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Asymmetrical Warfare: The Case of Hezbollah and Lebanon Research Paper

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Updated: Jun 11th, 2021

Asymmetrical warfare is a significant problem in the contemporary world, which affects the stability of the Government and causes human rights violations in the affected countries. Terrorism is a form of asymmetrical warfare that is evident in many countries. It is particularly prevalent in the Middle East, where there is a great variety of extremist groups that are in constant opposition with the local Government.

Lebanon is among the countries most affected by terrorism, and Hezbollah, or Hizballah, is one of the most prominent terrorist groups in the region. Although the group dates back to 1982[1], the paper will focus on Hezbollah’s activity in Lebanon from 2013 to 2017, since these years show an increase in violence as a result of the Syrian conflict. The paper will present an account of asymmetrical warfare between the Lebanese Government and Hezbollah, highlighting the strategies used by both parties over the years.

Background

Lebanon is a small country in the Middle Eastern region, which borders Israel and Syria. It remained under the rule of the French Government until 1943 when it was established as a parliamentary republic[2]. After gaining independence, Lebanon has experienced decades of political instability, which culminated in a civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990[3]. The country’s foreign and internal politics were greatly influenced by the neighboring states, notably Syria, since it maintained a military occupation of Lebanon for a period of thirty years between 1975 and 2005[4].

The primary point of conflict that affects the relationships between Lebanon, Israel, and Syria is that the borders between the countries are yet to be resolved[5]. As a result, the local extremist groups, including Hezbollah, have connections to the Syrian Government. According to the 2017 Country Report on Terrorism, Hizballah received funding, training, weapons, and other forms of support from the Syrian Government [6]. Such close ties with other countries’ governments strengthen the position of the group in Lebanon, making it harder for local counterterrorism forces to address the situation and prevent further violence.

The Lebanese Government consists of three key agencies: the President, the Prime Minister, and the Chamber of Deputies, who represent the parliament[7]. Since Lebanon is a religiously diverse country with a large share of Muslim and Christian groups, the Government consists of members of different religions. The President is a Maronite Christian, whereas the speaker of the parliament and the Prime Minister are Muslim and represent two principal branches of this religion, Shia and Sunni[8].

Religious diversity plays an essential role in the prevalence of terrorism since radical Islamic groups often target the Christian population in their attacks. Moreover, the presence of people from multiple religions in the Government, while ensuring adequate representation, could hinder counterterrorism efforts if certain persons express support of radical Islam.

While the Government of Lebanon is considered to be free from regional influences[9], there are some concerns associated with human rights violations perpetrated by government agencies or their affiliates. For example, the Lebanon 2017 Human Rights Report indicates that there have been incidents of unlawful killings and allegations of torture by the Lebanese security forces[10]. Most of these violations occurred as part of the country’s counterterrorism efforts.

For instance, the counterterrorism operation of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) in June 2017 resulted in the detainment of over 350 Syrian men, and four of them died while in custody, allegedly as a result of torture[11]. This and other human rights violations perpetrated by government officials in Lebanon did not result in legal punishment, which could contribute to public unrest. Other human rights violations that affect political stability in the country include corruption, restriction of free speech, criminalization of certain forms of political expression, and privacy rights violation[12].

Additionally, although the Lebanese Government expressed the country’s openness to Syrian refugees, it took little action to investigate the abuse of refugees[13]. Given the association of some terrorist groups with Syria, this could have a detrimental effect on the state’s counterterrorism strategy. All in all, the complexity of the political situation in Lebanon and the unlawful actions of some government officials create an environment of instability, which has a positive effect on the activity of terrorist groups, including Hezbollah.

Hezbollah and Lebanon 2013

The spike of terrorist activity in Lebanon is linked to the civil war in Syria, which started in 2011 as a result of public unrest. According to the 2013 Country Reports on Terrorism, “Lebanon’s security situation deteriorated in 2013 as a result of the spillover from the violence in Syria, the involvement of Lebanese fighters in the conflict […] and continuing internal political deadlock” [14]. The civil war in Syria had a critical impact on terrorism in the region because it impaired border security in Syria, allowing terrorist groups to receive weapons from Syria and travel between the countries.

The political situation in Lebanon prevented the country from responding to this threat adequately. Between 2013 and 2016, the state was affected by the obstruction of political participation by the parliament, which took measures to postpone elections[15]. This impaired the country’s ability to respond to the increased threat of terrorism due to the absence of a functional government supported by the public. The report by the United States Bureau of Counterterrorism notes this influence, stating that despite the ongoing cooperation of the Lebanese officials with international counterterrorism efforts, the political stalemate in the country limited the progress in this area[16]. This provided the opportunity for terrorist groups to commit more attacks in Lebanon.

Although Hezbollah’s close ties with the Syrian Government meant that the group’s efforts during this year were largely based in Syria, there was still evidence of multiple attacks targeting Lebanese civilians and government officials. Most of these attacks were not officially linked to a particular terrorist group, which is why it is hard to identify the ones perpetrated by Hezbollah. However, since Hezbollah gained support from Shia populations in Lebanon and allegedly used Shia-dominated regions to enter Syria[17], it is unlikely that the attacks targeting this part of the community were committed by Hezbollah. It seems plausible that the organization would target Christian and Sunni groups instead, which allows suspecting its involvement in some specific attacks in Lebanon.

First of all, on August 22, 2013, two Sunni mosques in Tripoli were targeted by car bombs, resulting in the death of over 40 people, with several hundred more injured[18]. Secondly, another car bomb exploded on December 25, 2013, next to a Palestinian refugee camp[19]. It is reported that the attack targeted the supporter of Sheikh Ahmed al-Asir, who is a well-known opponent of Hezbollah.

However, the attack did not result in any deaths, although it caused some material damage. Lastly, an attack on December 27, which targeted the former ambassador to the United States and advisor to the former Sunni Prime Minister Saad Hariri, could be attributed to the activity of Hezbollah. In line with other cases, the attack was perpetrated using a car bomb, and it resulted in the death of Mohammad Chatah and seven other people[20]. All three attacks are examples of asymmetrical warfare because they were unexpected and performed by a terrorist group resisting the current Government of the state.

Efforts to counter the threat of terrorism in Lebanon involved both policing and financial initiatives. Following the attack on August 22, 2013, seven suspects were identified, three of whom had been arrested by October 2013[21]. There is no information as to whether or not the other two attacks resulted in any arrests. The state’s attempts to counter the financing of terrorism involve three bills, which enhanced compliance requirements for Lebanese banks and improved the regulation of electronic and cash transfers[22].

Because Hezbollah relies heavily on foreign financial supporters and money laundering, these changes had a limiting effect on its activities. One major drawback of the Lebanese Government’s strategy that decreased the effectiveness of these measures was that it did not require banks to freeze the accounts linked to Hezbollah and affiliated groups[23]. As of 2013, the Government did not recognize Hezbollah as a terrorist group, and thus some efforts targeting terrorism financing did not apply to this organization. As a result, the state lost the opportunity to drain Hezbollah’s financing options and prevent future attacks.

Hezbollah and Lebanon 2014

In 2014, the situation in Lebanon worsened as the Syrian conflict grew in scale. In particular, the involvement of Hezbollah in Syria had contributed to the opposition between the organization and various Sunni terrorist groups, causing the latter to target Shia-dominated regions in Lebanon. According to the 2014 report of the United States Bureau of Counterterrorism, “in retaliation for Hizballah’s actions supporting the Asad regime, Sunni militant groups have carried out more than two dozen suicide attacks against Shia population centers and LAF targets from June 2013 through the end of 2014” [24].

Hezbollah also continued to perform attacks and Lebanon, adding to the persistence of terrorism in the country. On October 7, 2014, Hezbollah used a roadside bomb to target Israel Defense Forces soldiers[25]. There were two other attacks during this year that could be attributed to this terrorist group. First, on June 20, 2014, a suicide bomber targeted the Internal Security Forces of Lebanon, killing one person and injuring 32 more[26].

Secondly, on December 2, 2014, Lebanese Armed Forces soldiers were attacked near Ras Baalbek, resulting in six deaths[27]. The rather low number and scale Hezbollah’s attacks this year could have been caused by its continued activity in Syria. With the vast part of its forces and resources in a different country, the organization had decided to perform targeted attacks in Lebanon instead of engaging in more prominent activities.

Another reason for the decreased number of attacks was the relative success of the Lebanese Government in combatting terrorism. The country’s security forces had been working closely with the FBI and other foreign agencies, resulting in the disruption of some terrorist networks[28]. The involvement of the U.S. also enabled reduction financing to Hezbollah since it prompted several Lebanese banks to close the bank accounts associated with the terrorist group[29]. However, since the Lebanese Government continued to exclude Hezbollah from the list of terrorist organizations, targeted activities to disrupt its networks had not been made in 2014.

Hezbollah and Lebanon 2015

In 2015, the number of attacks decreased further, both due to the escalation of the conflict in Syria and the effect of counterterrorism activities in Lebanon. There were four separate terrorist attacks in Lebanon during this year, and only one of them is attributed to Hezbollah. On January 28, 2015, two anti-tank missiles were fired by Hezbollah fighters at the IDF, resulting in two deaths and multiple injuries[30].

The other three attacks were perpetrated by Sunni militants, and at least one of them targeted civilians living in Shia neighborhoods, which are closely associated with Hezbollah[31]. The considerable decrease in the number of attacks between 2013 and 2015 can be seen as the success of the states’ counterterrorism efforts, although the Lebanese Government did not target Hezbollah as part of its strategy.

The 2015 report of the United States Bureau of Counterterrorism suggests that the key obstacle to overcoming the presence of Hezbollah in the region was the Lebanese Government. As of 2015, the organization had a number of safe havens all over the country, where it stores weapons and conducts training[32]. Although the Government recognized the role of Hezbollah in some terror attacks, it did not make any attempts to disarm the organization. This was mainly because Hezbollah had many supporters in the Government, who had limited the opportunity to take legislative initiatives against the organization[33].

Nevertheless, some counterterrorism efforts carried out in Lebanon and internationally that did not target Hezbollah specifically also had an influence on its operations. For example, the Hizballah International Financing Prevention Act of 2015 had restricted the funding to the organization, reducing its freedom in recruiting and purchasing weapons[34]. Local regulations on compliance and exchange of financial information had also enhanced the efficiency of financial reporting in Lebanon and made it easier for the banks and the Government to identify money laundering and fraud[35].

The state had also attempted to prevent recruiting and counter extremist messages by amplifying moderate voices in mass media[36]. Given the number of Syrian refugees who were admitted to Lebanon between 2011 and 2015, as well as the large proportion of Shia people in the country, reducing extremism and recruitment was an important part of Lebanon’s strategy.

Hezbollah and Lebanon 2016

Hezbollah’s position in Lebanon has not changed since 2015, although the overall counterterrorism landscape in Lebanon became more prominent in 2016. The U.S. Bureau of Counterterrorism notes that Lebanon had a significant influence on the success of the international operation against ISIS during 2016, providing various means of support to other countries’ agencies[37]. ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria posed the most significant threat to Lebanon at this point since border security was still a pivotal issue[38].

However, the year also brought some significant changes to the Lebanese Government, which improved its functionality and capacity in counterterrorism. In October 2016, Michel Aoun was elected as the President of Lebanon, which ended the political deadlock in the country and allowed for improvements in power structures[39]. This enhanced the effectiveness of the Lebanese Armed Forces in addressing the issues of terrorism and border security. For instance, the country had managed to improve the screening of flight passengers arriving into the country and ensure compliance with the U.S. Hizballah International Financing Prevention Act of 2015[40].

The Central Bank of Lebanon took action to ensure that bank accounts associated with Hezbollah could be frozen without delays, thus draining a significant share of funding from the organization[41]. This action was considered to be the cause of an attack on the Bloom Bank in Beirut, which was allegedly perpetrated by Hezbollah[42]. The attack did not result in any casualties or injuries but damaged the bank’s structure, causing a disruption in operations.

A series of attacks that could be attributed to Hezbollah occurred on June 27, 2016, in the Christian village of al-Qaeda in the Bekaa valley[43]. The attacks were perpetrated by eight suicide bombings, resulting in five deaths and 28 injured persons[44]. The other three major terror attacks of 2016 were committed by members of other terrorist groups, including ISIS.

Hezbollah and Lebanon 2017

In 2017, the counterterrorism landscape in Lebanon remained unchanged, with the vast part of efforts targeting ISIS and its affiliates. The Lebanese Armed Forces attempted to strengthen border control further to prevent fighters from entering Syria and Israel, but Hezbollah had maintained its military presence in Syria[45]. This was mainly because the territories controlled by the organization remained outside of the Government’s control, making it challenging for LAF forces to secure the border in these areas.

To this day, Hezbollah is not included in the list of terrorist organizations in Lebanon, which limits the power of the Government in combatting it. However, the organization was indirectly affected by the counterterrorism initiatives in the area, which helped to decrease the number of attacks carried out in Lebanon. In 2017, there were only two terrorist incidents, which resulted in one death and several injuries[46].

Another terror attack at a coffee shop in Beirut was successfully prevented by the Lebanese security forces[47]. In 2017, the Lebanese Government continued to ensure compliance with HIFPA, which helped to counter the financing of terrorist organizations in the country, including Hezbollah. Nevertheless, the political power of Hezbollah remains prominent, and Lebanon still does not have broad and full counterterrorism legislation in place[48]. This could limit the country’s future efforts, especially if terrorist organizations find ways of addressing the financial barriers created by the Government.

Conclusion

All in all, the discussion of asymmetrical warfare between Hezbollah and the Lebanese Government provided several valuable insights into the topic. First of all, the terrorist organization is unique in terms of its political connections, and this limits the success of the Government in combatting it. Secondly, the activity of Hezbollah was greatly influenced by the Syrian civil war, and it is possible that the group will commit more attacks in Lebanon after terminating its efforts in Syria.

Moreover, the fact that Hezbollah maintains territorial control over some regions of Lebanon means that the organization has more resources to oppose the Government than other terrorist groups. General counterterrorism efforts of the Lebanese Government were effective in reducing the number of terror attacks in the country and improving national security, mainly due to strengthened financial regulations. Nevertheless, the complete elimination of Hezbollah would not be possible unless its political and territorial powers are limited by the Government.

Bibliography

United States Bureau of Counterterrorism. Country Reports on Terrorism 2013. [Washington, D.C.]: United States Department of State, 2014.

United States Bureau of Counterterrorism. Country Reports on Terrorism 2014. [Washington, D.C.]: United States Department of State, 2015.

United States Bureau of Counterterrorism. Country Reports on Terrorism 2015. [Washington, D.C.]: United States Department of State, 2016.

United States Bureau of Counterterrorism. Country Reports on Terrorism 2016. [Washington, D.C.]: United States Department of State, 2017.

United States Bureau of Counterterrorism. Country Reports on Terrorism 2017. [Washington, D.C.]: United States Department of State, 2018.

United States Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Lebanon 2017 Human Rights Report. [Washington, D.C.]: United States Department of State 2018.

United States Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. “U.S. Department of State. Web.

  1. United States Bureau of Counterterrorism, Country Reports on Terrorism 2017, [Washington, D.C.]: United States Department of State, 2018.
  2. United States Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Lebanon 2017 Human Rights Report, [Washington, D.C.]: United States Department of State 2018.
  3. Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, “U.S. Relations With Lebanon,” U.S. Department of State. Web.
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