Lebanon’s security formula of ‘the army, the people and the resistance’ gives Hezbollah legitimacy within the state without the accountability required of a state institution.
Since 2008, Hezbollah has benefited from the state’s security ‘formula’, articulated as ‘the army, the people and the resistance’. In Lebanon – unlike the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, or the National Defence Forces in Syria – Hezbollah is not regarded as an auxiliary military force: the Lebanese constitution does not make provision for such forces. Instead, since 2008, various ministerial statements have enshrined Hezbollah’s status as the only legitimately armed entity other than the Lebanese Armed Forces, but without delineating its duties or responsibilities in return for this exceptional right to possess and use weapons in the name of national defence. In other words, the ministerial statements have given Hezbollah a free pass to use force at its own discretion under the pretext of national security.
Use of the Lebanese Armed Forces
The 1989 Taif Agreement, which formally ended Lebanon’s civil war, stated that all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias in the country would be disbanded. It also stated that the national army would be strengthened, and that: ‘The armed forces intelligence shall be reorganized to serve military objectives exclusively.’ However, as Lebanon at the time was still under Israeli occupation, a further clause in the agreement stated that Lebanon would be ‘[t]aking all the steps necessary to liberate all Lebanese territories from the Israeli occupation, to spread state sovereignty over all the territories …’. Although the agreement did not explicitly refer to Hezbollah or use the word ‘resistance’ – which Hezbollah came to later adopt as its own (exclusive) alternative name – the Lebanese government used the clause concerning Israeli occupation to give Hezbollah exceptional status on the basis of its playing a major role in liberating Lebanon from Israel.
Over the years, and following Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, both the Lebanese government and Hezbollah argued that continued Israeli occupation of disputed territories along Lebanon’s southern border (some residents say the territories, Shebaa Farms, are Syrian, but the Lebanese government and Hezbollah maintain they are Lebanese) permits Hezbollah’s retention of its weapons on the basis that they are necessary to protect and liberate Lebanon from Israel.
Hezbollah’s use of weapons to intimidate its opponents paved the way for it to entrench – by force – its special status within the Lebanese state and thus increase its political influence. Since 2008, Hezbollah has regularly invoked the ‘army, people, resistance’ formula to justify its actions.
In May 2008, however, an internal political dispute in Lebanon saw Hezbollah use its weapons against fellow Lebanese citizens. The Lebanese government at the time tried to dismiss the pro-Hezbollah head of airport security, Wafik Choucair, and dismantle Hezbollah’s telecommunications network, which operated without any state oversight. In response, Hezbollah forced a military takeover of Beirut, leading to a government crisis that was resolved with the formation of a new national unity administration in which Hezbollah and its allies had veto rights for the first time.
The ministerial statement of this new cabinet referred to a formula previously unseen in government documents, that of Lebanon’s security architecture being composed of ‘the army, the people and the resistance’ to defend Lebanon from any aggression. This statement amounted to a de facto change in the constitution. The same security formula was repeated in the ministerial statement of the next – also Hezbollah-dominated – cabinet formed in 2009, with the additional undertaking that the government would ‘work on uniting the position of the Lebanese through agreeing on a comprehensive national defence strategy’.
Hezbollah’s use of weapons to intimidate its opponents paved the way for it to entrench – by force – its special status within the Lebanese state and thus increase its political influence. Since 2008, Hezbollah has regularly invoked the ‘army, people, resistance’ formula to justify its actions. For example, following Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, the group has used the formula to argue that it has strengthened Lebanon against what it calls ‘takfiri’ jihadist threats as well as Israeli threats. This was vividly seen in the battle of Arsal in 2017, in which Hezbollah presented its intervention alongside the Lebanese Armed Forces against jihadists who had crossed into Lebanon from Syria as a ‘victory’. According to Iran’s Tasnim news agency, as translated and cited by the Middle East Institute: ‘The battle of Arsal demonstrated the extent of Hezbollah’s influence and power in the Beirut government’s institutions and Lebanon’s political, military and security organizations.’ The same article noted that ‘a golden triangle entitled ‘Army, Nation and Resistance’ has emerged that encourages Hezbollah to keep its weapons’.
The benefit of the formula for Hezbollah is that it gives the group legitimacy within the state yet without the accountability that it would be subject to were it to become a state institution. It also allows the group to broaden the remit of its permitted actions under the pretext of protecting Lebanon from ‘any aggression’ as per the ministerial statements. For example, its justification that its military involvement in Syria aims to defend Lebanon from jihadists contradicts Lebanon’s explicit policy of dissociation regarding the Syrian conflict. The formula also makes a clear distinction between the army and ‘the resistance’, thereby negating the possibility of imposing security sector reform measures like disarmament, demobilization and reintegration on Hezbollah. This makes the hybridity of Lebanon’s security architecture a fixed aspect of the state, with Hezbollah being the clear winner.
While the state initially adopted the security formula under Hezbollah’s coercion, the group’s growing power since 2008, relative to its political opponents, and its alliance with the FPM served to consolidate Hezbollah’s influence within the state. Today, Hezbollah is the dominant force in Lebanese politics. The FPM’s retention of power – not least through holding a large number of seats in the current parliament – is to a large extent dependent on Hezbollah maintaining its own status and dominance over its opponents, which in essence means holding on to the ‘army, people, resistance’ security formula.
One of the problems of this hybridity is that for Hezbollah to retain its special status, it is necessary for the Lebanese Armed Forces to remain weak and incapable of taking on the role of national defence on their own. Hezbollah periodically boasts about its role in aiding the army against external threats. Particularly between the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990 and the withdrawal of Syrian forces in 2005, the Assad regime facilitated Hezbollah’s free operation in Lebanon in coordination with the Lebanese Armed Forces. The Syrian occupation contributed to keeping the Lebanese army weak and inadequately equipped to deter or respond to a conflict with Israel. This allowed Hezbollah not only to justify maintaining its weapons in the name of defence, but also to gain the upper hand militarily and to gradually expand its operations and military infrastructure while being recognized as a national resistance movement against Israeli occupation. Hezbollah continues to coordinate on a regular basis with the Lebanese Armed Forces command to ensure synergy and facilitation of Hezbollah’s operations; notably, during the Syrian war, Hezbollah crosses the border daily, unchecked by the military.
Hezbollah also trains candidates for the military academy from the Shia community. Many such individuals joined as junior officers and were promoted to key positions under Syrian patronage. The political influence that Hezbollah has in Lebanon’s government allows the group’s leadership to push for specific military appointments – especially in Beirut’s southern suburb, in the south of the country and in the Beqaa region – that will facilitate Hezbollah’s military activities.
Influence through security institutions
Unlike other Lebanese political parties, Hezbollah has de facto control over the military intelligence through Shia officers serving there. Lebanon’s military intelligence has become one of the state’s vehicles of repression. As the mass protests that began in October 2019 essentially challenged the political status quo in Lebanon (of which Hezbollah and the FPM are key actors), the military intelligence arrested and interrogated a number of activists involved in the protests. Some October 17 activists and other figures vocal against Hezbollah have been tried before military tribunals or have been threatened with trial in the military courts.
Hezbollah has also infiltrated the state security apparatus in the name of cooperation and fairness. For example, the position of director-general of the General Security was formerly assigned to a Maronite Christian by convention; Hezbollah successfully lobbied for the post to go instead to a Shia, and since July 2011 the General Security has been under de facto Hezbollah oversight with the appointment of General Abbas Ibrahim as its director-general. This position is key to Hezbollah, as the group’s operatives have falsified identity documents to travel internationally unnoticed. The General Security also constitutes a major source of intelligence for Hezbollah, including counterintelligence to guard against infiltration by spies.