On Wednesday, December 4, Hassan Laqees, a Lebanese Hezbollah leader who was reportedly involved in the group’s weapons procurement and development, was assassinated south of Beirut. On Sunday, another Hezbollah military commander was killed in Syria, bringing the number of Hezbollah dead in the Syrian conflict into the hundreds. We spoke with MEI scholar Randa Slim, an expert on Hezbollah, about the significance of the Laqees assassination, the security situation in Lebanon, and what kind of repercussions the incident as well as casualties in the fighting in Syria may have among Lebanon’s Shi`i community.
What is the significance of this assassination for Hezbollah? Might it cause a change in Hezbollah’s tactics in Syria?
This assassination comes after the double suicide bombing outside Beirut’s Iranian embassy on November 19 and two car bombs in Hezbollah's stronghold in Beirut’s southern suburbs last July and August. It consolidates a narrative that is gaining traction inside Lebanon's Shi`i community that Hezbollah's diversion of its resources to the fight in Syria is making the party and the community vulnerable and less protected at a time when the community feels itself targeted by a number of domestic and regional enemies. Hezbollah leadership has also grown overconfident in its deterrence capability, and as a result is increasingly becoming prone to underestimating its opponents' resolve and capacity to strike it in its own strongholds. Despite this growing sense of vulnerability, I do not expect Hezbollah to extricate itself from the fight in Syria. Hezbollah leaders believe that the war in Syria is an existential struggle for them, and so they are likely to stay in it for the foreseeable future as long as their core Shi`i constituency seems to be willing to go along with that decision. Hezbollah will change tactics in Syria only if it loses the support of its Shi`i constituents for the fight. I do not see such an internal rebellion unfolding anytime soon.
Tell us more about the security situation in Lebanon.
The security situation is very unstable. Lebanon will likely be the site of more assassination attempts and more car bombs in the future. Lebanon is once again an arena for regional powers to settle their scores. The war in Syria has put unprecedented strains on Lebanon’s fragile state institutions. Political life is paralyzed. A caretaker cabinet has been in place since March when Najib Mikati, the former prime minister, resigned after his cabinet failed to approve a commission to oversee parliamentary elections planned for June. Hezbollah and the Future Movement, led by Saad Hariri, are locked in mutually exclusive positions on key issues, primarily their respective roles in the war in Syria and Hezbollah’s paramilitary infrastructure in Lebanon. So far, neither has exhibited an interest in abandoning its maximalist position. Sectarian tensions are very high. While the Lebanese army is trying its best to contain local intra-Lebanese conflicts and preventing them from snowballing into nationwide sectarian strife, its resources are being overstretched.
What are the current dynamics in the Shi`i community with regard to Hezbollah’s deep involvement in the fighting in Syria?
The Lebanese public is deeply split and polarized over the war in Syria. This split falls along the Shi`i-Sunni axis. The vast majority of Lebanese Sunnis support the Syrian revolution against the Assad regime. Some Sunni Islamist groups in northern and northeastern Lebanon are also sending fighters to assist rebel groups in Syria. For their Shi`i constituents, Hezbollah’s narrative has been that its intervention in Syria is preemptive, that it aims to prevent Sunni extremist groups from targeting Shi`a in Lebanon. This narrative has also gained traction among a significant portion of the Christian community, as it taps into the Christian existential angst of being a minority in a Sunni Muslim-majority region at a time when many of their co-religionists have been forced to flee from Iraq and are being attacked in Syria and Egypt. However, this preemptive narrative is increasingly being undermined by the fact that these Sunni extremist groups are succeeding in sending one car bomb after the other into Hezbollah’s strongholds.
Yet the Lebanese Shi`i support for Hezbollah’s war efforts in Syria is sustainable for the medium term, despite the significant loss of life that is taking place. There are three relevant factors. First, Hezbollah still enjoys a deep reservoir of goodwill among the majority of Shi`a, which will not be exhausted anytime soon. A major component of this reservoir is the personal trust the majority of Shi`a have in Nasrallah. A second factor is the discipline of the Hezbollah fighting force. Similar to a regular army, the fighters will go to battle when they receive their orders to do so. Their families have learned to live with this reality. The long-term financial support provided by the party to the fighters’ families also reinforces the deep sense of loyalty that binds Hezbollah fighters to their leaders. Third, the increasing role of the jihadi and Salafi groups inside the Syrian rebel ranks support the party narrative that Hezbollah and the Shi`a are involved in an existential struggle against groups that are bent on killing them.
What about dissenting voices in the Shi`i community?
There are a few disconnected Shi`i voices publicly questioning the long-term impact of Hezbollah’s role in Syria on their community. But these voices do not have a significant following, they do not have a leader, and they do not have a compelling narrative about how the community can protect itself against jihadi and Salafi groups in Lebanon and Syria that target them. They often write and speak in pro-March 14 Lebanese media outlets, which Hezbollah’s followers do not usually read, watch, or listen to.
What kind of regional repercussions might the Laqees assassination have, particularly vis-à-vis Israel?
All statements by Hezbollah officials, pro-Hezbollah media, and sources close to its leadership indicate that Hezbollah believes Israel stands behind this assassination. Hezbollah’s war and peace decisions vis-à-vis Israel must be approved by the Iranian leadership. A Hezbollah decision to respond overtly or covertly to this assassination will not be swift or knee-jerk, and will come only after close deliberation with Iranian allies. Hezbollah is militarily overstretched in Syria and is facing domestic threats stemming from the increasing presence of anti-Hezbollah al-Qa`ida affiliates and other Salafi jihadi groups in Lebanon. In Hezbollah’s current prioritization of threats, its battle in Syria against “takfiri” groups and their regional patrons takes precedence over Israel. In deciding how to respond to this assassination, Hezbollah leadership will first consider how its response will impact its military intervention in Syria and increase the vulnerability of its domestic front. An escalation on the Lebanese-Israeli front, if it were to occur, will also create an unwelcome distraction for the Iranian leadership as it is entering the next phase of its negotiations with the P5+1 over its nuclear file. For all these aforementioned reasons, it is unlikely that Hezbollah will react overtly to this assassination. As in the past, it might try to mount covert operations that target Israeli officials and targets abroad.