Hezbollah’s Military and Political Victory in Arsal

Hezbollah is turning its successful military operation in Arsal in East Lebanon against Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, a coalition of Islamist militias including the former al-Qaeda affiliate the Nusra Front) into a major victory for the Lebanese militant group. The campaign, which ended with the transfer of some eight thousand Syrian refugees and a few hundred fighters back to northern Syria, gives credibility to Hezbollah’s “resistance against Takfiris” narrative, anchoring its position further within its mainly Shia constituency, and extending its reach outside its traditional base to Christian and Sunni communities. The Arsal campaign appears to be a calculated move for Hezbollah to consolidate its power in Lebanon and within the Lebanese government. 

What differentiated the Arsal military operation from other Hezbollah campaigns is the media activity that accompanied it. Since the onset of the Syrian revolution in 2011, Hezbollah has minimized the coverage of its military forays into Syria because of the nationalist blowback it would face in Lebanon. However, in 2014 the Lebanese town of Arsal fell outside the control of the Lebanese state when seven hundred Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) and Jabhat al-Nusra militants seized the town, bringing the battle to Hezbollah’s home turf. Hezbollah’s media station, al-Manar, and the pro-Iranian station al-Mayadeen, continuously broadcast the battles this July between Hezbollah and HTS. Images of fighters climbing the rugged mountains or engaged in fierce battles were transmitted to the backdrop of nationalistic music. Some of the Hezbollah fighters were shown planting Lebanese and Hezbollah flags on mountain tops, and carrying pictures of Lebanese army and internal security officers who were killed at the hands of the Nusra Front and ISIS after thirty of them were kidnapped in 2014.

Hezbollah’s ingenious marketing of the Arsal operation against a relatively small cell of jihadists exhausted by two years of siege has allowed it to consolidate its image in Lebanon. Hezbollah secured another psychological victory by guaranteeing a ceasefire agreement with HTS and the return of five of its fighters, whom ISIS had kidnapped in 2015 and 2016. Hezbollah’s enforcement of its “no man left behind” policy strengthened its credibility. “Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah (Hezbollah’s general secretary) told us he would never leave a fighter behind and has kept his word. Like he did in Syria where he promised us a victory,” says Bilal, a resident of Beirut’s southern suburbs and Hezbollah stronghold known as al-Dahiya. In a speech in March 2014, Nasrallah warned that Islamist fighters coming from Syria pose a threat to Lebanon. “If takfiris achieve victory in Syria, we would all be eliminated in Lebanon, not just the resistance,” he said at the time.

Hezbollah’s campaign against HTS has appealed to other constituencies besides the party’s traditional popular base. Many in the Christian villages of nearby Qaa who spoke to the author say they now feel safer without the threat of HTS looming on the horizon. With the exception of the leader of the Christian Kataeb party, Samy Gemayel, whose statement challenged Hezbollah for overstepping its bounds and making decisions he felt should be the government’s (such as the return of ISIS fighters to Syria), most Christians leaders limited themselves to timid statements. Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea, though a staunch enemy of Hezbollah, spoke relatively positively of the operation saying it would put residents of surrounding villages at ease.

Unexpectedly, the campaign had positive echoes with members of the Sunni community, which is considered at odds with Hezbollah since the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which Special Tribunal for Lebanon attributed to members of the organization. “I may not support Hezbollah but they have proven to be the only people capable of protecting us against the infiltration of jihadists elements,” says Ali, a Lebanese Sunni. Even Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri admitted that Hezbollah “achieved something” in their victory over the former al-Qaeda linked militants. “Hezbollah carried out the operation and it achieved something and what’s important is the result,” Hariri added. Rare were direct criticisms of Hezbollah’s eastern endeavor.

Hezbollah’s campaign to charm the Lebanese public over Arsal follows a year-long strategy of cooptation of the Lebanese political class. After two years of bickering, Lebanese factions swiftly agreed last October to the election of General Michel Aoun as head of the state. General Aoun has been a fierce ally of Hezbollah since 2006 when the group signed a memorandum of understanding. With Aoun president, relations between the Lebanese state and Hezbollah are now at their best, explains journalist and Hezbollah expert Brahim Beyram.

Aoun’s election was followed by the appointment of Saad Hariri as prime minister, who is also the head of the Future Movement and the son of former Prime Minister RafiK Hariri. Hariri was able to form a thirty-minister government, including factions located at the end of the Lebanese political spectrum such as state minister Ali Kanso from the Syrian National Socialist Party (a staunch anti-Syrian government platform), and anti-Iran figures such as education minister Marwan Hamadeh and Moin Merhebeh (Future movement). However, the fact that Hezbollah, considered a terrorist group by the United States, is fighting an internationally designated terrorist group, puts many in a conflicted position. The group’s support of the Syrian regime must now be seen in light of its willingness to fight ISIS and al-Qaeda-affiliated groups. The United States has made its own position clear: it prioritizes fighting ISIS and al-Qaeda, and has taken no concrete action against Hezbollah despite the latter’s support of the Syrian regime. The regional shift in the balance of power in favor of Iran and the regime of President Bashar Assad, combined with receding support of Gulf countries and more importantly the United States, puts Hariri in a difficult position when dealing with Hezbollah.

Undoubtedly, Hezbollah’s continuous political and military support over the past year will once again postpone the issue of the group’s demilitarization, an issue that has divided Lebanon since 2000 when the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon ended.  The war on terror, which Hezbollah argues, disputably, that it is at the forefront of, and current local and regional equilibrium, appear to place Hezbollah for the medium term in a very favorable position as a growing non-state player batting at a regional level.

Mona Alami is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: Photo: A Hezbollah fighter stands in front of anti-tank artillery at Juroud Arsal, the Syria-Lebanon border, July 29, 2017. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho