it an edge vis-à-vis the cash-strapped Amal Movement, the mainstream Shia political movement whose Syrian sponsor could not match Iranian largess to its Shia rival. In order for its Arab policy to succeed, it was necessary for Iran to become an active actor in the Arab-Israeli conflict that dominated the collective consciousness of the Arab street. Iran turned Hizbullah into a showcase of resistance. Israel's pullout from southern Lebanon under guerilla warfare pressure made Hizbullah an instant hero throughout Arab and Muslim lands. Its appeal did not last long and it fell victim to its military intervention in Syria on the side of the regime.
Hizbullah did not seek to involve itself in Syria's conflict. There is every indication to suggest that the turn of events in Lebanon's neighbour forced its involvement. As early as 2012, Hizbullah unsuccessfully tried to convince the Syrian opposition to reach terms on a political reform package with the regime. Its chief Hassan Nasrallah clearly understood "... the tragic consequences of dragging his fighters into the crucible of the Syrian conflict in which there would be no victors." Syria is the fulcrum state of the Arab East and the outcome of its conflict is bound to determine the shape of West Asia, especially since the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement that partitioned it is being overtaken by the turn of events that followed Iraq's doomed invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
The current Syrian stalemate underscores the difficulty of agreeing on the shape of post-conflict Syria. This is due to the presence of several active international and regional powers vying for a share of the country. The outcome of this competition is likely to lead to an agreement based on the recognition of these countries' spheres of influence in a fragmented Syrian political system, with many veto points. By inference, one would expect the arrangement for Syria to provide the blueprint for a new regional order, particularly in Iraq and Lebanon.
Syria's post-conflict arrangement could provide a blueprint for the region.
The engineering of the Lebanese political system in 1943 took for granted that the country would remain viable as long as its neighbours recognised its precarious nature and refrained from meddling in its domestic affairs. The 1967 Six Day War saw Israel's stunning victory against the armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. The war made it possible for Palestinian fighters to intrude into Lebanon to launch guerrilla attacks against Israel. This untoward development upset the Lebanese sectarian balance and alarmed the country's Christian community, leading to a protracted civil war. The expulsion of the Palestine Liberation Organisation from Lebanon in 1982 opened the door for the rise of Iran-backed Hizbullah. The instability inflicted on Lebanon by foreign intervention has stalled its political system, even though it has not destroyed its confessional structure.
Peace building in the aftermath of the Syrian conflict is unlikely to occur without resolving the issue of Israeli security. This will require Iranian commitment and cooperation to dismantle Hizbullah's military wing and transform it into a civil political party, if it wants to achieve its political regional goals.
Militancy is not an end in itself; it is often a means of resistance to oppression and a way to achieve group or state goals, and Hizbullah is no exception. Iran created Hizbullah as part of a broader policy to break out of its international isolation and to establish itself as a major regional power. It found an ideal ally in politically marginalised and economically impoverished Lebanese Shia Muslims. The binding glue of religious belief made Hizbullah Iran's most trusted and reliable ally. Thanks to their perseverance and unflinching commitment to each other, even in adversity, Iran has become the most forceful regional power and Hizbullah the preponderant force in Lebanese politics.
In addition to being the dominant power in the Persian Gulf, Iran has firmly established itself in Iraq, Syria, and parts of Yemen. It has a strong base of support in the predominantly Shia eastern province in Saudi Arabia, and among the Shia majority in Bahrain. With the peaceful resolution of the standoff on its nuclear program, Iran is eager to modernise its antiquated oil facilities and the infrastructure of development. Militancy has achieved its objectives and the time has come to reap the benefits of success.
This goes as well for Hizbullah, which has just succeeded in securing the election of Michel Aoun, its candidate for the Lebanese presidency. In return for this breakthrough, Hizbullah has agreed to gradually insulate Lebanon from the Syrian conflict. Hizbullah initiated its efforts to integrate itself in the Lebanese political mainstream when in 2006 it signed a memorandum of understanding with Aoun's National Patriotic Movement. In 2009 it revised its 1985 manifesto and de-emphasised the importance of establishing an Islamic state in Lebanon. The election of Aoun to the presidency presents Hizbullah with new responsibilities that, among other things, necessitate its transition into a civil movement.
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