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Hezbollah torn between local, regional roles

In light of the raging regional crises, Hezbollah has been intervening outside Lebanon's border in support of its foreign allies in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, raising controversy inside the country about the movement’s local and regional influence.
Lebanese Hezbollah supporters carry flags and gesture during a religious procession to mark Ashura in Beirut's southern suburbs, Lebanon October 12, 2016. REUTERS/Aziz Taher - RTSRWNQ

On Jan. 17, the Loyalty to the Resistance Bloc, Hezbollah's political wing in the Lebanese parliament, held its regular meeting and said in a statement that the meeting was mostly dedicated to discussing the national draft laws, in particular the electoral law.

However, the most remarkable thing about the bloc’s statement was its position on four regional issues, in addition to the local matter of the draft laws: offering condolences for the death of former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani; condemning Bahraini authorities for executing three young men and renewing support for the Bahraini Shiite uprising; condemning the silence of international human rights organizations over the rebels in Wadi Barada near Damascus cutting drinking water to millions of Syrians; and condemning the US-Saudi aggression against the Yemeni people.

The bloc’s stances vis-a-vis the regional issues are not something new for Hezbollah since Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has had a say about the Arab and Islamic issues in the past. However, the bloc’s statement raises an old question again: Is Hezbollah a Lebanese group or has it become a regional institution taking political stances regarding every regional and international development? What is its military, logistic, advisory and training role in certain countries, namely Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Yemen? How could the Lebanese party reconcile its political local role of resisting the Israeli occupation and aggression, with its growing regional role, which raises the concerns of Israel, the West and the neighboring Arab countries?

To answer this question, one ought to go back to the beginning of the party’s founding in 1982 as an Islamic resistance movement in the face of Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon. The movement used to be financed by Iran through Syria, believing in the obedience to the Iranian supreme leader at the time, Ruhollah Khomeini, and subsequently his successor, Ali Khamenei.

In this context, a Hezbollah official, who requested not to be named, told Al-Monitor, “Hezbollah originally combines between its Lebanese and regional roles. First, the party adopts the Palestinian cause and the conflict with the Israeli occupation, which is not only a local issue but also a regional cause. Second, it espouses an Islamic ideology with a global dimension, meaning that the party accords attention to the affairs of Muslims all around the world.”

The source added, "The conflict with Israel prompted Hezbollah to forge regional alliances with Syria, Iran, Palestinian resistance movements, political parties and Arab countries that are against occupation and imperialism. The rise of the terrorist and takfiri threat in Syria and Iraq and the danger of its expansion to Lebanon were behind Hezbollah’s intervention in the war raging in Syria, as a preventive and defensive measure to prevent extremist groups — such as the Islamic State [IS], Jabhat al-Nusra and their likes — from entering Lebanon. This is not to mention the need to protect religious shrines and prevent the Syrian state from falling in the hands of such extremist groups.”

The source also quoted Nasrallah as saying on June 17, 2014, “We will be wherever we need to be,” in reference to the party’s involvement in the battles on several Syrian fronts against armed groups, and the participation of some of its units in the training of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), after Mosul and other Iraqi cities and governorates fell into the hands of IS starting summer 2014.

Nasrallah said in the same statement, “Our involvement in Syria was a duty to protect Lebanon. We will not allow the attack on Zeinab twice [in reference to the attacks on the holy shrine of Zeinab in Damascus since the Syrian revolt erupted in 2011].

“In Iraq, we say, it is long gone that we will allow anyone in the world to destroy or defile our religious and holy sites in Najaf, Karbala and Samarra,” Nasrallah said.

Al-Monitor was the first to learn that Hezbollah had sent its cadres as advisers to guide and train the PMUs in Iraq in their battles against IS in June 2014.

On March 6, 2016, Nasrallah revealed that Hezbollah had been interfering in Iraq by sending advisers and trainers to help Iraqis in their fight against IS, and that its fighters were also involved in the Muslim battles in Bosnia against the Serbs in the 1990s.

The Hezbollah official, however, stressed that despite the party’s regional role, it strongly believes in the need for the Lebanese state to restore its power and sovereignty, stressing that should the state assume its responsibility to fight against the Israeli occupation of Lebanese territories, there would not be an urgent need for the rise of resistance in Lebanon.

In the same vein, researcher Bashir Saada, the author of “Hezbollah and the Politics of Remembrance,” told Al-Monitor that it is difficult to predict how Hezbollah would manage its local and regional role. Saada, however, does not see any contradiction between the Lebanonization of the party and its Islamic ideology. He believes that Hezbollah’s Islamic ideology is based on its understanding that it is part of the local environment of Lebanon, and that its regional involvement serves the local interest.

He also added that Hezbollah would not embark on a regional venture, which could undermine its position locally.

Kassem Kassir, a researcher in Islamic movements and the author of “Hezbollah between 1982 and 2016,” told Al-Monitor, “Hezbollah’s regional role has been growing in light of the ongoing conflicts in the region, the current tensions and the previous political vacuum [in Lebanon], not to mention the involvement of some other Lebanese sources — in reference to the Future Movement and jihadi Sunni groups — in such conflicts. However, this role is likely to dwindle once the state regains its prestige and institutions, the local parties’ involvement in regional conflicts declines, and the search for solutions and compromises to the ongoing Arab crises starts.”

Kassir said, “This is what happened earlier following the Taif Agreement in 1989,” when the Lebanese militias were dismantled and they handed over their weapons to the Lebanese army. “Hezbollah will find itself in the future facing many challenges, prompting it to reconsider its position and role. This is especially true, should the regional parties reach a settlement on Syria. Lebanon can no longer tolerate the party’s growing regional role” at the expense of the Lebanese sovereignty, Kassir added.

It is worth noting that the March 14 Alliance has repeatedly accused Hezbollah of undermining the Lebanese state by holding on to its weapons, especially long-range missiles, thus causing potential Israeli threats to Lebanon. The alliance also held claims that Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria and its positions toward the Gulf states have led some of these states (namely Saudi Arabia) to impose economic sanctions on Lebanon.

Nasrallah said on May 21, 2016, that Hezbollah has moved from being a local power to becoming a regional one given its military capabilities on the ground. Sheikh Naim Qassem, Nasrallah’s deputy, said Nov. 16 that the party “has become bigger than a party and smaller than an army.” The party is better armed and trained with well-developed expertise. Qassem described Hezbollah’s military parade in the Syrian city of Qusair on Nov. 13 as “a show of strength and a message to everyone,” in reference to Israel and the regional states that support the rebels in Syria.

In this context, a source close to the Future Movement told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that Hezbollah’s message was addressed to the new Lebanese president, Michel Aoun, and Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

Hezbollah’s approach to its regional role is based on a national basis, arguing that Lebanon is part of the Arab region and cannot disassociate from the region’s conflicts, especially since Israel is "a hostile and aggressive entity" (according to Nasrallah) and would not hesitate to reoccupy parts of Lebanon whenever it can. As jihadi extremist groups are international movements that extend to where they can, and if Hezbollah did not intervene to confront them on the border with Syria and beyond, they would have entered to the heart of the country. Nasrallah said on Nov. 8, 2013, "If we did not go to Syria, Lebanon would have turned into a second Iraq."

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