Hezbollah, “the Party of God,” was created for a very clear purpose—the rejection of Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon. Over the last 30 years, Hezbollah has fought two wars with the Israelis, and continues to stockpile advanced weaponry in preparation for possible future conflict, adding to an arsenal that already contains over 100,000 combat-ready missiles.
Labeled a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, the Party of God has achieved mainstream normalization within Lebanon as a militant Shi’a political party. This acceptance is particularly noteworthy given the complex demographic background of the country, with just over a quarter of the population identifying as Sunni Muslim, another quarter as Shi’ite Muslim, and 40% of the population belonging to Christian sects. The fact that Hezbollah exists as an armed paramilitary Shi’a organization has given the country significant political sway in the country, as evidenced by the Hezbollah orchestrated assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and political maneuvering that ousted the pro-Western March 14government led by Hariri’s son Saad Hariri. From a foreign policy perspective, Hezbollah has traditionally aligned with the Syria-Iran axis and has been considered “Iranian proxies” in Lebanon. Despite these misgivings, Hezbollah’s vaunted anti-Zionist goal gave the organization significant leeway in its internal operations.
The past year, however, has brought a change to this acceptance equilibrium. As Hezbollah-ally Assad has become increasingly beleaguered by Sunni Islamists, including the Islamic State of Iraq (ISIS), Hezbollah has sent thousands of its fighters to join what has increasingly devolved into a sectarian conflict. Hezbollah has struggled to justify its involvement in Syria with its traditional anti-Zionist agenda. As critics have noted, it seems that Hezbollah could use a map—they are sending their fighters in the wrong direction! (Away from Israel).
Hezbollah’s military presence in Syria has put it at odds with both the Christian and Sunni Lebanese populations for slightly different reasons. From the Christian Lebanese perspective, the blooded Hezbollah militants are receiving valuable military experience in urban and guerilla combat that could be brought to bear against their own country’s government. For the Sunni community, particularly the Sunni Islamist community, the Hezbollah activity in Syria is much more poignant: the Hezbollah fighters are killing ISIS and other Sunni rebels trying to overthrow the Syrian regime.
Hezbollah has tried to contain the conflict to Syria, essentially requesting that the Sunni and Shiite militants refrain from fighting each other in Lebanon—although once the selfsame fighters cross the borders, they become fair game. The Sunni militants, however, have been ill-inclined to refrain from retaliation against Hezbollah, whose increased involvement over the past year has been widely attributed to Assad’s resurgence against the rebel onslaught.
The most visible result of the sectarian spillover was a February twin suicide bombing operation targeting the Iranian embassy of Beirut. The Al-Qaeda linked Abdullah Azzam Brigades claimed responsibility for the attacks, directly citing Hezbollah involvement in Syria as a cause: “”We say to the people of Syria, rejoice, for your blood is our blood, and the Party of Iran (Hezbollah) will not enjoy safety in Lebanon until safety is returned to you in Syria.”
In an attempt to broker an end to the escalating violence, a new cross-party government coalition was formed last month. However, Hezbollah’s armaments have remained a thorny issue. After all, now that the Lebanese face the real possibility that Hezbollah arms will be used for purposes besides attacking Israel. On March 15, the two sides reached a settlement by which the Hezbollah forces would not be recognized as the anti-Zionist resistance force, but left open the option that paramilitary, non-governmental forces (i.e. Hezbollah) reserved the right to “resist and repel” Israel and Israeli-occupied lands.
However, while this political dealing takes place, the sectarian violence continues. In Syria, Lebanese Sunni and Shias continue to fight on opposing sides, each body sent home etching more deeply the growing divide between these two communities. The violence continues in Lebanon as well; on March 17, a car bomb hit the Hezbollah-dominated village of al-Nabi Othman, killing four Hezbollah militants, including senior military commander Abdul Rahman al-Qadhi. Sunni militant groups Jabhat al-Nusra and Liwa Ahrar al-Sunna have both claimed responsibility for the strike, providing a return address for future retaliation and escalation.
From non-combatant Lebanese citizens, one of the most frightening developments came from a recent statement by Liwa Ahrar al-Sunna: It accuses the Lebanese army of siding with the Syrian regime, and warns of “the transfer of the battle of [Syria] into Lebanese territory.”
As the possibility for internal Lebanese warfare escalates, one sees increased caution by the Lebanese governing factions—no one wants a return to bloodshed within Lebanon. The Sunni militants carrying out the suicide attacks are not representative, but rather reflect a radicalized and desperate minority connected to the rebel forces being pushed back by Hezbollah action in Syria.
The path to conflict avoidance is clear: Hezbollah must withdraw its fighters from Syria. Moreover, as costs of foreign involvement continue to rise on the home front, the Hezbollah leadership will likely decide that neutrality on Syria may be in their organizational best interest.
The ambiguity, however, arises from Hezbollah’s capacity to pursue those interests. Iran and Syria both need Hezbollah to remain active in Syria promoting Iranian regional interests and securing the Assad regime’s survival. This will be the test for analysts who claim that Hezbollah is not just an Iranian proxy. Can Hezbollah pull its force out of Iran and protect its own institutional interests, thereby developing into an independent organization, or will it remained chained to its original manifesto as Iran’s Lebanese anti-Israel watchdog?