A book review - “Hezbollah: A Regional Armed Non-State Actor”
In presenting his case, Wahab digs into the history of the region and in particular the history of Hezbollah and the party evolution from 1982 until today.
Irreversible events took place by the year 2018, resulting in a set of conditions that allowed Hezbollah to reach somehow a peak of power on both local and regional levels. Therefore, this book shows how non-state armed groups can play prominent roles in the regional order in the Middle East. And according to the publisher, “What we have in our hands is an accurate research on Hezbollah, and it is considered as a comprehensive study which is ideal for undergraduate students and those interested – for mid and senior levels - in Middle East studies, Middle East politics, and international relations.”
The book was published in 2022, by Routledge Publishing. It was written as a doctoral dissertation by Hadi Wahab*.
This book reviews the role of the icon of non-state armed groups in the Middle East, i.e. Hezbollah, which has an expanding presence in the suburbs of Beirut, to the south and west of Lebanon. Here, the display of Shiite banners, posters, and billboards of Iranian figures reflects the deep relationship between Hezbollah and Iran. In Lebanon, as sectarian identity expresses collective solidarity among high heterogeneity, the country has adapted to this status quo. That is why Hezbollah is a clear example of how irregular armed groups are able to play a key role in the region. On February 16, 1985, in an open letter addressed to the world, Hezbollah officially announced itself as a resistance movement, not only against the Israeli occupation in Lebanon but against the Israeli occupation everywhere, within the concept of an Islamic state implemented by Ayatollah Khomeini, the late spiritual leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In presenting his case, Wahab digs into the history of the region and in particular the history of Hezbollah and the party evolution from 1982 until today. Therefore, it is noticeable that the chapters in the book are divided according to chronological order. It starts with the founding of the Party in 1982 and continues with several political and regional developments: in 2000 the liberation of South Lebanon, in 2005 the departure of the Syrian army from Lebanon, the 7th of May clashes and the Doha Agreement in 2008, all the way to 2012 when the party took part in the Syrian war. Hezbollah was supporting the Syrian “regime”, as the writer defines it. At that stage, Hezbollah was gradually reaching a high rank as an active regional non-state actor.
Perhaps Hezbollah is more or less an active regional actor; however, in 2011 the party was not considered yet a power affecting regional politics. Till that date, it was and is still acting within certain broad clear lines that define the purpose behind its establishment as a resistance movement against “Israel”. This role certainly, as the writer points out, has expanded in the Lebanese political life after 2005, and Hezbollah, as a political party represented in the Lebanese Parliament, had to be involved more deeply in the government.
Wahab sheds light on Antonio Gramsci’s conception of the issue of "political parties" by explaining how foreign countries intervene in other states to support a particular party on the state's accounts, not on the party's. Gramsci goes on to say that "the parties avoid even the 'justified' appearance of playing another person's game, especially if that person is a foreign country.” However, Wahab disagrees with Gramsci in the case of Hezbollah; but acknowledges the apparent political and religious allegiance with Iran and the financial support provided by Tehran to Hezbollah; which Hezbollah blatantly concedes in public. Even though Wahab acknowledges this fact, the book mostly uses the standard descriptions that are usually heard in local, regional, and international anti-Hezbollah media, and it seems that Wahab is unable to drop these clichés used in describing the party.
On the other hand, many of the repeated descriptions show that the book, as the publisher describes it, was meant to be a guide for uninformed people regarding the situation in the Middle East or the struggle with the Israeli entity. The book holds within it a continued repetition of the description of the organic and strategic relation with Syria and the dogmatic relation with Iran, which seems to occupy a great deal of its narrative. To the informed reader about the Middle East affairs, the book would induce him to reconsider the information, but to those who are unfamiliar with the region, it can enforce a stereotyped image. Therefore, it can be considered a dangerous piece of work. However, it is a book that can smoothly lead the reader to all the circumstances that led to Hezbollah’s strength as a resistance against the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon and during the invasion of Beirut in 1982.
One of the most important terms the writer refers to is the “axis”, which had two different designations. While George W. Bush, the former president of the United States, called it the “axis of evil," Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the Secretary General of Hezbollah, and the Iranian leaders entitled it the “Axis of Resistance." This term refers to the alliance of Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah and other Resistance factions in the region.
In the book, while Wahab examines the role played by Hezbollah in Lebanon, he focuses on its role and operations in Syria during the "sectarian civil war." It explores Hezbollah's contribution to changing the balance of power during the Syrian "conflict" by helping to prevent the collapse of President Bashar Al-Assad’s "regime". He also elucidates how the "sectarian conflict" in Syria has transformed radically the party’s status, which became a local player, into a regional issue. The writer also sees that in the broader perspective, Hezbollah was embroiled in regional unrest from Damascus to Sanaa, via Baghdad. It went from being a local power to a regional player.
At the beginning of the Syrian war, Hezbollah chose not to intervene. However, in 2012, when Syria was disintegrating into chaos and "opposition militants" were closing in on Damascus, Hezbollah fighters began their gradual involvement to help prevent the collapse of the Syrian government. The intervention was gradual and dictated by the changing military balance on the ground. As a matter of fact, the intervention came as a precaution to prevent geopolitical confrontation, which may risk tilting the balance of power in favor of the Syrian government opponents. Wahab says that in June 2013, Nasrallah raised the stakes by accusing foreign powers of conspiring against the "Axis of Resistance." Nonetheless, it seems - as the book argues - that the main reason for Hezbollah's intervention was the risk of losing a strategic ally, which might lead the party to face a regional setback.
This might be true. However, President Al-Assad, whom Wahab refers to as a head of the Syrian "regime" - a description that the writer failed in distinguishing himself from other western-affiliated scholars - in February 2010, held a presidential dinner in the presence of Mahmoud Ahmadi Nejad, the president of Iran, and Sayyed Nasrallah. This meeting was a clear acknowledgment made by Hezbollah to announce that it is already a partner and a decision-maker in the Axis even before the start of the Syrian "conflict".
The book discusses the decision Hezbollah made on the internal political level, especially since Hezbollah and its allies won the majority of votes in the Lebanese parliament in the 2018 elections. At this stage, everyone was surprised. Nevertheless, since then, Lebanon is dealing with a crucial situation that led the country into an American blockade, whose devastating results are still weakening the country until this very day. Wahab describes the political decision at that stage as being in the hands of Hezbollah. However, when forming the government, Hezbollah found out that the party and its allies had been mired in the Lebanese sectarian system since 2005. They were unable to force any changes, even though they had the parliamentary majority. This raised the level of suspicion that Hezbollah is capable of combating corruption and imposing any modification on the economic and social level, and the whole matter is nothing more than pipe dreams and false promises.
It must be said that Wahab’s honest clarification was astonishing. He clearly stated the facts when he elucidated that the current regimes, presidents, and ministries based on nepotism, capitalist nepotism, polarization, and corruption have survived. It revealed that the decline in economic performance due to foreign intervention, especially during the Syrian presence, was just a tool to justify the corrupt reality. And after the withdrawal of the Syrian forces from Lebanon, this argument was dismantled, which provided realistic evidence of the extent to which political elites and senior businessmen bear the brunt of the responsibility for the failure of the state and not the external forces.
The book extends in examining the case of Lebanese modern history up until the 17th of October’s movements in 2019, which produced new alignments whose results were evident in the recent elections. Nevertheless, the writer considers October 17th sit-ins were a national expression similar to what was produced by the 1943 movement against the French. The movement was different from what happened in Lebanon in the years 1958 or 2005. It created a sense of collective national identity that transcended the sectarian dead end. Actually, in his comparison, the writer is completely wrong.
The movements in 1958 were definitely non-sectarian-oriented movements and were a cross-sectarian revolution. The movements of 1958 were an expression of national and Arab nationalism and were linked to the Arab project and the Palestinian cause against western colonialism, which was manifested in Baghdad Pact. The 2005 movement produced two projects; the first was pro-Syrian, which was committed to issues, such as national liberation, resistance, and the Palestinian cause, and the other, the least to be said about, it brought about the 2006 war on Lebanon.
On the other hand, what happened on October 17th may have started as a move against the tax imposed on using social media calls, but it expanded into a project that destroyed the last elements of the Lebanese state, or let us say that it dropped the fig leaf from the last secrets of the American intervention and its role to end Hezbollah in Lebanon. In order to execute its agenda, the US went as far as imposing an economic siege with the hope to eventually weaken Hezbollah in Lebanon, or ultimately lead to the collapse of the State of Lebanon.
Wahab tries to clarify, little by little, that politicized groups with clear social, political, and economic agendas began to develop, but they failed to become a negotiated revolution. They were not able to remove the old regime. They refused any negotiations with it, leaving everyone in a bind and waiting for a possible change in the upcoming elections. The revolution group failed to become a power. Wahab was left here with no explanation of the political vision of these groups, whose political position has become clearer every day, and the demonstrations’ slogans shifted from changing the regime into insults to Hezbollah’s leadership.
Although Wahab believes that the Syrian war has turned Hezbollah into a major strategic force with greater expertise, and then its interference in Yemen challenging Saudi Arabia since 2012, the reality of the matter is that it was not Hezbollah's transition to become a regional power that started the war in Syria or Yemen, but rather its growing power came as a result of those wars. However, Wahab acts just like those in politics, who did not know whether to vilify the party as its opponents or to praise it as its supporters, without referring to the dangerous American plans in Syria or Yemen. The book tackles the Syrian war as it was tackled in the western media as if it came from nada. It is this particular war that led Hezbollah to reach its peak of power regionally and domestically in 2018.
The writer has failed to explain the historical reasons behind the forces that he called agents or proxies. These forces did not begin with Hezbollah, but rather they constitute a continuous and successful experience in fighting European and non-European occupation in the Arab region throughout our modern history. Calling them agents is in fact a western definition, which aims to undermine the confidence in the resistance forces in the area. It also aims to delegitimize its role as liberating forces from the occupation, by accusing them of being sectarians or seculars and always tying them to an external agenda. He explained in the book that the political parties in Lebanon have benefited from the regional situation in favor of its success, so why not Hezbollah?
In addition, what was called gangs, during the period of the Ottoman occupation, are "agents" of the homeland that changed the course of history after they have become a great power and declared the Arab Revolt from Najd to Baghdad even before 1916. They were attacking the Ottoman army to retrieve the flour and grain transported to feed the Ottoman armies, which were basically stolen from the homes of weak people. They are the same agents or proxies that committed themselves to leading the revolution with Fatah under the name ‘Fedayeen’ and 'JAMOL’: the Lebanese National Resistance, which undermined the security of the Zionist entity in Lebanon and Northern Palestine until 1989. Unfortunately, despite the writer's tireless attempts to be objective in his research, he was trapped in the western vision regarding western policies in the region and what their western professors impose on them as students. Wahab fell into the same trap many Lebanese ‘sovereign’ intellectuals had fallen into during studying Middle East affairs abroad.
Hadi Wahab: A researcher in Middle East affairs. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Exeter. He has previously published two articles on sectarian identity and relations amongst the Druze in Lebanon and Syria and their response to religious terrorism, and an article on Hezbollah's use of sectarian identity and its role in the "sectarian conflict" in Syria.