This Is Not Your Father’s Hezbollah

This Is Not Your Father’s Hezbollah

BEIRUT — Around a kitchen table in Beirut’s southern suburbs, a midlevel Hezbollah commander moved empty coffee cups and a plastic water bottle around a cell phone, demonstrating how his men repelled an assault by what he said were Islamic State fighters along Lebanon’s border with Syria.

“They tried to come down through this valley, but we control the hills on either side,” he said, gesturing to the cell phone lying between the coffee cups and moving the water bottle to indicate the territory the militants still hold. “Right now we don’t have orders to attack; we are just defending.”

Sporting a neatly trimmed beard, weathered face, and thick khaki cargo pants, this commander, now in his 40s, first fought for Hezbollah during the group’s operations against Israel, when small teams of fighters carried out clandestine cross-border raids. The current war he’s fighting, against rebels trying to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, is much different: This time, the Shiite paramilitary group has a much larger footprint on the ground, and units like his are indefinitely stationed at posts beyond Lebanon’s borders.

This commander described watching, over the last three years, the organization he has been a member of his entire adult life swell in size as combat operations in Syria have expanded and support networks back in Lebanon have rushed to keep pace.

Hezbollah has been openly fighting in Syria alongside the Assad regime since early 2013. The group has proved critical in a number of key regime victories along the Syria-Lebanon border, allowing the Syrian regime to retake pockets of opposition-held territory there. Assad, a close ally of Iran, is an essential lifeline for the Lebanese militant group, providing it with supply lines from Tehran.

“We’re an army now,” the commander said. “We’re not a regular army, but we’re operating like one.”

But just as Hezbollah has changed the Syrian war, the conflict has also changed Hezbollah. The organization has become much larger, and its fighters have received the training that only involvement in a long conflict can provide. But at the same time, in some ways, the party is becoming unwieldy and more vulnerable to corruption and infiltration.

These concerns grew after Hezbollah’s second in command admitted this year that the party is “battling espionage within its ranks.” His statement was widely considered to be an admission that stories in the Arab press that Hezbollah had discovered that one of its operatives, Mohammad Shawraba, was an Israeli spy were true. Claims that Shawraba had been tasked with retaliating against Israel for the 2008 assassination of Hezbollah operative Imad Mughniyeh — and instead foiled five planned Hezbollah attacks — still remain unconfirmed.

“That guy, he was worthless,” the commander said. “Every time they catch anyone, the media always makes it out to be a huge deal.”

In some ways, the commander explained, Hezbollah is militarily stronger than ever before. Its involvement in the Syrian war has led to an uptick in recruiting, filling the group’s ranks with a growing number of young fighters, and years of combat have created a new generation of battle-tested militants. But travel further down the chain of command, and you hear a different take on the organization’s current state.

“They’ll take anyone [to go fight in Syria],” said a young fighter, who asked to be referred to only by the nickname Abu Ali. “So don’t be surprised if you see some thugs among us these days,” he added with a dark laugh.

While Abu Ali has been a member of Hezbollah for more than 10 years, he says he barely recognizes the organization these days. On the battlefield, he says, he sees fighters, once known for their discipline, acting out of pure rage; he said that on the streets of his neighborhood in Beirut’s southern suburbs, Hezbollah security forces, once a symbol of stability, now only add to the growing sense of unease. He believes the need for men on the front lines has forced Hezbollah to drop its recruiting standards.

“I don’t see the situation as very good right now among our boys,” he said, referring to Hezbollah fighters. “It’s dangerous.… They’re becoming ruthless after the experience they gained in Syria; they’re bloodthirsty.”

There was no lack of discipline on display at a recent speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Hundreds of Hezbollah supporters poured through a series of orderly security checks into a community center in the group’s stronghold on the southern edge of the Lebanese capital to watch the group’s leader speak via video link.

As the elusive leader’s smiling face was beamed onto a projector screen, the members of the crowd rose to their feet and chanted the usual welcome: “We are with you, Nasrallah!” The Hezbollah leader began his address by thanking the Lebanese Army and Hezbollah fighters for protecting Lebanon “against [Israeli] aggressions and threats of takfiri terrorist attacks.”

References to takfiris, meaning extremist Sunni jihadis like those from al-Nusra Front or the Islamic State who would expel other Muslims from the faith, have become a staple of Nasrallah’s speeches since the group openly acknowledged its involvement in the Syrian civil war. Such groups, Nasrallah said, threaten “the entire world and not only a certain country or region. All of us must assume this responsibility [of fighting back].”

Lebanon has been hit by more than a dozen attacks claimed by groups in Syria with links to al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State. Most recently, a group linked to al-Nusra Front claimed responsibility for a suicide bomb attack in a cafe in the northern city of Tripoli that killed at least nine people. Car bombs have also targeted Hezbollah strongholds in the suburbs of Beirut and in the eastern Bekaa Valley. While Israel has largely remained on the sidelines of the Syrian conflict, the Israel Defense Forces have allegedly attacked Hezbollah positions inside Syria on a number of occasions, reportedly in an attempt to prevent the group from obtaining sensitive arms shipments.

At Nasrallah’s speech, the majority of the crowd, made up of party officials, families with young children, and a smattering of teenagers, sat respectfully through the leader’s hour-plus-long speech. On the way out, each attendee was handed chocolates and a 2015 calendar wishing all a peaceful new year.

Nasrallah has attempted to assemble a big-tent coalition of Lebanese Sunnis and Christians to combat the jihadis. In the past few months, Hezbollah has entered into a dialogue with the predominantly Sunni Future Movement, a longtime political opponent, while also organizing delegations to tour churches in the country’s south and hanging Christmas decorations along the streets of Beirut’s southern suburbs. In parts of Syria and in northern Iraq, Islamic State fighters have displaced tens of thousands of Christians and have destroyed churches in the territory they control.

Whether this outreach will win any converts to Hezbollah’s cause, however, remains to be seen. Beirut’s archbishop, Paul Matar, received one of those Hezbollah delegations over the Christmas holiday. He described the meeting as polite and formal, much like any of the other meetings he regularly holds with Hezbollah leaders.

“It’s all just to have a better image,” Matar said. “They are trying to present themselves as completely different [from the Islamic State].”

But it’s going to be hard for Hezbollah to sustain that better image if it can’t maintain the tight discipline for which it is known.

“The Syrian conflict, it’s exposing cracks in the organization,” said a Lebanese security official who meets regularly with Hezbollah’s leadership. The cracks, he says, aren’t ideological — Hezbollah still maintains strong support from its base — but financial. The organization must maintain supply lines to troops stationed in Syria, and the number of families of fighters killed in battle who expect compensation continues to rise.

“All of this requires a lot of money to sustain,” the official said. “Their fighters are not just going to fight in the mountains with a small bag of snacks. They’re a real army now; they need a kitchen to feed their troops!”

Back in Beirut’s southern suburbs, Abu Ali, the fighter, says he believes the organization is aware of the loss of command and control over its ranks. In the event of a crisis, he says, he no longer trusts Hezbollah security forces to follow orders. Whether the organization can turn its new soldiers into a disciplined army, he believes, will determine how Hezbollah will emerge from the Syrian war with its strength and its reputation intact.

“There are a lot of things that are forbidden for us [as Shiites]. If you cross the line, we can easily melt away [as a political force],” he said. “We don’t want to cross that red line.”

Photo by MAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images