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What does the increasing power of Hezbollah mean to the Lebanese state?

Their actions in Al-Qusayr hurl them far closer to the category of regional militant force, as the architects of a new framework of Middle Eastern skirmishes, in which Sunnis and Shiites become the crucial axis of antagonism, rather than nation states.

Helen Mackreath
4 June 2013

Hezbollah has already changed the face of a withered and pockmarked Lebanese state and is now changing the concept of a wider sphere of Middle Eastern politics. Militarily powerful, socially popular and responsible, ideologically driven but politically astute, and now a trans-state fighting force, the group is approaching something of the Holy Grail of Islamist political groups.

Hezbollah leader Nasrallah’s confirmation of their long-suspected heavy involvement in Assad’s push for Al-Qusayr on Sunday confirms them as a regional militant group, a step up from policing Lebanese territory, and architects of a new era in the Middle East.

The ‘hybridisation’ of Lebanese politics is nothing new, with the Confessional System of governance, imposed after the end of the Civil War in 1990 by the Ta’if Accords creating a political system shared proportionately between different religious groups. The rise of Hezbollah, firstly as a militant group, and then as a political force, has further twisted the Westphalian concept of the nation state.

Under Nasrallah, Hezbollah has retained its military potency, and identity, whilst positioning itself as a credible political actor, embedded and, crucially, accepted by the domestic political scene. Moreover, this combination has not only allowed it entrance into Lebanese state politics, but asserted it squarely as an autonomous and accentuated political actor arguably more powerful than the Lebanese state itself - a case proven beyond doubt during the six months of power vacuum in 2007, when Hebollah prevented the election of a new President by occupying Downtown, and left indelible question marks over the worth of the Lebanese state as a necessary institution of governance and security.

But the so-called ‘new phase’ of Hezbollah’s existence, launched last week by their offensive in Al-Qusayr, adds a further string to their bow. No longer solely motivated by fighting Jews in (and outside) Israel, Hezbollah are now fighting Arabs in Syria, shifting both their raison d’être, and highlighting the porosity of territorial boundaries in a region still defined by territorially based national governments.

What’s changed?

Hezbollah’s Syrian intervention reveals the extent of its power and willingness to act as the aggressor in matters of its own protection. This should come as no surprise – Hezbollah has occupied this role against Israel since its formation in 1982, and, further, sees the hand of Israel in plots against Assad, since his fall would jeopardise logistical support from Iran.

But this is significant for three reasons. Firstly, it underlines even more vigorously that this Middle East region cannot be viewed through a states-lens. State and nonstate actors vie equally on the same stage. The dichotomy between ‘the state’ and ‘anarchy’ is a false one since previously assumed anarchic forms of operation are equally as effective as state governance – Hezbollah’s increasing spectrum of power is adding further force to that argument. Nor is power hierarchical, but horizontal – Hezbollah and resistance groups within Syria arguably hold as much political potency and popular support as the Assad regime and the Lebanese state.

Secondly it intensifies the pan-Arabic sphere of politics, already existent during the Lebanese Civil War when Lebanon was used as a battleground by various state and non-state actors, and apparent in the media public sphere created across the Middle East during the Arab Uprisings.

Thirdly it represents an expansion in the role of Hezbollah, an act which, while it may signal political suicide if the Assad regime falls, as claimed by former Prime Minister Hariri, certainly demonstrates increasing confidence about their role on the regional stage. Their actions in Al-Qusayr hurl them far closer to the category of regional militant force, as the architects of a new framework of Middle Eastern skirmishes, in which Sunnis and Shiites become the crucial axis of antagonism, rather than nation states. 

Hezbollah and the Lebanese state

Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria is also further proof of their power over the Lebanese state, which retains a neutered outlook over the Syrian conflict. The power balance within Lebanon has been settled in Hezbollah’s favour. This fact, taken in tandem with Hezbollah’s traditional image as ‘resistance’ to the Lebanese state, raises the question of the form and meaning of resistance within a state. In 2000 Hezbollah was integral to Lebanon’s protection when it helped to force the withdrawal of Israel from the south of the country. It is now operating in an arena where the Lebanese state fears to tread, for fear of repercussions from whichever side it allies itself against, but which is of crucial importance to the Lebanese state.

In other words, Hezbollah is acting out the reality which the Lebanese state fears engaging in. This will not be without a heavy price to pay – Hezbollah’s actions have left it open to retaliation, and dragged the Lebanese state into this zone of fire – but it will prove a convenient scapegoat for the Lebanese state to fall back on.

This begs the question of the future of the Lebanese state, operating in the shadows of an ever more powerful and territorially assertive Hezbollah. Whichever group grapples power over the Syrian state after the bloodshed has subsided, their relations with the Lebanese state will be ineradicably altered by Hezbollah’s actions. If Assad manages to cling on to power, the stock of Hezbollah will rise even higher within Lebanon. If he doesn’t, Hezbollah has left itself, and Lebanon, in a very vulnerable position. Either way, the power balance in Lebanon now revolves ever more tightly around Hezbollah.

But despite its perceived identity as ‘resistance’ to the state, Hezbollah is that rare thing of being both ideologically motivated, and territorially rooted. Nasrallah couched his speech almost exclusively in nationalist rhetoric, justifying intervention in Syrian affairs as protection of the Lebanese state. Not a transnational terrorist group, in the mould of Al-Quaeda, nor a pan-state organisation with autonomous national nodes. Like the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah remains a nationally defined entity.

This demands a rewriting of the concept of the state, which allows greater nuance than that allowed by paradigms of strong state versus hybrid state, or state versus anarchy. Hezbollah is operating both as a traditional Hobbesian nation state, protecting territorial interests through military force, and as a regional, trans-state militant force, preserving the interests which it perceives to be for the good of the Levant region. This is creating multiple different politics within the confines of the traditional Hobbesian state framework. Not only within the Lebanese state, where Hezbollah is the one to occupy the role of the Hobbesian state operating within a more fluid collection of political parties, allegiances, individuals, loosely acting within the parameters of a ‘state’, but also within the region. 

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