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Hezbollah's New and Old Wars: from ideological struggle to fight for survival?

Dr Filippo Dionigi is a Teaching Fellow at LSE.

Hezbollah has seen its fronts multiply over the last two years. It is engaged militarily on the Syrian front; dealing with a domestic situation in which it faces unprecedented attacks, and has an increasingly-challenged international reputation.

The domestic front

Criticism of Hezbollah is not a new phenomenon in Lebanon. At least since the end of the Israeli occupation in 2000, several political groups have voiced discontent over its arsenal. Yet the phenomenon has become acute over the past two years as Salafi groups have begun to feel empowered by the sectarian discourse that is poisoning the entire region and have bluntly attacked Hezbollah. 

A stream of attacks targeted Hezbollah-dominated areas in Beirut culminated in August with a bomb which killed tens in a majority Shi'a area. A few days later, car bombs exploded near two mosques in Tripoli killing a number of Sunnis. Hezbollah has found itself entangled in a spiral of violence, caused at least in part by its intervention in Syria, which has exposed Lebanon to the sectarian frenzy that has engulfed the whole region. It is important to note that other Lebanese jihadi groups have also intervened in the Syrian crisis, although not as openly as Hezbollah.

Politics have been equally affected by the Syrian conflict. The government of Lebanon resigned in March, and negotiations to appoint a new cabinet have been underway since then. Hezbollah and its allies have strenuously opposed any governmental formula that is not based on the “blocking third” mechanism, which allows political factions a veto over the cabinet’s decisions. This enables Hezbollah and its allies to prevent decisions that may conflict with their political and strategic interests, and also prevents any new government from tipping the balance of Lebanon’s regional stance towards one side or another of the Syrian war. Within this picture, the most positive note is that South Lebanon has remained relatively quiet. Neither Hezbollah nor Israel seems to have an incentive to engage in open conflict at the present time.

What does Qusayr mean for Hezbollah?

Although Hezbollah’s leadership has repeatedly declared that the battle of Qusayr does not mark an historical turn for the movement, it is difficult to agree. Hezbollah was formed to fight against the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, and its intervention in Syria can hardly be justified on the same basis. To be sure, it is not the first time that Hezbollah’s struggle has turned inward. In the early nineties, it fought an internecine war with Amal’s militia (paradoxically supported by Assad’s regime), and in 2008, it resorted to force at the peak of an internal political crisis, participating in a few weeks of civil unrest in Beirut and elsewhere. Furthermore, Hezbollah has also played a role in the Iraq war, although the actual extent of its involvement is yet to be assessed. 

But the scale of the confrontation in Syria is different. The intervention marks a publicly-declared stance that widens the gap between Hezbollah and all those Arabs who believed in a freer world in the wake of the 2011 uprisings. From a revolutionary force, spearheading the discourse and practice of “resistance”, Hezbollah has morphed in the eyes of its opponents, and at least some of its supporters, into a force which defends the regional status quo and which justifies its military activities on the basis of self-interest. It will take some time before it will be able to re-qualify its public image.

A new wave of international condemnations

If Hezbollah’s regional and domestic role has brought criticism from within, international actors have, unsurprisingly, adopted measures which have complicated the movement’s position. 

In July 2013, the European Union added Hezbollah’s military wing to its list of terrorist groups. The measure - praised by the US and Israel, and similar to decisions taken by the GCC - is linked to the role that Hezbollah is alleged to have played in a terrorist attack on an Israeli target in Bulgaria. Countries such as the UK and the Netherlands had been pushing for this decision for a long time, but other EU Member States had contested the strategic value of the measure. Member States such as Italy and Spain have troops deployed in South Lebanon within the framework of the UNIFIL mission, and the adoption of measures that may heighten tensions with Hezbollah could jeopardise the safe continuation of a relatively functional mission. 

The result was a compromise of dubious effectiveness. Only the so-called military wing of Hezbollah is subject to restrictions which forbid it from engaging in financial activities within the EU. Furthermore, the EU has declared that its relations with all Lebanese political actors will remain unchanged. Only a few days after the adoption of the decision, the EU’s ambassador to Lebanon met publicly with a high-level Hezbollah official, confirming the limited impact of the decision. In fact, thus far there have been no reports of the effective application of the restrictions to any individual affiliated to Hezbollah. The main cost for Hezbollah of its blacklisting is reputational. But, on the other hand, the EU has eroded part of its political capital as a neutral actor, at least in the eyes of Hezbollah, its allies and supporters. 

International pressure on Hezbollah has also come from the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which recently identified another suspect allegedly connected with the terrorist attack that killed Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005. 

A version of this article originally appeared in a publication for The German Marshall Fund of the United States|