Hezbollah's Growing Domestic Woes

"Even as the organization expands its regional influence, at home there is an increasing sense of anxiety among Hezbollah’s constituents."

The nuclear agreement with Iran may represent a dramatic shift in geopolitics in favor of the Shiite theocracy, but for Lebanese Shiites, domestic concerns prevail. Lebanon’s 1.6 million Shiites are worried about the Islamic State and Jebhat al Nusra. And for good reason. Over the past four years, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah has been fighting in Syria, helping the Assad regime kill nearly 300,000 mostly Sunni Muslims. In response, these Sunni jihadis are targeting Shiites in Lebanon. Yet according to recent polling conducted by the Lebanese NGO Hayya Bina, 80 percent of Lebanese Shiites believe Hezbollah’s deployment in Syria is making the community safer. Indeed, the “Party of God’s” mission in Syria is regarded as so critical that 47 percent of Lebanese Shiites now believe that “liberating” Israeli occupied Shebaa Farms should no longer be the militia’s priority.

To date, the evolving raison d'etre of Hezbollah—from “resisting” Israel to conducting military campaigns in support of Iran from Yemen to Iraq to Syria—has not diminished the militia’s support among its domestic constituency.  But Hezbollah’s new role as Iran’s regional Praetorian Guard as well as its missteps at home is clearly raising concerns for many Lebanese Shiites.

Hezbollah’s deployment in Syria has already taken a heavy toll on Lebanon’s tight knit Shiite community. Since 2011, an estimated 1,000 Hezbollah fighters have been killed or wounded in action in Syria alone, so many that over 50 percent of Shiites polled said they knew someone “martyred” in the war. Almost every day, there are reports of burials in Lebanon; just this month four Hezbollah militiamen returned home from Syria in body-bags. Still other Hezbollah agents have died carrying out their “jihadist duties” elsewhere.

Notwithstanding Hezbollah’s purported culture of martyrdom, there appears to be some communal sensitivity to the mounting casualties. During the militia’s bloody May campaign to retake the Qalaymoun region of Syria along the Lebanese border, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah felt compelled to propitiate public opinion by addressing the number of casualties in a televised speech. Contrary to rumors, Nasrallah announced, “only 13” of his fighters had been killed in the two-week battle. Subsequent investigative reporting in the Lebanese daily An Nahar, however, suggested that the secretary general understated the casualties by almost half.

In another sign of the organization’s insecurity about domestic sentiment, in June, the militia publicly savaged its domestic Shiite critics—the so-called “Shiites of the [American] Embassy”—in the pro-Hezbollah Lebanese daily Al Akhbar.

To be sure, Nasrallah still retains the confidence of the vast majority of the Lebanese Shiite community. Recently, though, there has reportedly been some grumbling within the ranks of the organization. The chief complaint—leaked to the press and independently confirmed with Lebanese sources—relates to nepotism within the organization, and specifically to senior positions in the organization provided to children of prominent Hezbollah leaders.

The nepotism in question regards the children of erstwhile Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyyeh. Mughniyyeh was assassinated in Damascus in February 2008, and soon after inducted into the organization’s pantheon of martyrs. In January 2015, Imad’s 26 year-old son Jihad, was killed by an Israeli airstrike in Qunetra while surveying the Syrian Golan with an Iranian General.

At the time, Jihad’s demise caused some Lebanese Shiites to question what a relatively junior Hezbollah operative was doing in the company of a senior Iranian military official. It soon emerged that Jihad Mugniyyeh had been appointed commander of Hezbollah’s newly established Golan Front against Israel. Less than six months later, Mugniyyeh’s eldest son Mustafa, 28, was selected—reportedly by Nasrallah himself—to fill the very same important position.

While the favoritism demonstrated for Mughniyeh’s progeny is unseemly, Hezbollah has survived much worse scandals. In 2009, for example, Hezbollah’s chief local financier, a publisher named Salah Ezzadin, was arrested for conning the militia and 10,000 other Lebanese Shiites out of $300 million. The Ponzi scheme was so damaging to Hezbollah’s reputation that the organization’s clerics reportedly issued a fatwa-like edict forbidding Shiites to mention Ezzadin in connection to Hezbollah.

These and other ignominies have proved to be mere irritants for the militia, more an indication of the calcification of the organization than an immediate threat to the group’s existence. Still, the apparent bureaucratic rot has concerned some Hezbollah supporters.