When Hezbollah started sending its men to Syria in 2011, the revolution against the Assad regime was still producing extraordinary momentum. The rest, as they sadly say, is history. At the time of writing, the Assad regime, backed by Russia, Iran and (mostly Iranian-backed) paramilitary forces, has retaken large parts of Syria. A Pyrrhic victory that has left behind sieges, destruction and the slow, torturous, subterranean dungeons that have made this such a notorious regime, even by the region’s abysmal standards.
In 2011, with stories being passed from Syrian mouths to Lebanese ears, Hezbollah initially denied the rumours of its presence in Syria. It would only confirm them in May 2013, although its first battle was against the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Qusayr, on the Lebanese border, between February and April 2012. The resulting FSA victory was overturned a year later between April and June 2013 when the Assad regime and Hezbollah launched a counter-offensive.
I still remember how news of Hezbollah’s military intervention was being reported by Syrian — and some Lebanese and Palestinian — activists in Lebanon. It was a mixture of uncertainty and shock. It was difficult to believe that the group that sacrificed so much against the Israeli state was now sending its men to die in defence of the Syrian state. So deep was the shock that it lead the Palestinian writer Budour Hassan, in a moving 2016 essay, to declare: “Then came Syria, and my hypocrisy and the fragility of those ideals became exposed.” Hassan reflected on the disillusionment she felt when she witnessed the reactions to the Syrian revolution. Before it, she was “one of those whose hearts would pound when Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah appeared on TV”, a sentiment many of us throughout the region understand quite well.
To understand the disillusionment, it is useful to separate between Hezbollah’s narrative of being the Resistance™ — the usage of the trademark symbol here denoting the group’s hegemonic stronghold on the term in Lebanon — and what resistance actually is, or, at the very least, should be. Since 2011, the gap between the two has widened and it will continue to do so, due to, among other things, Hezbollah’s own ‘war on terror’.
Hezbollah’s ‘war on terror’
Prior to 2011, Hezbollah’s claim to glory was its role as a powerful force against the state of Israel. In a country where memory is weaponised and weakened, Hezbollah’s darker side was often set aside because the present was always more urgent. This is due to the ‘anticipation of violence’, as Sami Hermez called the wider phenomenon in Lebanon; whereby violence is so normalised that its underlying causes are not questioned. In the case of Hezbollah supporters in particular, it is informed by a not-so-distant past: even though southern Lebanon was liberated from Israeli rule in 2000, the horrors committed during the 18-year occupation, and then again during the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war, are not so easily forgotten.
With such a respected background as a liberator, Hezbollah’s presence in Syria required a kind of shift: from a force with relatively popular, if not sceptical and critical, support (including from this author) beyond its largely Shia base in Lebanon, to one dependent on the heavy use of sectarian and authoritarian logic. To make that happen, a different kind of militarisation was required — that of thought. This form of militarisation is a necessary component of Hezbollah’s military intervention. To put it simply, there has to be a threat that Hezbollah can defend the Lebanese from. If no such threat exists, one must be created.
Luckily for Hezbollah, the post-9/11 world order facilitated the proliferation of the US-led ‘war on terror’ and, with it, an associated narrative able and willing to label any opponent of authoritarian and fascist regimes as terrorists. These opponents can themselves be from various backgrounds, and regimes the world over have been using this tactic. One can evoke Russia’s Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, Israel’s Netanyahu or India’s Mohdi for examples of the politics of how naming one’s opponent as terrorist (or jihadi, Islamic extremist, separatist etc) opens the way for the widespread implementation of authoritarian tactics. In the MENA region in particular, governments have been responding to the 2011 uprisings (and, in the case of Iran, the 2009 uprising) with an all-out ‘war on terror’ crackdown. From Bahrain to Egypt, passing by Saudi Arabia and Iran, any and all opponents of these fragile governments have been imprisoned, exiled, tortured, forcibly disappeared and/or killed. This was a narrative that Hezbollah, despite its public opposition to the US and Arab governments, found all-too-convenient to exploit for its own purposes.
But up until 2011, Hezbollah had no real need, for the most part, for this narrative. In fact, Hezbollah supported the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain and even endorsed the UN-approved and NATO-led intervention in Libya against Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Indeed, it was Lebanon — along with France and the UK — that put forward United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, and it is no secret as to why Hezbollah, which has been dominating Lebanese politics as de-facto kingmakers, wanted Gaddafi gone. Hezbollah’s stance on Libya was largely informed by the widespread belief that Imam Musa al-Sadr, the co-founder of Amal (Hezbollah’s precursor and a separate political party) and an important spiritual and historical leader to many Lebanese Shias, was kidnapped by Gaddafi during a visit in 1978. As for the other countries, Hezbollah stood by them as part of its public commitment to opposing tyrannies.
Syria, as we would soon learn, was the notable exception. But this wasn’t always viewed as an inevitability. Perhaps naively, Hezbollah’s early positions on the Arab Spring, including its initial reluctance to discuss Syria at much length, left the space open for ambiguous pronouncements. For that reason, many Syrians genuinely believed that the group would stand by them. After all, Hezbollah was popular among Syrians, especially since the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war (when, incidentally, the Lebanese became refugees and fled to Syria), and because of its reputation for being devoid of corruption (unlike the Assad regime). It certainly commanded more respect than the Assad regime ever did. As Nasrallah made his pronouncements in 2011 in support of Bahrainis, Egyptians, Libyans and Tunisians, revolutionary Syrians had no way of knowing that Hezbollah would soon play a big role in their defeat.
Thus, before 2011, the ‘war on terror’ narrative served no useful purpose for Hezbollah. Indeed, Hezbollah often was — and still is — at the receiving end of it. Instead, it felt more comfortable appealing to an inclusive narrative of Resistance™. It was a simple ‘us’ versus ‘them’, with us being the Lebanese, the Arabs, those who have had no military victory to be proud of since Israel’s establishment in 1948. The multiple Arab defeats contributed to what the Lebano-Syrio-Palestinian writer and leftist Samir Kassir called the ‘Arab Malaise’, a wide sense of restlessness and insecurity that progressively chipped away at whatever dignity Arabs felt they had.
Hezbollah, uniquely, was able to provide a temporary cure at a time when no other political party in Lebanon could. The liberation from Israeli occupation gave the group a kind of legitimacy that went beyond the country’s highly cynical politics. Its dark past assassinating prominent leftists and its overtly sectarian, conservative and authoritarian politics were cast aside due to its role as the dominant force in the resistance against the Israeli state. At the same time, Hezbollah regularly appealed to a broader base in the country, differentiating itself as a party for all Lebanese/Arabs, at least outside of its participation in sectarian politics. It happily included in its narrative Sunni groups like Hamas and even secular ones like (defeated and thus non-threatening) communists.
Aided by the Lebanese government’s now-infamous 1991 Amnesty law granting warlords immunity from most war crimes, and benefitting from a post-civil war status quo focused on neoliberal ‘reconstruction’ under the tutelage (until the 2005 Cedar Revolution) of the Assad regime, Hezbollah soon adopted the existing Lebanese model in order to develop its soft power over ‘its’ sectarianised population. It combined this business-as-usual politics — providing services, with Iranian funds, to ‘its’ population more efficiently than other parties — with the rhetoric of resistance against the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. With no real alternatives available — the communist/nationalist/secular resistance were crushed first (1976-) by the Syrian state and then (1982-) by the Israeli one — Hezbollah’s relative advantage was simply that it was able to achieve something. After all, no opponent of Hezbollah could deny its role in the resistance against Israeli occupation, even if they resented its hegemonic stronghold over the narrative, denying the role of secular Lebanese and Palestinians.
Indeed, it can be argued that without Israel’s brutal invasion and occupation of Lebanon in 1982, Hezbollah would not have a raison d’être in the first place. The Israeli invasion, in addition to post-1979 Iranian governments’ foreign policy, provided all that was needed for the birth of what would become Hezbollah. In his book The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy, which I reviewed for RS21, Yassin al-Haj Saleh argued that “Israel facilitated the militarisation of thought and of public life in our countries”. For that reason, Israel remains a major part of Hezbollah’s Resistance™ narrative today. But unlike the Israeli state, which proved itself to be an actual threat to Lebanese civilians, Hezbollah’s more recent enemies are nowhere near as powerful.
To Hezbollah and its allies, however, this does not matter. The ‘war on terror’ serves as a convenient framework in a country plagued by structural problems so deeply entrenched in the country’s political and socio-economic system. In some ways, the Syrian revolution couldn’t have come at a better time for Hezbollah and the Lebanese state. Just three years prior, on 7 May 2008, Hezbollah militarily took over Beirut after the government, then dominated by the Saudi-aligned March 14 coalition (Hezbollah is part of the March 8 coalition), threatened to shut down the group’s telecommunications network — a move Nasrallah called a ‘declaration of war’. The very rapid takeover of Beirut — part of a week-long series of events which saw fighting by both March 8 and March 14 — surprised many. Up until then, Hezbollah largely avoided displaying its full strength against other Lebanese groups, opting instead to use it against Israel. But Hezbollah successfully defended its network, and by doing so stepped out of its relative comfort zone.
Within a year or two of the Syrian revolution being launched, Hezbollah’s priorities were out in the open. The group utilised the language of the ‘war on terror’ and adapted it to a Middle Eastern context to describe all opponents of the Assad regime as ‘takfiri’ (essentially, apostates) regardless of whether they were secular, Islamists or jihadists. Its allies in the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), including the current president Michel Aoun, also regularly praises Hezbollah’s role against ‘terrorists’. In 2018, Aoun was quoted by the pro-Assad outlet Al Masdar as saying “Hezbollah was the first to push back terrorists attacking us from Qusayr”.
What Hezbollah seems unable to do is fully justify its support for the brutal Assad regime. A regime so disliked by the Lebanese that there are even leaked videos of Hezbollah fighters mocking Assad’s army. From my own interactions with Hezbollah members, the impression I get is clear: they may not like Assad personally — very few people do — but they view their presence in Syria as an existential must. Whether this is true or not is besides the point here. What is new here is Hezbollah members feeling the need to justify their actions — a fact that was never needed when the fight was against Israel. Hezbollah even shot back at the backlash against its actions in Madaya, accusing rebels of “monopolising the dwindling food supplies in Madaya and refusing to allow civilians to leave” (incidentally, not unlike the rhetoric used by Israel supporters when they want to distract from the suffering caused by the blockade of Gaza). This is due to the fact that for the first time it was they, the Syrians, who became the resistance to the invaders — Hezbollah. In other words, Hezbollah’s military invasion of Syria upended the monopoly of the Resistance™ on the narrative of resistance.
The Resistance™ against resistance
Hezbollah’s military policy created its own type of war economy. In the words of Ghaleb Yaghi, a former mayor of Baalbek who ran against Hezbollah as the head of the Baalbek Madinati (‘Baalbek My City’) list during the 2016 municipality elections, Hezbollah has managed to mobilise its base partially through financial incentives. “Unemployment has become very high in Baalbek, and the young people can’t find work,” Yaghi was quoted as saying in an article in The Atlantic. “So the alternative to finding work is to join Hezbollah for $400 a month, and go off and fight somewhere… And then he comes back in a box, as a martyr.” [Hezbollah and its allies won 26 out of the 27 seats reserved for Shias that election, although their performance at the 2018 parliamentary elections was not as impressive.]
Hezbollah’s dominant status was actually reflected by Yaghi himself who, despite running against the group, was very careful not to attack its title of Resistance™, saying “we’re not against Hezbollah as a resistance, so long as it resists in the right way”. This, as mentioned above, is a highly sensitive issue. To even suggest that Hezbollah is against resistance anywhere will invite serious opposition, including threats or worse. A now-notorious video from a protest in October 2017 showed a man in Dahieh, the Beirut suburb where Hezbollah dominates politically, directly insulting Nasrallah — an extremely taboo thing to do. He prefaced the insult with ‘stop sending the youth of the party to go fight in Syria’. Another woman said: “We all provided martyrs for you in Syria. I have three injured sons.” These are just two of the many who protested that day. Words like ‘shabiha’, pro-Assad sectarian thugs, were uttered alongside other forms of defiance.
These are sentences rarely uttered in public. In fact, that same man had to make a public apology the next day, holding a photo of Nasrallah and saying he would go and fight in Syria. Soon after, he uploaded another video of himself personally pleading with Nasrallah to save him from the threats he has been getting from other Hezbollah members. As part of his apology, he emphasised that his whole family belongs to the party. He had to reaffirm his unconditional loyalty towards Hezbollah; even conditional or critical loyalty is unacceptable. These grievances are always beneath the surface. Indeed, the protests were not even about Hezbollah’s role in Syria, but rather followed raids against unlicensed street vendors.
This event points to how difficult it is for Hezbollah to reclaim its pre-2011 status among its followers, let alone among the wider population. In the meantime, however, the only available option is for Hezbollah and its allies to double down on the Resistance™. In March of 2019, Aoun even went so far as to dismiss Lebanon’s economic woes with a triumphant “the Lebanese people are ready for economic resistance”. To which the journalist Timour Azhari responded: “Resistance against what? Or whom?” But that’s precisely the point. The object of Resistance™ has to remain elusive and ever-changing. It can change from Israel to Syrian rebels. It can target Syrian refugees or ‘the economy’. It is everything and nothing at the same time.
The emptiness of the Resistance™ was made all the more hollow during Hezbollah’s now-notorious participation in the siege of Madaya, which is located on the Lebanese border, in 2015. Try as they might, the group was unable to dismiss all reports as fake news or to blame it solely on some foreign conspiracy. Hezbollah was besieging the village on the Lebanese side and the Assad regime on the Syrian side. They used checkpoints, snipers and landmines to subdue the population, often shooting at those who tried to escape. When Hezbollah took over nearby Zabadani with the help of regime airstrikes, at least 20,000 left for Madaya. One student from Zabadani reported to Vice that the Hezbollah fighters told him to “go to Madaya. There you will die, from starvation”. This is something I can personally corroborate from speaking with residents of Madaya, and it has become common practice in many of the Hezbollah-occupied towns. Another example was recounted by Assem Al-Bacha, the self-exiled sculptor in Granada, Spain, who is originally from Yabroud, also near the Lebanese border. When the town fell in 2014, Al-Bacha’s house and that of his siblings was occupied by Hezbollah, which used it as a base. His brother was executed by the regime.
I am mentioning these stories — two among many — to highlight the crimes of the Resistance™. Crimes that are denied at the official level, only to be exposed at the popular one. During the siege, Hezbollah supporters in Lebanon started posting photos of themselves eating food with the Arabic hashtag “in solidarity with the siege of Madaya”. The horrific images combined with Hezbollah supporters’ reaction lead to an anti-Hezbollah backlash in Lebanon, including a rare protest in Beirut. The photos mocking dying children reminded me, again, of some Israelis’ reactions during the 2014 war on Gaza — and in particular the now-infamous ‘Sderot cinema’. The sheer inhumanity of such attitudes are made possible through the acceptance of unrestrained power. The occupying forces maintain their occupation through the brutalisation and dehumanisation of the occupied, and thus are themselves turned into moral monsters.
Enter the October 17th Revolution
The bulk of this essay was written in the summer of 2019. Since then, Lebanon has witnessed a series of protests that are locally known as the October 17th Revolution. The country’s multiple contradictions and structural crises erupted from coast to valley, north to south, unleashing unprecedented acts of solidarity unified by an overt opposition to the country’s confessional/sectarian system. While I wrote an initial assessment of the October 17th Revolution in its first month, it is worth dedicating a few more paragraphs to Hezbollah’s central role in the counter-revolution against the protests.
Shortly after the revolution started, on October 19th, Nasrallah gave the first of many speeches to follow. While Nasrallah was previously better known for occasional speeches, usually commemorating some religious or national event or responding to geopolitical crises, and thus giving them high symbolic importance, they have since become common. This is an unusual development in itself, and one of the earliest indications that Hezbollah was treating these unprecedented trans-sectarian protests as an existential threat. In his speech, Nasrallah categorically placed himself on the side of the ruling coalition — Amal, the FPM and then-prime minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement — declaring that this ‘ahd’, or mandate/era, will not fall and that “you [protesters] are wasting your time”.
This was in reference to calls for Hariri to step down alongside other high-ranking politicians. The latter notably included Aoun, Gebran Bassil (his son-in-law and the foreign minister) and Nabih Berri (long-term Speaker of Parliament and the leader of Amal), all Hezbollah’s allies and among the most commonly cited names at the protests. For the first time as well, anti-sectarian, anti-Hezbollah protesters (as opposed to sectarian, anti-Hezbollah supporters of other parties) were making their presence known.
Hariri would in fact resign just 10 days after Nasrallah’s speech, bringing an end to this mandate and the start of a new one with current prime minister Hassan Diab, who formed a new government on 21st January 2020. The initial, quick defeat for both Hezbollah and the Lebanese government was thus followed less than three months later with an entirely Hezbollah-aligned Lebanese government. Indeed, at the time of writing, and for the first time since Syrian troops were expelled from the country in 2005, the Lebanese government is now what we call ‘one colour’, meaning the ruling parties all come from the same pro-Assad political alliance (March 8).
But Nasrallah throwing his weight behind a mandate described by Lebanese journalist Lara Bitar as one “marked by racism, xenophobia, misogyny, regular incitement to violence and hatred” revealed yet again the group’s political priorities. As Lebanese researchers Nadim El-Kak and Sami Zoughaib would later write: “The Hezbollah-led camp, which brought Diab to power, may brandish populist slogans and a socialist rhetoric, but its track record and complicity in preserving Harirism suggests otherwise.” In other words, Nasrallah’s speech was well in line with Hezbollah’s priorities with regards to the Lebanese state: maintaining the sectarian-capitalist structures allowing the group to operate as privileged members of Iran’s axis of Resistance™.
Nasrallah’s speeches since have been characterised by an increasingly angry rhetoric punctuated by the usual conspiratorial worldview. He has accused protesters of being funded by foreign governments — to which protesters responded with videos of themselves saying ‘I am the leader of the revolution’ and with humorous actions such as distributing free sandwiches with ‘funded by [name of foreign government]’ written on them — and his supporters have repeatedly threatened to bring Lebanon to the brink of civil war, with some of them even chanting “we want another May 7th ” as well as engaging in a multitude of conspiracy theories online and in sectarian media outlets.
The group’s priorities would be reiterated a number of times by Nasrallah, his speeches interspersed with widespread violence by partisans of Hezbollah and Amal against anti-government protesters in Beirut, the south and the Bekaa Valley in the east. The areas, in other words, where Hezbollah’s power is hegemonic (Nabatiyeh/south, Bekaa Valley) or where any successful alternative to the sectarian status quo would also be threatening (Beirut). Meanwhile, areas north of Beirut, and particularly the working-class, Sunni-majority city of the north, Tripoli, are largely outside of Hezbollah’s hegemonic stronghold, and have thus often maintained a different momentum, culminating in massive protests in the city where residents declare their unconditional support for protesters bearing the brunt of Hezbollah’s violence in the rest of the country.
But the open defiance of protesters in the Bekaa Valley, and especially Nabatiyeh and the south, despite the repression by Hezbollah/Amal shabiha and security forces, was significant in itself. As I reflected on day eight of the protests — which was declared a ‘day of solidarity with Nabatieh’ and was accompanied by one image declaring ‘Nabatieh will not be broken… ask the Zionists’ — this was another sign of Hezbollah “losing its monopoly on the narrative of resistance”. In other words, protesters from areas within Hezbollah’s hegemonic stronghold have been navigating a fine line between Resistance™ and resistance, with the former remaining dominant to this day.
For now, sectarianism has been relatively successful in keeping these tensions below the surface most of the time, but it is hard to argue for their long-term existence. Cracks ‘from within’ have been widening, the result of years of dissent in the south, the Bekaa and Dahieh. Lebanese Shias opposing the party have to navigate an extremely difficult, and often dangerous, reality. As Azhari mentioned in a conversation I took part in, protesters who live in Hezbollah’s ‘strongholds’ have to face their families and neighbourhoods when coming back from the protests, if not facing Hezbollah itself.
Nonetheless, resistance to the Resistance™ is happening, and is likely to get louder. In a recent essay, the Lebanese writer and rapper Bunasser Al-Taffar declared “I won’t sacrifice my life for anyone’s ‘shoe’” — a reference to “the price for publicly declaring that our lives and the lives of our loved ones are more valuable than the leaders’ ‘shoes’ and all their fortunes”. Al-Taffar laments the psychological damage done by Hezbollah’s smears against Lebanese Shias who oppose its policies in Lebanon and the region, calling them ‘embassy’, or foreign-funded, Shias. As he writes: “Accusing people of treason and authorising their killing have thus been effortlessly normalised.”
Confirming Al-Taffar’s fears, in a speech which followed the US assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, Nasrallah echoed George W Bush’s infamous ‘you are either with us or with the terrorists’ speech. He declared that there are only two political positions to have: either with the Resistance™ axis or with Israel, the US and the Gulf kingdoms. Those are our only two options according to Nasrallah. As the aforementioned man from Dahieh learned the hard way, the only acceptable form of loyalty is unconditional. Dissent is inconceivable.
But whether Nasrallah wishes to accept it or not, his group’s intervention in Syria on behalf of a deeply unpopular regime permanently tied Hezbollah’s political fate to that of its military capabilities. And from the looks of it, Hezbollah seems aware of that fact. In 2016, three years after their victory in Qusayr, Hezbollah staged a military spectacle in the Syrian city. Its deputy secretary general, Naim Qassem, was quoted as saying “now we have a trained army which is a clear message from Hezbollah to everyone” (which Hezbollah later denied). This betrays the regular claims made by Hezbollah and its supporters, as one commander told Channel 4 News on condition of anonymity, that they are in Syria to prevent violence from coming to Lebanon.
The commander’s confused responses echo that of many Hezbollah supporters today. They claim both self-defence and celebrate offensives at the same time, just as they call for cross-sectarian unity while describing their Syrian Sunni opponents as takfiri. Ultimately, Hezbollah is both unable and unwilling to separate itself from its sectarian and fundamentalist politics. To quote that same commander: “We have a martyrdom project, above all else. We beg our leaders to send us to Syria. Everyone wants to go. No one wants to come back.”
Given the choice between Aoun’s nonsensical ‘economic resistance’ on the one hand, and facing the full moral consequences of being the new military occupiers, including drawing comparisons with the same Israeli soldiers they have fought, is it such a surprise that many Hezbollah members choose to continue believing in the comforting narrative of the Resistance™? And as Hezbollah or former Hezbollah supporters participate in the protests, contradicting Nasrallah’s direct orders, one is left to wonder: can Hezbollah’s publicly-reiterated confidence in the uncritical loyalty of its supporters sustain the damage caused by its own politics?
The above was first published in the 1st Issue of Discontent. To buy the issue, please go to Discontent.Me