God’s Revolution: Part III

The Advent of Hezbollah

When the Israeli invasion began in 1982, Khomeini immediately and fervently called for the dispatch of the IRGC to Lebanon to take a direct combat role against the invasion. Syria tempered Iranian ambitions, allowing for a limited dispatch of an official number of 2,000 IRGC members who would only be allowed to conduct operations in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, but were also granted permission to train locals to fight Israel as well. IRGC operatives arrived in waves of six to seven hundred between 1982 and 1983 and immediately went to work setting up military training camps, religious schools, and hospitals throughout the Beqaa, Beirut, and South Lebanon.

According to Magnus Ranstorp, the Guards’ activity soon brought them into conflict with the Lebanese Army, with the result of the latter being expelled from Beqaa after a series of short battles. Yes, you heard that right: the IRGC had effectively conquered a significant portion of Lebanese territory as a prelude to its setup of Hezbollah, leading to the Lebanese government cutting all ties with Iran in 1983 and fueling early domestic animosity towards the nascent Iranian project.

Thirty years in the making
Thirty years in the making

As a part of the IRGC’s recruitment plan, Hezbollah’s early membership was originally drawn from favored Shi’a clans in the Beqaa Valley, Beirut, and South Lebanon in order to prevent infiltration by enemies—an extremely common and deadly threat to militia groupings throughout the war. These Lebanese insiders were given access to Iran’s monetary, financial, and military resources in order to establish other Hezbollah units throughout Lebanon.

Many former members of the Amal Movement also joined Hezbollah following outrage at their organization’s leadership for supporting a pro-Israel unity government. Hezbollah’s early combat victories also won them many supporters as well as international notoriety. A 1983 suicide attack on American and French barracks in Beirut led to the unilateral withdrawal of American and French forces by 1984. 1983 would also end with the assassination of the Israeli-installed president of Lebanon, which also killed the unity government and thus Israeli designs on Lebanon.

Adding to its string of early victories, by 1985, a successful ground war spearheaded by Hezbollah had pushed the Israelis out of the strategic Chouf mountain range in Lebanon and scaled back the gains made by Israel’s invasion force to a buffer zone five miles wide in Southern Lebanon. The war to push the Israelis out of their unilaterally proclaimed buffer zone and back over the Lebanese-Israeli border would take another 15 years, ending with a unilateral Israeli pullout from Lebanon in the year 2000.

Within only a year of its existence, Hezbollah had already threatened the strategic interests of the United States, Israel, and former colonial master France. The Islamic Revolution, with its goal of reconquest of the Middle East from the West, was playing out exactly as Khomeini had planned.

The Lebanese Battlefield
The Lebanese Battlefield

Hezbollah’s Structure and Iran’s Role in It

While it is popular to claim that Hezbollah is Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, the simple descriptor of “proxy” does not really define their relationship fully. More accurately, Hezbollah is a province within an Islamic State based in Iran. It is essentially cut from Iranian fabric in terms of education, culture, and mission. Perhaps an apt comparison is the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico, where PR is essentially a US state but is nonetheless kept nominally separate for political reasons. Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah and several other senior Hezbollah leaders are fluent in Farsi, have received clerical training in Iran, and petition the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for judgment in circumstances when their politburo is deadlocked on a decision. The leaders of both Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Government also intermarry with one another, making their relationship quite literally a family affair.

On a more practical level, Lebanon, with its notoriously weak government, is unable to provide basic services like garbage pickup, water decontamination, road building, and myriad other stately functions. As a result, Iran picks up the tab via Hezbollah who are also responsible for several duties including the transporting and treatment of hundreds of tons worth of trash and refuse on a daily basis, medical treatment centers, and education for the young.

These close ties render Hezbollah much more than a simple puppet of Iran. Iran has a high enough degree of trust in Nasrallah and Hezbollah that it gives them considerable autonomy over their decisions, particularly when it comes to battlefield operations and preparation.

Hezbollah combat units before the Syrian Civil War were restricted to operating in their own towns of origin. So the men from South Lebanon were tasked with defending South Lebanon and the men from Beqaa defend the Beqaa. This structure has since wildly changed since the start of Syria’s Civil War, which has seen the deployment of Hezbollah units to foreign territory in Syria. However, a large part of the appeal of Hezbollah to local Lebanese Shi’a is the degree of autonomy and respect they are afforded by Iran.

Hezbollah is cautious to admit just how intimate its relations are with Iran given the fact that its domestic enemies within Lebanon view it as a usurper of Lebanese territory in the name of Iran. Obviously, this assumption is correct for the most part, even though Hezbollah does participate in the Lebanese parliament and Hassan Nasrallah frequently makes speeches about domestic policies.

In any case, as the Lebanese state continues on its slow, gradual path toward death, Hezbollah will undoubtedly outlive the fading nation, even amidst the turmoil in neighboring Syria. Iran has attempted to replicate the success of the Islamic Republic in Iraq with Iraqi Hezbollah and, more recently, with its training and advising of the Iraqi government’s Hashd al Sha’abi with hopes to extend the Revolution’s reach ever further. Nonetheless, Hassan Nasrallah’s Hezbollah remains the crown jewel of the Islamic Revolution outside of Iran and one of the premiere fighting forces on the planet.

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God’s Revolution: Part II

Partisans of Ali: Lebanon’s Shi’a in the Civil War

An aerial view of the stadium used as an ammunition supply site for the Palestine Liberation Organization during a confrontation with the Israelis.  Marines have been deployed here to participate in a multinational peacekeeping operation.
An aerial view of the stadium allegedly used as an ammunition supply site for the Palestine Liberation Organization during a confrontation with the Israelis. 

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.

Musa al Sadr
Musa al Sadr

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.

Beirut, 1982
Beirut, 1982

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.

The Iran-Saudi Arabia Conflict Explained in Three Maps

The Iranians and Saudis don’t like each other, and their cold war has been one of many unintended consequences of America’s failed conquest of Iraq. The Iranian-Saudi rivalry is the undercurrent driving the mass slaughter that has occurred across the Levant and Mesopotamia for the better part of a decade now. To understand why the leaders of these two countries hate one another, let’s first look at the distribution of Sunni and Shi’a Muslims in the Near East.

Credit: Vox.com
Credit: Vox.com

…now, the distribution of oil fields…

Oil Fields
Oil Fields

…and then the political boundaries.

An increasingly inaccurate and irrelevant political map of the region
An increasingly inaccurate and irrelevant political map of the region

As you can see, a high percentage of Saudi oil happens to be in the Shi’a-populated areas of their country. Saudi Arabia’s rulers are ultraconservative religious authoritarians of the Sunni conviction who unabashedly and colorfully display their interpretation of the Islamic religion without compromise. Naturally, such a ruling caste maintains a persistent paranoia that their Shi’a citizens will defect and take the oil under their feet with them with the assistance of the equally ultraconservative, ambitious, and revolutionary Shi’a Iran.

The American “restructuring” of the Iraqi political map and subsequent formation of a Shi’a-led government in Baghdad has created a launching pad for the projection of Iranian influence into Saudi territory.

So that’s the conflict in a nutshell.

Here’s a bonus map showing Saudi oil fields in more detail:

Click to zoom in

Somewhere beyond the clouds in Dinosaur Heaven, a Brontosaurus gazes down at the new kings of the food chain and weeps.