Hezbollah military parade in Nabatiyeh, Lebanon, late 2014. Photo Credit: Al Jazeera/Getty.
In the past year, Hezbollah has come to face a paradigm shift in the Middle East. As economic turmoil raises domestic tensions and regional instability continues to threaten Lebanon, the group must continue to meet its fundamental policy needs. Key determinants of Hezbollah’s future well-being include its ability to conclude interventions abroad, resolve domestic unrest, and prevail in its struggle with Israel. While all three of these factors are instrumental, Israel’s measured tolerance of Hezbollah will remain paramount for the organization as it seeks to maintain its prowess in Lebanon.
Crucial to Hezbollah’s future is how it closes out current operations in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Since 2012, it has sought to support other Iranian proxies in the region either through direct military aid or training. Hezbollah justifies its interventions on two basic levels: (1) to defend against Zionist, Wahhabist, or Western Influence; and (2) to support regimes that prove critical to anti-Western coalitions.[i] In 2012, Hezbollah began its intervention in Syria where it has coordinated joint offensive support to the Assad regime. Its deployment of approximately 7,000 fighters in Syria and absorption of over 1,675 casualties affirms its unprecedented commitment.[ii] However, this costly support is not without good reason: the Alawite regime has been a staunch supporter of Hezbollah in the past. In addition, denying territorial gains near the Lebanese border to fundamentalist Sunni groups like the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and the al-Nusra Front is imperative if Hezbollah is to secure domestic stability. However, this involvement has also exposed fractures both within the organization and broader Lebanese society over the group’s enduring commitment to the Syrian conflict.[iii]
In the aftermath of the Syrian conflict, it is unclear what will become of Hezbollah’s Syrian paramilitary forces. If Syria chooses to fully integrate them into its military, Hezbollah will be well-poised to assist in training a more viable Syrian army. If Hezbollah were to continue expanding its role abroad, it could enhance its international projection of power, recruitment, and fundraising. The risk of such expansion, however, is that it could aggravate Israel and cause Jerusalem to end its measured tolerance of Hezbollah. Yet, if the majority of Hezbollah forces return to Lebanon, the organization would have a surplus of experienced fighters and could bolster its posturing against Israel, resulting in a bigger matchstick for kindling a direct conflict with the Jewish state.[iv]
In addition to Syria, Hezbollah fields cadres in two other active regional war zones: Iraq and Yemen. Hezbollah dispatched roughly 250 specialists to Iraq in June 2014 in the wake of the seizure of Mosul by the Islamic State and later advanced toward Baghdad in an effort to train and advise Shia militias in the area.[v] In the near-term, with continued regional hostilities and the death of key militia coordinator Qasem Soleimani, Hezbollah is poised to capitalize on the Shia leadership vacuum, although the ultimate end state of this policy remains unclear.[vi]
In Yemen, Hezbollah runs a covert training and support mission to assist Houthi militias battling the Saudi-led military coalition. As of early 2020, the scale of Hezbollah support for the Houthis is unclear, but evidence of Hezbollah involvement is indisputable. Hezbollah’s presence in Yemen has not been publicly acknowledged by the party leadership, although the relationship between the organization and Ansarallah, the main Houthi militia, predates the current conflict.[vii] Clearly affirming the bond between the two organizations, Ansarallah forces have received training at Hezbollah camps in the Bekaa Valley, and Yemeni casualties are treated at Hezbollah-run hospitals in Beirut.[viii] As these regional conflicts play out, it is likely that Hezbollah will assist pro-Persian forces while ensuring that any Sunni aggression does not go unchallenged.
Lebanon is currently in the midst of a financial crisis that has caused political upheaval at home and undercut the new Hezbollah-backed government. With a high debt to GDP ratio and an unstable currency, basic commodities like gasoline and foodstuffs continue to be in short supply. Civil strife has led to blame for economic problems, corruption, and sectarianism being placed on the back of Hezbollah.[ix] Corruption has been a national past time in Lebanon, predating Hezbollah. However, popular opinion increasingly attributes poor economic performance and civil tensions to Hezbollah, backing it into a political corner with few options absent a major turnover in leadership.[x]
A large portion of Lebanon’s economic problems stem from international sanctions on Hezbollah for their sponsorship of terrorism and continued anti-Western rhetoric.[xi] Even though popular domestic support for the group has been waning, political opponents recognize they have little to offer as an alternative to Hezbollah rule. This reality stems from the fact that Hezbollah controls substantial parts of Lebanon’s telecommunications network and military while concomitantly enjoying veto capacity after the 2005 civil conflict.[xii] Additionally, its political grip on the national legislature is unlikely to change significantly in the short term, with Christian ally Michel Aoun as President and the effective collapse of political rival coalitions. The current crisis will likely present Hezbollah an opportunity to root out further dissent and solidify its political base.
In the near-term, the organization can rely on continued outside funding from Iran and established international black market revenue streams.[xiii] Estimates of Iranian funding to Hezbollah widely vary from $200 million to $700 million per year.[xiv] In addition, global revenues from Hezbollah businesses and charities, legitimate and illicit, are roughly $40 million a month. With renewed sanctions on Iran since 2014 and the recent drop in global oil prices, Hezbollah’s financial base will be constrained for the near future.[xv] Conventional international financing will only return to Lebanon if the organization diminishes its violent footprint abroad. If such financing and economic stability returns, the Lebanese state and Hezbollah would be in a much stronger position despite widespread corruption and inter-organizational conflict. However, this is unlikely given the recent rejection of International Monetary Fund’s restructuring proposal and a public debt 150% of Lebanon’s GDP.[xvi]
Relationship with Israel:
A vital component of Hezbollah’s grand strategy is its relationship with Israel. Should Tel Aviv deem Hezbollah’s actions abroad or domestic rhetorical posturing too threatening, it could launch air or land-based campaigns that compound Hezbollah’s economic woes and push the organization to the breaking point. While Israel has limited its targeting of Hezbollah activities outside of Lebanon and in the Syrian crisis just to bordering region, the movement of large quantities of men and arms into Lebanon after the conflict will likely prove a contentious issue.[xvii] The potential use of these forces to retake disputed border zones between Israel and Lebanon is plausible given the continued rhetoric by Hezbollah leadership. Other provocative actions that could provoke Israel and endanger Hezbollah would include the continued development of advanced precision-guided munitions (PGM) systems like those recently detected in Lebanon by Israeli drones in September 2018.[xviii] These PGM production sites in Lebanon indicate an emerging capability to overcome Israel’s Iron Dome system and to threaten Israeli infrastructure.[xix] Critical to this platform is their placement in urban centers, amongst the local populace, which provides an unwitting human shield for these weapons.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah’s armed status lies at the root of a political and international divide over the past decade. It is extremely unlikely that the organization’s relationship with Israel will improve. Conversely, political upheaval in Lebanon or regime change in Israel could spur further conflict as new political actors seek to make a name for themselves in both countries. However, it is likely that, barring any radical political event, both states will remember the bitter taste of the 2006 Lebanon War and refrain from direct, comprehensive conflict.[xx]
The future direction of Hezbollah will be determined by how it resolves its current interventions, economic woes, and relationship with Israel. Given that Hezbollah has continued to undertake provocative actions abroad with minimal direct consequences, it is likely that these interventions will continue for as long as they receive funding. In resolving the economic crisis at home, there is no clear answer. The designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization with subsequent sanctions has caused devastating inflation that has crippled the economy. If Hezbollah is to resolve this issue and reverse the pariah status of the Lebanese state, it must work to gain further legitimacy in the eyes of the West or, at a minimum, implement internationally-recommended reform. They must transition toward more conservative political goals similar to the political reforms made by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) in decades prior. However, given that Hezbollah has a monopoly over the Lebanese state, a growing influence over the Shia community, and a reliable external network of financing, there is no incentive for political change within the organization. Because of its strategic value to Tehran, Hezbollah could still persevere by seeking additional financing from Iran even if the Lebanese state crumbles. While its relationship with Israel seems tenuous at the moment, the current leadership of both Israel and Hezbollah have acknowledged that another conflict would provide hardships for their respective nations beyond the scope of their past experiences. However, should regime change happen on either side, there is a chance that an open conflict could erupt from a misinterpretation of each other’s policy similar to the 2006 Lebanon War.[xxi] In short, Hezbollah’s current position in Lebanon and around the world is stable if not growing. While Hezbollah continues to have many internal and external challenges, none are as critical to its survival as avoiding a direct major conflict with Israel.
[i] Nicholas Blanford, “Hezbollah’s Evolution From Lebanese Militia to Regional Player” (The Middle East Institute, 2017), http://www.mei.edu/sites/default/files/publications/PP4 _Blanford_Hezbollah.pdf.
[ii] Donna Abu-Nasr, “What’s Next for Hezbollah After Its Syria Adventure?,” Bloomberg.Com, December 11, 2018, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-12-11/what-s-next-for-hezbollah-after-its-syria-adventure-quicktake.
[iii] Rola el-Husseini, “Cracks in the Hezbollah Monopoly,” Washington Post, January 8, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2015/01/08/cracks-in-the-hezbollah-monopoly/.
[iv] Abu-Nasr, “What’s Next for Hezbollah After Its Syria Adventure?”
[vi] The New Arab, “Lebanon’s Hezbollah Steps in to Guide Iraqi Militants Following Soleimani’s Killing,” The New Arab, February 12, 2020, https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2020/ 2/12/lebanons-hezbollah-aids-iraqi-militants-following-soleimani-death.
[vii] Abu-Nasr, “What’s Next for Hezbollah After Its Syria Adventure?”
[viii] Blanford, “Hezbollah’s Evolution From Lebanese Militia to Regional Player.”
[ix] Matthew Levitt, “Hezbollah Prioritizes Its Own Interests, Putting Lebanon at Risk,” Washington Institute, October 3, 2019, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/hezbollah-prioritizes-its-own-interests-putting-lebanon-at-risk.
[xi] Levitt, “Hezbollah Prioritizes Its Own Interests, Putting Lebanon at Risk.”
[xiv] Blanford, “Hezbollah’s Evolution From Lebanese Militia to Regional Player.”; Ariane Tabatabai and Colin Clarke, “Iran’s Proxies Are More Powerful Than Ever,” Foreign Policy, October 16, 2019, https://foreignpolicy.com /2019/10/16/irans-proxies-hezbollah-houthis-trump-maximum-pressure/.
[xv]Blanford, “Hezbollah’s Evolution From Lebanese Militia to Regional Player.”
[xvi] “Lebanon: Hezbollah Does ‘Not Accept’ IMF Managing Economic Crisis.” News | Al Jazeera, www.aljazeera.com/ajimpact/lebanon-hezbollah-accept-imf-managing-economic-crisis-200225174232476.html; “Lessons for Lebanon from Its Struggling Neighbours,” The Economist, http://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2020/02/20/lessons-for-lebanon-from-its-struggling-neighbours.
[xvii] Seth Jones, “The Escalating Conflict with Hezbollah in Syria” (CSIS, June 20, 2018), http://www.csis.org/analysis/escalating-conflict-hezbollah-syria.
[xviii] Levitt, “Hezbollah Prioritizes Its Own Interests, Putting Lebanon at Risk.”
[xix] Katherine Bauer, Hanin Ghaddar, and Assaf Orion, “Iran’s Precision Missile Project Moves to Lebanon,” Washington Institute, December 2018, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/irans-precision-missile-project-moves-to-lebanon.
[xx] David E. Johnson, “Hard Fighting: Israel in Lebanon and Gaza” (RAND Corporation, 2011), https://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/MG1085.html.
[xxi] Johnson; Jones, “The Escalating Conflict with Hezbollah in Syria.”