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Armed and Dangerous

How Hezbollah's takeover of Beirut this month will actually lead to the group's downfall.

BEIRUT--Ali Fayyad is trying to contain his excitement. The senior member of Hezbollah’s Executive Committee, a key strategist for the group who generally favors staid proclamations and sober analysis, lapses into a rare moment of bluster: “We are the resistance. We fight against Israel,” he exclaims. “We are the sign of liberation in the Arab world, and especially among the Sunni population.”

Fayyad cannot be blamed for gloating: Hezbollah, the Shia militant group that has been locked in conflict with the Sunni-dominated government of Lebanon for the past 18 months, finally broke the political stalemate by launching a full-scale invasion of Beirut and the Chouf Mountains this month that has left dozens dead and hundreds wounded. In Beirut, Hezbollah and its allies easily routed pro-government gunmen, taking control of Sunni areas throughout the city within hours. Not only did the government capitulate on the issues that started this latest outburst--allowing Hezbollah to run its own telephone network, for example--but when the two sides went to Qatar for negotiations, the government also caved to Hezbollah’s central demands from the past year and a half (such as veto power in the cabinet), without requiring the group to make significant sacrifices.

In Beirut, even some of Hezbollah’s staunchest enemies declared that the party emerged from the clashes in a stronger position. “Tell Sayeed Hassan Nasrallah I lost the battle and he wins,” said pro-government Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. This sentiment was echoed by Lebanon-watchers across the globe. “Iran's influence across the Middle East was strengthened today when its close ally, Hezbollah, greatly increased its political power in Lebanon,” announced Britain’s Telegraph last week. “Lebanese sovereignty may become a thing of the past,” wrote David Schenker, a Washington-based Lebanon analyst. An editorial from the Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot bemoaned Lebanon’s transformation into an “Iranian colony.”

But as in most episodes of Lebanon’s decades-long sectarian conflict, the true calculus of the country’s politics is more complicated. The immediate gains made by Hezbollah this month only obscured the fact that Lebanese opinion is turning against them. There is good reason to believe that, in winning this temporary victory, Hezbollah has ensured its eventual ruin.

Hezbollah came of age in the early 1980s, during the Lebanese civil war, as a Shia militia dedicated to combating the Israeli presence in South Lebanon rather than the other ethnic militias. When the civil war ended in 1990, all the other major militias in Lebanon were forced to disarm, while Hezbollah, because it was perceived as a legitimate resistance to the continued Israeli occupation of South Lebanon, was allowed to keep its weapons. It remained militarized with the voluntary consent of Lebanon’s other sects, which didn’t see its weapons as a threat to the country’s internal balance of power.

Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000 was generally seen as a success for Hezbollah--further strengthening the rationale for keeping their weapons. Though a significant portion of the Lebanese public resented Hezbollah’s initiation of war with Israel in 2006, the group’s perceived victory also bolstered their reputation as the protectors of Lebanon’s southern border.

But by turning their weapons on their fellow countrymen earlier this month, Hezbollah has violated the “grand bargain” with the Lebanese public that has allowed them to remain militarized. And by targeting Sunni areas of Beirut and Druze villages in the Chouf, Hezbollah has revealed itself to be, at its heart, a sectarian militia after all, provoking new hostility among non-Shia Lebanese. “The street is very angry about what has happened,” says Yehya Jaber, a journalist for The Future, a newspaper owned by Sunni leader Saad al-Hariri whose offices were ransacked and set aflame during the clashes. “No matter what the politicians do, this is a temporary peace.”

Though the Qatar accord did not directly address the issue of Hezbollah’s weapons, the emerging consensus against the group’s militarization will make it possible for Lebanon’s other sects to unite in their efforts to disarm it. “The agreement was a realpolitik compromise, a shaky commitment to avert civil war,” says Oussama Safa, the director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, “and I think Hezbollah is starting to realize this.”

The new dynamics of Lebanon’s political landscape are visible along Corniche al-Mazraa, one of Beirut’s central arteries. On one side of the thoroughfare is Hay Tamlis, a Sunni neighborhood loyal to Hariri. On the other side is Barbour, a Shia neighborhood dominated by supporters of the Amal Movement, a Hezbollah ally. Some of the heaviest fighting occurred here during the clashes. Bullet holes dot the street signs, and shattered windows litter the ground. Army soldiers peer out from between sandbags or behind mounted guns on top of armed personnel carriers.

In the claustrophobic alleys of Hay Tamlis, pictures of Hariri now share wall space with images of Saddam Hussein--both, despite their substantial political differences, are figures of Sunni nationalism, men devoted to protecting neighborhoods like this from dangerous outsiders. The residents’ clashes with Hezbollah’s allies this month have aroused their sectarian ire. “When it comes down to fighting, we protect our neighborhood,” declares Rabih, a Sunni resident of Hay Tamlis. “The old man who cannot move will grab a knife, and the old woman in her room will boil water and drop it on the first invader. If they come into our neighborhood, they will have to step over our dead bodies.”

If Hassan Nasrallah had kept his weapons aimed solely at Israel instead of involving them in Lebanon’s sectarian struggle, he may still have won Rabih’s grudging respect. But local threats weigh heavier on his mind than geopolitical concerns. “It’s two different worlds,” Rabih explains, gesturing towards Barbour, no more than a minute’s stroll away. “There is a deep hatred between these neighborhoods now.”

The resentment is even deeper among the few Sunnis who live in Barbour. “The army tried to come in [during the first day of clashes], but Amal humiliated them and told them to leave,” says Sana, a Sunni shopkeeper whose son had to change his identifiably Sunni name to something more generic. “I used to have a picture of [assassinated former prime minister and Sunni leader] Rafik Hariri in my home,” she continues, lamenting the need to adjust to life under Shia domination. “But I took it down when the fighting began, because I live next to one of the bodyguards of [Amal leader] Nabih Berri.”

As the terror of last month’s attacks subsides, the fear of Hezbollah among Lebanon’s Sunni, Christian, and other minority communities is quickly turning to anger. By alienating the other sects, Hezbollah‘s short-term military victory seems to be turning into a long-term threat to its weapons and its autonomy. Their violation of the unspoken bargain of their militarization last month is a significant turning point in Lebanon’s precarious sectarian balance--a move that has already started to undermine Hezbollah’s special status among the Lebanese population.

Losing their weapons would be a major--and possibly fatal--blow to the group. Without its weapons, Hezbollah would probably lose the support of its Iranian sponsors (whose primary goal is to use the group as a front against Israel), making it difficult for the organization to maintain its patronage networks, and thus allowing space for new Shia leaders to emerge.

“It is difficult for me to imagine Hezbollah [surviving very long] as a toothless organization,” Safa says. In light of this month’s violence, that day may now be closer than ever before.

David Kenner is a Beirut-based journalist.

By David Kenner