Metastasizing Menace: Hezbollah as a Regional Player

by Massaab Al-Aloosy

Hezbollah has proven that an insurgency can play a role beyond state borders and affect the balance of power on a regional scale. Known as “The Party of God,” Hezbollah is increasingly playing a role in the Middle East that states cannot and is actively promoting Shiaism in the region. Since the Israeli withdrawal from Southern Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah has withstood the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), trained the Iraqi insurgency in its fight against the United States, and consistently assisted the Assad regime in Syria.

In the 2006 war against Israel, Hezbollah proved to be a match for the region’s strongest army. The conflict was a prime example of a terrorist group winning the intelligence, political, and ground wars. After forcing the IDF to withdraw from southern Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah diligently prepared for the next battle by clandestinely hardening its defenses. As a result, analysts and commentators were shocked at Israel’s failure to destroy Hezbollah’s arsenal, affect its control and command, or stop Al Manar TV—Hezbollah’s news channel—from broadcasting. Israeli Intelligence officials’ own estimatesindicated that Hezbollah did not suffer significantly and could have continued the fight for months.

Hezbollah also displayed a high level of professionalism during the ground war as its forces fought tenaciously, monitored IDF communication frequencies and movements, and compiled detailed reports of casualty numbers and supply routes. The dedicated and disciplined Hezbollah fighters proved a match to the elite IDF Golani and Paratroopers Brigades. Four years after the conflict, Israel’s former national security advisor, Giora Eland, admitted that Israel could not defeat Hezbollah. Politically, Hezbollah exposed the weakness of Israel’s military deterrent and as a result, Hezbollah’s stature in the Muslim world was buoyed as a nationalist movement.

Hezbollah’s capabilities have not been limited to its fight against Israel; it has also found fertile ground in neighboring countries. In cooperation with Iran’s Al Quds forces, Hezbollah was involved in the insurgency against U.S. forces in Iraq. Captured members of Iraqi Shia militias admitted that Hezbollah assigned its operatives to train Iraqi fighters in camps near Tehran. Hezbollah also has its own operatives in Iraq. Mussa Daqduq, a senior Hezbollah commander, was captured during his fourth trip to Iraq in 2007. He acknowledged that he was there to assess the performance of Hezbollah-trained Shia militias. According to the U.S. military, there were attempts to create Shia “special groups” based on the organization and tactics of Hezbollah. In his testimony to Congress, David Petreaus, the former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, stated that Hezbollah created a special unit called Department 2800 in order to train, arm, fund, and sometimes direct militias in Iraq. However, Hezbollah’s role in Iraq has been minuscule compared to its role in Syria.

The Party of God continues to play a vital role in the survival of the Assad regime in Syria. In the initial stage of its involvement, Hezbollah protected strategic border passes and Shia villages and shrines. As the conflict became protracted, Hezbollah developed an effective irregular force for the Assad regime with its extensive experience in guerrilla tactics.Hezbollah’s personnel in Syria are estimated between 2,000 and 4,000 experts, fighters, and assassination squads that target the Syrian rebel leadership.

Hezbollah’s role drew much attention during the fight between the regime and the rebels for the strategic town of Al-Qusayr, in which Hezbollah played an instrumental role in recapturing. The operation was believed to be a Hezbollah operation from the planning to the handling of heavy weaponry, such as tanks and artillery. Without Al-Qusayr, the regime would have struggled to maintain control over key areas of the country, including Damascus. As the fighting continues, the possibility of the rebels’ defeat is ever conspicuous because of Hezbollah’s active role. Hezbollah tips the balance not only in Syria, but also in the wider Sunni-Shia conflict. The outcome in Syria will have ramifications for the Arab-Israeli conflict, the future of Lebanon, and Syria—Iran’s main ally in the region.

What is remarkable about Hezbollah is its repeated success in engagements outside of Lebanon, in conflicts where traditional players failed. Petrodollars and media outlets have failed to help impose the will of traditional powers—such as Saudi Arabia—in the region and in countering Hezbollah’s seasoned and tenacious fighters, most conspicuously in Syria. The role of Hezbollah is augmented as a result of the steadily shrinking role of the state, or, as some might argue, even the restructuring of these states in the Middle East. Therefore, it is possible for other non-state actors to become equally metastasizing if the states do not play a bigger and more positive role in the region, not only militarily, but more importantly, socioeconomically.

About the Author

Massaab Al-Aloosy is a PhD student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. His academic interests include the Middle East and security-related affairs.

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