Hezbollah, Battered and Bombed, Faces a Stark Choice

1126_Lebanon Hezbollah
Residents and Lebanese army members inspect a damaged area caused by two explosions in Beirut's southern suburbs, Lebanon, November 12. At least 37 people were killed and more than 181 wounded on Thursday in two suicide bomb blasts in a crowded district in Beirut's southern suburbs, a stronghold of the Shi'ite Muslim group Hezbollah. Khalil Hassan/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Atlantic Council site.

Hezbollah stands helpless following the explosion at its headquarters based in al-Dahieh (the southern suburbs of Beirut) on November 12. For three years, while fighting in Syria, it has been alternating between sectarian and nationalistic justifications to legitimize its actions therein, but now finds the fighting in the heart of its territory.

All of its justifications were drowned out by the series of explosions in al-Dahieh. It has proven incapable of "protecting minority groups," winning the "preemptive war," "protecting Lebanon's borders" or toppling "the plot to split Lebanon along sectarian lines." This is despite the fact that 1,500 Hezbollah fighters have died in Syria (according to other sources, more than 2,000 have died) and thousands more have been injured.

It has spent millions of dollars and it has exerted much effort to stoke sectarian passions to motivate its fighters. However, its recent political gains have originated from a different place altogether.

Three explosions in Lebanon and the recent terrorist operations in Paris have once again shaken Lebanon from its stagnation and administrative failures, and placed it in the center of the region's events and the ongoing conflict.

On November 5, the first explosion took place in Arsal targeting the Qalamoun Muslim Scholars Committee. The next day an explosive device injured five Lebanese soldiers in the same area. Less than a week later, ISIS claimed responsibility for the explosion in al-Dahieh, where Hezbollah's headquarters are based, which killed 43 people and injured 239 others. Two days later, the horrific attacks in Paris unfolded.

In the midst of these events, Hezbollah has emerged as an influential player not only due to its position in the internal balance of power but because of the war's effects on Lebanese internal situation. Both Lebanon legislative and executive branches are both in a near state of paralysis, the country has failed to elect a president and its soldiers' salaries are overdue, all of which has left a power vacuum that Hezbollah has stepped into.

Since 2005, Hezbollah has participated in the governance of Lebanon, assuming the clout that remained after Syrian forces withdrew from Lebanon. It currently oscillates between trying to assume full control over Lebanon's governance and being a team player with other political parties.

On October 18, Hezbollah's Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah uncompromisingly said that he refused to let anyone prevent him from sitting at the government's negotiating table, and whoever wanted to leave the government as a result could proceed to do so.

Whereas after the explosion in Arsal, he returned to saying that a comprehensive political solution was in order, renewing his old proposal regarding holding a constituent conference to reframe both the structure of the state and its sectarian balance of power.

Although Nasrallah hesitates between these two roles in Lebanon, he considers his external role directing the fighting in Syria to be necessary, knowing also that it gives him a winning hand on the domestic arena.

The first trump card from which Hezbollah has drawn greater influence is the Iranian international nuclear agreement. In the fall of 2013 at a large Shi'a celebration, Nasrallah stated that if this agreement did come to fruition, then his party would be more formidable both regionally and locally.

Since that day, Hezbollah has eagerly awaited the conclusion of the agreement. Currently, Hezbollah believes that an implicit agreement with the West has been reached, and that it ensures an Iranian presence in the Arab world, provided that the Iranians can adhere to the nuclear arrangements, or at least that the West turns a blind eye to Iranian expansions and leaves the Arabs to fend for themselves.

Another source from which Hezbollah draws power is its permanent alliance with the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), which receives backing from the West and the Gulf, and especially from Saudi Arabia, in its "fight against terrorism."

This alliance has enabled Hezbollah to drag the army into border clashes with revolutionary Syrian forces and mire it in operations to disrupt jihadist and revolutionary groups within Lebanon. This has prevented the army from performing its duties of patrolling the areas controlled by Hezbollah. Even the army's leadership has been penetrated via promotions by individuals who are close to Hezbollah.

This alliance has managed to stay intact through crises, as happened in late August 2014. The army refused to continue the siege of Arsal, so Hezbollah undertook a political campaign against the Army leadership in response, trying to discredit them by claiming that LAF chief General Jean Kahwaji intended to become president of Lebanon.

Hezbollah also draws strength from the presence of more than 1,200,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon, according UN records, and from 700,000 others who are in the country illegally. This is a help to the West, insofar as Hezbollah could simply stand down at the borders and allow refugees to access maritime travel to the West, which would be a nightmare for European countries.

In September 2015, following the influx of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees into the European Union, the British Prime Minister David Cameron visited Lebanon briefly where he visited a refugee camp in the Bekaa under the control of Hezbollah. Cameron then met with the Lebanese prime minister for no longer than half an hour before leaving for Jordan, where another 650,000 Syrian refugees are registered with the U.N.

Sources close to Cameron said that the meeting with the Lebanese prime minister was limited to a brief discussion of the refugees. In the media, though, Cameron spoke about supporting the LAF in its fight against terrorism and providing more support for refugees.

Hezbollah is, of course, aware that Britain represents Western concerns over an influx of refugees and immigrants and its obsession with tightening the migration processes. Hezbollah has experience dealing with Syrian refugees, just as it has experience dismantling ISIS and Sunni Islamist cells in Lebanon. This will encourage Western countries to support Hezbollah's role in managing the refugee issue in Lebanon.

All of these points of strength—in addition to the West, especially the United States, turning a blind eye to Hezbollah's actions—have placed Hezbollah at a crossroads: Either it expels other Lebanese groups from power and rules Lebanon with its allies through the Army, or it allows the other political parties to continue to preside over their corrupt fiefdoms and focuses all of its efforts on the regional conflict as the "Patriarch of Lebanese politics."

The ultimate effect of the recent string of bombings is to force Hezbollah to make that decision. Hezbollah can no longer continue to oscillate between its policies, and it must decide the best way to deal with the prevailing situation, especially considering the fact that the West is turning a blind eye to its actions.

If Hezbollah does not determine its policies quickly, then the situation will become all the more complicated, and the likelihood of successive and reciprocal bombings and assassinations will increase.

Fidaa Itani is a journalist based in Lebanon, the author of Jihadiyun fi Lubnan (published by Dar al-Saqi) and Malak al-Thawra wa Shayatinha (published by Riyad Najib al-Rayyis).