Partisans of Ali: Lebanon’s Shi’a in the Civil War
Lebanon’s Shi’a Muslims, who are the majority of the population in the Lebanese regions of South Lebanon and the Beqaa Valley, were traditionally one of the Levant’s persecuted minorities. Judged by successive regimes as poor and backwards, they were economically marginalized and kept out of positions of power during the reign of the Ottomans, and later under the colonial French. This tradition of disenfranchisement translated to the Shi’a acquiring only a secondary role in the Lebanese government, established in 1946, which was dominated by Maronite Catholics and Sunni Muslims.
A spiritual awakening amongst the Lebanese Shi’a occurred in the 1960s and 70s when a prodigious Iranian-born cleric, Musa al Sadr, arrived in Lebanon and began to rouse the population to action against their marginalization in Lebanon’s political affairs. From Sadr’s sermons, lectures, and demonstrations blossomed the Amal Movement—an activist organization with the goal of increasing Shi’a representation in Lebanon’s secular government. The movement, despite being headed by a cleric, was nonetheless both socialist and secular in nature.
A civil war erupted in Lebanon in 1975, which began as a conflict between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Lebanese Phalange (a Christian militia), but whose dangers and politics soon spread to consume every other community in the country. Escalating sectarian internecine effectively sidelined both the Lebanese state and army and created circumstances where each sect had to fend for itself amidst a genocidal atmosphere fueled by retaliatory bouts of ethnic cleansing. In 1978, while Lebanon was preoccupied with its chaos, Sadr was kidnapped during a trip to Libya and was never heard from again. His fate is unknown to this day, but it is speculated he was tortured and killed in a Libyan prison. The loss of Sadr’s spiritual leadership led to the first power vacuum that would come to be filled by Khomeini via Hezbollah.
Invasion 1982: Enter Israel
1982 was a pivotal year for Lebanon for two reasons, the first being that it marked the beginning of Israel’s invasion, and the second being that the invasion’s result saw the PLO expelled from Lebanon. The Iranian Response to the Israeli invasion will be discussed in Part III. It is important to note that the PLO occupied an expansive military network in South Lebanon which it used to launch strikes into Israel. The enormous vacuum left by the Palestinians’ extirpation would be filled by Hezbollah, thanks to a combination of aggressive efforts by Iran’s Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and political failures within the Amal Movement.
The Amal Movement lent their tacit support for Israel’s campaign against the PLO, partly because they hated the PLO’s domination of Shi’a territory in South Lebanon, and also because they badly sought to sue for peace in the wake of a nigh-apocalyptic Israeli invasion which led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Lebanese and Palestinians. The primary goal of Israel’s invasion was to secure permanent peace on their northern border by driving a column of tanks straight to Beirut and instituting regime change. Presidential elections were held under Israeli occupation in 1983, which saw the election of a pro-Israel Maronite Catholic from the Phalange party and the establishment of a unity government to put a halt to the war. Amal joined the unity government despite adamant objections from its rank and file. This agreement was considered an unacceptable surrender by hardline Shi’a and led to the schism within Amal that birthed Hezbollah, with the IRGC serving as midwife.
The Syrian-Iranian Alliance
At the risk of providing too much exposition, it is necessary to briefly describe the relationship between Syria and Iran, because Hezbollah could not have risen to power without the approval of then-president Hafez al Assad. During the 1970s and 80s, both Syria and Iran were diplomatically isolated countries. However, they both found common ground with their mutual hatred of Saddam Hussein. The Iran-Iraq War catalyzed the forging of a strong alliance between the Syrians and Iranians which survives to this day. As part of this alliance, the Syrians, gatekeepers to the Levant, allowed the IRGC to set up training camps in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley in return for access to cheap Iranian oil.
The Syrians were also extremely cautious about escalating conflict with Israel, as the Zionists had struck fear into the hearts of Arab rulers with their conquest of the Arab capitol of Beirut. Fearing a replay of the same circumstances at the gates of Damascus, Syria cherished Hezbollah as a bulwark between it and a crushing Israeli armored advance.