War in Syria, US sanctions, loss of military commanders, local pressure and fast transforming regional alliances are forcing Hezbollah to adapt its tactics and rethink the way it has been operating since its creation, all while maintaining its ideological narrative.
In the past, like its Iranian sponsor, the organization showed flexibility when under pressure. For example, in 1996 Hezbollah and Israel reached a cease-fire agreement that paved the way for the April Understanding between the two sides which was brokered by then-Syrian President Hafez Assad and the United States.
According to diplomats who participated in the negotiations, Syrian negotiators where shuttling between the Hezbollah team and American diplomats in separate rooms on the same floor. These indirect talks were the first that involved American diplomats and the pro-Iranian group, which Washington labels as a terrorist organization. “Everyone knew who was in the other room,” the diplomat said. And of course the Israelis were kept apprised around the clock.
On Oct. 14, 2020, Lebanon and Israel began indirect talks, which began after years of mediation by American diplomats, aimed at reaching a consensus on the Lebanon-Israel land and maritime borders. Although senior American diplomats negotiated in Lebanon with Speaker Nabih Berri, Israel and the US both knew all along who was calling the shots in Beirut. Washington and Tel Aviv also knew very well that a framework deal to begin talks couldn’t have been possible unless Hezbollah approved of the agreement.
Last week Lebanon head of General Security Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, who has close ties with Hezbollah, visited Washington and met with top American officials including the CIA director and national security adviser. While Ibrahim doesn’t report to Hezbollah, the pro-Iranian leadership is always informed about his talks and missions.
Sanctions can influence the decisions of governments and non-state actors such as Hezbollah, but they can’t bring them to their knees, which explains why the US and Israel allow indirect talks and under-the-table business to take place whenever they serve their interests despite the tough rhetoric.
Sanctions and maximum pressure can contain regimes and terrorist groups or buy time, but they have never changed regimes or delivered a knockout blow.
It took a major military invasion to overthrow Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, and the US waged the longest American military campaign to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan, before reaching an agreement this year with the group that harbored Al-Qaeda to secure an American military withdrawal from the country.
Cuba, Iran, Venezuela and North Korea, where sanctions made life more difficult for the respective regimes but failed to topple them, are great examples of the limitations of sanctions.
Hezbollah watchers note changes in the behavior and the efficiency of the group, following the assassination of its iconic commander Imad Mughniyeh, and more recently the killing of Iranian patron Gen. Qasem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force within the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
Meanwhile, more governments around the world are labeling the group as a terrorist organization and watching its activities, making it harder for it to wage successful attacks like those of the ’80s and ’90s that are attributed to them by Western governments.
The new underground leaders lack the resolve and ruthlessness of the early operatives. Instead, they have embarked on a campaign of modernization given the new tasks and challenges. Several terror attacks, which Western intelligence agencies have attributed to Hezbollah despite the group’s denial, have been foiled in Europe and around the world.
In addition, while the maximum pressure and tough US sanctions against Iran have reduced the flow of cash into the hands of their main foreign asset in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s participation in the civil war in Syria is consuming the group’s resources.
Despite the tough rhetoric of Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, who denies that American sanctions have had any impact on the organization’s resolve, the group’s constituents are feeling the heat, made worse by Lebanon’s collapsing economy.
Consequently, Hezbollah has had to pay more attention to local public opinion while maintaining its strategic value to Iran, a task that’s becoming increasingly more difficult. In several of his appearances, Nasrallah has referred to social media sentiments concerning Hezbollah and complained about regional and local media waging a smear campaign against the group.
Hezbollah is modeled after the Iranian style of management, and it’s directly affected by the Iranian strategy and priorities, although it tries to maintain the external shell of a Lebanese agenda.
Since the malicious Stuxnet computer worm attack by the US and Israel against its nuclear plant, Iran has embarked on cyber warfare and several cyber-attacks against US, Israeli and Saudi targets have been traced to Iran. Moreover, it would be a logical assumption that Iran has transferred its knowledge and technical knowhow to its Lebanese protégé.
The group has allocated resources to develop its cyber capabilities and methods of psychological warfare. In addition, Iran and subsequently Hezbollah are benefiting from Russia’s and China’s experiences in conducting cyber operations.
More and more signs of Hezbollah’s hi-tech capabilities are being introduced in theaters where the group is engaged militarily, with the use of drones and precision-guided missiles being a few examples of the organization’s efforts to modernize its arsenal and military technological expertise. In other words, the conventional militia and guerrilla tactics that Hezbollah has mastered are being replaced by more hi-tech warfare.
Hezbollah is an odd-size group – too large for a country the size of Lebanon but not strong enough to be a major regional power. Still, it becomes an effective force in the service of Iranian foreign adventures.
As long as Hezbollah continues to call the shots in Lebanon, peace between Lebanon and Israel remains difficult to imagine. However, a long period of calm, a cessation of hostilities and the success of the border talks may create a regime of interests whereby the two sides will find it serves their purposes to cement and protect their assets.
Many fear that the stalemate at the border with Israel will lead Hezbollah to shift its military resources toward local politics and threaten the fragile national equilibrium. While many Lebanese factions are asking Hezbollah to adopt a Lebanese agenda and stop serving Iranian interests, they fear the group will ask for more power-sharing in the Lebanese confessional system. Be careful what you wish for.
Mouafac Harb is a veteran American-Lebanese journalist based in Beirut.