Hezbollah’s successful offensive against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) forces along the Lebanese-Syrian border in late July has catapulted the Iran-backed militia and party to new political heights, both within Lebanon and the wider region. The group’s victory in Arsal—represented by a ceasefire wherein HTS agreed to evacuate Lebanon—further entwines it with Lebanon’s political and military institutions.
On July 26, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah made a televised speech to commend recent successes by his troops against the former al-Qaeda affiliate around Arsal and on the border with Syria. Nasrallah’s speech was aimed not only at his followers but the broader public, as he stated, this victory was for “all Lebanese and peoples in the region [Christians and Muslims] who have suffered from takfiri terrorism.”
Throughout the recent battle, Hezbollah has amplified its nationalistic messaging, apparent in Nasrallah’s most recent speech but also displayed in battlefield reporting and even political cartoons. Multiple images and videos have been shared on affiliated social media accounts of Hezbollah fighters removing militant flags and replacing them with the Lebanese flag on top and Hezbollah’s own at the bottom. This image has been replicated on documents related to the operation and appeared over Nasrallah’s right shoulder during his July 26 speech. Another showed Hezbollah fighters holding banners with pictures and names of LAF soldiers killed in the operation, further promoting unity and shared sympathy between the Shia organization and state forces.
In one series of cartoons, Hezbollah-affiliated media launched a social media campaign seemingly aimed at emphasizing Hezbollah’s role in protecting the Lebanese state and people. One shows the cedar tree on the Lebanese flag saluting Hezbollah troops, captioned, “a resistance that protects the homeland,” while another shows the Lebanese flag stating to the Hezbollah banner, “I swear, I become greater by you.” These campaigns—as well as the “army, people, resistance” motto Hezbollah is making a renewed effort to promote and the overall pro-Hezbollah media coverage of the Arsal events—indicate the organization’s clear objective of seeking further popularity within Lebanon and consolidating its association with the state’s security institutions. Hezbollah’s popularity has noticeably worsened since the organization joined the war in Syria—even among its Shia support base, given the fierce fighting and estimated 1,048 casualties.
Nasrallah’s nationalistic tone was not new, but its context is markedly different than that over the past five years. Hezbollah is ascendant. When the organization publicly entered into the war in neighboring Syria, it was not ready for the task at hand. The group suffered significant losses, with bombs hitting at the heart of Hezbollah’s strongholds. Its fighters bore many casualties and, because they had previously been focused on Israel, lacked the training and strategy to fight an adversary that fights much like the group itself. The narrative that Hezbollah was fighting to protect all Lebanese from takfiris and stop the Syrian war from entering Lebanon was not bought outside of the group’s immediate support base. That was before the rise of the Islamic State (IS) or HTS in Idlib. It was also before Hezbollah adapted to its fight in Syria, gained a powerful international ally in Russia, and showed that it could be a meaningful partner alongside state actors.
Though Syrian rebels and jihadi groups have been operating in the outskirts of Arsal on the Lebanon–Syria border since 2013, IS and HTS ended up firmly entrenched in the mountainous region after intense rounds of fighting in 2014. The latest round of open military conflict against Syrian rebel groups held up in the Qalamoun region has so far been both a physical and propaganda victory for Hezbollah. The likely defeat of the IS contingent on the Lebanese–Syrian border will not only mark the end of a rebel military presence on Lebanese soil. It will further bolster Hezbollah’s rhetoric that its involvement in the Syrian civil war in support of the Assad regime was necessary—not only to protect Lebanon’s sovereignty and limit blowback from the Syrian war. The fight was also to ensure the flow of Iran-supplied arms to Hezbollah.
The involvement of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), and their future campaign against IS, are logical, as they are the government’s legal instrument of violence. But the LAF’s involvement was instead the result of Hezbollah’s pressure to take the battle to HTS and IS, with Nasrallah publicly committing his soldiers to Arsal on July 11. Despite the $80 million in foreign aid the LAF receives, their military capability cannot match that of Hezbollah (which itself receives about $100-$200 million from Iran per year just for political and social services, as well as military aid). The jihadi presence in Arsal has long been an issue, and the LAF, while playing an important defensive role, was unable to take any meaningful effort to oust them. While Hezbollah and its Lebanese allies exercise pressure on the LAF to lead the battle, the army had no choice but to conduct the operation, even knowing that it would upset international funders, particularly the United States and Saudi Arabia, for coordinating with Hezbollah and that Hezbollah would be ultimately credited for the operation’s success. Otherwise, the LAF—and by extension the Lebanese state—would look weak, leading to increased public doubt about its ability to protect Lebanon. It is especially important at a time when the country’s president, Michel Aoun, an ally of Hezbollah, has stated that the Shia militia is essential for Lebanon’s defense. And since cooperation between the LAF and Hezbollah increased by 2013 and 2014 on issues related to border security, the army seems to use the militia also as a valuable intelligence source that enables it to prevent bombing further inside Lebanon. Thus, the LAF is to a large extent held hostage by Hezbollah.
Hezbollah desires increased popularity at home, particularly given upcoming legislative elections, possibly held in May 2018, which will be held under the new electoral law giving the pro-Hezbollah camp a better chance in districts traditionally controlled by its rivals. By linking its operations against militants in the border area to the national good, Lebanese sovereignty, and an identity that spans confessional lines, it is attempting to gain further popularity. This has the added effect of demonstrating resolve to its support base not only among the Shia, but Christian allies as well. In this context, the August 3 parade through al-Qaa of the Hezbollah fighters freed as the result of negotiations with HTS was meant to reassure Christian allies of Hezbollah’s determination to protect the community against an enemy that, if successful, would have subjugated them or worse. Hezbollah’s multi-faith messaging and fight against other designated terrorist organizations, including the anti-IS campaign in Iraq, has also softened its image internationally—to the point that U.S. Special Forces, which the U.S. Department of Defense confirmed on August 3 were present in Lebanon to provide training and support, may embed with the LAF and engage with IS from Lebanese territory in a separate but coordinated effort with the Syrian Army and Hezbollah.
In promoting itself as fighting for the Lebanese good, Hezbollah seeks public support from within Lebanon, particularly among non-Shias. This undermines the Lebanese state and further justifies Hezbollah’s continued existence as an armed non-state actor. The promotion of nationalistic rhetoric and symbols, which resonate among and hold the possibility to attract Lebanese from across the political spectrum, brings about trust in Hezbollah’s actions. Not that Hezbollah believes it will gain immense popularity outside of its support base, but rather that it can spread a general feeling among Lebanese that its continued armed role is necessary. With several years of experience in Syria, Hezbollah is portraying itself as the protector of Lebanon from jihadi threats and in any future conflict with Israel. The Iran-funded organization is adopting a larger role in the region—seen in its engagement in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen—that requires further consolidation of power within Lebanon.
The Arsal operation also marks an unprecedented, indirect coordination between the Lebanese state and the Syrian regime via Hezbollah as an intermediary. It may prove to be the foundation of normalized relations between the Lebanese state and the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Nowhere is this possibility more apparent than in the repatriation of over 10,000 Syrian refugees since the Arsal operation, built on the anti-refugee sentiment shared by Hezbollah and the Lebanese state. Both President Aoun and Hezbollah’s Nasrallah have called repeatedly on the Saad Hariri government to reinitiate relations with the Assad regime in order to facilitate the return of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The Syrian air force also reportedly raided targets in the Bekaa Valley in support of the Arsal battle. It remains to be seen, however, whether the LAF might begin direct coordination with the Assad regime to continue the Arsal operations against IS and whether the Hariri government would normalize relations with Assad.
At this point, it is unclear how flexible the Lebanese state can be in its future cooperation with Hezbollah—especially as long as the group asserts itself as the people’s force. Growing relations between the LAF and Hezbollah—not just on Arsal, but also increased intelligence sharing on Syria and coordination on other domestic security issues like countering the radical Salafi movement led by Ahmad al-Assir in Sidon in 2013—will undoubtedly worsen sectarian fears among Sunni communities. Sunnis in Lebanon, particularly in Tripoli, are reportedly losing faith in the neutrality of the army. The army could likely fall deeper into the confessional trap as it is perceived to move closer to the Shia organization. Furthermore, increasing LAF–Hezbollah ties could raise concerns among the United States (Lebanon is the sixth-largest recipient of U.S. military aid) and other international and regional countries that the state is serving the interests of Iran in the region.
Abdulrahman al-Masri is a journalist and a fellow with the SalamaTech project at The SecDev Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @AbdulrhmanMasri. Alexander Corbeil is a fellow with The SecDev Foundation and a digital fellow with the Montreal Institute for Genocide & Human Rights Studies. Follow him on Twitter @alex_corbeil.