Lebanese Hezbollah’s role as an Iranian proxy and its provision of significant assistance to its allies in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq has been an area of justified focus for policymakers in many capitals but the organization’s evolving role inside Lebanon merits equal attention. While it is customary to characterize Hezbollah as a “state within a state,” it is more accurate now to define it as a “state within a non-state,” in view of the sheer inability of the Lebanese government to deliver even the most basic services to a desperate population plunged into its worst economic crisis in over a century.
In the past, Hezbollah was able to distinguish itself from Lebanon’s ruling circles, capitalizing on its nonstate status and role as the “resistance” to Israel. However, in recent years, Hezbollah has become ever more entangled with the country’s kleptocratic ruling elites and status quo defenders, an association that has alienated many of their compatriots. It is this mutation in Hezbollah’s role which poses risks for the organization and opportunities to support efforts aimed at bolstering institution building and the return of the state as well as the injection into Lebanese politics of more independent and technocratic individuals via national elections organized for the spring of next year.
Iran’s investment in Hezbollah proved successful for many years after Tehran, with the assistance of Damascus, oversaw the establishment of the organization in 1982. It was exempted from the Taif arrangements in 1989 which forced the demobilization of Lebanon’s other sectarian militias and therefore benefited greatly from this “last man standing” status. Hezbollah served a useful purpose as the tip of the Iranian spear in the Levant against Israel, with its most celebrated achievement being the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, for which Hezbollah took full credit. Lebanese citizens and many in the Arab world rallied around Hezbollah during its destructive 2006 war with Israel. From that time until today, the south has remained relatively quiet, with an uneasy unofficial truce established between Israel and Hezbollah.
It was also in the post-Taif landscape that Hezbollah first formally entered politics with the election of 8 MPs in 1992 and then with the appointment of Hezbollah ministers in successive Lebanese cabinets — usually they have two ministers — starting in 2005, following the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February of that year. In the 15 years since the 2006 war, Hezbollah has consolidated its influence over Lebanese politics, though designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S., the U.K., Germany, Israel, and the Arab League. Many of those terrorized by Hezbollah’s cadre have been their Lebanese compatriots. Formally implicated in Hariri’s gruesome 2005 killing, Hezbollah has eluded accountability for other high-profile killings in which it is suspected they played a role.
Hezbollah’s increasing involvement in Lebanon’s internal affairs has occurred during a period in which the Lebanese state has imploded, as the beneficiaries of Taif — the so-called “company of five,” the zuama (leaders) of the country’s major sectarian movements, plus Hezbollah — have used the government to divide the spoils and continue in power. Hezbollah has built tactical alliances with several of these leaders, notably President Michel Aoun and parliament speaker Nabih Berri. The government has struggled to provide even the most basic services to the public, including electricity, while the value of the Lebanese lira has plunged, further driving the population into poverty and causing waves of Lebanese, particularly Christians, to leave the country in search of a better life.
By contrast, Hezbollah has its own army, its own schools, and hospitals, has established many charitable organizations and even founded its own version of the Boy Scouts. It places its acolytes typically in service ministries where they can extract rent from the state and uses its access to official institutions to ensure a cover-up for its criminal networks, money laundering, and collection of monies from the large Shiite diaspora. Taking advantage of its hybrid status, Hezbollah is able to maintain an autonomous existence, free from any accountability or even visibility into its own actions while simultaneously insisting on exercising a veto over anything the Lebanese government does.
But ironically, it could be Hezbollah’s over-involvement and its mutation from its outsider (and putatively reform-minded) status to the defender of the corrupt Lebanese political class which poses the most risk for the future of the organization. While its unilateral decision to send its forces to Syria to defend the Assad regime was not necessarily appreciated by the wider Lebanese body politic, it was Hezbollah’s response to the October 2019 cross-sectarian protest movement that perhaps most greatly affected its standing in Lebanon. When Hezbollah drew red lines and intervened on behalf of the ruling kleptocrats during the protests, its popularity in the country waned. Hezbollah’s standing took a further serious hit following the devastating explosion at the Beirut port in August 2020. Lebanese, after all, were well aware of the organization’s control of the port (and the Syrian border). Today, Hezbollah has placed itself in opposition to the investigation of the port explosion, something which is creating further deep divisions in the country given the popular demand for accountability and justice for the victims.
What is clear is that it is the Lebanese people themselves who are paying a terrible price caused by their country’s dysfunctional politics. The current display of ire by Saudi Arabia and several other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members (the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Kuwait) — including the withdrawal of ambassadors, recalling of their citizens, closure of the visa sections at their respective embassies, and especially the banning of Lebanese imports — does more damage to the welfare of the average Lebanese while strengthening the hand of Hezbollah and its political allies. This contretemps is the latest chapter in the use of Lebanon as a theater to settle scores, particularly between Saudi Arabia and Iran; an earlier version witnessed Riyadh’s forced detention of then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri in November 2017. Several weeks ago, an Arab League envoy was sent to explore a way out of the crisis but left empty-handed after Hezbollah vetoed a solution which would have involved the exit from the Lebanese government of the maladroit Information Minister George Kordahi, who irritated his erstwhile one-time Saudi paymasters by criticizing their intervention in Yemen. It thus appears that this particular rupture may be more difficult to mend as the Gulf states seem to have simply given up on Lebanon after years of trying in vain to support their allies in Beirut, notably prominent Sunni leaders, in the face of Iran’s hegemony in the country.
As Lebanon prepares for much-needed national elections next year, one can hope that independent candidates representing the cross-sectarian movement that emerged in October 2019 could help change the balance in the parliament. Hezbollah will continue to enjoy substantial support amongst its Shiite base, given the organization’s historical role as protectors of this once-marginalized community, but as their co-religionists recently demonstrated in the Iraqi elections, there are increasing complaints of an overreliance on Iran at the expense of the community’s Arab roots.
How the international community, led by the U.S. and France, manages Lebanon, with an eye to containing the country’s unraveling and supporting the Lebanese people’s yearning for a full return of their institutions, will be of critical importance. There should be continued strong financial and material support for the Lebanese Armed Forces, as the military remains the backbone of the vestigial state. Equally important is the need for unwavering support for the independence of Lebanon’s judiciary and advocacy for the physical protection of the judges themselves. This latter point is key given the frightening threats against Judge Tarek Bitar, who is valiantly investigating the Beirut port explosion.
Key Western countries must also provide determined guidance to Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government in the formulation of a financial and banking strategy that will bolster Mikati’s efforts to work with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank and to help Lebanon avoid the looming specter of complete state failure. In their discussions with GCC leaders, the U.S. and other leading Western nations should counsel against punishing the Lebanese public writ large for the sins of Hezbollah. They should encourage the promising outreach to Iran by key Gulf states, such as the expected visit of the Emirati national security advisor to Tehran next week for talks on deescalating regional tensions, in which the Lebanon file can feature. Washington’s support for maritime border negotiations between Israel and Lebanon, along with efforts to import gas from Egypt, also hold promise. Last, but not least, the international community must firmly support the organization of free and fair parliamentary elections in the spring and presidential elections in the fall, including the rejection of any efforts to illegally postpone these polls.