As escalating violence in Syria has captured the world’s attention, the role of Hezbollah in the conflict—and the organization’s position in the turbulent Middle East more broadly—has come under renewed scrutiny. Dominique Avon and Anaïs-Trissa Khatchadourian’s Hezbollah: A History of the “Party of God,” which we’ll publish later this month in Jane Marie Todd’s elegant translation, describes Hezbollah’s history from its 1982 founding to its inclusion in the 2008 Lebanese unity government, and provides a sourcebook of key documents, a lexicon of essential keywords, and a guide to organizational structure. Below, the authors discuss the insights their research provides on events now unfolding in the Middle East.
We weren’t wrong when we underlined the religious dimensions of the 25 first years of the history of the “Party of God”: today, Sunni-Shiite tension is stronger than ever, and radical positions are now visible on both sides. In confronting the “complicated Middle East,” as General de Gaulle called it, we prefer to organize facts rather than to elaborate theories. Understanding the history of tensions in the Middle East can help us understand the climate today, and Hezbollah’s role in it.
Over the last fourteen centuries, confrontation with “unjust” authority has been a greater preoccupation among Shiites than among Sunnis. Sunnis have been more often in power and promoted the principle that Sheikh Abd al-Hamid al-Atrash, former president of the Al-Azhar Fatwa Committee, articulated at the beginning of the demonstrations in Egypt in January 2011: “give thanks if he who guides the community is just; be patient if he is not.” So, in keeping with its dual struggle—both “anti-imperialist” against Israel and in solidarity with “the poor” and the “disinherited” in the world—Hezbollah has applauded the revolutionary action against the dictatorial Tunisian regime. The “Party of God” has also praised the coup in Egypt, for those same reasons and also a specific one: the contentious matters between Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah and now-deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak since the public disagreements during the Lebanon War in the summer 2006.
Hezbollah’s stance on the politics of Arab Spring uprisings beyond Tunisia and Egypt grew more complicated. When some Iranian people demonstrated in the street to refuse the results of the last presidential elections in Iran in 2009, the leaders of Hezbollah said first that this was an internal problem, then followed the lead of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei after he denounced the opposition. When a few months later some Bahrainis demonstrated against the Sunni power in Manama, this underlined the problems of inequality of civil rights between the majority of Shiites and the minority of Sunnis. And when, at the same time, Syrians decided to search for an alternative to the Assad regime, Hezbollah recognized the reality of protestors’ social and economic claims, but explained that willingness to overthrow the Syrian state was the expression of a US-Israeli plot with the help of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Hezbollah thus urged an “internal” solution between the Syrian regime and the opposition, rejecting any “foreign interference.”
Because of these actions Hezbollah has partly lost its reputation among Arab citizens as a heroic military organization against the “enemy.” Israel is not the main worry for Saudi Arabia, which is more concerned with the nuclear program in Iran; the question of leadership in the area; and the claims of Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority, repressed with violence in the east of the country. And if Hamas is keeping its ties with Tehran, as the travel of its senior political leader Ismail Haniye has shown, the Palestinian Islamic movement has nevertheless publicly denounced the repression in Syria and since autumn 2011 has established a new axis with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. On a more regional/international scale, the recent Non-aligned Nations Conference in Tehran has also underlined the discord between supporters and opponents of Assad’s regime. In reference to what he called the “revolution in Egypt,” in Tunisia, Libya or Yemen, President of Egypt Muhammad Morsi vowed “solidarity with the struggle of the Syrian people against the oppressive regime.” But the same Muhammad Morsi, when he was in Jeddah in the middle of July, explained that the events in Egypt were not intended to promote the “revolution” in the region and that he was particularly attached to “stability” in Saudi Arabia.
The situation in Lebanon remains quite different. The government coalition of the Sunni Saad al-Hariri has broken down and, without new legislative elections, Hezbollah could become the centerpiece of the new government led by the Sunni Najib Mikati. In the meantime, some radical Sunni movements opposing Hezbollah have grown up for two main reasons: first, because of the humiliating defeat of May 2008, when Hezbollah and its allies destructed the security service of Hariri’s Party (The Future Movement) and reinforced its own military framework (with private telecommunications); and second, because of the support (humanitarian for the refugees, but also military) given to the Syrian opposition, which is essentially Sunni, even though a noticeable part of this community still hasn’t forsaken Assad. The consequences include a deep tension between Sheikh Ahmad Al-Assir, Sunni leader in Saida, and Hassan Nasrallah; and in Tripoli, armed street fights between Sunni militias and Alawites, whose leaders have expressed their complete support to Bashar al-Assad. Moreover, dissensions have become more visible among Shiites: some clerics do not hesitate to condemn Assad’s regime and its Iranian back up, and have called for the support of the Syrian “resistance” and its “oppressed people,” including sayyids Hani Fahs, Mohammad Al-Amin, and Mohammad Ali Al-Husseini (the latter is currently held in detention, officially for “collaboration with the enemy”).
Hezbollah has already paid a price for its support of Assad’s regime. But the Syrian regime and its Lebanese and Iranian allies have not yet exhausted all their options: the taking of hostages (Syrians and two Turkish citizens) by the Mokdad Shiite family shows this. Other elements are also likely to come into play: the Kurds in Turkey, armed militias in Yemen, opposition Shiite forces in the Gulf, Palestinian groups in Lebanon and Jordan that are hired by Damascus. As for the Lebanese state, it continues to show its weakness, even though former information minister Michel Samaha has been arrested lately and accused of preparing attacks in Lebanon. Some attacks may occur against the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) soldiers in South Lebanon, and Hezbollah has asserted that it could send missiles against Israel at any moment, provoking an even more severe blast than in 2006. These ongoing disputes will continue to shape the fate of the “Party of God.”