Hezbollah’s connection to Iran has remained essential since the Lebanese civil war (1975-89) but has evolved since the 2010s because of the party’s growing significance in Lebanon and on the regional political scenes. The outbreak of the uprising in Syria in March 2011 and subsequent evolution into a war represented a major turning point with profound impacts on Hezbollah’s role within Iranian nexus of influence in the Middle East and in the party’s own capacities.
The Syrian Uprising: a Turning Point for Hezbollah

The Syrian regime has been Iran’s main strategic ally in the region from the aftermath of the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979. It has been a key actor for the supply and resupply of Hezbollah’s weapons. Tehran also saw that Syrian popular uprising offered it an opportunity to its regional rivals – especially the Gulf monarchies led by Saudi Arabia – to weaken the Syrian regime, a major ally, and so undermining its influence in the Middle East. Against this backdrop, Hezbollah first supported Bashar al-Assad’s regime politically, and then unofficially launched a military intervention in Syria in late 2011 alongside Syrian troops and loyalist militias.

Hezbollah military advisors accompanied Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) personnel in organising and training Syrian militias: later these were transformed into units of the National Defence Forces. Hezbollah also created or helped establish several Syrian militias in Syria more directly linked to the Lebanese party such as Quwat al-Ridha and Hezbollah Syria. The military intervention in Syria considerably strengthened the Lebanese party from a military standpoint. The war in Syria allowed a substantial increase in recruitment, with an increasing number of young fighters with significant experience.[1] Hezbollah has also benefited from its collaboration with the Russian army in Syria to improve its strategies and military techniques and to increase its capacities for military operations and offensive strategies. After the Russian military intervention in Syria in October 2015, the Lebanese group has learned how an army of international standing collects intelligence, construct plans, and implements operations in various military offensives across Syria, as for the military campaign to conquer Eastern Aleppo in the end of 2016, with at least two joint Russia–Hezbollah operation rooms.[2] This has translated into closer political relations, reflected notably by a visit of a Hezbollah delegation, led by the head of its parliamentary bloc, Mohammad Raad, in Moscow in March 2021 with publicized meetings with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, representatives from the State Duma and the Council of the Federation.[3]

The nature of Hezbollah’s deployment in different Syrian regions has varied according to its perception of the strategic importance of each region. The party has notably continued to focus on the Syrian-Lebanese border zone in order to secure land routes, weapons depots and training camps, and create a form of pressure on Israel in the south of Syria.

The importance of Hezbollah’s military involvement in Syria has translated as well into the political and economic spheres. Hezbollah has increasingly expanded its range of activities in Syria by establishing a branch of Imam Mahdi scouts for the youth in Syria, something which exists since at least 2012.[4] Syria’s Shi’a community also developed new institutional entities following Iranian and Hezbollah interventions in the Syrian uprising, with the creation of the Supreme Islamic Jaafari Council in 2012 along the lines of the Lebanese Supreme Islamic Shi’a Council.

But moreover, Hezbollah expanded its economic influence in Syria. It increasingly monopolised smuggling operations across the Syrian-Lebanese border in both directions. In cooperation with the Fourth Division, Hezbollah has been managing the fuel smuggling market from Lebanon to Syria, permitting both to accumulate large amounts of capitals. The numerous illegal border crossings in Baalbek-Hermel are dominated by Hezbollah, which allows fuel oil to be transported to warehouses on the other side of the border managed directly by the Fourth Division or by businessmen linked to it.[5] The Lebanese party has used some of the revenue from its illicit activities to fund purchases of land and real estate in two main areas of influence in Syria: al-Qusayr in the Homs countryside and the vicinity of Sayyidah Zaynab southeast of Damascus.[6]

While Hezbollah’s military apparatus operated in several regional countries in the last decade, notably in Yemen in support of the Houthis[7] and in Iraq in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS),[8] it was the party’s military participation in Syria and growing political and economic influence in the country that gave it a new dimension in Iran’s regional nexus of influence.

Hezbollah: Leading Nexus of Iran’s Regional Influence

The establishment and development of Hezbollah is historically connected, among other elements such as Israeli’s invasions of Lebanon in 1982, to the political dynamics and developments of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI). Hezbollah has been politically, socially, and financially supported by Iran since its official establishment in 1985 and even earlier in the case of activities of groups linked to it. Iran remains its main financial supporter, and the Wilayat al-Faqih, the institution of Ayatollah Khamenei, has its separate budget and sources of fundings of the Iranian budget. However, the diversity of funding is a necessity for Hezbollah, especially with the increase of sanctions and multiples along with growing activities of the party in Lebanon and elsewhere.[9] Similarly, Hezbollah’s military equipment is largely provided by Iran.[10]

In the past decade, the main evolution in Hezbollah’s path is the growing significance of the party’s role as the leading nexus of Iranian influence in the region, particularly following the eruption of the revolutionary processes in Syria and the Middle East and North Africa since 2011.

While Hezbollah is a Lebanese actor with some forms of political autonomy, the party acts as the main actor serving and participating in Iranian regional political interests. Its role has been essential for the consolidation and expansion of Iran’s network of regional allies, including state and non-state actors, and moreover after the assassination of the head of the IRGC, Qassem Soleimani, in 2020.

Hezbollah representatives have played a more important role in trying to mediate and appease relations in Iraq between actors allied or close to Iran. Hassan Nasrallah and Lebanese party officials have notably addressed, on different occasions, Shi’a Islamic fundamentalist parties in Iraq in order to diffuse tensions, particularly between Muqtada Sadr’s movement and the Coordination Framework, which includes political groups allied or close to Iran, such as State of Law Coalition led by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the al-Fatah Alliance led by Hadi al-Amiri, and the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq movement led by Qais Khazali. Just as it was Hezbollah that paved the way for the reconciliation between the Palestinian Islamic movement Hamas and the Syrian regime after their fallout at the beginning of the Syrian uprising.[11] The restoration of ties between these two actors serves to consolidate Iranian’s regional influence and rehabilitate relations with two allies.

Preserving the Pro-Iranian Status Quo

In this framework, Hezbollah has considered popular mobilisations challenging the IRI and countries allied with it, from Syria in 2011 to Iraq in 2019, as regional and international plots seeking to counter the influence of Tehran and its allies. In this perspective, Hezbollah has supported the regional status quo when it comes to ruling elites connected to Iran. This is why Hezbollah’s professed solidarity with the oppressed of the world is largely subordinated to its narrower political interests, closely linked to Iran. Hezbollah’s military confrontation with Israel has become secondary to the political fortunes of the party and its regional allies. The October 2022 maritime agreement on the demarcation of maritime borders between Lebanon and Israel, which guarantees gas interests for both countries, demonstrate this path. The rhetorical defence of the “axis of resistance” (Hezbollah, Iran and Syria) and of the armed apparatus of the party has been increasingly used by Hezbollah to justify the policies and actions of the party, including its military involvement in Syria, as well as of the Iranian state. This does not mean that Hezbollah’s military component did not and does not still play a role against Israel’s aggression and wars, but Hezbollah’s force was increasingly being used for other purposes, especially after the 2006 war. Similarly, Hezbollah has increasingly acted as the main guardian of the Lebanese neoliberal and sectarian political system by opposing any challenges to it. Alongside the rest of the different fractions of the Lebanese political and economic elites, it sees this system as a means of serving its own interests. The best illustration of this has been the party’s opposition to the Lebanese popular uprising in October 2019. The secretary general of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, accused the protestors of pushing the country into chaos and of being the instruments of a foreign plot.[12] Hezbollah’s supporters and members did not hesitate to intimidate the demonstrators in different localities and to attack them. The party’s members have participated in the repression of protesters through physical violence and various types of intimidations against activists and protesters, especially Shias. On the political scene, Hezbollah has continuously tried to push for the establishment of a national consensus on key issues or a unity government gathering all the sectarian neoliberal parties in the country. It is also for this reason that Hassan Nasrallah declared that the resumption of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia is a “very welcome change”, and that “it serves the interests of the peoples of the region, including Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and others”.[13] In Hezbollah’s view, a political détente between Riyad and Teheran could have potential positive step to ease tensions and reach forms of agreements between political rivals within the Lebanese political scene.

Conclusion: Hezbollah’s Growing Autonomy Doesn’t Clash with Iranian Goals

In conclusion, Hezbollah is not a passive proxy force with no political autonomy and awaiting Iranian’s orders. It is a both a Lebanese ruling political actor acting today as the main guardian of the country’s sectarian neoliberal political system, with an influence exceeding its national borders, and Teheran’s political regional influence crown jewel. Hezbollah is led by its political interests in both cases, which are connected to Teheran. The Lebanese party contributes actively to expand the Iranian regional influence, because it benefits from it as well. In this framework, Hezbollah’s actions strengthening IRI’s regional influence must be seen as a way to reinforce the Lebanese party, just as a weakened Teheran will harm the Lebanese party, and the opposite is true as well. In other words, their destinies are still strongly interlinked.

Source » ispionline