Nicholas Blanford: Hezbollah’s Struggle Against Israel

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Jon Alterman: Nicholas Blanford is a Beirut based security consultant. He's also a non-resident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council. He's the author of, Killing Mr. Lebanon: The Assassination of Rafik Hariri and Its Impact on the Middle East and Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah's Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel. Nicholas Blanford, welcome to Babel. 

Nicholas Blanford: Thank you, Jon. 

Jon Alterman: As you've written for many years, there are a range of Lebanese attitudes toward Hezbollah. In general, in Lebanon, have the last six months been good for Hezbollah or bad for Hezbollah? 

Nicholas Blanford: To be honest, it's probably the same. The division in Lebanon has been so strong and divisive over Hezbollah's weapons and its military aspirations, that what has happened in the last six months is a continuation of the political divisions of Hezbollah's intervention in Syria, Hezbollah's alleged role in the assassination of Rafik Hariri, and so on. What has been going on for the last six months is an expansion of the tensions and schisms between Hezbollah, its supporters, and other components in Lebanon that we've been seeing since at least 2005. 

Jon Alterman: Lebanese have complicated and often hostile attitudes toward Palestinians in Lebanon. What is Hezbollah's attitude toward Palestinians in general and toward Hamas in particular? 

Nicholas Blanford: Well, of course the Palestinian cause has been right at the forefront of Hezbollah’s ideology, right from the very beginning. In their “Open Letter Manifesto” in 1985, they called for the obliteration of Israel and the liberation of Holy Jerusalem as one of their central ideological pillars. During the Al-Aqsa Intifada over 20 years ago now, they were very supportive of the various Palestinian factions providing training, financing to an extent, weapons manufacturing skills, and so on and so forth to help the various Palestinian groups in the West Bank and Gaza. 

So obviously that's playing out now with what Hezbollah calls its support front along the blue line, along the Lebanon-Israel border, to try and somewhat divert Israeli war efforts from Gaza toward Israel's northern border. The relationship with Hamas is a bit more complicated. The relationship began in the early 1990s after the Israelis expelled around 400 Hamas militants into Lebanon. This is where Hezbollah reached out to Hamas and the relationship developed from there. Ideologically, they’re fairly different. Obviously, Hamas is part of the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni organization, and Hezbollah is a Shia organization that looks to Iran for its doctrinal and ideological goals. 

But nonetheless, they have this relationship. It went under some strains back in 2012-2013 at the beginning of the conflict in Syria. Hamas was headquartered in Damascus at the time and essentially switched sides. They went with the mainly Sunni opposition against the rule of President Assad and broke away from the so-called axis of resistance, which groups Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and so on. But Hamas eventually came cap in hand back to the Iranians and back to Hezbollah, when it became clear, around 2018, that President Assad was not going anywhere. 

So, there's a more complicated relationship between Hezbollah and Hamas. On a grassroots level, there's not much love for Hamas amongst Hezbollah fighters. They quietly call Hamas the back stabbers for switching sides in Syria. So, it’s fairly ironic that what is happening in South Lebanon over the last six months, with more than 300 people dead and a lot of destruction and damage to Lebanese border villages, is essentially for the sake of coming to the support of Hamas and Gaza. 

Jon Alterman: Are you surprised there's not more of an effort to assist Hamas, or do you think there was more effort than you would've expected to assist Hamas as this battle rages in Gaza? 

Nicholas Blanford: Well, I think it was clear that Hezbollah was going to do something. They did it on October 8th. They did a very pro-forma shelling of Israeli positions in the Shebaa farms. This was standard, it was understood, but of course, the fighting continued. Initially in fact, on October 9th, the fighting began with Palestinian Islamic Jihad staging an incursion across the border into Israel from South Lebanon. There was a heavy clash, an Israeli colonel was killed, the Israeli retaliatory shelling was heavier than one would expect, it killed a bunch of Hezbollah guys, and then we had the tit-for-tat that really got underway from that point on. 

The bottom line here is that the Iranians do not want Hezbollah to get involved in full scale war with Israel for the sake of Hamas. Hezbollah is far too important for Iran. It's a key component of Iran's deterrence architecture. So, while the fighting along the Lebanon-Israel border has gone on for much, much longer than Hezbollah was expecting, it has more or less stayed at a fairly persistent level. It's well below the threshold that would see both Hezbollah and Israel escalate into a larger conflict, either a limited one confined to South Lebanon or a full-scale conflict which would probably go regional. 

Jon Alterman: You understand more about Hezbollah's decision-making process than anybody I know. How would you describe it as it relates to regional conflict or as it relates to Iran? Ambassador Jeff Feltman, the former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon said, "Hezbollah's Lebanese role is secondary to its ties with Iran. If Hezbollah ever has to choose between Iran and Lebanon, Lebanon becomes roadkill." Does he have it right? 

Nicholas Blanford: I think he's correct, yes, because of the ideological links between the leadership of Iran and Hezbollah. At the end of the day, Hezbollah plays a key role as a deterrence asset for the Iranians. If one day the Americans, the Israelis, or a combination of the two and more perhaps, decide it's time to go after Iran's nuclear facilities or try to decapitate the regime, then this is when Hezbollah could get that phone call from Iran who says, "Right, it’s payback time. We need you to go into action." 

Now, that would probably necessitate a full-scale war with Israel, a war that the Lebanese definitely don't want, but this is the discipline. This is the link between Hezbollah and Iran. Hezbollah would have no choice but to push ahead with it. And Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah of course, would have to try to justify this to an angry and skeptical domestic audience in Lebanon. 

Jon Alterman: You've lived in Lebanon for decades. You wrote this book about Hezbollah more than a decade ago. What do you think the major inflection points in Hezbollah's evolution have been? What are the things that shifted Hezbollah's direction? 

Nicholas Blanford: When you're analyzing Hezbollah's actions and the choices that it makes, for me, the key component of all this is that Hezbollah wants to maintain, sustain, and nurture what it calls its “resistance priority.” The resistance priority is essentially its right to bear arms and to act independently, if necessary, of the Lebanese state. Every action that they've taken when there's been a sudden shift in behavior has been because of a change of circumstances in Lebanon and potentially a threat to Hezbollah. In the 1980s, we had a chaotic situation in Lebanon during the country’s civil war. You have this zealous new organization backed by the Iranians emerging. It was the era of suicide bombing against the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Marine barracks, and the kidnapping of Westerners.

But in 1990, the civil war comes to an end and there's suddenly a new reality. The Syrians are now calling the shots in Lebanon, and Hezbollah had to accept that if it wanted to continue pursuing its resistance priority of fighting the Israeli occupation in South Lebanon. During the 1990s, they were beginning to win plaudits, praise, and respect from Lebanese of all confessions for the prowess they were demonstrating in South Lebanon. That, of course, culminated with the Israeli withdrawal in May 2000. So suddenly we have another inflection point. How do you continue to justify resistance when there's no occupation left to resist? 

There were gradually more calls in Lebanon saying, "Hezbollah you did a great job kicking the Israelis out of Lebanon, but you should really think about putting down your weapons and going into politics." Then in 2005, Rafik Hariri was assassinated. The country politically split into two camps, one headed by Hezbollah and the other headed by factions backed by the West. Then you had for the next decade this massive polarizing effect in the country, augmented by the 2006 war, where Hezbollah, for the first time after the Hariri assassination, joined government. This was in July of 2005. The Syrians had gone after Hariri's assassination, so Hezbollah no longer had that kind of protective fig leaf. They had to take a step deeper into Lebanese politics to defend that resistance priority. 

This has continued. The intervention in Syria was highly controversial at the time. They took about a year and a half to go from outright denying any involvement in Syria to justifying why they were in Syria. This has continued to the extent now that we saw in the Thawrat, the popular uprising in October of 2019 when Lebanon went into this massive economic collapse. And you had people of all different backgrounds and sects coming into the center of Beirut and protesting against the political elite. It was actually Hezbollah's supporters that were coming up and defending the oligarchs, if you like. 

They've undergone these various inflection points. They've evolved in their discourse and in their behavior, but the bottom line is it's all about protecting that resistance priority. 

Jon Alterman: Is this because Hassan Nasrallah is shrewd? Is it because he's agile? Is it because he's deeply strategic? To what extent does this reflect Nasrallah's vision, his skill? Or is Nasrallah just a figurehead and other people or other groups are calling the shots? 

Nicholas Blanford: Well, Nasrallah has developed this aura over the 30 years that he’s been Secretary General. When his predecessor and mentor Abbas al-Musawi was killed in February 1992 in a helicopter attack on his motorcade, there was a kind of collective shock within Hezbollah because al-Musawi was a revered figure. He was the head of the resistance in the 1980s. And people were wondering, "How on earth are we going to be able to continue without him?" 

Well, two days later the Shura Council met, and they elected Hassan Nasrallah as the new Secretary General. People knew of him because he was the protégé of al-Musawi, but he was relatively young and inexperienced. However, he very much grew into the role. Back then, the Secretary General could serve two consecutive three-year terms, but after his two terms were up, they recognized this guy was the leader for good. So, he is a smart guy. He's got a lot of very good advisors. This is definitely not a one man show. Hezbollah is very much kind of an institution. 

Nasrallah is extremely good with the media. He's extremely good with messaging, with information operations, and propaganda. He is very, very effective. One day, I guess we're going to have a situation where Nasrallah is no longer on the scene, and one can imagine that there's going to be another collective intake of breath amongst Hezbollah's cadres about who's going to take over and how effective the new leader is going to be. 

Jon Alterman: You wrote a couple of months ago now that Israelis and Hezbollah are probably ready to be led to an off ramp that leads to a cessation of hostilities. Do you think they're still waiting at that off ramp? Has anything changed or are they just all waiting? 

Nicholas Blanford: I think they're waiting. The war, the fighting in South Lebanon has continued for far longer than they were expecting. And that was actually admitted in an interview by NBC with Sheikh Naim Qassem, who's the number two of Hezbollah.

But it's very important for Hezbollah to come across that it won, that it prevailed. So it has to save face. I think even more so than two months ago, Hezbollah's ready to be led to the off ramp, but somebody needs to hold their hand and guide them to the off ramp. And I think it's the same with the Israelis. I think the Israelis want this to end. The Israelis have got about 80,000 people who have been evacuated from their homes in the North, and they need to get them back. 

Tactically at the moment, I think the Israelis have the upper hand on the day-to-day fighting. They're not really losing any soldiers. They're using their technology and air power, especially to locate and target senior Hezbollah field commanders, which is causing Hezbollah a certain amount of headache. So this could continue, although the Israeli government does have the pressure of the 80,000 folks that need to get back to their homes. 

Jon Alterman: And how many Lebanese have been pushed out of the South in the context of this conflict?

Nicholas Blanford: In northern Israel, it was a kind of a mandatory evacuation. In Lebanon, it's more voluntary. The Lebanese in the border district have been doing this for decades. When things get too difficult, they've got the bags packed by the front door, and they're in the car and heading north. So the figures vary, but it's between 90,000 to 120,000 Lebanese who are believed to have left.

Jon Alterman: Does that create political pressure in Lebanon or is Lebanon in such political straits right now that it just gets absorbed into the noise?

Nicholas Blanford: Politically, everything has ground to a halt in Lebanon. Before this kicked off in October, the main political issue was to try to elect a new president. That has just been pushed aside now. The Lebanese government is acting in a caretaker capacity because of the lack of a president, so its powers are limited. It certainly doesn't have the strength to step in and go to Hezbollah and say, "Enough, stop the fighting. You're causing too much damage to the south, and you're risking plunging the country into a major war with Israel that we do not want." 

So, people are basically wringing their hands in frustration if they are politically opposed to Hezbollah, and everyone else is just holding their breath and waiting to see what emerges from all this. 

Jon Alterman: You've described the split over Hezbollah as basically a fault line that runs through Lebanese society. Do you see a way to heal that division or to bridge it or to somehow bring Lebanese together?

Nicholas Blanford: I think it's going to remain an open, festering wound for so long as there's the broader conflict between Hezbollah and Israel. Unless there's some kind of rapprochement between the West and Iran, something that settles the region and calms everything down, and a solution for the Palestinian cause, all these regional fissures, tensions, and stresses are going to continue to be played out in Lebanon. I don't really see any way, unless there's some kind of regional shift or a regional settlement, that things will change much here.

Jon Alterman: What Hamas did on October 7th intended to terrorize Israelis and target civilians. Is that the kind of thing Hezbollah might contemplate or might be capable of? Is that something that Israelis need to include in the potential Hezbollah playbook going forward, or is it so different from what Hezbollah has done that it's not really within the realm of possibility?

Nicholas Blanford: What Hamas did on October 7th in terms of crossing the security fence and going into the Gaza envelope is straight out of Hezbollah's playbook. Hezbollah's been training to do exactly this since at least 2006, and Nasrallah mentioned in a speech in 2012 that, "the time may come when I'll ask the guys to go and liberate Galilee." In other words, cross the border and move into northern Israel. 

In terms of the atrocities that were committed on October 7th, I don't see Hezbollah doing that at all. That is simply not Hezbollah's playbook. What I would see them doing is crossing the border and potentially seizing some of the border settlements. Some of them are quite exposed with one or two roads connecting them to the rest of Israel. Hezbollah could mount ambushes there to prevent Israeli troops from coming up to try to rescue whoever's remaining in the settlement. But beyond that, I see them going in from the sea, using hang gliders exactly as Hamas did, and attacking military and infrastructure targets. So yes, this is definitely what Hezbollah's been training to do for maybe two decades. 

Jon Alterman: And if you had to guess, is that what the next Israeli war with Hezbollah would look like? Would it be about crossing the border, or would it be Hezbollah unleashing the tremendous missile arsenal it has and getting into an air war with Israel? Obviously, you can have a combination of those, but do you think this war would principally be fought with soldiers or principally fought with missiles?

Nicholas Blanford: Both. But again, it does depend on the scope of the war. At the moment, there's a lot of speculation that if the Israelis feel that they need to come into Lebanon, that they won't stage a full-scale invasion of Lebanon and won't necessarily go after Lebanese infrastructure to, as some Israeli politicians like to say, knock Lebanon back to the Stone Age. They could do a limited incursion. And the idea behind this would essentially be to come into South Lebanon, up as far north as the Litani River 25 plus kilometers north of the border, and essentially rubbelize Shia villages, in particular those where Hezbollah may be based. They would go after whatever military infrastructure they could find of Hezbollah's, kill as many Hezbollah people as possible, and then pull back to the blue line. 

Now, this is not a solution, of course. There's nothing to stop Hezbollah from coming back into South Lebanon afterwards, and it would be very bloody. And in some respects, once Israeli troops are on the ground in South Lebanon, the playing field begins to level a bit in Hezbollah's favor as Hezbollah's had more than 17 years to prepare the ground in South Lebanon for exactly this eventuality. So, if you have a full-scale invasion the Israelis would take a lot of casualties. It'd be very bloody and very destructive from the Lebanese side as well. 

But I think the war would be limited, so you wouldn't have Hezbollah, for example, firing their ballistic missiles into Tel Aviv. They will be saving that in case the Israelis one day decide, "Right, we need to go after Hezbollah properly, and we're going to destroy Lebanon in the process." And that's the moment when you will have what the Iranians did two weeks ago, but on a much, much larger scale and with no previous warning. The country will go into lockdown for the duration. No one's going to work, no one's going to school, no one's going to university, no civilian aviation traffic, and no civilian maritime traffic. And you're going to have a level of destruction from the blue line going all the way down to Tel Aviv and beyond. 

Jon Alterman: Are you confident the two sides have deterred each other for the time being?

Nicholas Blanford: I think so. I think the fact that we had 17 years of near total calm, from the 2006 war until October 8th, was testimony to that. Now, I can understand the trauma felt by Israelis after October 7th, and the fears of those Israelis who are living cheek by jowl with Hezbollah along the northern border. But they did enjoy 17 years of calm. There's no reason to suppose that once the war in Gaza is over, if things calm down between Hezbollah and Israel, that the calm couldn't last another 17 years. Assuming no one is going to go after the regime in Iran, you could have another 17 years of complete calm along the blue line.

Jon Alterman: Nicholas Blanford, thank you very much for joining us on Babel. 

Nicholas Blanford: My pleasure, Jon. Thank you.