Who controls the Hizbullah front? One short answer to this question would be Iran, but in fact the real situation may be much more intricate.
Those who see Iran as controlling the actions of the Lebanese Shia group do so as a result of their view of Iran’s position as the preeminent power within what is commonly referred to as the “Axis of Resistance.”
This coalition comprises the Islamic Republic of Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Those who stress Iran’s preeminence believe that Hamas, or the Islamic Resistance Movement, and Hizbullah, the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon, both operate as extensions of Tehran, serving its interests as both a state and a religious regime.
Following the launch of Operation Al-Aqsa Flood into Israel from Gaza by Hamas on 7 October, Hizbullah started launching missiles into Israel from Lebanon “in solidarity with the Palestinian resistance,” it said in an announcement the following day.
Since then, the Arab, Israeli, and Western media have been speaking about a “second front” in the fight against Israel.
“This is not a moment for any party hostile to Israel to exploit these attacks [of 7 October] to seek advantage. The world is watching,” warned the US in response to concerns over Israeli security and the country’s military failure in the fight against Hamas.
However, Iran has not remained silent since the beginning of the Israeli aggression against Gaza, saying that the “resistance” will not remain passive in the event of a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip.
Since the commencement of the Israeli Operation Iron Swords in Gaza after 8 October, over 8,000 Palestinians have been killed, 60 per cent of them children and women. More than one million Palestinians have been displaced, with their homes either wholly obliterated or partially damaged.
Thus far, the northern front, or second front, against Israel remains unopened.
According to Lebanese journalist Galal Hamdan, “coincidentally or by design, this October marks the 40th anniversary of the twin bombings of the US Marine Corps base at Beirut Airport and the French paratroopers base in 1983 that killed 300 soldiers and officers.”
“During the 1980s and 1990s, late Syrian president Hafez Al-Assad employed Hizbullah on a variety of strategic manoeuvres against diverse adversaries,” including his Palestinian rivals the Fatah Movement and Lebanon’s leftist current led by Kamal Jumblatt, and Israel, which also invaded Lebanon in 1983.
“Al-Assad controlled the amount of weaponry transferred from Iran to Hizbullah via Syria at that time,” Hamdan noted.
“The relationship between the two sides was later fostered during the tenure of current Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, particularly following the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon in 2005.”
A year later, the 2006 war between Israel and Hizbullah broke out, resulting in the deaths of 1,000 Lebanese and 30 Israelis and causing extensive damage to Lebanon’s infrastructure. Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese were displaced from the southern and central regions of the country.
The present clashes have led to the displacement of 30,000 Lebanese.
“Hizbullah has not dared to confront Israel directly since 2006, despite all the pressure it has been enduring,” Hamdan said.
“Neither Hizbullah nor Syria want another confrontation with Israel at a time when Syria is grappling with its worst economic crisis in years, as has been stated by the World Bank,” he added.
Meanwhile, the economic crunch in Lebanon has severely eroded the living standards of the country’s middle classes, including their access to food, healthcare, and education.
Hizbullah’s early involvement in the protracted Syrian Civil War starting in 2011 has facilitated the recruitment of thousands of Shia fighters to combat takfiris, or members of extremist Sunni groups, and the terrorist Islamic State (IS) group.
“But despite the experience gained by Hizbullah fighters and their acquisition of Russian weaponry, signs of discontent have begun to surface among the Lebanese Shia,” Hamdan said.
According to Lebanese figures, the number of Hizbullah members killed in the Syrian Civil War could be as high as 10,000, although this figure could not be confirmed from an independent source.
Irrespective of the magnitude of the casualties suffered by Hizbullah, its leadership will carefully assess the situation before embarking on a confrontation with Israel, where the casualty figures could potentially double.
This is especially the case considering the brutality the Israeli forces are currently showing towards civilians in Gaza, where they claim to be “uprooting Hamas.”
There has been discontent among some Shias regarding the number of Hizbullah members killed in the Syrian Civil War, according to a survey conducted by the Haya Binaa Association, led by Luqman Slim, a Shia activist who opposed Hizbullah before his assassination in February 2021.
According to the survey, Shia support for Hizbullah’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War declined from over 83 per cent to less than 78 per cent in 2015. However, it resurged in 2020 due to the relative calm in many Syrian regions and the worsening economic conditions in Lebanon.
The acceptance of Hizbullah’s participation in the Syrian Civil War by Shias can be attributed to the deteriorating economic situation in Lebanon itself. For many, working as a Hizbullah fighter with a monthly salary “is a viable economic opportunity,” Hamdan said.
During the tenure of former Lebanese president Michel Aoun, who enjoyed the support of Hizbullah, the Lebanese government initiated indirect negotiations with Israel, mediated by the UN, to establish maritime boundaries between the two countries.
The primary objective behind the demarcation is to enable economically beleaguered Lebanon to harness the natural gas reserves within its territorial waters and exclusive economic zone and establish consistent financial inflows to help the country navigate its protracted economic crisis.
“It seems unlikely that governments affiliated with Hizbullah would jeopardise the limited progress that has been achieved on this thus far. The prospect of oil and gas revenues holds the potential to alter the power dynamics in both Syria and Lebanon,” Hamdan said.
“This situation necessitates a pragmatic approach from both the Lebanese government and Hizbullah, including the avoidance of a full-scale conflict that would inflict severe harm on Lebanon.”
“Iran is inclined to open the Hizbullah front against Israel, but the Shia population of Lebanon and Syria remains averse to such a prospect,” Hamdan said.
“This is one of those rare instances where the interests of Syria and Hizbullah are in tension with those of Iran, setting the stage for a contest.”
“If Hizbullah does not engage in conflict with Israel, Syria and Hizbullah will be signalling their independence from Tehran.”
Syria did not join Egypt and Jordan in their rejection of ending the Palestinian issue at the recent Cairo Summit meeting and through the pronouncements of their political leadership and foreign ministers.
“The stance taken by Egypt and Jordan underscores the insistence of the Arab nations towards preserving the Palestinian cause, despite the efforts of Iran and Turkey to hijack it,” Hamdan said.
“The only remaining member of the neighbouring countries is Syria, and this is a pivotal moment eagerly anticipated by Syrians and Lebanese alike. It may not only determine the fate of the Palestinian cause but also the destiny of both nations,” he concluded.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly