Danny Citrinowicz, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council
Forty years after its official establishment by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in Lebanon, Hezbollah seems to be at the peak of its power, in terms of its military capabilities. But there are signs of vulnerability for the organization, offering a potential chance to weaken it without military confrontation.
The State of Hezbollah Now
Hezbollah has highly advanced weapon systems that pose a clear threat to Israel and the entire region. Hezbollah has also used its expertise in warfare, gained on the battlefields of southern Lebanon and Syria, to help other members of the Iranian threat network (ITN) increase their military capacities. Hezbollah operatives are in Syria propping up Bashar al-Assad’s regime, in Iraq helping the powerful Hashd al-Shabi or “Popular Mobilization Forces” (PMF), and in Yemen helping the Houthis to improve their military posture, especially after the killing of Qassem Soleimani, the head of the IRGC Quds Force.
However, while Hezbollah in a military sense seems almost invincible, in a number of other respects it suffers from serious weaknesses, all related to the nature of its foundation.
Politically for example, the Lebanese election on 15 May has shown some political weakness. This is important because one of Hezbollah’s most significant achievements in recent years has been the establishment of a political system in Lebanon that it can remote control, ensuring that the Lebanese state does not challenge Hezbollah’s military capabilities and its military activity, while the state’s failures do not reflect on Hezbollah. The election results threaten to undermine this achievement, and draw Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah directly into Lebanon’s political problems, and, above all, question his ability to select a president and prime minister who will continue to turn a blind eye to Hezbollah’s actions. The strengthening of the “Nasrallah’s Demon” Samir Geagea among the Christian community and the support of Saudi Arabia and France to those who oppose Hezbollah are bad sighs for Nasrallah and his ability to continue controlling the Lebanese political system.
But the political issue is not the only challenge of the organization. Hezbollah is also suffering economic problems because of the economic crisis in Iran, which limit Tehran’s ability to help it financially, and the never-ending war in Syria. This means Hezbollah is having difficulty in supplying the needs of Shiite society in Lebanon, including the medical care for fighters wounded in Syria and the stipends for families of slain fighters, and this is being exacerbated by the economic-political pressure imposed by US sanctions on Hezbollah’s revenue-generating networks around the world and the bans of the organization in countries like Germany and Australia. These problems may make it more difficult for Hezbollah to recruit new members going forward.
Perhaps most notably, even within the Lebanese Shiite community there are voices emerging to publicly challenge Hezbollah. Although these are sporadic so far, and there is no alternative Shiite anti-Hezbollah organized political structure, Hezbollah is extremely afraid that these voices of scattered opposition will become a trend.
A Potential Way Forward
Given these conditions, the way to weaken Hezbollah is not necessarily via military confrontation, which might well strengthen Hezbollah’s image as a defender of Lebanon, especially considering its advanced military capabilities. Rather, the best way forward may be to exploit the organization’s political and economic weakness and deepen them.
The tool available to weaken Hezbollah are a “pincer movement” of financial and political options.
First, there is a need to deepen the economic campaign against Hezbollah and initiate worldwide campaign against the organization’s sources of income. One place that needs more attention is the revenue-generating networks among Shiite communities in South America and Africa, through monetary systems like Qard al-Hassan. Increasing the costs for Hezbollah’s presence in Syria and Iraq is also key.
Second, on the political level, continued efforts must be made to sever ties between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government, by on the one hand directing international aid to figures and institutions in Lebanon that are divorced from Hezbollah, and on the other hand initiating a campaign of pressure against those in the political system in Lebanon—politicians, military leaders, law-enforcement officials—who are cooperating with Hezbollah. An obvious step is to stop transferring funding to the Lebanese army if the connection between Lebanese military and Hezbollah is maintained. The US sanctions against Gibran Bassil are another example of the template for such action. The point is to create an incentive structure where rewards are available to those in Lebanon who make themselves independent of Hezbollah, and severe costs are imposed on those who continue to collaborate with the organization.
Third, maintain economic pressure on Iran, as the primary provider of funds and capabilities to Hezbollah. It is important that in the negotiations over the nuclear deal, the US and the world powers do not, for instance, lift sanctions on the IRGC, which would enable Iran to further its regional ambitions, using Hezbollah as the spearhead. This is a process that has a positive feedback loop: just as Hezbollah would struggle without Iranian support, Iran will find it very difficult to defend its interests in the Middle East if Hezbollah is weakened, certainly after Soleimani’s death. Hezbollah is central to coordinating Iran’s “resistance axis,” as demonstrated in the brief war Israel waged against Hamas (“Operation Guardian of the Wall”) in May 2021.
Fourth and finally, there is an urgent need for Israel, Saudi Arabia, the rest of the Gulf states, and certainly the United States to join hands and form a common front that will challenge Hezbollah constantly, creating enough pressure on it to undermine its internal and regional influence. Without this combination of forces waging a permanent, multifaceted campaign against Hezbollah, the individual, sporadic moves against the organization will not achieve the critical mass necessary to significantly impair the organization.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.