In Beirut Explosion Aftermath, Hezbollah Feels the Pressure

Last week's devastating explosion in Beirut is the latest tragedy to befall the young country, piling on top of citizens already grappling with political turmoil, economic crisis and the coronavirus pandemic.

Lebanese people—well used to violence and instability and still carrying the scars of brutal civil war—are angry, taking to the streets in their thousands to demand the fall of a political elite that has long lined its pockets by hollowing out the country.

The amorphous blob of powerful corrupt interests is "bigger than the state," according to former Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who this week resigned amid the political fallout from the explosion. However, for many Diab is a perfect embodiment of the apathy and incompetence that resulted in Tuesday's blast.

A reckoning is due, though the shadowy class of elites that has long profited from Lebanon's stagnation will fight tooth and nail to retain their positions and interests.

One of the most powerful political factions is Hezbollah—the Iranian-backed Shia Islamist political party-cum-militia the controls much of Lebanon's south. The party, and its leader Hassan Nasrallah, wield massive influence in the country and effectively operate as a state within a state.

Hezbollah has always sought to present itself as above the political horse-trading and corruption that defines Lebanese politics, instead focused on expelling Israeli occupiers and since then maintaining a readiness to fight its southern neighbor.

The group frames itself as a popular resistance organization, but in order to maintain and expand its influence has become deeply entrenched in the political sphere.

Diab's resignation means Lebanon's major power blocs will have to find a new government to grapple with the country's myriad challenges. Diab's government was widely seen as a Hezbollah project, and the group will have to act to protect its influence.

This is "a position that Hezbollah does not want to be in," Nicholas Blanford of the Atlantic Council told Newsweek from Beirut. "It doesn't really want to get involved in the intricacies and quid pro quo of corrupt Lebanese politics. It wants to maintain its weapons."

"This is a long-term problem for Hezbollah," Blanford added. "They may be able to gain the odd tactical win, but in the longer run this is a major dilemma for an organization that's found itself basically owning a shop that it didn't want to own."

Hezbollah has its own well-armed military force and has fought its own wars with Israel, both while Israeli troops were occupying southern Lebanon and since their departure. This resistance won Hezbollah significant support among the Lebanese, even non-Shias.

Hezbollah is also fighting a long-term decline in popularity. In the early 2000s it was the most important group in fighting and ultimately ending the Israeli occupation. "Even people that were suspicious of Hezbollah's ultimate identity and agenda respected the fact that these guys were fighting on a daily basis, and many of them sacrificing their lives," Blanford said.

But since Israel left, Hezbollah's popularity has waned. The group has poured resources into fighting in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, with Lebanese increasingly skeptical that Lebanon is Hezbollah's main priority.

Blanford said the Hezbollah of 25 years ago "was small, it was lean, it was completely focused on fighting the Israelis in the south of Lebanon, it had a reputation for clean hands."

"Whereas now it's a massive military force with tens of thousands of fighters, a huge missile arsenal threatening Israel," he continued. The Hezbollah of 2020 is "deeply interwoven in politics...now it's part of the system, it's become corrupt internally."

Beirut, Lebanon, Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, protests, unrest
A noose is placed around the portrait of Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, hung by Lebanese protesters in downtown Beirut on August 8, 2020. -/AFP via Getty Images/Getty

Hezbollah is "hugely on the defensive in Lebanon and widely seen as part of the status quo problem that is driving the country towards collapse," according to Julien Barnes-Dacey of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

"For many Lebanese, Hezbollah is now part of the corrupt elite pact the rules over the country for their own narrow interests rather than those of the country as a whole," he said.

The group has been a major target for President Donald Trump's administration, which has accused Hezbollah of nefarious activity across the Middle East, in Europe and as far away as South America.

Hezbollah operatives have been blamed for major terrorist attacks both in Lebanon and abroad, including the 1983 Beirut barracks bombings, which killed 241 U.S. military personnel.

Its political and military wings are considered terrorist organizations in nations including the U.S., the U.K, Germany, Canada and Israel. The European Union considers Hezbollah's military wing a terrorist organization.

Hezbollah's close affiliation with Iran has put it squarely in Trump's crosshairs, given his administration's Middle East strategy largely pivots around how to degrade and malign Tehran.

The Trump administration will see the turmoil as an opportunity to squeeze Hezbollah out, though will have to contend with French efforts to bring together a government of national unity including the group.

The Wall Street Journal has reported that the White House is now preparing a raft of sanctions to apply pressure on the group, something it has so far resisted.

"There is a kind of a 'Sword of Damocles' hanging over the heads of many Lebanese politicians who are allied to Hezbollah, that they could end up being sanctioned as well," Blanford said. "The Americans haven't taken action yet, hoping that the threat will elicit good behavior."

"Lebanon is very much one theater in a broader campaign against Iranian regional influence," Barnes-Dacey explained. "The country and Hezbollah in particular could well come under this maximum pressure campaign."

Pressure on Hezbollah would be welcome news to many Lebanese. Syria dominated Lebanon until 2005, when its forces withdrew following alleged involvement in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. With Hezbollah's rise, Iranian influence has filled the void.

"Iran doesn't dominate Lebanon, but obviously has significant influence through Hezbollah," Blanford explained. "And that obviously makes many Lebanese uncomfortable."

Hezbollah has never before faced so many challenges, though none yet rise to the level of existential. But the turmoil does not signal its end, and the group remains well-placed to take advantage of chaos. "Hezbollah is probably the best-placed group within Lebanon to withstand this pressure," Barnes-Dacey explained.

"It does have a strong domestic support base and external backers, who are not likely to condition ongoing support on necessary reforms, as is being imposed on the national government by international donors."

Blanford described Hezbollah as "the most dominant political force in the country," led by those who "tend to get their way because they have the implicit threat of force against their opponents."

Challenging Hezbollah risks a return to civil war and the break-up of the country; a high price to pay to curtail an Iranian proxy. For all the tough talk from Washington, there remains "real uncertainty about how you dislodge or how you dilute Hezbollah's influence," Barnes-Dacey said.

"Hezbollah will undoubtedly push back at any attempts to weaken its position."

Lebanon, Beirut, Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah, explosion, protests
Hezbollah fighters are pictured during a military parade in the southern Lebanese town of Ghazieh, near the city of Sidon on November 12, 2019. MAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP via Getty Images/Getty