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State of play

The most potent of all the armed non-state actors in West Asia, Hezbollah, is undergoing deep convulsions. The international footprint of the Lebanese Hezbollah, which fought the battle-hardened Israeli army to a standstill in the first decade of the millennium, has certainly grown. But conversely, the militant group is weaker domestically today than it was at any point over the past decade.

Statesman News Service | New Delhi |

The most potent of all the armed non-state actors in West Asia, Hezbollah, is undergoing deep convulsions. The international footprint of the Lebanese Hezbollah, which fought the battle-hardened Israeli army to a standstill in the first decade of the millennium, has certainly grown. But conversely, the militant group is weaker domestically today than it was at any point over the past decade.

According to West Asia expert Daniel L. Byman, while Hezbollah has focused its formidable energies on helping its long-time ally Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria win that country’s civil war, as the conflict winds down with Mr. Assad securing his hold on power, “Hezbollah is being pulled in many competing directions”.

Lebanon itself is in crisis, with Hezbollah’s legitimacy declining. Iran, meanwhile, is pushing Hezbollah to intensify and expand its military operations, especially against Israel, and to bolster militant groups in Iraq, Yemen, and other countries. Hezbollah, in what may be termed enlightened self-preservation, is being careful to avoid creating a situation that could escalate into a full-blown armed conflict even as it retains its hatred for Israel.

It is dependent on Tehran for financial, logistical, and political support, yet Hezbollah is wary of the ability of America to tighten the financial pressure on it and take further steps to weaken the organization if it ups the ante. That the new government under formation in Israel under Benjamin Netanyahu with the support of far-right religious parties which advocate the hardest possible line against Hezbollah is another factor in the mix. In these circumstances, says Byman, the extremist group’s fate will ultimately depend on Lebanese and regional dynamics.

Experts broadly agreed that Hezbollah would continue to try and exercise influence in Lebanon (and the wider region) while trying to shore up its legitimacy, but without seeking to provoke a war with Israel and the USA. For example, in July 2022, the Lebanese Hezbollah sent unmanned drones to threaten Israel as it attempted to begin production at the Karish gas field.

Tel Aviv responded by shooting down the drones and, despite concerns, the Hezbollah action did not prevent Israel and Lebanon from negotiating a deal over the field which marked a step forward in the normalisation of bilateral ties. In fact, despite its rhetoric, Hezbollah proved willing to allow the deal to move forward and eventually even praised it, “suggesting it might want to rock the boat but not tip it over”, adds Byman.

That is because just like nation-states, this major non-state actor too has multiple strategic aims. It has effectively given up on imposing a theocratic state in Lebanon; the widespread recent protests in Iran would have only strengthened the resolve of the Hezbollah leadership not to go too far down that road. Instead, Hezbollah seems to be seeking a major political role in Lebanon, even working with other communities to achieve that end. It will, of course, continue to regard Israel as Enemy No. 1, assist Palestinian militant groups, and further Iran’s interests. But caution is likely to be the group’s watchword going forward.