Hezbollah: The Sacrificial Lamb for Iranian Ambitions

The future of Hezbollah seems bright from afar. The “Party” has grown numerically and expanded geographically, has drastically improved its missile, rocket and drone arsenal, and has become a battle-hardened fighting force from its experience in the ongoing war in Syria. Looking back to victories such as in Qusayr and Yabroud, Hezbollah has shown much capability in defending the Assad regime. Some would even argue that were it not for Hezbollah, the government in Syria would have fallen long ago. Now advising and training Shi’a militias in Iraq, as well as paramilitary forces in Syria – with the help of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) – Hezbollah has augmented its military reach into Mesopotamia and the broader Middle East, to countries including Yemen and Bahrain where it supports Shi’a insurrectionist movements like the Houthis and al-Wefaq. It has boldly entered the Saudi sphere of influence in the Arabian Peninsula, stirring the sizeable Shi’a minority within the kingdom itself. The scope of this Lebanese-based Shi’a militia is truly global; its operatives are deployed in places as far away as Southeast Asia and South America, for money laundering, drug and weapons trafficking, and to potentially launch attacks on Western, Israeli and Jewish targets.

There is no sense that Hezbollah’s Iranian benefactors are backing away from their patronage of the group. As has been made abundantly clear by the ruling mullahs in Iran, reining in Hezbollah is clearly not on the agenda of the Iranian nuclear talks with the P5+1 nations. Moreover, the Party has made some diplomatic strides within Lebanon itself. Hezbollah has positioned itself as a cornerstone of the formerly deadlocked talks regarding the selection of presidential candidates for Lebanon, its leaders are now conducting high level defense-related meetings with foreign diplomats, such as with Moscow’s deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, and Iraqi Vice-President Nouri al-Maliki, and are currently engaged in rapprochement talks with the Egyptian government. Also, to even fiercely independent Lebanese communities such as in Brital that have historically opposed the Party, the numerous bombings by Sunni jihadists within Lebanon and the growing threat of an all-out offensive into the Bekaa Valley by Jabhat al-Nusra (hereinafter “Nusra”) and ISIS confirm what Hezbollah has said from the beginning, to wit, that its preemptive foray into Syria was not only aimed at securing sacred Shi’a shrines, but to save the Lebanese population from a global jihadist invasion of Lebanon proper.

While Hezbollah is part of the Lebanese government, it is nonetheless able to operate with virtual impunity inside Lebanon’s borders, as Hezbollah has a tacit agreement with the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) under which the latter will neither directly confront Hezbollah nor openly question its operational decision-making on Lebanese security issues. The most notorious example of the LAF policy to submit to the will of Hezbollah is the LAF’s refusal to intercept weapons destined for Hezbollah in accordance with United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1701, which calls for the “disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon.” To some Lebanese, the LAF is a state institution that is beyond reproach. For some Sunni Lebanese however, there is some level of sectarian mistrust. Having said that, these Sunnis usually do not publicly speak out against the LAF for fear of being labeled terrorist sympathizers. In either case, there is no public uproar against the LAF, which sometimes acts as a wholly-owned subsidiary and force multiplier for Hezbollah (e.g. joint deployment in Sidon). For one thing, the LAF’s Directorate of Intelligence is extremely close to the Party. With this collaboration in mind, Hezbollah is thus able to amplify its power by using the LAF as its proxy force when conflicts emerge in sensitive Sunni regions within Lebanon. To be more frank, when called upon, the LAF does Hezbollah’s dirty work.

So on the surface, it seems as if Hezbollah has achieved its goals: It has so far successfully safeguarded its supply lines that run from Iran through Syria and into Lebanon, and it has achieved supremacy as the premier forward army of the Shi’a in the Middle East (with the possible exception of the Iranian al-Quds force – with whom it works closely in Syria and Iraq), ready to take on all foes, be it terrorist armies such as ISIS and Nusra or conventional armies like the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). The Party’s ability in statecraft and in manipulating the LAF to its advantage only strengthens the conclusion that Hezbollah is increasing in power.

Notwithstanding the above, a more penetrating analysis of Hezbollah demonstrates that the Party is becoming a case study in unmanaged growth – a bloated and distended group with poor organizational dynamics and dim prospects on the horizon that could lead to its eventual dissolution as a regional powerhouse. While Iran’s support of Hezbollah remains unwavering and will remain so for the foreseeable future, it seems as though the mullahs’ broader goal of winning the war in Syria and Iraq, the “greater good” if you will, may be to the detriment of Hezbollah, already overextended and exhausted from this ever-enlarging war.

Below are 7 reasons why Hezbollah, Iran, the Assad regime and supporters of this “Resistance Axis” should be concerned about the future of the Hezbollah:

First, Hezbollah’s image is tarnishing at a rapid pace. There has been one embarrassing resignation so far this year, which has put the Party in a negative spotlight at a very critical time. Perhaps worse as a military and public relations nightmare, Hezbollah has confirmed infiltration by its arch enemy intelligence service, Israel’s Mossad. In light of the Mossad penetration deep into the ranks of Hezbollah, the Party will now have to divert more resources to counter-intelligence moving forward, which will be difficult as the availability of skilled manpower is dwindling. Hezbollah is incurring severe losses in Syria, which it of course has downplayed through its communications with the media (some of which it owns, e.g. al-Manar). Approximately 1,000 Hezbollah fighters have been killed in action in Syria, some of whom were Hezbollah senior commanders. These severe losses, given that there are around 5,000 Hezbollah fighters in Syria, means that approximately 1 in 5 are being killed. This slow bleed, now playing out in cities such as Aleppo where Hezbollah is facing an emboldened Nusra, cannot be maintained. To make matters worse, recent reports indicate ISIS is gaining ground in Syria notwithstanding the Coalition airstrikes. Also, the Iraqi Shi’a militias that were acting as a support force for Hezbollah are returning to Iraq to fend off the onslaught of ISIS there, leaving Hezbollah with fewer troops as it coordinates efforts with an increasingly incompetent and defection-prone Syrian army as its local sponsor. Iran has had to deploy its own troops to make up for this loss in manpower, an unambiguous sign that Hezbollah is feeling the effects of its costly adventurism into the Syrian theater.

Second: Oil, governance issues and sanctions. The 50% drop in oil prices since last June has forced Hezbollah to implement salary cuts and otherwise tighten its belt in spending, which will only add incentive to those within Hezbollah who are already pilfering from Hezbollah’s Iranian largesse. Hezbollah’s inability to root out corruption partially stems from the fact that it is relying more and more on new un-vetted, sometimes very young recruits, whose ideology may not be necessarily aligned with the Party. These are ordinary Lebanese citizens, Syrian refugees, or Palestinian refugees affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), some of whom aren’t Shi’a, who for protection for themselves and their families or out of financial necessity, have joined Hezbollah’s ranks but have not gone through the necessary institutional controls that weed out individuals who may have a more sordid agenda. Hezbollah’s rapid expansion since the Syrian uprising, which was not coupled with any correlated changes in governance structure or policy, has arguably exacerbated its previous vulnerability to corruption and scandals.

The Western-imposed sanctions on Russia and Iran could potentially weaken both countries’ leverage against the West in terms of removing Assad and forging a mutually acceptable political solution to the conflict. So far the West hasn’t applied the requisite pressure to take advantage of its heightened leverage, but it may do so in the future – especially considering the more muscular foreign policy envisioned by the new Republican-majority Senate. If a more hawkish candidate is elected president in America in 2016, there could very well be American boots on the ground in Syria operating not only to degrade and destroy the likes of Nusra and ISIS, but to assist the Free Syrian Army (FSA) defeat the Assad regime. If Assad were removed from power, this could affect Hezbollah’s relationship with Syria and the Party’s access to Syrian supply routes. Notably, Secretary General of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, recently met top Syrian opposition official Haytham Manna as well anti-Assad figures, perchance in recognition of the changing landscape between the West and Iran and Russia and the increasing likelihood that Assad may, in fact, have to step down as part of a political solution to the conflict. In a recent interview with al-Mayadeen, Nasrallah massaged his previously unambiguous language regarding Assad’s permanence as the President of Syria, stating: “Even if the political solution means that Assad should go after the end of his term, this should be in coordination with him.” Nasrallah added, “A committee needs to be formed to review the constitution and reforms, and a dialogue established. Some might suggest that early parliamentary elections be held — this is what’s being suggested — or that the [P]resident give part of his powers to the Cabinet, not all his powers.” Prominent opposition groups like the Syrian National Council have gone on record stating that any post-Assad Syria would cut ties with the Iranian Axis and thus Hezbollah.

Third, Hezbollah is now forced to deal with rival Shi’a organizations and religious leaders back home in Lebanon. This is a somewhat new phenomenon, and while Hezbollah is still the Party with the guns, this movement could grow to become a mitigating force to Hezbollah’s influence within Lebanon. While Hezbollah has successfully dealt with (read: coopted) its historical rival, the Amal Movement, it is now facing empowered groups such as the Lebanese Option Party, and religious leaders such as Ali al-Amine and the late Hani Fahs – whose visions for Lebanon’s future do not align with Hezbollah’s Iranian-focused agenda. This is in addition to the myriad Lebanese intellectuals and journalists, e.g. Hanin Ghaddar, who have courageously spoken out against Hezbollah in recent times. In addition to this break in monolithic Shi’a support for Hezbollah within Lebanon, there has been a growing sense from the Sunni population within Lebanon that Hezbollah is a sectarian and divisive fighting force unfit for preserving Lebanon’s security and unity. Some experts argue that Hezbollah is not only unfit to combat Sunni extremism within Lebanon, but that in fact, it is the cause of such extremism. There are many within Lebanon who claim the numerous bombings in Beirut’s southern suburbs and in the Bekaa Valley of late 2013 and early 2014 (some of which were foiled by the LAF – not Hezbollah) that targeted Hezbollah and Iranian assets were a result of Hezbollah’s unnecessary intervention in Syria. Notwithstanding its relationship with Hezbollah, this undercurrent of Sunni discontent is part of the reason why the LAF is becoming the more natural choice when defending Lebanon against homegrown threats in Sunni-majority cities such as Arsal. Also, leaks to the media indicate that members of Hezbollah will soon be summoned before the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), a body formed pursuant to the UNSC resolution to investigate the death of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. If Hezbollah is implicated, which wouldn’t surprise many, this will be just one more piece of evidence proving to the Lebanese that Hezbollah acts not for Lebanon, but for itself and its Iranian patrons. Whereas once Hezbollah was seen as the defender of Lebanon’s border with Israel and the champion of Palestinian rights, its Iranian-guided role in Syria has created a domestic public relations problem for Hezbollah, one that is developing traction in academic, editorial and political circles and that could have deleterious consequences for the Party down the line.

Fourth, the LAF, once thought of as a somewhat impotent force in comparison to Hezbollah and one that still has a complicated relationship with non-Shi’a populations in Lebanon (read: mistrust) and with Hezbollah, has recently proven itself to be the more competent domestic policing and law enforcement entity when fighting against the same terrorist and guerrilla warfare tactics that Hezbollah perfected against the IDF. The LAF’s victory in securing Tripoli, capturing Sunni jihadist cells in Saida and the recapture of Arsal are evidence of its mounting ability to fight terrorism. Just recently, the LAF thwarted a series of suicide attacks, making three arrests and dismantling a bomb-laden car on the outskirts of Arsal. Also, the LAF has proven itself to be highly resilient to defections, notwithstanding the fact that approximately half of its forces are Sunni, illustrating the public’s rising trust in the LAF as a state institution. Notably, it has refused military aid from Iran, albeit at the direction of the Americans and in light of the fact that accepting such arms would be in violation of the sanctions regime currently imposed on Iran. On the flip side, Hezbollah has demonstrated in Syria an inability to develop efficient counter-insurgency strategies, such as fighting from fixed positions, holding territory and detecting IEDS and ambushes before they occur. For its part, the LAF has had ample external support. The US, France, Saudi Arabia, and Great Brittan have committed themselves to funding and equipping the LAF with arms, vehicles (both land and air) and tower structures that give it the qualitative edge it needs in combating the likes of ISIS and Nusra. The Lebanese populace is arguably beginning to see the LAF in a slightly different light now, raising justifiable questions as to why there is a need for an ungoverned militia such as Hezbollah in Lebanon – one that only feeds the fires of sectarian tensions in what is historically the most fragile state in the Levant. Hezbollah’s new Fateh missiles and arsenal of Iranian drones are of no use against ISIS and other jihadist groups now threatening a full-scale invasion of Lebanon. Perhaps this, and concern about inflaming sectarian tensions, is why Hezbollah let the LAF take over security in Beirut after the numerous bombings there and why Hezbollah is now allowing the LAF to conduct border interdiction. The Party is exhibiting some self-awareness regarding its weaknesses in protecting the homeland while simultaneously conducting war abroad.

Fifth, Hezbollah’s deterrence against Israel is arguably deteriorating. Israel has been hitting weapons convoys and caches in Syria (and in Lebanon in early 2014) destined for Hezbollah, in part, to maintain air supremacy and to ensure Hezbollah will not possess any “game changing” armaments in any future war with the Jewish state. Israel wisely hits Hezbollah in Syria for the most part to lessen Hezbollah’s potential justifications for a military response since it is a Lebanese organization operating without authority on foreign (i.e. Syrian) soil. Nasrallah has spoken recently about extending Hezbollah’s umbrella of deterrence to Syria as well, but this seems to be more lip service than a reflection of realistic military strategy. In the recent past, the Party has responded to Israeli operations against its forces by targeting IDF patrols inside Israel, doing so explicitly, an attempt to maintain deterrence along the Israeli front. But these responses have been effete, especially in comparison to the carnage wreaked and the number of Hezbollah casualties caused by the antecedent Israeli missions. In fact, no Israeli soldiers were killed or kidnapped during these Hezbollah reprisal operations (with the exception of the latest on January 28th – explained below), many of which were merely IEDs planted by Hezbollah proxies. The Israeli defense establishment has made it clear it would use disproportionate force in any future war with Hezbollah, meaning the destruction of any Lebanese infrastructure from which Hezbollah operates, i.e. the destruction of southern Lebanon. While some would rally around Hezbollah were war with Israel to take place, it may also serve to further alienate the group from its Lebanese base of support, already disturbed by the casualty figures in Syria and the multitude of “silent Hezbollah funerals” that do not go unnoticed by local supporters of the Party. Of course, local opponents of the Party would denounce Hezbollah should South Lebanon turn to ash because of an operation that quickly spiraled into an all-out war resulting in heavy civilian casualties. Let us not forget Nasrallah’s statement following the 2006 Lebanon War, in which he stated: “We did not think, even 1 percent that the capture would lead to a war at this time and of this magnitude. You ask me, if I had known on July 11 . . . that the operation would lead to such a war, would I do it? I say no, absolutely not.” Nasrallah does not want to make this mistake again, and Israel knows it.

The most recent Israeli air assault against Hezbollah played out in Qunietra, Syria along Israel’s northern border on January 18th, 2015. Significant to note, this military operation came well after the latest Mossad double agent was arrested – possibly an Israeli message to Nasrallah that Israel’s spy network against Hezbollah is vaster than previously known. This most recent Apache helicopter attack on a Hezbollah convoy killed 6 Hezbollah members as well as 6 Iranian soldiers. The casualties included senior Hezbollah commanders from the elite Raduan Force and one Iranian general. Hezbollah’s retaliation to the January 18th attack came on January 28th whereby Hezbollah operatives fired anti-tank missiles at IDF military vehicles in the Shebaa Farms area. The attack left two Israeli soldiers dead and seven others wounded. This reprisal operation may have been tactically proportional, but carefully planned so as not to encourage an Israeli overreaction. Nasrallah went on the air just two days later in an effort at containment, saying: “You tried us, don’t try us again. We don’t want war, but we’re not afraid of it. If we’re forced into war, we’ll know how to handle it and we’ll win.” This statement, devoid of the usual bravado coming from the leader of the Party, demonstrates Hezbollah is constrained at this time.

Some contend Hezbollah is constrained due to Iranian directives to Nasrallah to wait to unleash Hezbollah’s full arsenal against Israel until the IDF attacks Iranian nuclear installations, while others claim the Party is constrained by the stress currently imposed on its forces in Syria. Both theories may be correct. But one thing is for sure. Israel will not tolerate a Hezbollah base in the Syrian Golan Heights. The United Nations issued a report based on the findings of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), noting cooperation between rebel forces and the IDF along the Golan, especially during military confrontations with the Syrian army. Treating wounded, providing humanitarian and possibly military aid and intelligence to rebels to fend off any attempt by Hezbollah to establish a stronghold in the Golan is the strategy of the IDF on its Syrian border.

At least one Hezbollah expert claims that Hezbollah’s deterrence capability will shift to hitting Israeli and Jewish targets far from Israel proper. Such attacks have been successful in the past, such as in Bulgaria in 2012, yet many of these plots have been thwarted, e.g. Thailand and Peru, due to good foreign government policing efforts. If Hezbollah’s deterrence capability is reduced to small-scale attacks against IDF patrols in the Mount Dov/Shebaa Farms region and attacks on Israeli and Jewish targets abroad, this will provide the IDF with more room to maneuver and pursue its strategic interests in Syria and Lebanon – all to Hezbollah’s disadvantage. In short, Hezbollah’s deterrence-guided operations against Israel look more and more like acts of desperation and efforts at de-escalation due to the organization’s overextension in Syria; the precise opposite of what deterrence theory suggests will dissuade one’s foes. Should Hezbollah drag Lebanon into a war with Nusra, ISIS, the FSA (which has recently vowed to fight Hezbollah) and Israel on Lebanese soil, this could spell doom for the Party.

Sixth, indications are that South American governments previously somewhat “friendly” to Hezbollah, such as Brazil, Venezuela and Cuba (potential sites for future Hezbollah attacks on Israeli and Jewish assets), are now implementing slight foreign policy shifts that are aligning their governments towards America and away from Iran, and by implication, Hezbollah. This could have far reaching financial and strategic repercussions for Hezbollah. This regional policy shift will likely also aid Israel in its global deterrence war with Hezbollah.

Seventh, Hezbollah will likely suffer military and public relations damage as a result of the new battlefront emerging in northern Lebanon. The war in Syria is now spilling over into northern Lebanon via the Qalamoun Mountains that straddle the borderlands between the two countries. It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which Hezbollah could benefit from this save an all-out victory that restores the group’s image as Lebanon’s “resistance” force. Chances of this are slim to none. Jihadist forces now in Qalamoun total only around 3,000 men, so there is little chance of a large-scale invasion of Lebanon. However, an increase in limited yet horrifying operations against Hezbollah and its base of support in Lebanon’s north is likely imminent. Syrian opposition groups, such as Nusra – still the most powerful force in Qalamoun though suffering from a lack of Qatari funds – have been testing the Syrian army, Hezbollah and the LAF in this region for some time to find weaknesses and areas in which they can penetrate safely into Lebanon to punish Hezbollah for its intervention in Syria and safeguard supply lines back into Syria. This is a crucial rebel goal in light of the harsh winter underway in the Qalamoun region. On January 10, 2015, Nusra terrorists committed a double suicide bombing in a café in the Jabal Mohsen neighborhood of Tripoli, north Lebanon that killed at least nine and left over 35 injured. This horrific terrorist attack comes at a time when ISIS is also expanding its presence in Qalamoun. Reports indicate that ISIS has effectively used its savage fear tactics to force as many as 700 fighters from less powerful groups to submit to ISIS’ will by pledging allegiance to the organization in order to maximize the impact of attacks against the LAF, Hezbollah and its Shi’a base. While it is premature to state with certainty, ISIS may form a temporary alliance with Nusra. ISIS has already held two meetings with senior Nusra commanders to forge such an agreement – so far unsuccessfully – and thus more intra-rebel/jihadist fighting may be a prelude to any real advance into Lebanon. An ISIS presence already exists in the wasteland regions outside of Arsal, a force of approximately 600 men now bolstered by the mass defections from the FSA and other rebel groups also positioned there. As stated, there is some Sunni sympathy for these groups in Lebanon, and in the northern regions specifically (e.g. villages in Tripoli and Arsal), which will render the neutralization of global jihadist groups there that much harder.

Regardless of whether the LAF takes the helm in the imminent battle for northern Lebanon, which it probably will, Hezbollah will suffer the brunt of the consequences and the blame. It is already fighting on the Syrian side of the Qalamoun, and it has arguably pushed the rebels to the Lebanese border to share the burden with its reluctant ally, the LAF. Hezbollah forces will be stretched even thinner should it have to defend against attacks in its traditional strongholds in the Bekaa Valley. Many Hezbollah fighters will likely be killed. The Party will be denounced by many for bringing the jihadists to the Bekaa, and the likelihood of the Lebanese rallying around the LAF will probably grow as it continues to present its skill through victories of arms inside Lebanon proper. Even if the LAF suffers sever losses in the Bekaa, the fact that Hezbollah made the LAF a target for jihadist groups by pushing them into Lebanon could provide the LAF with sympathy from the Lebanese populace. The upcoming battles in northern Lebanon may, in the very long run, serve to seal the LAF as the singular army of Lebanon.

Hezbollah may know the writing is on the wall. Some are accusing the group of purposely stonewalling presidential elections out of fears of more adamant calls to disarm from its political opponents – calls that may, though likely not, be heeded this time. Hezbollah boycotted sessions to elect a president in the past and has since excluded political parties such as the Lebanese Forces from new attempts at dialogue with the Future Movement. Adding more complications for the Party, Syrian rebels are currently being trained in Saudi Arabia and Turkey – 5,000 so far – to fight the likes of ISIS and Nusra. This group will be ready for deployment in a year, yet another force Hezbollah may have to contend with at some point in Syria if the West alters its position regarding not targeting Assad or his allies. Hezbollah is training Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, some of the same that killed US troops during The Iraq War, such as Kata’ib Hezbollah. These types of foreign operations have resulted in various forms of international backlash. Hezbollah is now blacklisted as a terrorist organization by the EU (only its “military wing”), the United States and the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman). In sum, it is getting tougher and tougher for Hezbollah to operate efficiently even as it grows as an organization.

Naim Qassem, Deputy Secretary General of Hezbollah, once said of the Syrian War: “This war they are waging on us requires sacrifices and we are working with all our might to lessen its repercussions and pains.” Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary General of Hezbollah, echoed these self-immolating sentiments: “We will persevere until the end, we will take full responsibility and we will make all necessary sacrifices.” Little did they know at the time, these wartime aphorisms may portend a future that will entail the ultimate sacrifice for the self-proclaimed “Party of God”: Organizational martyrdom.

A related yet much briefer article, published prior to Hezbollah’s January 28th attack, can be found here: https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/commentary/564733-ten-reasons-hezbollah-should-be-worried



















About the Author
Nicholas Saidel is Associate Director of the Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis & Response (ISTAR) at the University of Pennsylvania