By Anant Mishra*
Since the early 1980s, Hezbollah has been an “aggressive” politico-military actor “influencing” regional politics in the Middle East, particularly Lebanon. Its membership phenomenally grew after their direct “confrontation” with Israeli defence forces in Lebanon, 2006. After subsequent yet “successful” Arab Springs, Hezbollah’s “political popularity” took a sudden dive. One of the factors responsible for this “sudden political unpopularity” was Hezbollah’s unprecedented support to the Assad regime and its subsequent “military intervention” in Syria, which according to some military experts, occurred on Assad’s personal request.
This “military intervention” is extensively viewed (but not limited to) asa “politico-military” action, with some experts going at an extent of even“labelling” it as a“religious motivated decision”,in the light of Hezbollah’s affiliation to Shi’a sect of Islam. However, in the light of numerous arguments presented by military and strategic experts behind Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria as strictly “religious motivated decisions”,on the contrary, the author, assessed significant evidences and concluded that the decisions were rather “politically motivated”. Hezbollah “undoubtedly” as a “tendency” to “harness and politicise certain religious sensitives” in an effort to recruit and motivate its followers, however, after extensively studying its military operational mechanism in Syria, the author concluded that Hezbollah, in this particular case, fulfilled its “strategic region-politico objective”.
Regional conflicts, particularly civil wars, similar to other region centric violent domestic confrontations, involves significant interference from local, regional and international actors. Coupled with numerous political and socio-economic factors,if one part of a state experiences a civil war, there is a formidable chance for neighbouring states and international communities to “suffer its consequences”. Furthermore, to prevent any further “fall-out”, these neighbouring states could possibly provide “external support” to actors involved in the conflict. On numerous occasions, neighbouring states play the role of “participatory instigators” in a civil war, supporting any “element they find sympathetic or vital to their strategic/regional interests”. These states provide all available necessary support including, military, diplomacy and humanitarian. In the light of these “participatory actors”, the civil war no longer retains “within the regional boundaries” and elevates to an “international geo-political crisis”.
Alternatively, the intervention of foreign elements further “infuriates” an already “infuriated conflict, elevating the conflict to an “international level”.
One such example of this “internationalised conflict” is the Syrian civil war which involves numerous “aggressive” external actors, supporting either the Assad regime or the Free Syrian Army or established militant non-state actors such as Al Qaeda or Al Nusra Front, engaged in a violent confrontation against each other. Interestingly, the “participatory actors” in Syrian civil war are violent non-state rather than the traditional state backed elements, out of which, one such peculiar case is Lebanon based militant group Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syrian civil war.
Hezbollah is a militant politico-religious non-state actor that maintains formidable presence in Lebanon and has actively participated in roughly all major conflicts in the Middle East. With reference to the aforementioned statement, according to the author, Hezbollah is a “socio-political militant organization” with a strong affiliation to the Shi’a sect of Islam, which is followed by significantly large members including the top leadership. Hezbollah, which literally means “Party of Allah” or “Party of God”, is currently headed by a charismatic leader Hasan Nasrallah, who is also the incumbent General Secretary of the party. Since the early 2013, Hezbollah has maintained significant “military” presence in Syria, while reinforcing the Assad regime forces with its fighters.
This “military intervention” of Hezbollah in Syria has further “infuriated” an already “infuriating” conflict with few regional “participatory actors” welcoming them amidst global condemnation. Hezbollah received acute criticism on its “sudden shift from traditional interests” (besides Hezbollah vowing to relentlessly pursue their arch-enemy Israeli Defence Forces), whose focus was now on targeting Syrian masses, who sympathetically supported their cause for decades. In the light of its “strong affiliation to Shi’a sect”, the movement was blamed for “purposefully instigating” sectarian violence, particularly when the Assad regime (traditionally Alawites) were in violent confrontation against the predominantly Sunni rebels. Reinforcing the argument with context to regional security, Hezbollah, because of its “military intervention”, not only risked regional stability but adversely compromised domestic security of Lebanon.
In its defence, Hezbollah not only rejected the allegations outrightly,but also claimed their actions to be “in defence for people of Syria”, which was widely considered as a “desperate” effort to strengthen“Iran-Syria-Hezbollah alliance”. Furthermore, the party claims to combat radical Islamic militants pre-emptively, in an effort to prevent their entry into Lebanon.However, in the eyes of its supporters, “Hezbollah is a Shi’a affiliated militant non-state organization which is carrying out military operations against Sunni radical factions”, an effort to “religiously colour” their military intervention.
In support of aforementioned argument, there are numerous documents pointing towards the same conclusion. Furthermore, many experts have sited religious theologies, propaganda excerpts, Hezbollah’s past involvements followed by its evolution from a movement to a strong politico-religious party in Lebanon. On the contrary, readers will find numerous researches, theories and pedagogies (mostly misleading) on the politico-religious ethnic tensions between the Shi’a and Sunni sects of Islam. With respect to this argument, the objective of the article is not to follow the same path, but to identify, evaluate and assess motivation/decision behind Hezbollah’s “military” intervention in Syria.
Understanding the religious argument
Essentially, religion has always played a “vital” role in thoroughly assessing, analysing the political dynamics in the Middle East. This “literally interlinking of religion and politics”occurs in the region with predominant Muslim communities. More importantly, even in nations which consistently recall their nature of state as secular(one such example is Syria), the debate with respect to interlinking of state and politics (din wa dawla)continues to exist. Talking this argument in the theoretical context of international relations, the state and the religion are essentially separate, however, if the state is traditionally Islamic,it is literally impossible to separate the two“as the source of its legitimacy comes from the Sharia and its integration with politics and religion”.
Taking the example of Syrian politics, in this case, the political system can be rightly placed with respect to the aforementioned argument. However, the Assad regime continues to paint Syria as a secular country, but in accordance with the 1973 constitution specifically the third article states that “Islamic jurisprudence is the sole source of legislation” (1973 Constitution of Syria). The aforementioned argument further reinforces the fact that, in Syrian political system, the religion and the state is inseparable; to further concrete the argument, the two elements (state and religion) extensively interacts on numerous stages(political, social, economic).
In an effort to extensively understand this “fore-play” between state and religion, the author employed numerous “tools”in an effort to carefully understand and assess this intense “relationship between the state and religion”. Out of numerous tools employed, the author achieved formidable understanding by employing “state-politico-friction”, which states that “state will always have surplus of operational and organizational readily available mechanisms, and the political leadership will intend to utilise all available resources, in an effort to strengthen its position against opposition forces”.
It is important to note that,in the light of “versatile” religious theologies and doctrines “sensitively” linked with Muslim communities, religious institutions in roughly every Muslim country is influential enough to call for “religion-centric mobilization”.
One of the most important element within this “religion-centric mobilisation” is “instigating a sense of responsibility towards an individual’s religious identity”while keeping in place certain “essential incentives in the need of mass mobilization of followers/individuals” while strictly relating the call with “socio-economic sentiments”. Instigating a sense of responsibility towards an individual’s religion not only gives an opportunity for religion centric institutions to mobilise vast followers/individuals but to link their current social, cultural, economic and political situation with “historical texts and examples”.
It is important to note that, religious centric institutions have “strong foundations”, critically equip them to call for mass mobilizations. Then, these religion centric institutions rally behind the “weak, the poor and socio-economically outcast”, declaring their fight against the ruling elites. The then political leadership does not view this stance through eyes of a particular religion but tends to ease their content by strengthening social services, medical facilities, education and monetary benefits. Within the context of Middle East, Islam is ideologically powerful enough for mobilization.On the contrary, it is important to note that every religious call for mobilization does not necessarily have “religion on its agenda”; on most occasions, it is “dipped and cloaked with political ambitions”.
Today, in the light of frequent “unstable” political drift coupled with the conflicts in the Middle East, religious mobilization is vital to effectively understand such “complexities”. When secular nations, particularly Syria, Iraq and Egypt failed to satisfy desires of significant communities, religious yet ambitious institutions fulfilled these responsibilities. One such example is Muslim Brotherhood.
Furthermore, after deposition of Saddam Hussain from Iraq, the Sadr Movement rose to fill the leadership vacuum created by US withdrawal. They initiated development programs for the poor, but subsequently rose as a prominent “politico-religious group”. On the same notion, Hezbollah offers similar “lucrative programs” for marginalised Shi’a community in Lebanon.
Relationship between Hezbollah and religion-centric mobilization
The principle reason behind the establishment of Hezbollahin the early 1980s, was (not limited to): eliminate Israel occupying forces in South Lebanon and sympathising with Palestine while assisting the Palestinian Liberation Organization or HAMAS with any means necessary. Essentially retaking control over South Lebanon in late 2000s, the movement was successful, but it drifted from its traditional agendas. Nonetheless the movement (now party) immediately re-aligned with its cause, prioritising the security of the state of Palestine and Lebanon from Israeli defence forces, while re-tasking all available resources to resistance groups. With a seat representation 15.36% in the Parliament and two members in the cabinet, its military faction has been transformed into a matured functional military infrastructure; finding its own reason to exist.
Hezbollah’s enormous network of followers remain “vital” for its ability to “call for mass mobilization” in short span which dually assists in promoting the followers/individuals’ religious identities. More importantly, Hezbollah has established numerous religious centric institutions which implements numerous socio-economic programs. Reporting to the central command, in the name of Social Services Central Unit, the organ is the principle agency tasked to monitor and implement socio-economic programs. There activities involvere construction of buildings shattered in war, followed by chains of hospital, veterinary services, medical care units, intensive medical assistance centres and centres for everyday needs. The Social Services Central Unit also runs non-governmental organizations, particularly women empowerment centric groups, a specialized think tank to identify solutions for socio-economic challenges, along with middle and high schools, public welfare organizations and religious centric institutions.
Not limited to rehabilitation and reconstruction affairs, Hezbollah extensively provide military assistance to regional and sub-regional groupings. It enjoys extensive relationships with Al-Shahid and Al-Jarha, which coordinates with them in monitoring school development activities, re-creational centres, while tracking the list of individuals kidnapped or missing. The aforementioned examples highlight the fact that, Hezbollah’s activities are not limited to military assistance but also covers socio-economic and religious affairs. This further reinforces Hezbollah’s ability to organize mass mobilization, while using “its credibility and human resource management” to achieve their objective, which is usually political in nature. It must be noted that, mobilization of individuals, is not the “only essential” tool for Hezbollah; its policy of religious centric mobilization has deep roots.
With reference to Hezbollah’s ability to mobilize,it also initiates reforms within the movement, in an effort to strengthen their resistance. Thus, for Hezbollah, resistance is not only limited to a military form, but also extends to socio-economic and religious engagements; for an individual/follower, it is this life, which is thoroughly regulated. Furthermore, these reforms are advocated through textual contents and propagated through numerous cultural institutions established in the region.
Furthermore, this “reform initiatives” carried out by Hezbollahin non-military forms, highlights the “religious connection”. The much Hezbollah objective to achieve the desired resistance movement can only be achieved through Jihad;here, it implies to spiritual Jihad. Islam, referencing to its traditional concept, focuses extensively on spiritual Jihad than military. The Prophet, in one spiritual text, explained the importance of spiritual Jihad, referring it to a great Jihad.
However, in Shi’a Islam, in order to carry out a Jihad, the individual needs an approval from the Imam. Furthermore, keeping in mind the traditional definition of resistance, in its military and political context, it becomes an obligation for an individual to carry out if the religious leaders (for example Ayatollah Khamenei) deems it.
Analysis of Hezbollah’s intervention in Syrian civil war
Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria highlights the movement’s “socio-political ideology and position”.The commitment demonstrated by Hezbollah followers/individuals towards resistance through mass mobilization, played a decisive role in Hezbollah’s military intervention of Syria. This decision was further reinforced by significant “politico-religious factors” which continues to play a principle role even today. Most importantly, the question remains, by what means?
During its extensive military intervention in Syria, Hezbollah leaders offered numerous rationale.To begin with, the leaders sited their intervention in defence of “Shi’a dominated towns/villages in Syria”. Another leader sited the rationale of “protecting holy Shi’a sites from radical Islamic factions”. The movement, did not took an official stand, also did not restrict the movement of “volunteers” who took the task of defending such holy sites.
The Hezbollah leadership, furthermore, wanted to prevent the destruction of holy sites, preventing a similar scenario of a sectarian conflict which occurred in 2006, instigated by radical Islamic factions. Furthermore, Hezbollah believed that, its combat operations in the region of al-Qalamoon, are exceedingly pre-emptive in nature, as they do not want a spill-over crossing the borders to Lebanon. Nonetheless, this military intervention “painted targets on the back of Shia community” of Syria and Lebanon. This statement is further reinforced by successful violent engagements between Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)with Free Syrian Army supported by rebels. These radical Islamic factions also threaten Hezbollah’s “traditional” regional assistance.
On numerous accounts, many Hezbollah leaders “openly” criticised these Islamic radical factions, calling them as “instruments of conspiracy designed by the US and Israel to undermine their resistance”.
Traditionally the Islamic ideology of “Jihad”has been aggressively used as an instrument of “religious propaganda” dipped in “political “Jihad, Counter-Jihad and Fatwa”.
To begin with, the Islamic violent radical factions are carrying out a Jihad, exclusively against the non-believers, not limited to the Shi’a. This becomes an exclusive case for Hezbollah to call for a mass mobilization of followers and militarily intervene. Interestingly, they use the element of Jihad, carefully. Since, there is no Fatwa issued by any Shi’a philosopher/cleric, making it non-obligatory for Shi’a’s to fight, Hezbollah, on the contrary, calls its followers/fighters who dies during this Jihad as “martyrs”. Also, according to some former military and intelligence officers, Hezbollah considers the defence of Shi’a religious sites as “obligation”. Interestingly when a regional Hezbollah commander was killed during fighting on the Syrian-Lebanese border, many Hezbollah leaders hailed his actions as “a duty in Jihad”.
It is important to note that, the death of one Hezbollah regional commander is not particular in this case,any fighter who dies during combat is hailed as a “martyr”.Moreover, Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria is exclusively sited by academic and military experts as an example of “Shia–Sunni confrontation in the Middle East”. However, this conflict cannot exclusively be termed as a “religiously-regional centric”, there are alternative theories in this conflict that are worth taking into consideration.
The “internationalisation” of this conflict holds extreme vitality for Hezbollah. One of the principle element of Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria is to “retain its supply lines”. Support from Iran and Syria is extremely important. On one account, before Hezbollah’s official military deployment, the party had reinforced the Syrian army ranks with its armed followers near the region of al-Zabadani, outskirts of Damascus, in an effort to further strengthen its “supply routes” connecting Demascus with the Bekka valley in Lebanon. Furthermore, the principle reason behind the battle of al-Qusayr which occurred not to disrupt the “supply routes” used by opposition forces but to maintain flow for information between Damascus and Bekka Valley in Lebanon.
Furthermore, the defence of SayeedaZainab shrine on the road to Damascus International airport by Hezbollah and other Shi’a militiasis another particular example.Indeed, the site is of a holy shrine, the extensive military deployment reinforces the defence of Damascus International airport; which is vital for its constant communication with Damascus.
Furthermore, the “stability” of Assad regime continues to worry Hezbollah. If the Assad regime falls, there is no absolute surety whether the new ruling (which may compromise of members of opposition) will support Hezbollah, in the light of reputative condemnation from Syrian opposition on Hezbollah’s military intervention. Looking at the worst-case scenario, the Sunni Islamic radical faction could probably seek control, who would then focus their attention to annihilate Shi’a factions in Syria.
Military intervention of Hezbollah in Syria, can be seen as a “necessary strategic step” or a “desperate attempt to survive”. Moreover, on many accounts the Syrian opposition leaders have sited that Hezbollah will not face a “win-lose” situation, even if Syria immerge as a victor. The Syrian party wants to “resolve” this issue politically,probably the only way for Hezbollah to securely withdraw from Syria.
To conclude, Hezbollah repeatedly site its military engagement as a retaliatory measure against the radical Islamic factions, which is nothing more than simple “exaggeration”. Notably, not all violent “participatory actors” in Syria belong to radical Islamic factions which even Hezbollah is aware. During the time when Hezbollah officially rallied behind Assad regime, the Islamic radical factions – notably Al-Nusra Front and Al Qaeda – were not aggressive as they are today. Also, Hezbollah’s fighters are predominantly concentrated in and around the region of al-Qalamoon where the jihadi factions are “aggressively” growing, but their major strength lies in North, where Hezbollah is absent. Although, Hezbollah is absent in the North East, where Al Qaeda and some radical factions of ISIS is prominent, the former continues to hold some presence in Aleppo. However, in Aleppo, Hezbollah has deployed few military advisors and unlike al-Qusayr, its military engagement is fairly limited.
The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 which resulted in “complete annihilation of Iraq”followed by “sectarian policies” implemented by successive governments further reinforced the arguments of militant Islamic factions such as Islamic State to gain enormous public support. The consequences due to aforementioned sited instances resulted in “sectarian violence” which not only engulfed Iraq but extensively destabilised the entire Middle East. Similarly, the Syrian conflict was initially sectarian because of radical Islamic factions’ involvement. In the similar context, Hezbollah’s “military engagement” in Syria can be interpreted asShia power (Hezbollah and Assad regime) in violent confrontation against the Sunni radical factions.
This is generally perceived as a natural “cause”and no matter how convincing it seems, it remains “limited” in theory. The article, extensively argues realising the fact that, Hezbollah does play the “religion” card to mass mobilise its followers and did the same in Syria. It is also a fact that, out of roughly 53% of Lebanese, who are devotedly religious, are not Hezbollah followers.
Furthermore, playing the “religion card” comprises a fraction of Hezbollah’s tactics of mass mobilization.
In accordance with the aforementioned statements, Hezbollah’s tactics of “self-religious identity”, is not only limited to “religion”. The rationale of “resistance formation” plays a prominent role in mobilization. In accordance with the aforementioned statement, the mass mobilization statement is not limited to “religion”. For Syria, in this particular case, Hezbollah has cited three main arguments: protection of Shi’a religious sites, Syria’s vitality for strengthening regional resistance and external security of Lebanon.
In accordance with the aforementioned arguments, Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria is fuelled by its “geo-political ambition in the region”. Similarly, Hezbollah has deployed its fighters in Syria to “exclusively” defend the “Tehran-Damascus-Lebanon” supply route. Similarly, Hezbollah’s tactic of reinforcing the ranks of Assad regime forces and reinforcing their troops in the south, especially where radical Islamic factions are thoroughly absent – holds due precedence than directly engaging with radical factions in Aleppo.
About the author:
*Anant Mishra is a strategic affairs analyst with specialization on Afghanistan
This article was published by Modern Diplomacy
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