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Cracks within Hezbollah?

To assume that a political organization or entity can go through a period of intense upheaval in its environment without suffering internal consequences is to assume that this organization or entity is made of metal and not of living people active in real life. Hezbollah is no exception. Yet, due to the secrecy of the group, this assumption is rarely supported by hard evidence. So, the need to have an idea about the extent of the impact of the ongoing turmoil in Syria and the Middle East inside Hezbollah is such that it has to be based on shreds and pieces of information and an intensive analytical work to connect the dots.

Naturally, the group is going through a period of transformation. Its leader Hassan Nasrallah’s enthusiasm to supporting President Bashar Al Assad is based on strategic calculations. But this support came with a high price tag. Militarily, the group suffered a relatively high percent of casualties in Syria so far. Politically, by being involved in the Syrian civil war, the group had to shed its non-sectarian political mask in a region that is getting increasingly divided on sectarian bases.

What is emerging in this new environment with its dynamics, totally different than the status-quo-ante, is a set of challenges facing Hezbollah.

The first challenge is to be able to preserve the support of the group’s popular base while South Lebanon’s Shia villages receive boxes containing the dead bodies of their sons killed in Syria on daily bases. The second is to politically navigate in moments of contradicting objectives between the group’s two regional sponsors -Tehran and Damascus. The third is to run an effective battle in unfamiliar land with no direct relation to its population. The fourth is to build a friction-free operational relations with Assad’s army officers and commanders in the field while each side has a different perspective and different ties to the operations’ environment. The fifth is to maintain the group’s readiness and organizational tight discipline, in spite of its involvement in Syria in order to able to respond to any surprise Israeli attack in case the IDF decides to settle its accounts in South Lebanon. And the last is to find a proper political cover for its Syria involvement, all the while trying preserving as much as possible its traditional anti-Israeli, nationalist and non-sectarian propaganda line.

As expected, Hezbollah encountered problems in all these fronts without a single exception. The only challenge that was successfully and fully met was that of replacing its military equipment used in Syria. This was addressed by Assad, Iran and the availability of military hardware is Syria. All the other mentioned challenges were met with varying mix of success and failure.

The central point here is to detect the trend of the transformation process occurring in this political organism as a result of the shift in its mission, norms, environment and regional stand.

Hezbollah was built to fight a guerrilla warfare in its own natural environment assisted by a strong anti-Israeli media discourse. Nothing of this could be found in Syria. Even the usual unifying anti-Israel themes could not be used in a war where an Arab regime is fighting its own people and bombing groups assisted by other Arab countries. Israel is not there to give the party the opportunity to preserve these unifying themes.

Reports of discontent among Lebanon’s Southern Shias are not new. Mothers of fighters killed in Syria went public with a wave of criticism to Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah, coupled with questioning the wisdom of sacrificing lives in a war waged out of the Shia zone in South Lebanon contrary to the “raison d’etre” of the group. While this criticism was containable by Nasrallah and his top lieutenants in the beginning, it later became harder to silence in view of the increasing casualties among the Party’s members. Furthermore, it was only natural that this discontent in the hosting environment be reflected within the group.

We saw old unhealed rifts reemerge, increasing doubts about the future of the group surface publicly and the once collectively revered policies of Nasrallah descending to earth to be subjected to thorough criticism.  This general environment encouraged old competition over its leading positions to surface and fueled previously unseen differences between various factions within the organization. The consequences of these emerging signs of internal stress, coupled with the fast moving regional crisis, increasing demands of battle fields in Syria and fear of political foes in Lebanon resulted in a degree of disorganization in the internal iron handed security apparatus of the Party, which is its backbone.

This security apparatus was already showing signs of factionalism for some time. Assad’s intelligence service has considerable assets within the Party’s security machine while the rest follows Iran’s IRGC instructions. Those who worked with Damascus were mostly stationed in Hezbollah’s security command center located in Sfaire while the Iranian wing was centered in Haret Heraik. This division is very approximate and general as in each group there is a considerable number of the other. Yet, each security center of the two has a distinctive approach different than the other. While the competition started mainly out of personal factional frictions, it went, as it always does, to more cohesive political self-justifications particularly that pressures from without were mounting steadily.  

The two factions were working together so long as Assad and Tehran’s objectives were almost identical. Personal disputes and differences were pushed out of the picture in the beginning of Syria’s civil war. But now, with the emergence of some differences between Damascus and Tehran, and under the relentless hammer of the shifting environment in Syria, increasing friction between the two groups is detected on more frequent bases than any time before.

Worried about their main asset in the Middle East and of future possibilities of diversion between their goals and those of Assad, Iran’s IRGC sent a group of 200 organizers and inspectors to the South of Lebanon last February. The group arranged their “investigations” with their followers in Haret Hereik. Soon after, the Assad loyalists started to feel the heat. Reports of several investigations by the IRGC team started surfacing. There were “evidence” of theft of funds, sales of arms for private profits, delay in paying salaries and allowances, failure to keep party secrets within the usual rigorous channels and personal favoritism. These leaks started to circulate.

This mishandling of funds and lax in security were not understood in the context of the shift around the group and the deep change in its mission (some of them were, and some were older). They were instantly used to settle personal and political accounts.

In recent debates within the security machine of Hezbollah, the head of this expansive apparatus, Wafiq Safa was blamed for the laxity in enforcing organizational protocols and failure in detecting accumulative erosion in internal discipline. The criticism came amid a wave of blame directed at Assad’s mishandling of the crisis in his country, mismanaging his military forces, costing Hezbollah a high toll of casualties and placing the group’s future at extreme risk.

The pro-Assad faction responded by blaming Tehran for provoking the Arab countries to an extent that the Arabs are now determined to have the head of the Syrian President, not because of him, but because of his relations with Iran.

On the political front within Hezbollah, there are now roughly three factions: The “Iranian faction”, the “Syrian faction” and the “Moderate faction”. The gap between the three groups is widening with the increasing pressure of the evolving situation. The moderate faction is that which believes that Lebanon’s Shias should have restrained their role strictly to the South of Lebanon, avoid any involvement in a fight against the Sunnis in Syria as it threatens their cohabitation with the Lebanese Sunnis, and focus only on protecting their region inside Lebanon.

This “moderate” view clashes with the IRGC’s inasmuch as it reflects a different way of looking at the purpose of Hezbollah. While the Lebanese Shias see the organization as their shield against both Israel and any sectarian injustice, Tehran has always considered it as its own strategic tool in a lager regional game. This difference in looking at Hezbollah was, and still is, in display in the South of Lebanon. In fact, it represents Nasrallah’s major challenge at present.

Nasrallah is seen as trying to balance his position and place himself where he does not openly offend any of the three groups within the party. However, due to the intensity of the Syrian crisis and its fast tempo and also because of the emerging differences between a weakened Assad and a dominant Iran, it is becoming more difficult for the Party’s leader to keep a tight grip on the brewing conflicts within the party’s members and between them and their social environment.

For example, Nasrallah avoided in recent public speeches his usual repetition of absolute support to Assad. The background of this unusual avoidance of the cliché is the internal factionalism and growing internal friction. Assad sees that Tehran’s focuses only on keeping a segment of a divided Syria as its priority. Preserving the regime or a unified nation does not concern the IRGC as these objectives are not connected directly to its strategic agenda.

In Tehran’s rush to get what counts for its own regional strategy, it is promoting Nasrallah’s deputy Sheikh Naim Kassem as the main challenger to Nasrallah. The main “sin” of Nasrallah, in the views of IRGC commander Qassem Sulimai, is that he is questioning the validity of forcing Hezbollah to play a clearer sectarian role.

Kassem recently pushed his self-promotion forward when he published a book in which he describes the late Ayatollah Khomeini as the “historical leader who saved Islam from demise”. The book is blessed widely by the IRGC. On the other hand, Nasrallah does not feel comfortable with the idea of dissecting Syria and he questions Tehran’s calculation that by partitioning it, Tehran’s regional plans could be served. The party’s leader believes that an openly sectarian identity for Hezbollah will negatively impact the party and the Shia community in Lebanon and limit their role there.

Additional problems appeared between Nasrallah and Kassem around a list of internal party appointments. The Iranians are leaking names claimed to be involved in corruption in order to manipulate the course of internal debate, appoint their guys, and pave the road to the rise of Kassem.     

While factionalism will ultimately manifest itself in many small stories and personal frictions, the essence of the problem inside Hezbollah now should always be seen in its proper political context. Following the Iranian nuclear deal, the IRGC loyalists who work in the Middle East were worried that the US will succeed in ultimately shaping Tehran’s regional policies at their expense. On the other hand, Assad followers were worried that Tehran will exchange Assad Presidency in return for a firmer grip on the South of Lebanon and adjacent areas in Syria.

Similarities between Iraq and Syria, in terms of IRGC’s role in the two countries, are obvious. The IRGC has a specific mandate in its involvement in the Middle East. This mandate gives a far second position in its priorities to indigenous local sensitivities and calculations. The absolute first priority is given to Tehran’s strategic objectives.

The argument used frequently by IRGC regional operatives is that Iran’s Islamic revolution is at risk. It is facing existential threat on the hands of enemies everywhere. There is no room for nice political equations in such an existential fight.

Nasrallah looks at the matter from the angle of the future of Hezbollah on the Lebanese theatre. It is evident now, for example, that other Shia political groups are remerging in Lebanon, like Amal, as the “correctors” of Hezbollah’s mistakes.

Yet, Hezbollah’s leader has a very short leash.   

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