Demonstrators in Yemen parade with images of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah. Photo: MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP via Getty Images)

How the Arab world turned against Hezbollah

Once revered in the Middle East as a defiant force against Israel, the actions of the "Party of God" in Syria have caused many to change their minds
October 5, 2020

“I never really knew who he was as a Hezbollah soldier,” Jawad told me from a Beirut apartment block. A look of intense concentration knitted his features together. “I knew him as a brother, who once convinced me that eating my own toenail would make a foot grow in my stomach—he was the biggest jokester and prankster ever. He really was the soul of the house. A grey cloud has sat in our house ever since his…” He tailed off.

The death of his brother in Syria in 2014, during a combat mission with the Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah, still hurts Jawad (not his real name). It happened only months after he had himself decided against joining the Iranian-backed political party and militia. He clearly remembers his moment of refusal: “I talked to my martyred brother, who was alive at the time, and mentioned that this life might not suit me. He told me: ‘It’s OK, but I’m disappointed.’ After that conversation, we never really made amends. We never really talked about the subject again. The last thing he said to me was, ‘I’m disappointed,’ and it kinda still rings in your head.”

Jawad’s loss is one consequence of a complex web of personal grief, violence, geopolitics, regional rivalries and convenient alliances that has shaped—and been shaped by—Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria. Though it has faded from western television screens, the Syrian war will have raged for a decade by March next year. It has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and forced millions of people from their homes. It has destabilised the region and created enormous challenges for governments dealing with its refugees. With the militants of Islamic State (IS) and their extreme form of Sunni Islam often dominating the headlines, Hezbollah’s role in the conflict remains under-examined. But without its armed intervention in Syria—the exact timing is unclear, but fighters’ bodies were returning to Lebanon as early as 2012—it is unlikely the Assad regime would have survived. Hezbollah’s commanders have trained and led multiple Iran-backed forces from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, fighting across the Iraq-Syria border. The group’s violations of humanitarian law in the conflict may not have been as openly gruesome as those by IS, but they are real, and in combination with the propping up of a hated dictator have alienated many previously sympathetic Syrians, Lebanese and Palestinians.

Plucky Hezbollah

Hezbollah was formed in Bekaa Valley in Eastern Lebanon as a response to the 1982 Israeli invasion; the nation remained occupied by Israel until 2000. From the start, the group was supported by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the military force established by Ayatollah Khomeini after the 1979 revolution. In Arabic, Hezbollah literally means “Party of God,” and derives from a Quranic verse promising dominance to those who ally themselves with God. The faction has since evolved into a political machine. It is one of the main Shia parties in Lebanon’s confessional political system—which allocates seats in parliament to Christian, Sunni, Shia and Druze communities—with 13 MPs at present. It also has an extensive social service network including schools, mosques and a scout brigade.

But its continuing raison d’être is as a fighting force. Its armed brigades have fought multiple wars with Israel, as well as developed training camps and weapons depots inside Syria with the permission of Damascus, even before the conflict there. Widely designated as a terrorist organisation, including by the US, UK and Gulf countries, Hezbollah intervened in Syria without the official approval of the often-creaking Lebanese state, which has been headed by multiple cabinets in the past decade. Hezbollah, and its allies in some of Lebanon’s Christian parties, has held ministerial positions throughout this time. (The country is currently without a government, following the resignation of Prime Minister Hassan Diab after the catastrophic explosion at Beirut’s seaport on 4th August.) Hezbollah occupies a grey space: it is both a state actor usually with ministerial powers, and a non-state paramilitary organisation. And so while Beirut’s official policy is “disassociation” from regional conflicts, Syria included, Lebanon’s weak state has in practice done little to stop Hezbollah fighters crossing the border.

For many people across the Middle East, Hezbollah fighting on the side of the Assad regime—which stands credibly charged with war crimes, including chemical weapons attacks—has disrupted its cultivated image as a “resistance” defying Israel.

Before the war, many Syrians had accepted this portrayal. Some, who weren’t politically interested, did so passively. Others more positively embraced Hezbollah as an anti-Israel force. Thirty-five-year-old Ghaith al-Hallak, who spoke to me from northern Italy where he fled after being conscripted into the Syrian army, said he remembers how pictures of Hezbollah’s leaders were ubiquitous in Syria during his childhood. At times, images of the Assad family—the dictatorship-dynasty that has ruled Syria since Hafez al-Assad took control of the country in 1970—were varied by photos of his son Bashar alongside Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader. “I think the peak was in the year 2000 when the Israeli forces withdrew from the south of Lebanon, which gave Hezbollah great popularity,” Ghaith told me.

Plenty of Palestinians also admired Hezbollah’s battles against Israel. “I remember we were glued to their TV station Al Manar 24/7,” explained Marwa Fatafta, a Palestinian activist and researcher. With no state of their own, Palestinians “were so relieved and happy that finally there was that non-state actor able to stand up against Israel and protect its own land using armed resistance. There was actually action as opposed to empty rhetoric,” of the sort many Palestinians associated with their own leadership.

Resisting the resistance

But views about Hezbollah across the region soon began to change. In the 19 interviews conducted for this article, Syrians, Lebanese and Palestinians described growing feelings of unease towards the group—and sometimes predating its Syrian intervention.

In May 2008, its militants took over central Beirut by force, following a Lebanese government proposal to curb their private communications networks. At the time, Ghaith al-Hallak was watching events in the Lebanese capital from Aleppo in northern Syria, where he was studying IT at university. “They took control of streets, squares, and they prevented people from going out and protesting. It was bad behaviour,” he recalled. “For me, that was the turning point, where I started to see the other side of Hezbollah.”

In Beirut a 14-year-old Shia girl, who I’ll call Lamia, from a Hezbollah-dominated southern suburb, met her older sister after school. “I remember my sister picking me up and she said, ‘They’re killing each other,’ and she was crying. I remember the whole way back home, masked people would stop us in the car to see if they wanted us to pass or not, and it was very scary,” she said. (Lamia, who is now 26, asked to remain anonymous because she is worried about criticising Hezbollah publicly.)  “I think it’s then fully that they became an antagonist in Lebanon for me. They didn’t hurt me directly, but were a big threat to me.”

Three years later, protests broke out across the Arab world, including in Syria. With the demonstrations came hopes of freedom, the rule of law and justice after years of rule by ageing dictators. But as Syria’s security forces quelled the popular uprisings across the country with violence, Hezbollah began to advise the Assad regime. It soon sent its own combatants in support—much fiercer fighters than the conscripted Syrian army—and in spring 2013 led operations to seize the rebel-held town of Al-Qusayr, on the Syria-Lebanon border. Despite its military prowess, some of its fighters, like Jawad’s brother, would be killed in battle. Hezbollah has not released any official casualty figures, but independent estimates put the number of men killed in action in Syria at over 1,100.

[su_pullquote]“Fighting for the Assad regime has disrupted a long-nurtured image of Hezbollah as primarily a resistance against Israel”[/su_pullquote]

Lamia began to see the results on home soil. Funerals for fighters killed across the border meant whole streets were cordoned off as processions weaved through the city. “Suddenly there were mass burials and no one knew publicly yet that they were fighting in Syria,” she explained. “I remember thinking, ‘Where are all these dead people coming from? I don’t understand.’” Those processions led to a Beirut graveyard designated for Hezbollah combatants known as the “Garden of Lady Zaynab,” after the sister of Imam Hussein, one of the most revered figures in Shia Islam. Protecting Zaynab’s grand shrine in Damascus from Sunni rebels opposed to Assad was one of the main reasons Hezbollah gave for its Syria intervention, which it has described as al-difa’ al-muqaddas—a “holy defence.” Other rationales are protecting the Middle East and Islam from Israel, the US and the Sunni and politically conservative Gulf kingdoms, all of whom have anti-Assad connections. Hezbollah’s media arms have blamed these states for forming an “American-Saudi-takfiri project.” Takfiri is a pejorative term applied to Sunni rebels including IS, which at its height controlled swaths of Syria and Iraq. The sectarian with-us-or-against-us rhetoric obscured how a US-led coalition, with Iraqi and Syrian allies, was bombing IS.

“We do not fight them because of who they are, but we are fighting their Israeli-American project,” said Husayn, a Hezbollah unit commander, referring to Sunni rebels. “They say that we are the ones who came to their lands, but we are actually fighting their project, not fighting them.”

But not all Lebanese Shia are convinced by the religious reasons given for the conflict. Some see Hezbollah using sectarian branding to silence criticism. “They utilise this [the religious pretext] so aggressively,” said Lamia, who added that Hezbollah’s interpretations of Shiism do not represent her faith. “Now if you don’t approve of the fight of Hezbollah, you’re not approving of Imam Hussein and immediately you’re not a good believer, you’re not a good Shia, you’re not a good Muslim.”

Over the border, Syrians who once admired Hezbollah have turned on them. Among them is Ahmed (not his real name), now 32. He lived under a siege imposed by Hezbollah and Syrian regime troops in the mountain town of Madaya for nearly two years. “Before the war, I was completely with them,” Ahmed told me from Turkey, where he fled after the siege was lifted in April 2017. “I thought: they are fighting against oppression and injustice, but they are not.” Hezbollah’s role in the siege of Madaya—once popular with tourists from nearby Damascus for its clean air and hills planted with fruit trees—has been extensively documented by human rights organisations. “Syrian government and allied Hezbollah forces tightened the siege around the town, displacing residents to an ever-smaller geographic area,” said a 2016 report co-authored by the organisations Physicians for Human Rights and the Syrian American Medical Society.

The disillusion does not stop in Lebanon and Syria. “Many Palestinians stopped supporting Hezbollah,” said Omar Shaban, the Gaza-based director of the Pal-Think for Strategic Studies think tank: “It’s not about Shia or Sunni—it’s that Hezbollah was helping a regime that many Palestinians don’t like.”

Marwa Fatafta said that Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria made many people question who the group was really representing: “[The Syrian war] was a true test to understand whether that solidarity with the Palestinians—is it a genuine act, is it a genuine solidarity with a just social and political cause?” she asked rhetorically. “Or was it some sort of rhetoric that helps advance certain actors’ political agenda, and serves their own propaganda, and to legitimise them further in the eyes of their people and in the eyes of others, such as Palestinians?”

The Iranian connection

Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria has not only muddied its reputation, but revealed the depth of its ties with the highest levels of IRGC leadership. Senior Hezbollah commanders would go back and forth to Damascus alongside the powerful Iranian commander Qasim Soleimani, who was assassinated by the US in January. They would share meals and relax with Soleimani, who ran the Quds Force, which is responsible for the IRGC’s external operations.

Hezbollah members remember Soleimani fondly, and do not disguise the extent to which he was calling the shots. “He was flexible. He was able to simplify any problem for the young guys, so they could understand it and then solve it step by step,” said a senior Hezbollah official who met Soleimani in Syria, who spoke to me from a driveway at the end of a mud track in the Bekaa Valley. “He was evidently intellectually and analytically mature.” The official went on to deny that the general had harmed the Syrian people: “Syrians oppressed themselves with this war,” he insisted. His expression was unfeeling.

By contrast with these warm words about the Iranian commander, Hezbollah fighters sometimes speak with disdain about the Assad regime’s army. “We respect their leaders,” Husayn, the Hezbollah unit commander, said of Assad and his associates, but about the Syrian rank and file he was much less kind: “They are not human and they seem to be from another world,” he said. “There are traitors among them. Some of them have killed many of us. They shot us from the back several times while we were attacking. A number of our fighters were martyred because of them.” Another Hezbollah fighter interviewed for this piece vented similar feelings about the Syrian army.

The mistrust is mutual. Even Syrians who support the Assad regime aren’t too happy about Hezbollah sticking around, now that the bulk of the country has been retaken from the rebels. “There are a certain number of forces in Syria that are not doing anything—a lot of fighters from Hezbollah. These fighters are creating some problems in the areas they are present in, and aren’t welcomed,” said Nawar Shaban, an analyst based in Turkey. “Now pro-regime Syrians don’t see that Hezbollah is a must in their area—they see that Hezbollah doesn’t have to stay there in Syria because there is no actual role for them.”

Enemy of “the people”?

Opposition to Hezbollah is building back home. Its reputation among its traditional Shia support base is suffering as a result of the country’s ongoing financial crisis. The Lebanese lira has lost more than three-quarters of its value since October 2019, causing the price of imported goods to rocket. Hundreds of thousands of people were losing their jobs even before the coronavirus pandemic. A dollar shortage caused banks to impose arbitrary limits on withdrawals last autumn. Although not proven to be directly responsible, and whether fairly or not, Hezbollah is being blamed for the Beirut port explosion, which killed nearly 200 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless. The party is part of the political elite in Lebanon, and as such is seen to shoulder some responsibility for the general neglect and corruption that allowed thousands of tons of improperly stored and highly explosive materials to lie in the port for years. After the disaster, protestors carried gallows through Beirut, complete with noosed models of political leaders, including Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah. (At the time of writing, investigations into the blast are ongoing.)

[su_pullquote]“Even Syrians who support the Assad regime aren’t too happy about Hezbollah sticking around, now that the bulk of the country has been retaken from the rebels”[/su_pullquote]

While Hezbollah members and fighters receive salaries in US dollars, its ordinary supporters are bearing the brunt of the debauching of Lebanon’s currency along with everyone else. The party’s access to a supply of fresh dollars—from where exactly remains unclear—pits the Hezbollah haves against the have-nots. “Their non-full-timers don’t get paid in dollars—even the Hezbollah fans—and they’re struggling, really struggling,” said Lamia. “They’re not the people’s party anymore.”

On the ground just as much as in the popularity stakes, Hezbollah’s ambitions can lead to the running of risks. By building connections with local smugglers, businessmen and communities along the porous Syria-Lebanon border—near Al-Qusayr, the town Hezbollah took from Syrian rebels much earlier in the war—and by creating its own security network, including detention centres, Hezbollah is today dedicated to consolidating its own control as an end in itself. Through “relationships with strong local entities in Syria,” explained analyst Nawar Shaban, Hezbollah has “now secured their presence for a couple of years, or even more.” And if this strategy works militarily, it potentially does so at the cost of human lives: “Before this,” said Shaban, chanelling the thoughts of the group’s opponents, “I knew that to target Hezbollah in Syria, I needed to target Hezbollah locations. But now that Hezbollah is depending on local entities, how to know which to attack?” All this creates “very complicated, and very dangerous” confusion.

As his involvement in Hezbollah’s combat in Syria continued, Jawad’s brother became more and more reclusive. After months deployed in Syria, he would recoil into himself during his short rest periods back at home. “The more he was part of Hezbollah, the more of a shut-off person he became,” continued Jawad, pensively. “It was very weird for me to see this transformation taking over my brother from being such a fun person to being such an enigmatic and secretive person. I thought, what did they do to him? What did he see? What did he experience? And I never really got those answers because he would just refuse to talk.”

Losing his brother in Syria has reinforced Jawad’s opposition to the Hezbollah. “The number one thing that infuriates me is that they target young people,” he said. “Then when they grow up with that dogma integrated in their mind, they actually start believing it themselves.” He has decided that he cannot live in Lebanon any longer, and will leave at some point. “As difficult a decision as it’s going to be, it’s going to do me good,” he said.

Ahmed, the Syrian in Turkey, is moving soon too. He will settle on France’s Swiss border, in mountains very different from the hills of Madaya where he was besieged by Hezbollah. “They don’t care about anything but their interests,” he said.