Hezbollah has been, since its creation in 1982, an Iranian card in Lebanese and regional politics. Yet the political events in Lebanon, mainly the Israeli occupation and Hezbollah’s resistance to it, has left this proxy role relatively distant from the political discourse of the Lebanese public for a long while.
But Hezbollah’s blatant stance against the withdrawal of the Syrian Army from Lebanon in 2005 triggered a deep social and ideological divide. Effectively, Hezbollah became vulnerable to accusations of serving regional interests over national ones. After less than a year from a series of assassinations of anti-Assad Lebanese figures, the July War started and with it came a major announcement that redefined Hezbollah’s resistance during the war and all the events to follow.
The war triggered the announcement of the “new Middle East” by the United States Secretary of State at that time, Condoleezza Rice, during her visit to Lebanon. Standing next to the Lebanese Prime Minister at that time, Fouad Siniora, Rice announced the new era in the region. The context of the announcement is Hezbollah’s resistance to Israel, its unilateral decision to kidnap Israeli soldiers, and consequently its disregard for the Lebanese government in the decision to go to war.
Pre-Arab Spring politics
Many Lebanese remained sympathetic to Hezbollah, insisting on perceiving it – its identity – as a resistance, and underestimating its alliance to Assad in Syria and its allegiance to the Iranian regime.
Immediately after the July War in 2006, Bashar Al-Assad spoke in August 2006 of the need to “turn the military victory of Hezbollah into a political victory”. Assad announced support for the “Islamic resistance” – represented by Hezbollah – in the dirty politics of sectarian Lebanon. With that, Hezbollah’s victories pushed the party to demand a bigger political and economic slice from the Lebanese sectarian cake. Such demands meant that other sectarian parties and leaders had to give away some of their share, mostly the Sunnis.
This allowed the regional contest to shape the Lebanese power balance even more directly, with Hezbollah at its forefront. The rise of geopolitical tensions between Iran and the conservative Gulf states reflected itself in a re-emerging Sunni-Shiite sectarian discourse in Lebanon. The non-sectarian legitimacy that the Lebanese Shiite party had before 2006 was gradually overshadowed by the systematic rise of sectarian discourse, mirroring the regional tensions, mainly between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Hezbollah’s identity crisis: from a resistance to a sectarian counter-revolutionary proxy
With the wave of revolts that reached Syria, the legitimacy of the regional geopolitical axis that Iran has established, passing through Assad’s Syria, was threatened by a more powerful legitimacy: the people. But the threat was not only directed at Assad and Iran, it also turned on the regressive monarchies in the Arab Gulf, most notoriously Saudi Arabia.
Therefore, all sides managed, to different degrees and through different strategies and narratives, to intensify the regional contest that was already escalating before the revolts at the expense of the sweeping mass revolts that have threatened them all. In other words, all regional powers saw in a fierce proxy war in Syria a less threatening scenario than a mass uprising. So, they all worked, without the need for immediate cooperation, to push towards a sectarian hegemony over the revolution.
In that sense, Hezbollah was fighting a proxy war against rebels and Gulf-sponsored militias in Syria to protect the regional interests of its axis. The legitimacy of the Shiite Lebanese party’s intervention in Syria comes under a regionally-constructed rhetoric of anti-takfiris and the protection of Lebanon.
Regardless of the motives, Hezbollah’s commitments in Syria reflect the overlap between the regional contest and the mass uprisings; an overlap in which the regional contest undermines the legitimacy of the mass uprisings.
Hezbollah had to intervene in Syria to protect its ally, the Assad regime. Hezbollah had to ensure that the snowballing expansion of Sunni fundamentalist groups is contained before it engulfs Lebanon and becomes an existential threat to the party.
The question is, then, not whether Hezbollah had any choice in being dragged into a sectarian battle. Instead, the question is to what extent Hezbollah’s role in Syria’s counter-revolutionary proxy war has affected its identity as a “resistance movement” over and above its Shiism.
Resistance as an act rather than an identity
Of course, Hezbollah’s rivals exacerbated this identity shift from its inclusive resistance status to a sectarian militia. Hezbollah’s ideology, a fundamentally religious one, is now at the core of a regional sectarian contest that feeds into a greater geopolitical rivalry. Consequently, as Hezbollah’s ideology and proxy role overshadow its history of resistance, the party seems to have lost its radical identity.
It is important to differentiate between “resistance” as an identity and resistance as an act. Hezbollah, and other Islamic resistance factions like Hamas, have resisted Israel in several wars and are expected to do so again. Yet, the outcomes of resistance have always been disappointing. Resistance has never materialised in favour of the people. With every war with Israel, people are becoming more and more disillusioned with the Islamic resistance as their material conditions are deteriorating and their civil rights are being lost. The fruits of heroic resistance are feeding regional interests rather than the people that resisted. The proxy role of Islamic resistance is becoming a bargaining tool in regional diplomacy.
So, the act of resistance does not necessarily grant the party behind the act an unconditional status. Resistance became a contextual status gained during the event of fighting Israel. But resistance will never be an identity again that Hezbollah can use to cover its sectarian ideology as it used to do not so long ago.