Hezbollah – overview and strategic priorities

1. Executive Summary:

  • Hezbollah is an important actor in the regional political landscape of the Middle East, particularly in Lebanon. It is a socio-political movement with a militant wing which is significantly different from other organisations in the region.
  • Western political decisionmakers are often divided on the proper way of dealing with Hezbollah because it is simultaneously an insurgency organisation and a legitimate political actor in Lebanon. Hezbollah has used this division to its advantage on numerous occasions and will likely continue to do so.
  • The primary goals of Hezbollah are the expulsion of Israeli forces from Lebanon, and the creation of an Iranian style Islamic state in Lebanon.
  • The group’s core methods include information operations, terrorist tactics, political subversion, and military operations. Over time it has demonstrated considerable prowess in all of these areas even against more powerful opponents like the Israeli Defence Forces. It has also dispatched forces to fight in the Syrian civil war in support of the Assad regime.
  • Iran is the foremost supporter of Hezbollah, providing it with the bulk of its financial and material assets. The Assad regime in Syria has acted as a transport hub for Iranian aid to Hezbollah, however, this has decreased in recent years due to the ongoing civil war.

2. Historical overview

The roots of Hezbollah stretch to the early 1980s. It was created in 1985 as a Shia resistance movement in the wake of the Lebanon Civil War, the subsequent Syrian and Israeli occupations of Lebanon, and the Iranian Revolution. It was also a part of the Shia Islamic revival which occurred in the 1960s and 1970s. The Shia had historically been marginalised in Lebanon and such movements gained considerable traction when the crises, which affected Lebanon through the decades from the 1970s to the 2000s, provided an opportunity to address this fact. Its attacks on Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and US military and diplomatic targets provided Hezbollah with the mantle of legitimacy in the eyes of its Shia supporters as it claimed that it was the only truly successful organisation fighting against the common enemy. Hezbollah claimed credit for the Israeli withdrawal, first to a narrow security zone in southern Lebanon in 1985 and the complete withdrawal in 2000. The small area around the Shiba farms, which Israel retained after the 2000 withdrawal, was used as a justification for continued attacks by Hezbollah which claimed its mission had not yet been completed. This would eventually escalate to the 2006 Lebanon War between Hezbollah and Israel, in which Hezbollah once again claimed victory. As a result of the war, between 2006 and 2011, Hezbollah underwent a significant period of recuperation and its military structures had to be almost completely rebuilt. During this time it focused more strongly on influencing and subverting Lebanese domestic politics. The advent of the Syrian Civil War in 2012 caused it to refocus much of its efforts away from the conflict with Israel and into supporting the Assad regime in Syria.

2.1 Ideology and strategic culture

Ideologically, Hezbollah mostly follows on the path set forth by the Iranian revolutionary leadership. While it began as a resistance/insurgency organisation, heavily geared towards creating a Shia Islamic state along Iranian lines, it has gone through several iterations since. One of the most significant ones occurred in 1992 when, under pressure from Syria and Iran, Hezbollah transformed from a purely resistance movement to a political party in order to participate in the Lebanese general elections of that year[1]. While it performed quite well, its leadership realised that a broadening of its base would give it even more support in subsequent elections and would correspondingly increase its influence on Lebanese domestic politics. Since then its influence has expanded outside the Shia into the Sunni and Maronite Christian populations as well. Its appeal comes from the variety of social, economic, political, and religious services it provides to the people in the areas under its control or influence. These range from religious education, to the provision of healthcare, social and financial aid, and even to infrastructure projects[2]. This duality of Hezbollah certainly makes it stand apart from other similar groups, like Hamas or the PLO, which are more traditional insurgency/guerrilla organisations. It has also caused issues in Western policymaking regarding it. For example, the US has listed Hezbollah on its list of foreign terrorist organisations[3] while the EU only lists the militant wing of Hezbollah as such[4]. Because Hezbollah is neither a purely insurgent organisation, nor a completely legitimate political actor in a modern liberal democratic sense, it can pivot from one image to another as needed, a strategy which has proven to be quite successful.


2.2 relations with other actors

2.2.1 Hezbollah- Lebanon

Hezbollah has often been described as a “state within a state” in Lebanon[5]. It has significant and loyal domestic support from large segments of the Lebanese population, not limited just to the Shia minority, particularly in southern Lebanon, the Beqaa valley, and in the southern districts of Beirut. Despite the fact that the Lebanese government has committed itself to disarming all militias in Lebanon (including Hezbollah)[6], the Lebanese Armed Forces have been largely unsuccessful in doing so.

Because it is providing state services to its supporters it has garnered a significant amount of support, but it has also seen some backlash form groups wishing to see a more unified Lebanon. Since its first participation in the elections of 1992, Hezbollah has been both a stabilising and a destabilising political influence. The withdrawal of its support has caused the government of Lebanon to collapse on two occasions (2008 & 2011). On both occasions this was a response to government interference in its operations, or criminal indictments of some of its members[7]. Despite such moves, Hezbollah is a crucial element of Lebanese national security. Even politicians who are opposed to Hezbollah have conferred with the group when dealing with critical issues regarding national security. This is done in an attempt to preserve some kind of national unity and avoid a collapse of the Lebanese state akin to the neighbouring Syria[8].


2.2.2 Hezbollah – Iran

Hezbollah biggest external supporter is the Shia regime in Iran, which spends approximately $700 million on support every year[9]. This includes both direct financial transactions as well as supplies of military and other equipment. Iran has also provided training to thousands of Hezbollah soldiers both in Lebanon, but particularly in Iran itself[10].

Iran has also been supporting the development of missile production within Lebanon. Before the 2006 Lebanon War, the vast majority of Hezbollah’s missile arsenal was smuggled from Iran through Syria. Since then, there had been a marked push both from Iran and from Hezbollah for it to acquire an independent source of missiles and precision guidance systems which would be produced in-country[11].

In addition to providing equipment, Iran has also been sponsoring Hezbollah’s terrorist activities across the globe. Most Iranian dealings with Hezbollah are conducted through the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps – Quds Force (IRGC-QF). The Quds Force is a branch of the IRGC dedicated to external activities, including support and training for the variety of organisations which Iran is supporting throughout the Middle East and globally. It reports directly to the Iranian Supreme Leader and is headed by Major General Qasem Soleimani[12].


2.2.3 Hezbollah – Syria

The other source of external aid comes from the Assad regime in Syria. Prior to the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2012, the Assad regime has provided financial and material support to Hezbollah, as well as facilitating the transfer or Iranian aid through its territory[13]. The relationship between the two, however, is primarily pragmatic rather than ideological. After the start of the Syrian civil war, Hezbollah has actively aided the Assad regime first by dispatching advisors who aided the Syrian government in counter-insurgency operations. As the conflict grew, Hezbollah’s role increased, culminating in sending battle-hardened, well-equipped, and well-trained fighters to help secure vital areas both against anti-Assad forces in Syria as well as the Islamic State. Hezbollah has also acted as a facilitator of the training of Syrian forces by the Quds Force[14].


2.2.4 Hezbollah – Israel

Israel is the primary target of Hezbollah’s activities. The two sides have engaged in sporadic fighting around the Lebanese-Israeli border for decades. The largest conflict occurred in 2006 when Hezbollah launched a hybrid warfare campaign against Israel. Israel’s underwhelming performance and eventual brutal, firepower-intensive response not only damaged its international standing but allowed Hezbollah to proclaim the conflict as a victory[15]. However, the victory declaration failed to obscure that fact that Hezbollah suffered very high casualties amongst its fighters and used up, or lost, a significant part of its pre-2006 missile arsenal.

With Hezbollah increased operations in Syria post-2012, there have been increased tensions between Israel and Iran. Israeli defence planners were concerned that this would enable Hezbollah to open a second front from Syrian territory and could escalate the conflict by forcing an Israeli invasion of Syria[16]. Such a move could result in a regional war between Iran and Israel. In 2019, with the winding down of Hezbollah operations in Syria this threat has diminished, however, Iran seems to have decided that the majority of its aid to Hezbollah be sent directly, rather than through Syria in case Israel did militarily intervene and cut off the trans-Syrian route[17].

Israel views the threat from Hezbollah as a steadily increasing one. Its missile arsenal has been largely replenished and upgraded following the 2006 war. In addition to that, the joint Iranian-Hezbollah initiatives to create a precision-weapons production capability in Lebanon and a military infrastructure in southern Syria, are underway and Israel is the primary target for such capabilities. Perhaps most worryingly for Israel is the prospect that Hezbollah can now call upon the services of experienced, battle-hardened troops which are returning from the conflict in Syria. IDF activities in recent years, such as increased intelligence gathering and destruction of Hezbollah tunnel networks, suggest that Israel is preparing for another significant conflict with Hezbollah in the near future[18].


2.3 Organisation and structure

Hezbollah possesses a unified leadership and a partially compartmentalisedorganisational structure. The overall leadership of the group is headed by the seven member Shura council, which selects the secretary general and also performs a consultation role. The post of secretary general has been held by Hassan Nasrallah since 1993.  Additionally, it has five sub-councils, each responsible for a specific aspect of the group’s activities.

  1. The Political Assembly manages relations with domestic political actors.
  2. The Jihad Assembly is responsible for all “resistance activities”, including recruitment, training, and operations.
  3. The Parliamentary Assembly is Hezbollah’s interface with the Lebanese parliament and its constituents.
  4. The Executie Assembly is in charge of the political party and the management of the social, cultural, and other services.
  5. The Judicial Assembly is the religious court of Hezbollah and give rulings to its members and the communities under its control[19].

3. Goals and aims

Based on its original manifesto and subsequent policy declarations, Hezbollah’s goals include:

  • Expulsion of Israeli forces from Lebanese territory
  • Creation of an Islamic state along Iranian lines in Lebanon
  • Destruction of Israel
  • Removal of Western influence from Lebanon and other parts of the Middle East[20]

The primary goal of Hezbollah is the expulsion of Israeli forces from Lebanese territory. This would represent the fulfilment of its mission as a resistance movement. It would also represent a first step towards the creation of an Islamic state within Lebanon, on similar lines to Iran, and the eventual destruction of Israel.

The sub-aims of Hezbollah are rather more practical. It wishes to play an important role in the future political and security arrangement within Lebanon, both through political activities and the cooperation between its militant wing and the Lebanese armed forces. For this reason, it is unwilling to disarm, despite numerous attempts. Although it considers a strong and stable Lebanon as one of its goals, the group believes that this can only be achieved through self-sufficiency, essentially meaning that Lebanon must be free of Western influence.

Another sub-aim is to ensure the influence of the Shia population in Lebanon. This has recently come under an increased strain due to large numbers of refugees from Syria which have further increased the number of Sunnis in Lebanon. Hezbollah’s support for the Assad regime can be seen as another way of dealing with this by helping to create a stable Syria and facilitate the eventual return of these refugees.


4. Instruments and Methods

Throughout the history of its operations Hezbollah has used a wide variety of tools and methods with which it achieved its objectives. The primary tools are:

  • political subversion,
  • information operations,
  • military operations,
  • economic tools.

4.1 Political subversion

Hezbollah political activities within Lebanon are twofold, as mentioned above. It is simultaneously part of the Lebanese political life but also acting as a separate entity. It has demonstrated that it is willing to force a government collapse to ensure its interest are served. On the other hand, it acts almost as what in the West would be termed a ‘social state’ in the areas under its control. This ability to act as a state within a state enables it to preserve its influence on its supporters while also corroding the influence of the Lebanese government, despite the fact that it is a part of that government.


4.2 Information operations

For its information operations, Hezbollah relies on a system of publications, online presence, TV and radio stations, as well as its own mobile phone network[21]. These capabilities are used to address both its own supporters and its opponents. It has also been used as part of its international propaganda campaign to garner support and sympathy as well as to discredit opponents in the international sphere.


4.2.1 Cyber

Hezbollah cyber capabilities and activities are incredibly varied. In addition to Hassan Nasrallah’s personal website which contains recordings and transcripts of his speeches, it has a host of websites designed to appeal to younger and older generations. It also created an online shooter video game in 2010, which has been quite effective in recruiting younger supporters[22].


4.2.2 Recruitment

From a very early stage, Hezbollah has attempted to broaden its appeal outside the Shiite population. Its various information operations have been remarkably successful in achieving this. One of its most successful tools has been the Al-Manar television network, which broadcasts from Beirut and can be seen around the world. The primary aim of the television station is to disseminate Hezbollah news and propaganda[23], with the final goal of increasing recruitment. Hezbollah also recruits members through the services it provides to the population in areas under its control, particularly through religious education.


4.3 Military (conventional, insurgent warfare, and terrorism)

The capabilities to conduct both unconventional and conventional military operations is what truly sets Hezbollah aside from most other insurgencies. Its militias are better trained and equipped, and they enjoy the advantage of operating in areas where the population is largely supportive of their actions. The ability of Hezbollah to even send fighting units to aid the Assad regime in Syria suggests a level of organisation more akin to a conventional military force rather than guerrillas. The 2006 Lebanon War also demonstrated the group’s ability to wage hybrid warfare and military defeat the IDF, the most powerful conventional military force in the region, albeit on a narrow front. The key problems facing the IDF were the extensive preparations carried out by Hezbollah (including tunnel systems, concrete bunkers, and pre-prepared ambushes), and the inability of the IDF to grasp that the nature of Hezbollah’s attacks was different. Its use of this potent combination of simultaneous conventional and unconventional warfare suggests that in the future, Hezbollah would be capable of challenging the IDF again.

Terrorism has been a favourite tactic of many insurgency groups and Hezbollah is no different. It has launched numerous terror attacks in Lebanon and Israel and has conducted several such operations outside the region as well[24]. Terrorist attacks linked to or claimed by Hezbollah had been conducted in Europe, Asia, North America, South America, and Africa. Terrorist activity within the region is primarily aimed at weakening domestic opponents in Lebanon and terrorising the Israeli population. Its activities abroad are more a show of strength and a demonstration of resolve, since its primary goals are more or less confined to the Middle East.


4.3.1 Intelligence

In terms of intelligence-gathering, Hezbollah employs traditional human intelligence, as well as sophisticated technological intelligence gathering systems. It has a network of informants in Israel, including members of the IDF, as well as in other neighbouring states and it also receives intelligence information from sources in Iran, Syria, as well as its operatives and sympathisers across the world.


4.4 Economic tools

The primary purpose of Hezbollah’s economic activities is to finance its operations. However, it also uses the funds it receives on its social programmes within Lebanon, in essence using economic tools to improve its perception and standing amongst the Lebanese population. In recent years, the fighting in Syria has put an increased strain on the sustainability of Hezbollah’s finances and economic infrastructure, necessitating and increase in transfers from Iran.


4.4.1 Financing

Hezbollah has a robust system composing of direct and indirect taxation as well as receiving funds from abroad. Despite many of its affiliates being sanctioned by various states and organisations, the steady influx of finance into Hezbollah’s coffers continues. Diaspora

Perhaps the most crucial funding stream comes from the Lebanese diaspora living abroad. The group extorts contributions from the diaspora in Africa and Latin America, even influencing business planning for those who set up companies. It also has connections to Latin American drug cartels though which it funnels and distributes drugs in Lebanon and the wider Middle East. The diaspora also provide voluntary contributions, both from the EU and the US[25].


5. Strategic options

Based on this overview of Hezbollah and its activities the following strategic recommendations can be made, applicable to various actors.

  • Hezbollah is a significant force in Middle Eastern politics and its influence should be taken into account in any dealings with Lebanon, Syria, Iran, and Israel.
  • EU and US policymakers should make significant efforts to curtail Hezbollah’s funding and missile production, as these are the only viable ways of reducing its power in the region. This can primarily be conducted through the use of targeted sanctions (both on Hezbollah and Iran) and through intelligence gathering. It is likely that the only long-term solution to Hezbollah’s missile production would have to involve a military intervention.
  • In countering the threat posed by Hezbollah terrorist attacks outside the Middle East, particular emphasis should be given to intelligence gathering and establishing connections between Hezbollah operatives and those of the Quds Force as they often cooperate.
  •  The most significant threat posed by Hezbollah within the immediate vicinity of Lebanon is its ability to wage hybrid warfare. The 2006 Lebanon War must be taken as a cautionary tale and defence planning should take its lessons into account. This applies both to those dealing directly with Hezbollah as those that do not. The lessons of Hezbollah’s hybrid warfare approach are useful to any actor facing hybrid warfare anywhere in the world. 

[1] Palmer Harik, J., Hezbollah: The Changing Face of Terrorism, London I. B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2005, pp. 38-39.

[2] Azani, E., ‘The Hybrid Terrorist Organization: Hezbollah as a Case Study’, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Volume 36, Issue 11, 2013, pp. 904-905.

[3] US Department of State, Foreign Terrorist Organisations, available at: https://www.state.gov/j/ct/rls/other/des/123085.htm

[4] European Council, EU Terrorist List, 15 June 2009, available at: https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/policies/fight-against-terrorism/terrorist-list/

[5] Addis, C. L., Blanchard, C. M., ‘Hezbollah: Background and Issues for Congress’, Congressional Research Service, R41446, 8 October 2010, p. 10.

[6] See UNSCR Resolutions 1559 (2004), 1680 (2006), and 1701 (2006).

[7] Humud, C. E., ‘Lebanon’, Congressional Research Service, R44759, 5 October 2018, p.18.

[8] ibid.

[9] US Department of State, ‘Outlaw Regime: A chronicle of Iran’s Destructive Activities’, Iran Action Group, p. 10.

[10] Katzman, K., ‘Iran’s Foreign and Defense Policies’, Congressional Research Service, R44017, 16 January 2019, p. 45.

[11] US Department of State, ‘Outlaw Regime: A chronicle of Iran’s Destructive Activities’, p. 10.

[12] Katzman, K., ‘Iran’s Foreign and Defense Policies’, p. 21.

[13]  Humud, C. E., ‘Lebanon’, p. 19.

[14]  ibid.

[15] The Economist, ‘Nasrallah wins the war’, The Economist, 17 August 2006, available at: http://www.economist.com/node/7796790

[16] Zanotti, J., ‘Israel: Background and U.S. Relations in Brief’, Congressional Research Service, R 44245, 14 December 2018, p. 6.

[17] ibid., p. 7.

[18] ibid.

[19]  Addis, C. L., Blanchard, C. M., ‘Hezbollah: Background and Issues for Congress’, pp. 11-12.

[20]  ibid. , pp. 12-14.

[21]  ITIC, ‘Terrorism in Cyberspace: Hezbollah’s Internet Network’, The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, 3 April 2013, available at: http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/en/article/20488

[22] Clarke, C. P., ‘How Hezbollah Came to Dominate Information Warfare’, RAND Corporation, 2017, available at: https://www.rand.org/blog/2017/09/how-hezbollah-came-to-dominate-information-warfare.html 

[23]  ibid. 

[24] US Department of State, ‘Outlaw Regime: A chronicle of Iran’s Destructive Activities’, p. 10.

[25] Fanusie, Y. J., Entz, A., ‘Hezbollah – financial assessment’, Terror Financing Briefing Book, Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance, September 2017, available at: https://s3.us-east-2.amazonaws.com/defenddemocracy/uploads/documents/CSIF_TFBB_Hezbollah.pdf 

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