Lebanon: Inconvenient Truths About Syria, Iran, Hezbollah And The Shia ‘Street’

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This is the fourth segment in the author’s backstory series – “Lebanon: Bellwether, Battleground, and Bastard Child” – in the wake of the August 4, 2020 Beirut port explosion. Check out parts one, two, and three, plus stay tuned for upcoming segments at Antiwar.com.

There’s been a lot of nonsense passing as truth in post-blast Lebanon reporting. Most centers around alarmism about Hezbollah’s nefarious influence, the West’s “opportunity” to destroy it, and the supposed struggle with Russia, China, and Iran for paternalist-preeminence in a country that isn’t ours (or theirs) to preside over in the first place. Consider some embarrassing examples:

  • Forbes, August 19:
    • Headline: “Presence Of Hezbollah In Lebanon Renders National Unity Government Ineffective, Hinders IMF Aid.”
    • Highlights: “‘France fails to understand the extent of the stranglehold on power held by Hezbollah,’ [Carlos Abadi, Managing Director at financial advisory firm DecisionBoundaries] said;” and “How Lebanon’s creditors fare will not just depend on the continued influence of Hezbollah in blocking the necessary IMF reforms relating to customs…”
  • National Review (authored by an editorial intern and student in data science and economics at Harvard), 22 August:
    • Headline: “Now Is the Time to Force Hezbollah out of Lebanon.”
    • Highlights: “Without a lasting, consistent effort from the U.S. or some kind of global coalition and a blessing from all the Lebanese – including the Shiites – Hezbollah could stick around for quite some time;” and “the US seemingly has a window to encourage a free and democratic Lebanon while taking a critical step in the maximum-pressure strategy against Iran.”
  • The National (this, instructively, a UAE-based publication), 23 August.
    • Headline:The world’s great powers will soon face off in Lebanon.”
    • Highlights: “The US is locked in a struggle with China and Russia over Iran, and the playing field is now moving to Beirut;” and “There is little incentive for Russia and China to deter Iran’s prospective takeover of Lebanon’s political structure.”

Strange, isn’t it, that there’s little discussion in most mainstream reporting on the minor matter of why Hezbollah gained influence in the first place – you know: like, where it came from, why it formed, and how it took hold in Lebanon of all places. Well, here’s a cursory cut:

Shia Muslims are difficult to provoke and almost impossible to suppress once aroused. Long led by a more “quietist” strand of conservative, apolitical, clerics, these massive Mideast minorities – all 100 million of them – have, since Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, emerged as the most effective regional resistors to Israeli expansionism and Western neo-imperialism.

They’ve met with meaningful and unexpected success – where nearly all Sunnis states and subgroups have mainly failed – combating Israel, America, and both’s assorted Arab clients for more than 40 years. Indeed, while hardly immaculate, the Shia resistance record is rather impressive and worth a brief credentialed tour:

  • Iran: survived the existential threat of Iraq’s U.S.-backed invasion (1980-88) as well as the unending onslaught of the American superpower’s implacable ire (1979-present).
  • Lebanon: Israel then the U.S.-led Multinational Force (MNF) ejected from Beirut (1982-84); Israel caught in quagmire of insurgency, then forced to unilaterally withdraw from the country’s south (1982-2000); the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) fought to a standstill in a region-reverberating moral victory (2006); extinguished – in conjunction with the cross-confessional national army – the Syrian civil-spillover of ISIS’s mini-caliphate and cross-border terror campaign.
  • Iraq: Respectably resisted the US military occupation yet simultaneously and successfully seized political power after America’s invasion (2003-11); rebounded from its national army’s near-collapse with a mass urgent uprising that halted, then vanquished, the seemingly unstoppable Baghdad-bound ISIS wave (2014-17).
  • Syria (though it’s Alawi minority-led regime is only vaguely Shia): Withstood and recovered from repeated, crippling Israeli – and occasionally American – attacks to maintain a grip on Lebanon through an extended military occupation (1976-2005), then indirect influence (2005-present); rallied, with mostly coreligionist regional, and Russian, support, to repulse rebel – largely Islamist and/or outright ISIS – advances that were backed by powerful US, Turkish, and Gulf State sponsors, emerging all-but victorious (2011-present).
  • Yemen (Here I speak of the Zaydi Shia-sub-sect Houthis): waged war, on and off, to gain autonomy from the Gulf- and U.S.-backed central government (2004-14); ultimately seized the capital and large swathes of the country’s north and west (2014-15); then held firm despite Washington’s complicity in a withering Saudi-led terror-bombing and blockade (2015-present).

It was in one of those theaters that the potential power of Shia solidarity and rage first struck me – specifically, an intense East Baghdad marketplace march of self-flagellation in 2007, amidst Iraq’s civil war. This unfolded during the sect’s always-intense annual Ashura commemoration of the martyrdom of the prophet’s grandson, Hussein, by the ascendant Sunni army of Caliph Yazid. Thousands of street-urchin Shia men – underprivileged urban-displaced detritus of Sunni (though secular) Saddam Hussein’s repressive rule – beat their backs with barbed chains until blood profusely streamed.

This macabre masquerade mirrored the community’s 1300-year-old cult of martyrdom, reflecting an equally earned and even older victim culture incarnate. I took a troubling and instructive snapshot that’s haunted me for more than a decade: a young child, in his father’s arms, and carrying a toy replica of the barbed whips which would someday sear his own flesh. It was all so disturbing, guiltily captivating, and frightening.

My reflexive reaction to that first Ashura?: My God, what if the mass of these devotees ever really rose and against me, my men, my country’s military? They hadn’t and haven’t, in Iraq, despite the significant casualties Shia militias even then caused – two dead and two wounded in our 19-man scout platoon alone – and which have now been laid, a bit too confidently, at Tehran’s doorstep.

Whilst some 600 dead US soldiers sniped and blasted to death by militias is nothing to sneeze at, any staid survey showed that – though punctuated by occasional uprisings – Iraqi Shia resistance remained restrained, calculated, and also balanced. The latter being reflected in the realization that America’s invasion had presented an historic opportunity for their community’s “legit” political prospects. Thus, a mass uprising wasn’t necessary – the threat of it, enough to discipline an ostensible American master already mired in a intractable Sunni rebellion.

Still, on that East Baghdad byway in 2007, I discerned what the IDF should’ve learned in the 1980s, my generals should’ve studied, and the omens their civilian masters should’ve heeded. That Iraq’s, and the region’s, Shia stored significant energy – a long injured, often endearing people neither to be dismissed nor trifled with.

That said, the Shia Crescent narrative, as I discussed in a previous column, is more alarmism than actuality. It posits a coherency, capacity, and central-direction (from Tehran, naturally) to a conspiracy that isn’t. Yet widespread Shia uprisings are real, misunderstandings aside. And it’s precisely what the Iran-hawk, Shia-monolith provocateurs misread and omit that matters – and is most menacing. To wit, that it’s mainly Israel, by-with-and-through Washington, that woke the sleeping Shia giant – birthing an unnecessary enemy beast it didn’t need and can’t beat. Nowhere was this more or earlier evident than in the modern Shia intifada’s first post-Persian-propulsion theater: Little Lebanon.

It was there that long roots of collective grievance and communal capacity took on truly transnational – yet spontaneous and domestic – dimensions. It was there that successful Shia states and subgroups – Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah – haltingly, but ultimately deftly, discovered a defiance formula that worked. Yet it was also there, on the Mediterranean’s shores, that the entire profound phenomenon was – and remains – most misunderstood. Consider a first such crucial, if uncomfortable, truth – one turbulent as ever, and live from Lebanon:

The Shia Factor: Awakening Martyrdom’s Sleeping Giant (#1)

Lebanon’s Shia uprising was authentic, organic, local, and persistent.

The Shia, as a rule, perceive themselves as a perennially put-upon people. While the intra-Islamic schism is hardly the permanent cosmic battle of simplistic Western fantasy – historically, Sunni and Shia have coexisted in relative peace, more often than not – the power imbalance was typically real. And Lebanese Shia suffered worse than most, particularly over the last century. They’ve always been the poorest, most rural, least educated and most politically-underrepresented community in the synthetic-state of French post-colonial creation. Long-preyed-upon by their own feudal landlords, neglected by the Beirut government, and sometimes exploited by Palestinian refugee fighters streaming into their sectors, Shia were fated to suffer more from Israel’s aggression than any other Lebanese community.

The Shia’s two traditional heartlands were wedged between the Christian coastal cities and Syria (the Bekaa Valley) and betwixt Israel and the Palestinian resistance fighters in their midst (Southern Lebanon). When Israel chose limited (1978), then outright (1982-2000), invasion and occupation of its northern neighbor, the Shia fled en masse from their destroyed villages and swelled the squatter-suburb of South Beirut – the aptly-branded “belt of misery.” This great displacement-migration tracked – but was even more conflict-induced than – earlier influxes of their Iraqi brethren into Baghdad’s Sadr City. Both Shia slums proved predictable hotbeds of radicalism and militia mobilization: Hezbollah and Ayatollah Musa Sadr’s Amal Movement in South Beirut, and later, his distant cousin Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in East Baghdad.

Unnecessary Enemies

In the Lebanese scenario, the southern Shia of Lebanon’s Jebel Amil region should’ve been natural allies – or at least no threat – to the Israelis just over the border. Most local Shia were initially lukewarm towards the Palestinian fighters in their midst. Others openly opposed their presence. Indeed, when the IDF first invaded in 1978’s Operation Litani, and even during its more extensive 1982 Operation Peace in Galilee, some local Amal leaders essentially collaborated with them.

In the latter case, it was only after eight months, amidst widespread popular pressure catalyzed by Israeli brutality, that Amal took to outright resistance. In fact, their leader – currently the speaker of Lebanon’s parliament – Nabih Berri’s decision to sign on to the multi-sectarian committee negotiating P.L.O. withdrawal forever tainted Amal in many Shia eyes, and contributed to the rise of radical alternatives like Hezbollah.

The IDF’s viciousness and disproportionality sabotaged their Shia opportunity. Though they hadn’t been either operation’s original target, no Lebanese community suffered more. Shia accounted for the majority of some 20,000 killed in Israel’s war on the PLO, and it was mainly their villages – almost 80 percent of them, in fact – the invasions destroyed. As sophomore cadets at West Point studying Just War theory, we devoted ample time to the legal and ethical mandates of discrimination – attacking only legitimate targets – and proportionality – tempering the extent of violence to minimize destruction and casualties. By even the most permissive measures, IDF actions grotesquely violated both principles in Shia South Lebanon. Consider just a few obscene examples:

  • July 17, 1981: After PLO rocket attacks on northern Israel killed three civilians, the IDF retaliated with airstrikes across Southern Lebanon, and on West Beirut neighborhood housing the PLO’s headquarters – during the height of Friday rush hour – killing 120-150 and wounding 550, mainly civilians (the majority of them Lebanese).
    • Casualty ratio: ~40-to-1.
  • April 21, 1982: When a landmine killed an army officer in South Lebanon (the IDF offered no explanation for his pre-invasion presence there), retaliatory Israeli air strikes killed 23 in the coastal town of Damour.
    • Casualty ratio: 23-to-1.
  • June 3-5, 1982: The attempted assassination of Israel’s ambassador in Britain – though perpetrated by the PLO’s rival Abu Nidal organization – prompts IDF bombings inside Lebanon and a tit-for-tat rocket-retaliation cycle with the PLO Four Israelis, plus 190-230 Palestinians and Lebanese are killed.
    • Casualty ratio: ~50-to-1.

These incidents all occurred before the IDF invasion that eventually caused exponentially greater – mostly Shia – Lebanese fatalities. A wider aperture reveals a far more obscene picture: during the IDF invasion and its subsequent occupation from July 1982-2000, Hezbollah’s cross-border shelling killed nine Israeli civilians. By contrast, approximately 22,000 Lebanese civilians, the majority of them Shia, were killed in IDF operations – that’s a cool 2,400-to-1 casualty ratio-disparity.

Israel’s Vietnam: Stirring up the Shia

Even so, early Shia resistance to the Israeli incursion was mostly nonviolent, and when attacks began they were initially small-scale and sporadic. Resistance was spontaneous, and locally led and directed – an organic uprising bred by IDF-brutality. The tragedy of what the Israeli historian Martin Van Crevald called Tel Aviv’s “greatest folly,” was how unnecessary and remarkably counterproductive this Shia provocation truly was.

If the Lebanese Shia had until then been – so far as Israel was concerned – a quiescent non-threatening lot, even minimally culture-aware strategists and military leaders ought have known this wasn’t a community to trifle with. The local clerics of Jebel Amil were exceedingly close to their flock of copious, disenchanted, and conservative farm boys. More than most, these men – whom Musa Sadr had dubbed the “dispossessed” – manifested that unique Shia cultural capacity for discipline, humility, and martyrdom. Furthermore, Israel unknowingly waded into a perfect storm of sorts, since Lebanese Shia had only recently been politically awakened by Sadr’s mobilization movement and seven years of catalyzing civil war.

It was, without exaggeration, a society ripe for production of the Islamic World’s earliest suicide bombers. One of the very first was a teenager named Ahmad Qassir, who’d lost several family members during Israel’s Litani operation – four years before driving an explosives-packed car into IDF headquarters in Tyre on November 11, 1982, killing 141. Even now, when the West commemorates its World War I dead on Armistice-cum-Veterans’ Day, Lebanese Shia supporters of Hezbollah celebrate “Martyrs’ Day.”

Perhaps then, IDF soldiers could hardly have committed a worse blunder than – as they did in October 1983 – mistakenly driving into a tens of thousands-strong throng of Ashura worshippers at their peak lamentation-ecstasy. When some of these rudely interrupted surged towards the lone lost Israeli lieutenant’s convoy, tipping and torching a jeep, the troops fired rifles and grenades into the crowd: killing one and wounding several. Though far from the IDF’s most lethal affair, it was a transformational one: plunging the entire Shia South into open rebellion. Amal’s, and increasingly Hezbollah’s, attacks nearly quadrupled – to 90 per month – within a year.

This set off a tit-for-tat retaliation cycle – in which IDF troops blew up suspected “terrorist” houses, cut down orchards, and imprisoned 15,000 Shia in the veritable insurgent-university that was its Ansar concentration camp. By 1985, the IDF had suffered, proportionally, more casualties than the US military did in the Vietnam War. More than half had been killed – not by their stated PLO adversaries – but a new grassroots Shia enemy they didn’t know they had, and certainly didn’t need. Little did the occupiers then know that the costly war in South Lebanon would rage for 15 more years.

Frightened and frustrated Israelis essentially created the uprising they’d been sent to stifle, in a community they scantly understood. So it goes, and so familiar it doth sound to these post-9/11 American military ears. IDF troopers behaved badly, smashed up Lebanese homes and – in particular no-nos for a religiously motivated enemy – entered mosques with dogs, plus urinated and trampled on Korans. The more Israeli soldiers were killed, the more the Shia themselves became the enemy – the dehumanization usually preceding war crimes best articulated by the IDF’s regional commander, General Ori Orr, who described their foes as “vermin, snakes, and scorpions.”

The IDF stayed locked in a Lebanese quagmire of their own creation for a decade and half before unilaterally withdrawing – or driven out, depending on one’s point of view – in 2000. Shia success – where Sunni Pan-Arab nation-states and Palestinian guerrillas had repeatedly failed – bred community confidence and pride. Already, in 1985, a doctor and Amal village militia leader boasted “We have destroyed the myth that Israel is the world’s fourth military power. We have done it ourselves, without being paid like Palestinians…In all the Arab world no one has resisted like us.” He wasn’t wrong, as his coreligionist – and sometime competing – Hezbollah fighters would prove once again in their region-reverberating moral victory and respectable-showing during Israel’s 2006 encore invasion.

Such Shia success, and the communal rising that produced it, was a fundamentally local affair. Any Iranian interventions, or Syrian facilitation, was secondary – no matter how significant. Sequence matters. Israeli aggression and occupation, more than anything else, birthed the newly woke – if already restive – Shia community that wields such power in today’s Lebanon. No matter what Washington says: the path to Shia resistance and ascendance ran through Tel Aviv, not Tehran. In a very real sense, it still does.

All for Nothing

In June 1985, the IDF decided against a full withdrawal and retained a so-called southern “security zone,” or “strip.” They did so, according to the “coordinator” of Israeli activities in Lebanon, because they feared that they would “wake up one day with a mini-Iran on their doorstep.” Ironically, due to their continued military occupation – these, historically, breed local resistance – that’s precisely what the Israelis got.

By staying put in Southern Lebanon, the IDF furnished Amal and more-so, Hezbollah – which couldn’t have sustained itself on purely religious grounds – with a (quite legitimate) nationalist justification for continuing the jihad. Israel’s future prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, described continuing the occupation as a fundamental error that fueled Hezbollah – “We let the Shia genie out of the bottle.”

Ironically, Prime Minister Menachem Begin – himself a former civilian-killing Zionist underground terrorist leader – had justified the initial 1982 invasion as a means to ensure “No more rockets [fall] on Kiryat Shmona”. Yet just four days after the initial IDF pullback to the security strip in 1985, the first Katyushas landed in northern Israel. Only these were launched by Hezbollah rather than the PLO

Israel’s invasion had merely substituted Lebanese for Palestinian rockets. The screech of inbound Katyushas was the visceral proof: all that killing and dying in Israel’s “Vietnam” had been for nothing…

Author’s Note: For most of the assertions absent hyperlinks, the core source was David Hirst’s book-length survey, Beware of Small States: Lebanon, Battleground of the Middle East (2011).

Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer, contributing editor at antiwar.com, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP), and director of the soon-to-launch Eisenhower Media Network (EMN). His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, The American Conservative, Mother Jones, ScheerPost and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. His forthcoming book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War (Heyday Books) is available for pre-order. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet and see his website for speaking/media requests and past publications.