Hezbollah’s Regional Role: Why and When?14/10/2014
Published by Center for Global Security and Geopolitical Studies, 11\10\2014
According to the nature of its regional role within the Middle East, Hezbollah represents a clear example of the rising role of “non-state actors.” In general, non-state actors are gaining more influence and presence in regional and international discourse, as many factors such the revolution of communication, diffusion of power, failed states, identity crises, and asymmetric warfare, are enabling them to “punch above their weight.”
Hezbollah has managed to utilize its power resources to the maximum by integrating ideological and realistic goals and maintaining a smart leadership that evolves, adapts, and holds strategic patience. The regional influence of Hezbollah comes first and foremost from his role as a “resistance movement” against Israel in Lebanon, where its achievements in this context caused a clear power shift in the Middle East.
Hezbollah’s regional role stems from two core components that constitute its identity: revolutionary Islam and resistance. Hezbollah believes in the concept of the “Islamic nation” which means that Muslims should have similar interests and face common threats. So, according to Hezbollah, Muslims are supposed to cooperate on the political level and act as “one nation.” Hezbollah recognizes the differences and specificities present among various Islamic actors, and hence it believes that each actor has the right to choose its own way of action as long as it falls under the interests of the “Islamic nation.”
Based on its revolutionary Islamic character, the concepts of “oppressed” and “oppressor” are widely used by Hezbollah. The struggle between the oppressor and the oppressed dominates world politics. According to Hezbollah’s 2009 political document, conflicts are “based on a political – moral foundation in the first place, between an oppressor and an oppressed, between a tyrant and a suppressed, between an occupier and a freedom seeker”. Therefore, the “unity of the oppressed” and the “unity of the Islamic nation” are key factors in legitimizing Hezbollah’s regional role and also international role, as is the case of Bosnia in the beginning of the 1990s.
On another side, Hezbollah belongs to the “axis of resistance” in the Middle East. The power of any actor in the region is directly associated by the power of the axis it belongs to; “axis” not “state” is more useful unit of analysis in the region. According to Hezbollah, the regional conflict is between two main axes: one is led by the United States, which aims to obtain ultimate power by achieving regional hegemony that enables it to control and exploit the resources of the region and oppress its people, while the other is led by Iran. Hezbollah’s engagement in the resistance, caused great tensions with its Arab counterparts, which belong to the American hegemonic project.
Aware of the escalating tensions between the two axes, Hezbollah needed to attain a powerful regional role, especially that factions within Lebanon are part of the “American axis” and are actively seeking Hezbollah’s elimination or isolation. Moreover, this need intensified after the US managed to turn the conflict in the region, after its withdrawal from Iraq, to a sectarian one. The US decided to play on a very sensitive chord in the region, sectarianism, by adopting a “leading from behind” strategy that pushed its regional allies upfront in the face of Iran and its allies. This new strategy heightened Hezbollah’s involvement in the struggle for power, which partly explains the expansion of Hezbollah’s regional role lately.
However, those two components, “revolutionary Islam” and “the resistance,” solely explain the theoretical foundation of Hezbollah’s regional role. When it comes to “when” and “how” Hezbollah intervenes in regional matters, other variables come into the picture. Even though Hezbollah is an ideological entity, it bases its decision on strategic calculations and rational thinking.
Hezbollah is very aware of the need to balance between ideological aims and actual capabilities, and so it chooses to utilize its resources in matters of great importance. When it comes to decision making, Hezbollah doesn’t base his decisions solely on ideological beliefs as many factors, such as resources, internal and external tensions, competition and power balancing, are taken into consideration when weighing the pros and cons of entering any battle.
So, what are the main variables that influence how and when Hezbollah takes an action on the regional scale?
- Priorities. Hezbollah seeks to preserve, strengthen and protect the resistance in Lebanon first and foremost, and then in the Levant where Hezbollah is mainly operating. This priority, the “resistance” in Lebanon, becomes in great jeopardy if the greater resistance, the “axis of resistance,” loses one of its pillars (mainly Iran and Syria). This priority is reflected in Hezbollah’s decision to get involved in any regional struggle that aims at weakening this axis by targeting one of its main pillars. Moreover, this priority, preserving the resistance in Lebanon, obliges Hezbollah to get involved in battles of high necessity and to use his resources in great efficiency.
2. Necessities. Operating outside the Lebanese borders is not a preferable option for Hezbollah, as the group rather to use its resources in building the balance of deterrence and power against Israel, a task that requires hard and sustained efforts. Furthermore, Hezbollah recently employed more efforts and resources in engaging in local politics, something that Hezbollah has long avoided to large extent. But what is the criterion of this necessity? The criterion of necessity is primarily strategic, which means countering anything that might impose a sever threat to the axis of resistance.
3.Resources. The extent and depth of any action by Hezbollah should be within his limits. Historically, Hezbollah often had a logistic and supporting role, often in training and planning missions, which required limited material and human resources. Despite its achievements, Hezbollah remains an organization that has limited resources and is continuously under great threat.
4. Legitimacy. The more a specific regional struggle is related to Hezbollah’s ideological and leadership legitimacy, and the legitimacy of its narrative, the higher chances of an intervention are. The impulse to intervene in any strategic issue increases when the issue has an ideological dimension, such as the protection of the shrines, for example.
Hezbollah’s intervention in the Syrian crisis is a clear reflection of its regional presence, as its role in Syria will definitely have a far-reaching and long lasting consequences. Through this intervention, Hezbollah maintained the role of Syria – though in a fragile state- within the axis of resistance, protected its strategic depth and arm supply lines, prevented the creation of a hostile regime in Syria which can shift the Lebanese balance of power, secured most of the Syrian – Lebanese border from the attacks of extremist groups, and also prevented the American axis form a historical – strategic opportunity to compensate its regional losses since 2000. Also, it contributed in increasing the tensions between Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, opened a possibility for the Syrian army to regain control on the border with Iraq, tightened and promoted the cohesion and confidence between the elements of the resistance axis, gained tactical and operational experience, and acquired experience to work alongside regular allied troops. In conclusion, Hezbollah gained a chair at the table of regional settlements.