The Increasingly Violent Conflict Between Shiites and Iran’s Proxies
A killing in Lebanon is a symbol of a growing regional backlash against sectarian politics.
Lokman Slim, a political analyst, activist, filmmaker, and prominent critic of Hezbollah, was killed in cold blood by unknown assailants on the night of Feb. 3. His bullet-ridden body, shot multiple times in the head and the neck, was found in his car in Hezbollah-dominated South Lebanon.
“The truth, I know the truth of who killed him in my heart,” Slim’s sister Rasha al-Ameer told Foreign Policy. Her implication was clear: It was Hezbollah. Slim had been receiving threats for a while, and he had warned in a letter he wrote last year that the Iran-backed Hezbollah should be blamed for any attempt on his life. (Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has denied any role in the killing.)
But aside from being a personal tragedy, Slim’s killing is part of an important geopolitical trend. Analysts and activists have pointed to a parallel between his death and a spike in killings of activists in Iraq, also allegedly by Iran-backed militias. They say that Slim was a target because he was Shiite and seen as a traitor by Hezbollah for weakening its sway in the religious community the group depends on as a political base and as foot soldiers in regional conflicts.
Ayman Mhanna is the executive director of the Samir Kassir Foundation, a nongovernmental organization that works on freedom of speech in the Levant region that was named in honor of Samir Kassir, a Lebanese journalist who was also assassinated in 2005. Mhanna said assassinations stopped in Lebanon after an armed Hezbollah had established a firm grip over Lebanon and no one could rise against it.
“One side prevailed, so there was no need to assassinate anyone,” he said. “Now there is a new form of opposition to Hezbollah and the entire political class, from a leaderless mass of people who seek a secular, human-rights-driven country. Lokman had enough cultural influence to shape the discourse that called for a new nonsectarian social contract between the citizen and the state.”
“More importantly, Lokman was a Shia,” Mhanna added. “One of their own who was giving a voice to other Shias disgruntled with the group.”
There is no doubt that Hezbollah is popular among some Shiites in Lebanon who feel empowered by the armed group. The community has been traditionally discriminated against in a country first ruled by Sunni Ottomans and then the French, who preferred to have better ties with the Christians. Post-independence, too, they remained economically disadvantaged. The emergence of a prominent Shiite cleric, Musa al-Sadr, gave them hope, but he disappeared while on a trip to Libya in 1978. Hezbollah was born shortly after and founded by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the army of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s first supreme leader, who sought the revival of Shiite power in the Islamic world.
But not all Shiites think alike, and disenchantment among them, too, has grown since Lebanon’s economy collapsed. Many who supported the group as a defense against Israel were perplexed to see Hezbollah back the notoriously corrupt political class, if only to maintain its own hold on Lebanon’s politics.
Randa Slim, a political analyst on the region, said that Lokman Slim’s killing is a clear message by Hezbollah to Shiites that their opposition won’t be tolerated. “Hezbollah will no longer stick to character assassination only to shut down this opposition,” she said. “Holding Hezbollah accountable for the dire economic conditions that have befallen Lebanon and the Shia, in particular, was part of Lokman’s arguments against Hezbollah that had been gaining traction inside the Shia community.”
Makram Rabah, a lecturer at the American University of Beirut and a close friend of the late activist, said that Slim encouraged a national identity over Iran and Hezbollah’s sectarian project in the region.
“Lokman was Shia and he wanted to bring the Shias back into the Arab fold, a part of our national identity. He opposed the crazy idea of this Persian culture that is actually alien to us and that Iran is spreading,” Rabah said. “He wasn’t just for the Shia but also represented the revolution which started in October 2019, and which was clearly nonsectarian.”
Hanin Ghaddar, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and another staunch critic of Hezbollah, said there was an evident link between Slim’s killing in Lebanon and those of his counterparts in Iraq. “For many anti-Hezbollah critics in Lebanon this means that if Hezbollah is not held accountable, they will continue targeting them, one by one, similar to the series of assassinations that took place in Iraq recently,” Ghaddar said. “In Iraq, take the case of Hisham al-Hashimi. Pro-Iran militias in Iraq have been accused of his killing.” Hashimi, a political analyst who had recently begun criticizing militia activity, was shot dead last year on the same day that he reportedly called a London-based friend and shared his fear that he might be killed by Iran-backed forces.
According to Amnesty International, since the beginning of the protests in Iraq in October 2019, tens of activists have been killed by militias that were part of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), many of which are backed by Iran and yet also remain a part of Iraq’s security forces.
“Unidentified gunmen believed to be militia members and PMU members targeted activists for assassination or abduction, killing at least 30 in Baghdad, Nasriya and Basra,” said Lynn Maalouf, the deputy research director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International. “Attempts were made on the lives of more than 30 others, who escaped with injuries. According to the UN Mission on Iraq, by May 2020, the whereabouts of at least 20 activists and protesters remained unknown.”
During the Iraq protests, there were repeated attacks on the demonstration camps, in which more than 500 people were killed. According to the Independent High Commission for Human Rights of Iraq, 15,000 were injured in the protests. Gunmen arrived in minivans at protest sites, hid on rooftops at times, and opened fire indiscriminately. The killings began after Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, later assassinated by the United States in a drone strike in January 2020, visited Iraq to counsel the government and the PMU.
In Lebanon, also engulfed in protests at the same time, Hezbollah’s supporters were accused of storming protest sites on motorbikes, threatening protesters, dismantling their tents, and calling them traitors paid by Western embassies.
The young and the unemployed in both countries who protested, however, asked for jobs, called for an end to corruption, and voiced their aspiration for a functioning democratic state, rejecting the idea of sect-based politics. They challenged political parties of all hues. But both countries are overwhelmingly under the sway of Iran-backed militias that flex their muscle on the street while also being a part of the governments. Ever since the United States toppled Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003 and Iran-backed Hezbollah halted the Israeli military on Lebanon’s southern border in a war in 2006, Tehran has succeeded in expanding its influence in the region through these proxies.
But despite being in government, they have failed to improve the lives of the people they claim to represent—not just the public at large, but even their own sectarian groups. It’s true that they have helped win the regional fight against the Islamic State. But daily life remains a struggle—including for Shiites, whose loyalty these groups can no longer count on.