Argument

Hezbollah’s Rainbow Coalition

The Shiite group is making inroads with other communities. Here’s how—and why.

Supporters of Hezbollah fly the group’s flag during an event marking the 11th anniversary of the end of the 2006 war with Israel in the village of Khiam in southern Lebanon on Aug. 13, 2017.
Supporters of Hezbollah fly the group’s flag during an event marking the 11th anniversary of the end of the 2006 war with Israel in the village of Khiam in southern Lebanon on Aug. 13, 2017. Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP/Getty Images

Abu Hadi is not a typical Hezbollah fighter. Although he hails from Shiite-majority south Lebanon, he comes from a Sunni family. Back in 2011, he joined Hezbollah’s Resistance Brigades, units made up of mainly non-Shiite fighters. After voluntarily converting from Sunni Islam to Shiism, he joined the main Hezbollah corps in 2014. He said recently that he was not the only convert, and he pointed out that the monthly salary for fighters in Hezbollah was more than double the amount given to fighters in the Resistance Brigades. Still, he maintained, he joined the corps for ideological reasons.

Abu Hadi is a veteran of Hezbollah’s corps today, but his story and those of fighters like him highlight the group’s inroads with Sunnis and other religious groups across Lebanon in recent years. As Hezbollah has set its sights on cross-sectarian, national-level power as a political party as well as a militant group, support from non-Shiite communities has become an ever more important part of its calculus. It has been able to capitalize on feelings of popular discontent among all of Lebanon’s sects and today enjoys more influence among Christians, Sunnis, and Druze than ever before.

Founded as a Shiite fundamentalist organization in the mid-1980s, Hezbollah released an amended manifesto in 2009 that de-emphasized its Islamist background and underscored its interest in Lebanon’s stability and the fight against Israel. By this time, the group had already been working to facilitate cooperation with other sects, signing a memorandum of understanding with the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), a Christian-majority party, in 2006.

But it wasn’t until the May 2018 parliamentary elections that Hezbollah was able to significantly increase its influence among non-Shiite sects in parliament. Not only did the elections that year see Hezbollah’s bloc gain seats, but the FPM, still its ally, became the most powerful Lebanese Christian party. In addition, a group of six pro-Hezbollah Sunni deputies were elected to parliament, and the traditionally dominant anti-Hezbollah Sunni party, the Future Movement led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri, lost a third of its seats.

“We are very delighted with the victories our allies in the Sunni community have made,” a Hezbollah official told me in Beirut’s southern suburbs. “You don’t have the Future Movement being the only bloc for the Sunnis.” Hanin Ghaddar, a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, concurred that deep disappointment with the Future Movement has left Sunnis with few political options.

“On the street, you can tell that the Sunnis are headless today,” Ghaddar said. “They do not feel that they have someone to represent them, because Hariri is no longer supported by Saudi Arabia, but also because Hariri has been compromising a lot. It doesn’t translate well.”

Minister of State for Foreign Trade Hassan Mrad, a pro-Hezbollah Sunni candidate who was appointed to Lebanon’s cabinet in 2019 at Hezbollah’s insistence, confirmed that in places like the Beqaa Valley, which he represents, support for Hezbollah-backed Sunnis stems from anger with the Future Movement. He said that Hezbollah is supporting him and other anti-Hariri Sunnis to gain backing from the Sunni community in order to advance their national strategy.

Sheikh Maher Hammoud, the imam of the Quds Mosque in Sunni-majority Sidon and perhaps the most influential Sunni advocate for Hezbollah and its allies in the city today, puts the support of Sunni communities for Hezbollah at “at least a third.” According to a pair of surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center, favorable views of Hezbollah among Lebanese Sunnis rose from 6 percent in 2013 to 9 percent in 2014. Since then, data on the matter has been scant, but the election of Hezbollah-allied Sunnis to parliament in 2018, who replaced Future Movement deputies in three key seats, suggests that the numbers have likely grown. Ghaddar said that while by and large Sunnis still have mixed feelings about Hezbollah, the group’s outreach strategy in the community is working.

Hezbollah’s outreach to Sunnis may still have a way to go, but Christians have embraced and accepted Hezbollah to a much greater degree.

Hezbollah’s outreach to Sunnis may still have a way to go, but according to Ghaddar, Lebanese Christians have embraced and accepted Hezbollah to a much greater degree. With FPM founder Michel Aoun’s ascension to the presidency in 2016 and the party’s large gains in 2018, Hezbollah’s outreach to the Christian community has yielded real political dividends.

Their partnership has been bolstered further by common cause on the Islamic State, Syrian refugee returns, and other issues.

Many Christian minorities live along Lebanon’s frontier with Syria. After the Islamic State captured the town of Arsal in 2014, the neighboring town of Ras Baalbek, one of several Christian enclaves in the northern Beqaa Valley, found itself on the front lines of the conflict. Locals formed security patrols to protect themselves from the new threat, sometimes with the backing of Hezbollah, which is the dominant force in the area.

Hezbollah played a role in the Islamic State’s defeat in the Beqaa Valley in 2017. But despite the Lebanese Army’s more prominent role in the campaign, Hezbollah has leveraged its involvement to add to its credentials as the defender of Lebanon’s minorities—a claim that the group’s Christian allies have repeated. “Hezbollah defended not only Shiite when they were fighting against [the Islamic State],” said Elie Khoury, the vice president of the FPM’s Youth and Sports Sector. “They defended Christians, Sunnis, Shiite, and Druze, and all Lebanese.”

The frontier has also seen a vast influx of Sunni refugees from Syria. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Beqaa Valley hosts over 340,000 registered Syrian refugees as of July of this year—the largest share of any of Lebanon’s regions. Christians and Shiites alike want to see those migrants return home. In addition to a combination of demographic anxieties and economic concerns, the dominant parties representing both religious groups in parliament have a favorable attitude toward the Syrian regime, which has recently been trying to entice refugees to return home.

Other causes unite some Christians and Hezbollah as well. Fadi Salloum is a Christian and works as the public notary in Yaroun, a village that is one-third Christian and two-thirds Shiite. Yaroun sits right on the Blue Line separating Lebanon from Israel, and Salloum recounted the village’s experiences during both the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon that lasted from 1982 until 2000 and during the subsequent 2006 war with Israel. “The Israeli enemy destroyed the church,” Salloum said of the 2006 war. “The cemeteries—destroyed, in the Christian areas and in the Muslim areas. Our enemy is the same.” Salloum said he stands with Hezbollah and asserted that all Christians in the area do as well.

Of course, some Christians remain skeptical. Menaam Mehana, Ras Baalbek’s mayor, said that the joint fight against the Islamic State was a marriage of necessity. But now, the Rev. Ibrahim Nehmo, the priest leading the town’s St. Elian Greek Catholic Church, said he feels Lebanon’s Christian parties have left people here behind. “All of them have left this area for Hezbollah’s policy,” he said. “We are with Hezbollah in general coordination, but this does not mean submission.” Nehmo added that the Christians of Ras Baalbek today are not seeking to challenge Hezbollah’s presence.

Another group feeling such growing pains may be the Druze. Since 2018, Hezbollah’s primary Druze ally, the Lebanese Democratic Party led by Talal Arslan, has been steadily asserting itself in the Druze community, which remains dominated politically by the anti-Hezbollah Progressive Socialist Party (PSP). Shortly after the 2018 elections, a confrontation between supporters of the two parties resulted in the death of a PSP supporter, and in early 2019, Arslan entered into an alliance with another anti-PSP politician, Wiam Wahhab, whose supporters had allegedly fired upon PSP leader Walid Jumblatt’s mountain palace in late 2018.

On June 30, though, a shootout involving the PSP left a Lebanese Democratic Party-affiliated minister’s bodyguards dead. It was a sign that Arslan and his political allies had rocked the status quo too much in the Druze political arena. While both Druze camps have support in the community, Jumblatt continues to hold a tight grip over the sect’s affairs. Fatigue with his party’s primacy has given Hezbollah and its allies a way in, but Druze people have historically avoided falling into disunity over partisan affairs, making Hezbollah’s job more difficult.

A roadblock facing Hezbollah’s outreach to all of Lebanon’s sects has been funding. As sanctions from the United States and other countries have piled up, Hezbollah’s coffers have been drained. One Hezbollah official said that support from Lebanon’s sects would continue with or without financial assistance. Ghaddar, however was skeptical, saying that financial investments have played a key role in furthering Hezbollah’s influence among the Sunni community in particular.

Regardless of what the future holds, it is clear that Hezbollah is prioritizing expansion to non-Shiite groups. And its success in doing so has helped the group to rhetorically minimize its sectarian origins and speak to Lebanon’s future as a whole.

“We all know that whether we like it or not, Hezbollah controls the country,” Adel Arslan, Talal’s nephew who opposes the older Arslan politically, told me. “They did not just infiltrate.” They also filled the gaps. And “when you fill the gap, that’s when it’s dangerous. And this is the situation.”

Michal Kranz is a freelance journalist.

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