Hard Times for Hezbollah, Is Iran’s Lebanese client losing its grip?
Feb 2, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 20
By LEE SMITH/ The Weekly Standard.
Last week Hezbollah buried one of its princes, Jihad Mughniyeh, the 22-year-old son of the late Imad Mughniyeh, a legendary Hezbollah commander implicated in such infamous operations as the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut. The assassination
of the elder Mughniyeh in Damascus in 2008, typically attributed to Israel, is regarded as one of the organization’s most traumatic blows. However, some in the Shiite community here say that Israel’s January 18 strike on a three-car convoy in the Golan Heights near the Syrian town of Quneitra—which killed the younger Mughniyeh and five other Hezbollah operatives, along with as many as six Iranians—is evidence of a dangerous crisis for Hezbollah.
The throngs attending the younger Mughniyeh’s funeral on January 19 yelled “Death to America” only once. “I counted,” says Lokman Slim, an anti-Hezbollah Shiite activist. “And they said ‘Death to Israel’ only a few times. Then they went to more religious slogans.”
According to Slim, the scaled-down rhetoric and modest size of the funeral are evidence that Hezbollah is caught in a bind. “The [Lebanese Shiites] don’t want another war with Israel,” says Slim, “but they also want to know Hezbollah can protect them like it says.”
Hezbollah’s general secretary Hassan Nasrallah can threaten to open the gates of hell on Israel’s northern border, but if he doesn’t take action he’s only underscoring his weakness and that of the Shiites in general. If he does take action, he risks escalation with a powerful neighbor at a time when Hezbollah is already stretched. Its campaign in Syria to defend Bashar al-Assad is absorbing the bulk of the group’s manpower, Syria and Assad being hugely important assets to their Iranian patrons. Moreover, if Hezbollah’s retaliation brings a crushing Israeli response, Nasrallah will have opened not only a fight with Israel, but a third confrontation as well, inside Lebanon, with the country’s Sunni community. “It would mean the Sunni-Shia conflict has come to Lebanon in earnest,” says Slim.
The political situation in Lebanon is therefore as freighted with danger as the actual war Hezbollah is fighting across the border in Syria. The organization portrays its combat there as a defensive war to prevent the Sunni extremist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS that are battling Assad from entering Lebanon and targeting the Shiites. Suicide bombings in Beirut’s southern suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold, and the pitched battles between Hezbollah and Sunni fighters on the Syrian border in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley are proof that the threat of Sunni violence is genuine. But the fact that Jihad Mughniyeh and his cohorts were killed in the Golan Heights—where they would pose a threat to Israel and less so to the Sunni extremists whose strongholds are elsewhere in Syria—is an embarrassment for Hezbollah in general and Nasrallah in particular.
In a long interview with a pro-Hezbollah TV station just two days before the Israeli strike, Nasrallah claimed that Hezbollah was not active on the Golan. As it turns out, Mughniyeh and the others, including Iranian Revolutionary Guards Brigadier General Mohamed Ali Allahdadi, a confidant of Iran’s Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani, were reportedly preparing the groundwork for an Iranian missile base. In other words, Hezbollah’s ostensibly defensive fight in Syria, to protect the Lebanese Shiites, has a significant offensive component as well—to open a second front against Israel, in addition to the group’s South Lebanon stronghold, on behalf of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The Shiites, says Slim, have come a long way from their self-proclaimed “Divine Victory” over Israel in 2006. By its own telling, Hezbollah proved its bona fides as a resistance movement by standing toe-to-toe with an Israeli enemy that had repeatedly walked over Sunni powers like Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. The Shiites wanted to enjoy the spoils of their victory—money, prestige, and perhaps above all peace. But now they’re being dragged back to war, not with a regional superpower like Israel, but rather as an accomplice in a conflict in Syria that contradicts the values of their community.
“The Shia are supposed to side with justice against injustice,” says Slim. “Shia stand with the underdog. And now Hezbollah is fighting alongside a dictatorial regime.” Moreover, Hezbollah has also staked the Shiites to a position against the regional Sunni majority in a war whose best outcome, says Slim, can only be a political settlement. “Hezbollah will have fought this war, and at the end the Shia will ask to what purpose did we sacrifice so much?” The worst outcome, says Slim, is a war that won’t end.
“Maybe trauma,” says Slim, “is the only way back from divinity.” Maybe. We’re on the road heading south to the Shiite heartland to see.
Traffic is thick getting out of Beirut’s southern suburbs. There’s a joint checkpoint ahead, Hezbollah on the right and Lebanese Army on the left. Hezbollah checks license plates in a database, and if you’re okay, he pings the soldier on the left who waves you through. If you’re not, you get waved over to the right, and they check your car for explosives. Slim bristles: “I pay taxes to have Hezbollah give orders to the army.”
Checkpoints, traffic—everything is worse than when I was last here nearly three years ago. There’s less electricity and more blackouts, the water shortages are worse, and so is the sewage. There’s no president, no elections on the horizon to elect a new parliament, the economy is moribund with little investment from the traditional big spenders of the Gulf states, and parents are urging their children to formulate a Plan B—how to get out of Lebanon and start a career and family elsewhere. Europe, Australia, the Gulf, Canada, America . . . all are lands of opportunity. In Lebanon everything is getting worse. Except for one thing, says Slim, the one thing that matters to him as much as anything in the world—Hezbollah is falling and a new chapter is beginning for the Shiites.
“I told you that I saw Hezbollah’s beginnings,” he reminds me. “And I told you I’d see its end as well. We’re getting closer. These things like the Israeli strike in the Golan are simply facts, markers. There’s a larger underlying reality that’s shifting. It’s happening slowly, but it’s detectable.”
Finally we’re waved through the checkpoint and on our way. Hezbollah flags fly from lampposts all the way south. Placards and pictures commemorate the latest crop of martyrs—“the cuvée of Syria,” says Slim.
Outside of Lebanon’s Shiite regions, it is very difficult to get a sense of how profoundly the war in Syria has injured the community. Exactly how many Lebanese Shiites have been killed there is unknown—high-end estimates are more than a thousand in the last two years—or even how many are fighting. Slim says the numbers miss the point. “Let’s say there are 3,000 Hezbollah combatants in Syria, but then take into account all the other things you need, everything from intelligence to logistics, and there are perhaps 20,000 committed to the war. For instance, a father and his two sons have a bulldozer, and Hezbollah needs them and their machine in Syria, so they pay them double to be there.”
Hezbollah is unaccustomed to waging a long war of attrition like this, far from the Lebanese villages where it fought guerrilla wars against Israel. To be sure, its fighters are becoming a battle-hardened expeditionary force, but the nature of the war is reconfiguring Shiite society. “Boys are dropping out of school to join the fight,” says Slim. “They enjoy the benefits of manhood earlier than before, but it’s becoming a community without men, or men who are simply on leave from Syria and waiting to return. The result,” he says smiling, “is that the women will become more powerful.”
Black humor underlines how far Hezbollah has fallen from its divine status. “We have the phenomenon of the widows of the fighters killed in Syria,” says Slim, “beautiful young girls being courted by the organization’s senior officials. ‘Hey, if you need anything, just text me. And if it’s evening, you can reach me on Whatsapp, too.’ ”
The fact that Israel presumably weighed Hezbollah’s predicament before striking the Mughniyeh/Allahdadi convoy—how the scope of its deployment in Syria limited its ability to avenge its fallen—is one of several indignities Nasrallah has to swallow. There’s also the ongoing issue of treason. Not long before the strike in the Golan, Hezbollah disclosed that it had found a spy in its ranks, Mohamed Shawarba, a high-ranking official who allegedly worked for the Mossad. If Hezbollah was eager to boast of its ability to root out traitors, Israel’s operation—netting major Hezbollah and Iranian figures—suggests that its counterintelligence wing has plenty of work left to do, because the organization is still riddled with spies.
Our first visit in the south is with a dissident Shiite cleric who paid heavily—imprisonment and torture—for his stance against Hezbollah. The sheikh is a well-built man in his mid-50s wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt and sweatpants and chain-smoking. He is watched closely by Hezbollah and sometimes, suspecting his apartment may be bugged, leans in to whisper. At other times his emotions take over and he throws caution to the wind, no matter how sensitive the subject. His gestures are expansive, and he moves like an actor or story-teller, like a man accustomed to being in front of a congregation of the faithful, to make his case about the mercy of God—or against the depredations of Hezbollah. He drops a dozen notebooks filled with his writings in my lap. “These are all anti-Hezbollah,” he says, beaming with pride.
The sheikh’s political and theological mission is taking on wilayet al-faqih, the theological concept developed by the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, that gives supreme political power to the supreme religious figure. “It’s different from the theory of European kingship that saw the monarch as God’s regent on earth,” says the sheikh. “The church was a mediating authority. But with wilayet al-faqih, the supreme leader is effectively able to bypass Muhammad the prophet as well as the Koran. There’s no mediation, just the supreme leader and God.”
If it’s such an obviously bad, and un-Islamic, idea, I ask the sheikh, why did the Iranian people buy it? “Ignorance,” he says. “Also, Khomeini was charismatic.” I ask if the Lebanese Shiites understand the errors of wilayet al-faqih. “Ignorance is a problem with many of the Lebanese, too. And there’s also the fact that Hezbollah takes care of people. If a sheikh goes to Hezbollah and asks for $100, they’ll give him $500. And then there are the ideologues, a small but powerful minority. For them, fighting for Iran isn’t fighting for just another country, it’s God’s country.”
And yet according to the sheikh, the majority of the Shiite community is anything but ideological. “Sure, when a Hezbollah fighter is killed in Syria, we go to the funeral and fill the streets. That’s a social obligation. We do the same when someone is killed in a car accident. Just because we attend a fighter’s funeral doesn’t mean we are behind the cause.”
That’s true even of some senior Hezbollah officials, says the sheikh. He recounts speaking recently with a senior military commander who told him that for the first time in his life he questioned Hezbollah’s mission. “He said,” the sheikh recalled, “ ‘Are we fighting to defend the shrine of Sayyida Zeinab [a Shiite holy site in Damascus] or the palace of Asma al-Assad [the dictator’s wife]?’ ”
Hezbollah’s war in Syria is a good thing, as the sheikh sees it, because it will destroy the organization and turn the Shiites against it. And yet it will cost so many more martyrs.
Slim and I are on the road again, and all the roads in the south are festooned with the pictures of dead kids, largely Hezbollah’s second generation, like Jihad Mughniyeh. The initial news reports about the Israeli strike suggested that Mughniyeh was a major figure in the organization, nearly filling his father’s very large shoes. However, the Beirut rumor mill contends that he was more like a playboy, hanging out in trendy nightlife areas, picking up girls, and drinking too much, until Hezbollah shipped its prodigal son off to Iran, where the IRGC, the Revolutionary Guards, took him under their wing and eventually sent him to his death on the Golan.
Much of Hezbollah’s young cadre comes from the tech schools the organization has opened throughout the south, says Slim. “They’re able to identify the best kids who they then recruit into the organization. Also, education is a good business investment for Hezbollah, and they’ve made lots of good investments.”
Slim cautions against believing Western media reports that Hezbollah is going broke. “In addition to their own investments, they have money from the Lebanese state,” says Slim. “They also still get what they need from Iran, and they’re also still making money from criminal enterprises.”
Indeed, even as we pass through dusty villages, the signs of economic success are everywhere. We drive by dozens of enormous, gaudy mansions built by Shiites largely living abroad, typically in Africa. “They might come here for only one week a year,” says Slim. “But they want a bigger house than their cousin’s across the road. You think these people want another war with Israel? They want to enjoy what they have, luxury, comfort, well being. Think of mansions as the counterpoint to martyrs.”
The highway to the south ends some 6 to 10 miles before it hits the Israeli border. “All they need to do is pave it,” says Slim. He’s certain it will happen someday. The way he sees it, the future of Lebanon’s Shiite community has to do with Israel, partly because the community in the south had decent relations with Israel before Hezbollah, and partly just because the Jewish state is the immediate neighbor. With the Syrian border closed for the foreseeable future, Israel and the Mediterranean are the only two avenues through which the Shiites can engage the rest of the world. In time, says Slim, the Shiites should at the very least forge a cold peace with Israel. “The Shia got stronger in Lebanon because they fought Israel,” he explains. “And now to stay strong, they have to avoid war with Israel.”
For now, though, the Shiite community’s foreign policy is largely made in Tehran. There’s skepticism throughout Lebanon that an agreement between the Obama administration and Iran will compel Tehran to put a leash on its Lebanese client. Further, Israel’s strike on the convoy in the Golan is evidence that Jerusalem is highly doubtful about the White House’s arrangements with Iran. In effect, the message last week was that the Obama administration may want a condominium with Iran, may want to work with the IRGC to stop ISIS in Iraq, and may turn a blind eye to Qassem Suleimani’s machinations in Syria and Lebanon; Israel, on the other hand, will continue to kill IRGC commanders operating on its borders.
Slim and I are about as close to the Israeli border as we’re going to get, visiting an old friend of his at a large family compound containing two mansions high in the mountains. It’s the first time I’ve been in this part of Lebanon, and its extraordinary beauty and peacefulness surprise me. In the late afternoon light, we can see far into the valley below, with the Israeli border only a few miles away.
“In 2006,” Slim says, “Hezbollah put a rocket launcher right here on the roof.” When the Israelis returned fire, says his friend with a broad smile, “they hit a spot in front and behind, but not here.”
We discuss whether Nasrallah will retaliate for last week’s attack and, if so, when and how. Will there be rocket fire from Lebanon, terrorist operations abroad, an IED on the border targeting Israeli troops, or an operation from the Golan? The last, which would come from Syrian territory, seems safest to most of the Lebanese I’ve spoken with. However, it’s worth considering that Israel may have struck not because of an urgent threat near Quneitra, but rather to prevent Iran and Hezbollah from opening another front from which to attack Israel. The Israelis have been watching the Syrian border with concern. Given Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reputation for being risk averse, it’s notable that he chose to risk the possibility of war with elections only two months away. Clearly, the Israeli government will not allow Iran to use the Golan as a launching pad, and firing on Israel from there in retaliation would effectively make it a second front. Accordingly, chances are that an Israeli response, in any escalation, would target Hezbollah in Lebanon, with the south again bearing the brunt of the conflict, likely including, according to Israeli strategists, a large ground operation.
Slim’s friend ushers us inside his stone mansion. A big man with a warm smile, he’s a poet and also a sayyid, a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad. On the left side of his large bookcase is his extensive collection of Arabic poetry, and on the right books about religion, including a multivolume set on the history of the Shiites written by a relative. Slim asks him to show me his own collection of verse and he reads a poem that begins, “Lokman was also drunk.”
There’s whiskey, wine, arak, and an enormous lunch on his living room table consisting largely of local produce—tomatoes, avocados, watercress. As the sun sets, the poet takes some meat from the refrigerator and puts it on the grill. He asks, “Do you think those guys on the other side of the border imagine that we live like this—art, poetry, food, drink?” I’m sure of it, I say, hopeful we are all seeing the beginning of the end of Hezbollah.
**Lee Smith is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.