November 8, 2019
On Wednesday, I spoke with the leader of a Hezbollah tank battalion over the phone. It sounded particularly chaotic in Dahieh, a Hezbollah-controlled neighborhood in the southern suburbs of Beirut. Other parts of the city have been racked by massive demonstrations sweeping Lebanon, and he kept pausing to answer another mobile phone.
I’ve known this Hezbollah fighter for more than six years, and I have never heard him express anything but loyalty to Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shia militia, U.S.-designated terror group and political party that, along with allied parties, holds more than half of the Cabinet seats in the Lebanese government. So it came as quite a shock when he criticized Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who is revered by his followers, and expressed support for the anti-government protests.
Open expressions of frustration with Hezbollah during public protests — let alone support for such protests from Nasrallah’s dedicated foot soldiers — are exceedingly rare.
“I support the protest movement because I am disgusted with life here,” the battalion leader told me, speaking on condition of anonymity because Hezbollah does not permit its members to be interviewed by Western media. He noted that while some Hezbollah followers have clashed with protesters as recently as Friday, others have actually joined in the demonstrations. “All of our ministers are corrupt,” he said. The Hezbollah leadership “is in a situation of chaos. They don’t know what to do right now.”
While some of the coalition government’s leaders and parties have been frequent targets of demonstrations in this fractious country of divided religious sects, such as the Western- and Saudi-backed Sunni Prime Minister Saad Hariri, open expressions of frustration with Hezbollah during public protests — let alone support for such protests from Nasrallah’s dedicated foot soldiers — are exceedingly rare.
Hezbollah has weathered many storms in the 30 or so years it has been officially active, from an Israeli invasion in 2006 to the turmoil of the Syrian war next door, but never has it faced such strong domestic sentiment against it from across different sects. Whether Hezbollah chooses to quell the protests with force or sacrifice some of its political gains to appease demonstrators, one thing is certain: From a domestic standpoint, its leadership is facing the greatest existential crisis it has experienced in a long time.
There are many unprecedented aspects to these demonstrations, including their size, scope and cross-sectarian nature. The protests erupted in response to an economic crisis that largely stems from long-standing corruption and political ineptitude as well as a massive refugee crisis brought on by the Syrian civil war.
But the U.S. has also played a role: Crippling sanctions on Hezbollah recently imposed by the Trump administration have accelerated Lebanon’s economic woes. The U.S. accuses the Iranian proxy force of being behind a spate of kidnappings and bombings of American targets in the 1980s and now building up its arms for another war with Israel. Strengthened U.S. sanctions are being promoted as a way to force Hezbollah to its knees by strangling its sources of funding and ability to conduct financial transactions.
This U.S. role in the economic upheaval also underscores Hezbollah’s increasingly tenuous position. Nasrallah gave a speech Saturday in which he acknowledged the validity of the protesters’ demands, but expressed his opposition to the formation of a new government by including a thinly veiled threat that Hezbollah could try to contain the situation by taking over Beirut, as it did in 2008. “Shall Hezbollah … participate in the demonstrations, we won’t back down until our demands are met, even if we have to stay for months in the streets,” Nasrallah said.
In the speech, Nasrallah maintained that no foreign countries are influencing the protests – but he changed his tune this Friday, warning of a potential civil war erupting in Lebanon and urging followers to stay away from the demonstrations because he says international actors that oppose Hezbollah are exploiting them for their own purposes. Some still-loyal members of Hezbollah are predictably casting blame on the U.S. and Israel, and a Hezbollah infantry fighter I also spoke with was clear about who he believes is behind the unrest in Lebanon.
“The American pressure has had an effect,” he said, also speaking on condition of anonymity. “We were like a man walking on only one leg, and they broke that leg as well. … It is important to America to destabilize the situation in Lebanon.”
Bilal Saab, an analyst at the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think tank, says that while the impact of the protests on Hezbollah’s political and military strength should not be overstated, there is no doubt the demonstrations have shaken the group’s confidence.
“[These protests] are taking place across the country in places where you never expected Shia activism against the representatives” of the government, Saab said. “The very audacity of that, the widespread nature of it — it’s certainly new, and it’s not good news for the organization.”
Indeed, this popular uprising presents the Trump administration with an opportunity to carefully express support for a movement that could lead to a better government from America’s standpoint as well as for the Lebanese people without applying the kind of heavy-handed, inflammatory rhetoric Trump did with recent protests in Iran.
But there is also a significant risk that, should the U.S. repeat characteristic missteps, it could unleash even more chaos in a turbulent region. Unlike former President Barack Obama, Trump “uses sanctions like a sledgehammer and bangs away, and the more things break, the better,” said George A. Lopez, a professor at Notre Dame and an expert on sanctions.
Thus far, there has been a peculiar lack of messaging from the Trump administration regarding the Lebanese protests. While progressive 2020 Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are publicly supporting the demonstrations, the usually vocal Trump is strangely silent on events that may be weakening a longtime U.S. foe. Saab said this silence could be a sign of the confusion that has marked much of Trump’s Middle East policy. It could also be that the U.S. doesn’t want to be viewed as instigating the protests and thereby undermine them.
If Hezbollah doesn’t peacefully cede some of its political clout in response to the demonstrations, the situation could turn violent.
Whatever the goal and strategy, if Hezbollah doesn’t peacefully cede some of its political clout in response to the demonstrations, the situation could turn violent. Given the presence of other Iranian proxy forces across the region, any confrontation between the U.S. or its allies and Iran in Lebanon could spread to other parts of the Middle East.
In addition to Nasrallah’s own subtle threat to use force to maintain his grip on government, his followers, too, indicate a limited tolerance for the protests, should they go on.
“What [the protesters] are doing now, with half-naked dancers and drinking and whatever, this culture is not for us,” the Hezbollah infantryman told me, referring to what he sees as the immoral behavior protesters are engaging in. “We want official, organized reform, and changes made by the current government, but not chaos. If they start calling for us to dismantle our weapons, we will spill blood — even if it is our brothers’.”