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Hezbollah: How It Achieves Its Influence in the Middle East

As a result of the recent conflict between Hamas and Israel, the prospect of Hezbollah becoming more involved in more Middle Eastern conflicts is increasing. But what is Hezbollah and what drives it?

What Is Hezbollah?

Hezbollah is a Shia Islamist political party and militant group in Lebanon known as the “Party of Allah/God.” Its name comes from a passage of the Koran: “The party of Allah/God shall be victorious.

Hezbollahis a modern non-state armed group that operates primarily in the Middle East. It is transnational in nature, has military and political wings, and is aligned with the Islamic faith.

This group was initially established in Lebanon in the early 1980s as an umbrella organization for Shiite-Islamist factions operating within the chaos caused by the 15-year Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). These factions came together to fight the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

Currently, Iran supports Hezbollah. This group is also driven by its opposition to Israel and its resistance to Western influence in the Middle East.

Hezbollah – or its military wing – has a long history of carrying out global terrorist attacks. Consequently, the United States, the European Union, and many other nations (including most member-states of the Arab League) have designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

Related: Hamas: The Basics Behind This Middle East Terrorist Group

Hezbollah’s Basic Ideology

Hezbollah is distinctive in its belief that violence is essential to its continued existence, and it has succeeded in becoming an effective political entity in Lebanon since 2011. Hezbollah derives much of its influence through its unique interpretation of the necessity for the continued use of violence and its substantial military capabilities. These qualities allow this organization to remain relevant and retain its influence in the Middle East.

The majority of Palestinians are associated with the Sunni sect of Islam. In terms of its Islamic affiliation, Hezbollah’s association with the Shia sect of Islam places it in the minority in Palestine.

Related: The Middle East and the Threat of an Expanding Conflict

The Political Wing of Hezbollah

The political wing of Hezbollah, known as the Loyalty to the Resistance Bloc party, became part of the majority collation in the Lebanese parliament in 2011. It operates as a powerful political party in the Lebanese parliament, and party members also run in legislative and municipal elections. In Lebanese politics, Hezbollah walks a fine line between upholding its Islamist principles and a more pragmatic approach of forming practical alliances to reach its desired goals.

In 2005,  Syria withdrew from Lebanon, according to the Middle East Research and Information Project. The resulting power vacuum provided Hezbollah members with the opportunity to join the executive cabinet and increase their direct involvement in the political system. While preserving its military structure and its status as a proponent of “national resistance,” Hezbollah accelerated its status as a mainstream political party.

The Jihad Council: The Military Wing of Hezbollah

Hezbollah’s military wing is known as the Jihad Council. As a militant organization, Hezbollah believes that nonviolence is ineffective, and violence is required for its own organizational survival. The destruction of Israel by force is not only Hezbollah’s animating purpose but a sacred obligation of Islam, according to Hezbollah’s ideology.

Hezbollah conducts mostly low- and mid-intensity irregular warfare military operations against its main target: Israel. It has also targeted the citizens of America and France, as well as Syrians, Palestinians, and even fellow Lebanese who oppose the group. Hezbollah’s geographic reach has even expanded to as far away as South America and West Africa.

Hezbollah’s Use of Force Philosophy

Hezbollah is often cited as a new type of “quasi-army,” capable of using force in hybrid ways and combining the use of classic guerrilla warfare with irregular, asymmetric tactics and more conventional ones. Its involvement in Syria’s civil war, stemming from its long-standing alliances with Iran and Syria, helped Hezbollah to become an increasingly effective military force.

This terrorist group initially used a combination of asymmetric warfare and terrorism, including car bombings, suicide attacks, and kidnappings, to confront the Israeli presence in Lebanon during the Lebanese Civil War. Between the late 1980s and the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon behind the “Blue Line” in 2000, Hezbollah conducted unconventional operations in the “security zone” against the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and the Southern Lebanese Army (a militia that acted as an Israeli proxy). Hezbollah launched rockets into northern Israel to implement a costly and fairly traditional strategy of attrition.

After 2000, Hezbollah’s military strategy began to shift from one of high mobility to an uncharacteristic, surprisingly effective approach more focused on holding ground. Investing in conventional training allowed Hezbollah to combine more conventional military operations with its usual unconventional actions to achieve its most recent successes. These unconventional actions included a complex system of underground tunnels and bunkers that Hezbollah members created.

Hezbollah used this new approach with great effectiveness in the 2006 war with Israel, which created an entirely new, largely unprecedented challenge from this non-state armed group. Its new capabilities showed that Hezbollah was successful in its efforts to transition from a non-conventional militia into a very capable and effective hybrid “army without a state.”

These highly effective operations gained the attention of both state and non-state observers across the globe.

Since 2006, Hezbollah has progressed even further. Hezbollah has increased in size, upgraded its weaponry and infrastructure, and improved its level of training, preparation, and war-fighting capabilities for both conventional engagements and also for unconventional cross-border operations into Israel.

During its involvement in the recent Syrian civil war, Hezbollah showed that it is capable of providing direct military support to conduct conventional offensive and defensive operations. Hezbollah also demonstrated that it can offer effective artillery support.

These actions show that this terrorist group has developed substantial conventional warfare capabilities that allow it to operate beyond the capabilities normally associated with an insurgent force. It has also set new standards for the capabilities of non-state armed groups.

‘A State within a State’

As a transnational, non-state armed group, Hezbollah has fostered a reputation as being a “state within a state” in Lebanon through its extensive security forces, political organization, and social services network. It has evolved to adopt a unique military, political, and social character that enable it to influence Lebanon and other nations throughout the Middle East.

Hezbollah’s Social Services Network

According to the Council of Foreign Relations, Hezbollah administers a complex social services network. Primarily, it participates in activities related to governing, healthcare, infrastructure and youth development, and charity.

Hezbollah’s involvement in a wide variety of administrative activities demonstrates its commitment to also use non-violent methods to achieve its desired goals and outcomes. Its actions are intended to show that Hezbollah is flexible and innovative in the ways it uses to persuade others of the righteousness of its cause to bring them over to their way of thinking.

Hezbollah’s Flexibility Has Been Key to Its Survival

With its evolution over time, Hezbollah has been adroit at reinterpreting its rationale and use of violent resistance according to changing circumstances. This agility has provided the group with flexibility and sustainability.

Treading carefully between upholding its Islamist principles and forming practical alliances to reach its desired goals, Hezbollah has adapted to new threats. That has allowed this group to legitimize its military agenda and sustain the legitimacy of its military wing within its own base. Hezbollah has succeeded in remaining relevant and retaining its influence in Lebanon and in other nations. Like Hamas, Hezbollah’s influence will continue to be felt in the Middle East.

Dr. Kelly C. Jordan is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, and he is currently a full-time professor of military studies and national security studies. Dr. Jordan received his B.A. from the Virginia Military Institute, graduating with academic distinction and as a Distinguished Military Graduate. He holds a M.A. and a Ph.D. in military history from The Ohio State University and is also a graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. As an academic, Dr. Jordan is an award-winning professor who has served on the faculties of the United States Military Academy at West Point, the United States Army Command and General Staff College, the United States Naval War College, and the University of Notre Dame. As a scholar, he is the author of numerous military history and leadership studies publications.

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