The Changing Middle East
Oct 9, 2020 | AIJAC staff
Update from AIJAC
This Update features articles describing the ways that the Middle East has been changing over recent decades – especially since the Second Intifada, which broke out in late September 2000.
We lead with noted Israeli scholar Jonathan Spyer, who argues that we are now witnessing the end of the region’s “Age of Insurgency” kicked off by the Second Intifada. He said the last 20 years have seen “insurgent political Islam” and “bottom-up Islamism” becoming the most vital political ideology in the region – pointing to the 9/11 attack, subsequent suicide bombings abroad, the Arab Spring uprisings, the rise of Islamic State, and the Syrian, Yemen and Libyan civil wars, as part of this trend. Spyer argues that while this explosion of unrest weakened the Arab states, today the insurgency banner has come to be controlled by powerful non-Arab states, especially Iran and Turkey, which he says is a sign of the terminal decline of this ideological trend. For this important article in full, CLICK HERE.
Also looking at changing developments over the past 20 years, especially with respect to the Palestinian arena, is a piece written by Israel Kasnett of the JNS news service, based in part on the strong criticism of the Palestinian leadership by former Saudi intelligence chief and diplomat Prince Bandar bin Sultan this week. The piece is based on interviews with two prominent Israeli experts, Michael Milstein and Dan Diker. Diker, in particular, argues that the Palestinian leadership overplayed their hand and lost the support of three key audiences they had gained in the 1990s – the Palestinian public, the Israeli public, and the Arab world. For his full explanation of how and why this happened, CLICK HERE.
Finally, Middle East correspondent Lizzie Porter looks at how the Arab world has turned against Hezbollah, which had been popular across the Middle East in the early 2000s. Her report is based on interviews with Syrians, Lebanese and Palestinians – and she finds that Hezbollah’s key role in support of the Assad regime during the Syrian civil war was the most important reason for its loss of reputation, though other factors, such as blatant and violent interventions in Lebanese politics, also played a role. She notes that even many Lebanese Shi’ites and pro-Assad Syrians have come to be critical of the group. For this solid and informative piece of reporting from Britain’s Prospect magazine, CLICK HERE. More on Hezbollah and its declining situation in Lebanon comes from Lebanese analyst Michael Young.
Readers may also be interested in…
- Dr. Jonathan Spyer, who contributes above, has revealed that he has effectively been banned from entering the US, apparently as a supposed “terrorism supporter” for his journalism covering terrorist groups. American columnist Ben Cohen comments on this strange claim against Spyer.
- More good analysis of the changing alignments in the Middle East – and their foreign policy implications for the US – from noted American foreign policy pundit Robert Kaplan.
- A new detailed report on how Hezbollah has effectively co-opted the Lebanese financial system as a conduit for its illicit financial activities. Plus some comment on Hezbollah and the Lebanese financial crisis from Israeli academic expert Eyal Zisser.
- Reports that the Syrian regime has been trying to reconstitute its chemical weapons program, which was supposed to have been dismantled under an international deal in 2013.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Reviewing the Federal budget, Naomi Levin has uncovered a major cut to Australia’s support to the controversial UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA.
- Ahron Shapiro’s report on how Israel’s COVID-19 crisis is roiling both politics and society in the Jewish state.
- Judy Maynard wrote in the Australian Jewish News about the need for the ABC and SBS to stop using media content from Al Jazeera, which is effectively “a propaganda outlet for a repressive, pro-Islamist state.”
- AIJAC media releases on: The passing of veteran US diplomat and long-standing AIJAC colleague Ambassador Richard Schifter; welcoming a correction from the ABC on Israeli’s capital; and an AIJAC meeting with new Australian Ambassador to Israel Paul Griffiths.
- AIJAC’s webinar with His Excellency Abdulla Al Subousi, Ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to Australia. A short video excerpt is available here.
The End of the Age of Insurgency
A wave of insurgent Islamism arrived in the West 20 years ago—and disappeared just as quickly
BY JONATHAN SPYER
Foreign Policy, OCTOBER 2, 2020
Masked Palestinian militants carry what is supposed to be explosives for suicide bombers during demonstrations marking the anniversary of the second intifada, in the northern West Bank town of Nablus on Sept. 28, 2003. (JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES)
This week marks 20 years since the outbreak of the Second Intifada. The years that followed witnessed bus and café bombings perpetrated by organizations wrapped in the banners of insurgent political Islam, most importantly Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). Their tactics—including suicide bombings and the deliberate targeting of civilians—were borrowed from an earlier generation of Islamists, the Shiite jihadis of the Lebanese group Hezbollah.
The history of the past 20 years marks the rise of the revolutionary political idea of insurgent political Islam—but also its sudden decline. For a distinct period, bottom-up Islamism was the most vital political ideology in the Middle East, capturing the energy that was once invested in pan-Arab nationalism in an earlier era. Islamism’s ongoing eclipse is no less stark than the similar decline of its predecessor ideology.
The Second Intifada was the first eruption of political Islam in its insurgent form against a Western democracy (Sunni Islamism had already risen against and been defeated by the Syrian and Algerian regimes in the 1980s and ‘90s, respectively.) It felt unfamiliar at first, but would quickly become a harbinger. One year later, as Israel was still in the middle of its assault of suicide bombings, al Qaeda destroyed the twin towers in New York. That attack—together with subsequent ones in Madrid, London, and Paris—ushered in a global focus on the issue of insurgent political Islam.
From 2010 to 2014, Islamist popular mobilization and insurgency arrived in mass form in the heartland of the Arab Islamic world itself. This was evident in the rapid takeover of the Syrian rebellion by Sunni Islamist militias, in the Muslim Brotherhood’s brief triumph in Egypt, and reaching its purest, most unalloyed expression in the shape of the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate. This marked the high point of the Arab world’s insurgent Islamism—and also the start of its downfall. The Muslim Brotherhood’s long-awaited period of rule proved a brief interlude. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s powerful allies, Iran and Russia, held back the Islamist-dominated revolt in Syria. The Islamic State provoked a massive reaction against itself and initiated the decline of its underlying ideology.
Look around the Arabic-speaking world today. Where does one find an insurgency led from below—a jihad, a popular revolt—of the kind premiered by Hamas and PIJ during the Second Intifada and then witnessed on a vastly larger scale by the Syrian Sunni Arab rebellion and the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the Islamist-dominated insurgency against former Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, and the mass civil revolts in Egypt and Tunisia? Nowhere.
There is certainly disorder. The end result of the past 10 years of political chaos triggered by Islamist insurgencies is that large swaths of the Arabic-speaking world are smoking ruins. Today, across that ruin, with its semi- or nonfunctioning governments in Libya, Yemen, and across the single space still officially referred to as Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, what one finds is not popular insurgency, but rather the machinations of states and their obedient clients.
The main legacy of Islamist insurgency’s tearing asunder of the Arab world, paradoxically, is the terminal weakening of a number of Arab states, and their penetration by a variety of regional and global non-Arab powers. These powers—Iran, Turkey, Russia, and the United States—make use of the remnant organizations of the insurgents as contractors and cannon fodder for their own designs.
Political Islam, meanwhile, has itself entered a new phase. No longer an insurgent banner, it is now a decoration used by powerful states as part of their justification of themselves. Today, it is borne along by Turkey and Iran, and this is its main remaining relevance.
Syrian rebels are now being trucked into Turkey and then flown to Libya by the Turkish state, to fight for the Turkey-aligned government based in Tripoli.
But in both these cases, political Islam is mixed up with a kind of imperial revanchism as the main justifying idea of the regimes. This is largely a top-down affair, with insurgents remustered as military contractors. The former Sunni Islamist rebels of northern Syria, for example, are now trucked and flown to Libya and Azerbaijan by the Turkish state and Adnan Tanriverdi’s SADAT company. The various militias that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps raises—such as the Fatemiyoun Brigade and the Zeinabiyoun Brigade—labor in return for tiny salaries and residency rights to the Shiite refugees who make up the ranks.
If this reminds you of anything, it should. It is a phase that both Arab nationalism and Soviet-style communism also passed through before they finally dissolved. Long after its existence as a revolutionary idea, Arab nationalism became the empty excuse offered by a series of Arab police states for their existence and their repression. And long after the days when it inspired millions, Soviet-style communism remained as the justifying ideology of a number of harsh and airless dictatorships in Europe, Asia, and Africa.
Political Islam has now entered this phase of its existence. Which means that as an idea, it hardly matters anymore. The states have returned. The Middle East is entering a phase of great-power competition. The recent deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates was an important event in this process of alliance crystallization.
Three power blocs are now set to compete in the Persian Gulf, the Mediterranean, and across the semi-governed spaces of the Arabic-speaking world. Two of these—those led by Iran and Turkey—present political Islam in its post-insurgent phase. The third, that of Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE, constitutes the camp of the reaction against insurgent political Islam, which defeated it.
So we are, it appears, at the end or in the closing stages of a trajectory. The trajectory is that of an idea, which came, rose, and was conquered, and the legacy of which is a broken region and two decades of insurgency and civil war. We didn’t know what was coming then, in the summer of 2000, in Jerusalem, in the curious interim months between the end of the bright hopes of the 1990s and the thing that was going to replace them. We know now.
As to what will follow, there will be winners and losers. Iran and Turkey will continue to present themselves as representatives of Islamic authenticity and purity. There will be few buyers. One of the characteristics of ideologies in their senile phase, when they become part of the language that regimes use to justify themselves, is that no one is really convinced by them. Not even the people who serve them, and certainly no one else. The game to come is great-power competition, directed by ruling elites from above. Among the emergent generation, meanwhile, there appears to be a very great cynicism, a perhaps healthy indifference toward all such narratives, and a search mainly for self-advancement.
Israel, like the other areas targeted for destruction by insurgent political Islam over the past 20 years, has come through this period. Meanwhile, the idea that first erupted into real consequence for the Arab world in Jerusalem, and which for a moment seemed about to bestride the world, has gone down to defeat. In 2020, 20 years since the outbreak of the Second Intifada, the age of Islamist insurgency in the Middle East has passed.
What has (and has not) changed in the 20 years since the Second Intifada
The Palestinian leadership has since lost support in a number of crucial circles, most of all in the larger Arab and Muslim world; as such, some voices have been heard calling for the resignation of Mahmoud Abbas, and others have been heard supporting Hamas.
BY ISRAEL KASNETT
JNS, October 6, 2020
Police and rescue personnel work at the scene of a public bus bombing in the northern Israeli city of Haifa on March 5, 2003. A Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up aboard the crowded bus, killing at least 12 people and injuring dozens. Photo by Ronen Lidor/Flash90.
The jubilant crowd gathered around the el-Bireh police station in Ramallah on that fateful day of Oct. 12, 2000, cheered when a terrorist came to the window and held up his hands, bloodied from lynching to death two Israel Defense Forces’ reservists who had gotten lost and entered Ramallah by mistake. The “Second Intifada,” or “uprising,” was being played out in full force, and the Arab world stood strongly behind the Palestinians.
Fast-forward 20 years. In an interview with Al-Arabiya television on Monday, Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief and ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, slammed the Palestinian leadership for criticizing the decision of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to normalize ties with Israel. Clearly, a lot has changed in the last two decades.
Or has it?
Michael Milstein, head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, told JNS that the world is looking at “a totally different arena.”
Two decades ago, the Palestinians were led by Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. “Today, there are two leaders and two institutions,” he said referring to the P.A. and Hamas, which rules 2 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
Milstein noted that on the eve of the negotiations in 2000, “there was a feeling that a political settlement was near.” However, “20 years later, most Palestinians believe there is no settlement on the horizon, certainly not one based on the two-state solution.”
More Palestinian youth have latched on to the idea of a one-state solution that would see all Palestinians becoming citizens of Israel, essentially wiping out the character of the Jewish state.
According to Milstein, “a very conspicuous” portion of young Palestinians believe in one-state “between the river and the sea.”
“It’s a nightmare for Israel,” he said. “It’s not good news. In Israel, we are not paying enough attention to this trend.”
‘Arafat’s goal: Mobilize the Muslim world against Israel’
Dan Diker, director of the Political Warfare Project at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, told JNS, “20 years after the deadly ‘Al-Aqsa intifada,’ the Palestinians find themselves cornered or ‘checked’ with limited possible moves on the Arab Muslim majority Middle East chessboard.”
He noted that the Second Intifada was Arafat’s “Hail Mary pass” using violence and terror “to try and bury Israel, and drive it into submission.”
“It represented the end of Arafat’s acceptance of the Oslo presupposition of staging peace with Israel and was a return to the 1968 charter which called for the liberation of Palestine,” he said. “It was all framed in an Islamic context. It was called the ‘Al-Aqsa Intifada.’ Arafat’s goal was to mobilize the Muslim world against Israel.”
While many in the Muslim world believe even now that it was former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in September 2000 that sparked the intifada, in reality, the Palestinian campaign of violence and terror was well-planned beforehand.
Palestinian Communications Minister Imad Falouji admitted at a rally in Lebanon in March 2001 that the intifada had been in the works and was not sparked by Sharon’s visit.
Diker said he rode in a car in Ramallah 10 years ago with a former member of the Tanzim, a militant faction of the Fatah movement, who told him Arafat ignited the deadly Second Intifada in order to try to overcome the popularity of Hamas.
Thousands of right-wing party supporters demonstrate in Tel Aviv at Rabin Square, calling for Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority to be toppled at a right-wing rally on March 12, 2002. Photo by Flash90.
“And that internal Palestinian story is the story that many people do not know,” he revealed.
According to that official, Diker said that “the Palestinian war with Hamas got played out in an intifada against Israel.”
A recent article by Al Jazeera characterized the intifada as “large, non-violent demonstrations that included civil disobedience and some stone-throwing,” but it went far beyond this into massive violence and terror, and there is plenty of video evidence to support this.
That strategy ultimately failed, and today, it has become unacceptable to much of the Arab and Muslim world.
‘Strategies of terror warfare and ideological warfare have failed’
Having been mostly defeated in their effort to terrorize Israel into submission, especially after Sharon launched “Operation Defensive Shield” in late March 2002 in response to two years of Palestinian terror and suicide bombings, the Palestinians pivoted to a different strategy.
According to Diker, “they moved from violence and physical terror to ideological warfare.”
After the retreat of the Israeli army, former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat leaves his compound where he spent a few months in detention, Sept. 29, 2002. Photo by Flash90.
This second battle against Israel was expressed through the 2001 Durban, South Africa platform and the establishment of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.
“[Mahmoud] Abbas and the P.A. actively supported the delegitimization and dehumanization of Israel as an alternative to all-out suicide-bombing warfare,” said Diker. “The Palestinians now aimed to internationalize the conflict and move towards ideological warfare through complete delegitimization and defamation of Israel as a recognized Jewish nation-state. The goal became to delegitimize and defame Israel.”
But according to Diker, “both strategies of terror warfare and ideological warfare have failed.”
“They overplayed their cards and lost three main audiences they had won over in the early ’90s: the Palestinian public, the Israeli public and the Arab world,” he said. “They lost all three.”
The Palestinian leadership has also lost the support of many Palestinians. Some voices have been heard calling for the resignation of Abbas, and others have been heard supporting Hamas.
The Palestinians have largely lost the Israeli public as well. On the eve of Oslo in 1992, the Israeli Labor party had 44 seats. Today, the party has just three.
Perhaps most importantly, the Palestinians have lost a number of staunch supporters in the Arab world. Some Arab states are now saying they are more interested in protecting their own national interests, and that means working with Israel on a variety of pressing regional issues.
For those reasons, the UAE and Bahrain have crossed the threshold, and it looks probable that other Arab and Muslim countries will join them.
“The main problem is that there is no Palestinian leader who has been able to concede or recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people,” said Diker. “It goes against the charter. It goes against the ‘liberation of Palestine from the river to the sea.’ ”
‘Abraham Accords uprooted Palestinian ideological narrative’
Diker agreed with bin Sultan, who argued in his Monday monologue that the Palestinians consistently choose to be on the wrong side of history.
“They are on the losing side of this dispute,” Diker said of the Palestinians. “They have painted themselves into a corner, and the way they can get out of it is to cooperate quietly with Israel on daily issues.”
Dan Diker, Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
He continued, saying “the recognition of and normalization with Israel is the key. It is highly unlikely for there to be any progress unless the Palestinians do what the UAE did which is to recognize that there is a Jewish people and Jewish civilization. That’s why the agreement was called the ‘Abraham Accords.’ ”
Diker said the agreement with the UAE and Bahrain has put the Palestinians on notice. The region is moving forward without them, posing a major challenge because they had always counted on their having veto power over the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The main problem is the Palestinian’s refusal to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, explained Diker, adding that “the Abraham Accords uprooted the Palestinian ideological narrative and strategy.”
The P.A. leadership “can either join the expanding circle of Arab countries promoting peace and normalization with Israel, or submit to the Islamic ‘resistance’ network led by Iran, Turkey and to a degree Qatar,” said Diker. “Ultimately, their sustaining of the status quo, boycotting and defaming Israel, nullifying normalization, while financing and incentivizing terror will likely rain down disaster upon the Palestinian public.”
Diker noted that Palestinian society is split between supporting the P.A. or Hamas.
While there is growing Palestinian support for Hamas rule beyond the borders of Gaza, “nearly 35,000 Palestinian residents of Judea and Samaria work closely and profitably with Israelis in 15 industrial and commercial zones across the West Bank as they quietly seek to expand relations with their Israeli neighbor,” he noted.
Twenty years may have passed since the start of the Second Intifada, but it is still clear that the Palestinian issue remains stagnant; Palestinian strategies to delegitimize Israel have failed; and now Abbas has gotten himself up a proverbial tree.
According to Milstein, Israel can work to get Abbas off the tree, “but we must do it in a clever and sensitive way.”
Yet in the same breath, he said that as long as Abbas serves as the Palestinian leader, “very few changes will happen.”
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
by Lizzie Porter
Prospect Magazine, October 5, 2020
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)
“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.
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
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.
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.”
A funeral procession for Hezbollah military commander Jamil At Tiri, who was killed in Syria. While official numbers have not been released, it is estimated over 1,100 Hezbollah soldiers have lost their lives in the conflict. Photo: Crop Media/Shutterstock
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 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”?
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.)
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.