This article represents the opinion of the author and not khazen.org - It was published by The New York - By Robin Wright & interviewed by Robin Wright
Across Lebanon, Hezbollah runs special cemeteries—some with their own Facebook pages—for its fighters. I recently visited several of them, including the new Garden of Zeinab,
named after the Prophet Muhammad’s granddaughter, where I counted a
hundred and fifteen recent graves. Each was covered with a long white
marble slab that detailed the fighter’s life; the headstone showed a
large color photograph. Khodor Safa, nineteen, was in the front row. He
died in September, “performing his jihadi duties,” the grave said. His
slab was decorated with three votive candles, artificial white flowers,
and a small Koran. Nearby, a large balloon offering
“Congratulations”—for martyrdom—was attached to the grave of Ali Hussein
Wehbi. Several families tended to other gravestones, dusting them off,
laying flowers, or sitting alongside them in plastic chairs made
available to visitors.
thousand Hezbollah fighters have died and at least six thousand have
been wounded since 2012, when the Shiite movement intervened in Syria’s
civil war, on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad. That’s a staggering
proportion, given the size of its deployment: Hezbollah keeps about five thousand
fighters in Syria, with another three thousand deployed as needed,
according to Lebanese officials and sources close to Hezbollah. Losses
have been especially heavy since last summer, when the battle for
Aleppo, once Syria’s commercial hub and largest city, escalated.
Hezbollah had to recruit hard to replenish its ranks. The scuttlebutt in
Beirut is that standards have been lowered, training expedited, and
religious indoctrination made less rigorous.
Qassem, a cleric who wears a white turban and has a trim beard to
match, is Hezbollah’s second-in-command. From Hezbollah’s
public-relations office, two fighters drove me, in a black Chevrolet
S.U.V. with draperies on the windows, to meet Qassem in Beirut’s poor
southern suburbs, the movement’s stronghold. The flags of Hezbollah and
Lebanon were in a corner of the meeting room; a plate of dates and
almonds was on a table. Attendants brought in rotating trays of tea,
juice, and water as we talked. I asked Qassem if the intervention was
worth the increasing costs, human and political.
in the West you like to use metaphors and examples, I will give you
one,” he said. “You have a house, and in this house there is a fighter,
his wife, and children, and there is an enemy attacking this house. You
have a garden and a wall, and a hundred metres away you have an olive
grove. Is it better to protect the olive trees or the house? Near the
olive grove the fighter will die. But if they get to the house, the
house will be destroyed and everyone will die. We went to Syria, near
the olive trees.” Qassem added, “We believe that as important as the
losses or the sacrifices in Syria are, they are much less than if Syria
trained, and armed by Iran after Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon,
Hezbollah has been transformed by three tactical decisions. Each has
been a progressively bolder gamble; with each, Hezbollah’s impact has
grown, even as the costs have soared and its popularity has fluctuated.
1993, the then clandestine movement—linked to a decade of terrorist
attacks and hostage seizures—emerged from the underground to declare
itself a political party and run for parliament. It is now the most
determined political actor among the many parties who represent
Lebanon’s eighteen recognized sects. For more than two years, Lebanon
had no President—a position reserved for Maronite Christians—because of
political paralysis in parliament. In October, Hezbollah’s candidate,
Michel Aoun, a former general who has been allied with Hezbollah for a
decade, finally won.
developed parallel public institutions, too. It is second only to the
national government in providing social services, including health care,
in Lebanon. One of its largest hospitals, a cardiac-care center, is on
Beirut’s main boulevard to the airport. It runs schools, welfare
programs, and a sophisticated broadcast and media operation.
second shift was in 2006, when Hezbollah’s raid across the Israeli
border—to kidnap Israeli soldiers as bargaining chips to win freedom for
allies in Israeli jails—provoked the longest modern Arab-Israeli war.
It was massively destructive, particularly in Shiite areas. But it
resulted in a strategic draw, a first in modern Middle East conflicts.
put us in hearts around the Arab world,” Qassem told me. “There was a
conviction that Hezbollah was capable of other victories.” By 2008,
Hezbollah’s chief, Hassan Nasrallah, was rated the most popular leader in the Arab world, even among Sunni Muslims, according to a poll by the University of Maryland’s Sadat Center for Peace and Development.
Hezbollah is the largest “resistance” force in the Arab world, even
though it is not a state and much of the Arab world has branded it a
terrorist group. Its army has steadily increased; it has some twenty
thousand regular forces, and more than twice that number if it calls up
reserves. It has at least as many troops deployed in south Lebanon, on
the Israeli front, as in Syria.
Hezbollah arsenal of rockets and missiles is seven times larger than it
was during the war with Israel a decade ago, the Israeli Ambassador
Danny Danon told the U.N. Security Council last summer. Hezbollah has “more missiles below ground in Lebanon than the European NATO
allies have above ground,” he said. The most powerful have a range that
could hit Tel Aviv and Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city, and a port
and resort town. Last month, the Washington Post reported
that Hezbollah has obtained American war materiel, including M113
classic armored personnel carriers. Hezbollah no longer trains totally
in secret. Its training camps and urban-warfare centers in the eastern
Bekaa Valley are visible by satellite. It even has its own fleet of
surveillance drones, hundreds strong, some armed with explosives.
third tactical decision, in 2012, was to join Syria’s civil war, partly
to protect the transit route for weapons from Iran, through Syria, into
Lebanon. “Syria plays a big role in supporting the resistance
politically and militarily,” Qassem told me. “So we had two choices:
either Syria remains a supporter of the resistance, or we would have on
the eastern border a country that is against Lebanon and the resistance,
and to the south Israel. Therefore, by Syria not falling apart, we
insure an open road for the continuation of the resistance.”
almost certainly would not have held onto power without Hezbollah
troops on the ground, Russian airpower, and military aid from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (who have also suffered hundreds of dead).
Assad’s own military is battered and diminished after six years of war.
Hezbollah has fought on some of the toughest fronts, including the
current battle for Aleppo. It may have made the strategic difference.
“There are great events taking place now in our region,” Nasrallah said
in a speech on Friday, broadcast on Hezbollah’s television station Al
Manar. He referred to “what is happening in Aleppo, and the
ramifications of the promised and coming victory for the whole battle in
Syria and the region.”
Hezbollah’s deployment in Syria now makes it one of the most combat-hardened militaries
in the Middle East. “In the eyes of the people, the political powers,
the countries—whether friends or foes—we are an actual regional power,”
Qassem said, “because our positions have regional consequences.”
Hezbollah’s growing profile has deepened the region’s sectarian divide. Within a year of dispatching troops to Syria, its standing plummeted, especially among Sunnis. Hezbollah means “Party of God” in Arabic. Among Sunnis, it’s been dubbed
Hizbu Shaitan, or “Party of the Devil.” It also remains a tool of Iran,
more than three decades after it was created, and is still heavily
dependent on Tehran’s financial largesse. “We are open about the fact
that Hezbollah’s budget, its income, its expenses, everything it eats
and drinks, its weapons and rockets, come from the Islamic Republic of
Iran,” Nasrallah said, with unusual candor, in a speech in June. “As long as Iran has money, we have money.”
The United States estimates that the Islamic Republic has provided Hezbollah up to two hundred million dollars a year, although international sanctions forced Tehran to cut back
aid in 2014 and 2015. “The group is in its worst financial shape in
decades,” Adam Szubin, the Treasury Department’s acting undersecretary
for terrorism and financial intelligence, told
the Senate Banking Committee in May. “And I can assure you that,
alongside our international partners, we are working hard to put them
out of business.” Hezbollah reportedly has been forced to scale back
staff and social services.
the death toll, Hezbollah’s ambitions continue to grow. It is “ready” to
help others in the region “who wish to be liberation movements,” Qassem
told me. The militia has generated an affiliate in Syria. “If we have
five Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon, they are running twenty-five
others in Syria who have not necessarily come from Lebanon,” he claimed.
Hezbollah is also aiding Shiites in Iraq and Houthis in Yemen. It is
prepared, the sixty-three-year-old cleric told me, to assist “anyplace
where there is a cause we believe in and are needed.”