Hezbollah is fighting wars of survival on all fronts

Hezbollah’s greatest challenge now is to remain able to “stand and fight” in a “survival war” that is bound not to end this time in a “neither winner nor loser” outcome.
Sunday 12/04/2020
Hezbollah flags at the entrance of Mays Al-Jabal village, Lebanon. (AFP)
Imposing its colours. Hezbollah flags at the entrance of Mays Al-Jabal village, Lebanon. (AFP)

These are definitely not the best days of Hezbollah’s life in Lebanon. The party is fighting on several fronts, at home and abroad. It is winning some rounds but mostly losing some battles and certainly not winning any of its wars. It is facing several “wars of attrition" at the same time which, when combined, constitute a real “existential war.” In short, the party is struggling to survive.

The biggest challenge to the party was to move from taking security and military control of power to controlling the political system and the state and its institutions. It achieved that with the election of Michel Aoun to the presidency of the country in 2016. It was a mission that could be described as securing the control of the “deep state” in Lebanon, and Hezbollah was not used to conducting such missions.

Moving to the stage of taking complete control of the state in Lebanon is what has led Hezbollah to its current crisis, in which nothing less than its survival is at stake. The party has found itself unable to continue to rely on security and military force alone, on one hand, but unable to integrate into the state system, on the other. The very nature of the process requires Hezbollah to abandon its mini-state or, at least, abandon that mini-state’s ideology regarding the management of social affairs, the management of the political and economic life and the management of diplomatic relations.

Hezbollah’s predicament was made worse by the loss of momentum of the Iranian project and by the political, economic and financial breakdown of the Lebanese state. The party is in a state of confusion. It had invested tremendous effort in order to tame the political forces in Lebanon or, at least, most of them. Now that they are tamed, it has to face a new predicament — how to manage the state of economic and financial collapse surrounding it, with the risk of a total social collapse looming.

Still, the threat of a potential meltdown has not led Hezbollah to reconsider the origin of the problem, which in fact lies in the party’s local and regional role, a role that cost Lebanon its Arab and international support systems.

Instead, Hezbollah has continued gnawing at official institutions in order to consolidate its absolute authority and end political life in Lebanon. The amusing thing is that Hezbollah has the ambition of concluding a settlement with the Americans that would give legitimacy to its role in Lebanon and the region, in exchange for Hezbollah’s recognition of Washington’s role in Lebanon. In fact, these exact sentiments were explicitly and publicly expressed by Hezbollah’s Secretary-General, Hassan Nasrallah, in his speech following the release of Israeli agent Amer al-Fakhoury three weeks ago. “Washington has an old influence in Lebanese institutions and this influence existed during the time of the Syrian presence (in Lebanon) and still exists to this day,” he said. It must be noted that, in his speech, Nasrallah did not call for confronting this influence but alluded to the possibility of Washington’s recovering its experience of cooperating with Syria in Lebanon, but this time it would be with Iran.

The coronavirus pandemic has added to Hezbollah’s predicament. The spread of the infection cannot be dealt with militarily and requires a different approach that would test its mini-state’s more general capabilities. So far, the party has been very discreet about the repercussions of the pandemic, and for good reason. It was accused of being responsible for bringing the infection to Lebanon by refusing to cancel international flights from Iran, where the coronavirus infection was spreading rapidly. In fact, squadrons of Iranian planes had continued to fly to Lebanon, bringing in thousands of Lebanese citizens and some Iranians. Among the arriving passengers, there were a significant number of Hezbollah members. The party has been suspiciously silent about the whole operation and it has been reported that it whisked away infected cases to undisclosed locations.

Hezbollah’s trials and tribulations are set against the backdrop of Washington’s painful sanctions against it and against its sponsor, Iran. The tough restrictions and Lebanon’s financial crisis have made living conditions increasingly hard for all Lebanese and especially for Hezbollah’s host community, which is used to receiving financial and economic aid from the party. With these advantages currently gone and unlikely to be regained in the near future, Hezbollah’s people are starting to worry.

Today, as the funds continue to dry out all around, the party is facing multiple tremors, even within its party structure that is subjected to the various social and economic crises.

Caught between the scarcity of funds and political confusion resulting from dealing with the living, economic and monetary crises in Lebanon, Hezbollah is trying to find the right balance. It is trying to do it by preserving the thread of the relationship with Washington, on the one hand, and preserving its security and military structure and renewing its role, on the other. A few days ago, a Hezbollah member of parliament, Hassan Fadlallah, criticised what he called America’s intervention to impose the appointment of a certain person as deputy governor of the Bank of Lebanon. Regardless of whether the accusation was valid, it still marks the beginning of a verbal escalation against the US role in Lebanon but without rising to the level of a direct clash, since that anti-American position was preceded by responding to the American pressure on Lebanon that led to the release of Amer al-Fakhoury and by Nasrallah’s message inviting the Americans to prepare to find an understanding in managing influence between Tehran and Washington in Lebanon.

It must be noted that Iran's influence in Lebanon, namely through Hezbollah itself, has so far succeeded in taking control of the Lebanese state institutions after years of constant nibbling. Pro-Iranian public officials have been appointed to most key positions in the government, in public administration, in security positions and in most military positions. So when Hezbollah raises a fury about American interference in some appointments, it is trying to cover up its own direct interference in and capturing the significant positions of the state apparatus.

Still, gaining an international and American cover for the legitimacy of Iranian influence in Lebanon —through Hezbollah, of course — remains a problem. Such cover does not seem to be available right now despite the party’s direct and indirect messages to Washington. To this day, the American administration seems adamant it will reject this influence and confront it with tougher sanctions against Hezbollah and Iran.

Be that as it may, Hezbollah’s greatest challenge now is to remain able to “stand and fight” in a “survival war” that is bound not to end this time in a “neither winner nor loser” outcomeFew believe the accuracy of the Islamic Republic’s official coronavirus statistics , in light of the radical changes that have imposed themselves on its sponsor, just like on the rest of the world, a world anticipating dramatic transformations.