Hizballah’s Deep State: the creeping annexation of Lebanese State Institutions and political life
By JONATHAN SPYER
The concept of a ‘deep state’ is customarily used to describe a structure existing within and separate from the formal structures of a state, which to a partial or total degree constitutes the genuine center of power and decision-making within that state. Usually, the phrase refers to an informal network. The phrase has its origins in Turkey, (‘Derin Devlet’) where it was used to describe an alleged network of individuals within the political system, judiciary, military, and intelligence services operating together in defense of their own conception of state security. Elsewhere, the phrase has been defined as referring to ‘a "more or less hidden" ‘security hierarchy’ or ‘security state’ "that not only acts in parallel to the former but also monitors and exerts control" over the ‘regular state hierarchy.’
An important debate among analysts of Lebanon is currently under way regarding the precise definition of the ruling regime.
An important debate among analysts of Lebanon is currently under way regarding the precise definition of the ruling regime. The Shia Hizballah movement at the present time exercises de facto control over a number of key nodes in Lebanese public life. A number of Israeli analysts declare that it is impossible today to coherently differentiate between the Lebanese state and the Hizballah organization, aligned with and supported by the Islamic Republic of Iran. According to this view, Hizballah’s superior military strength when compared with the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), and its ability to go to war at a time of its own or its patrons’ choosing (as demonstrated in the 2006 war with Israel, and the intervention into the Syrian Civil War in the 2012-2018 period), as well as the movement’s involvement in the governing coalition and possession of ministerial portfolios mean that today, the Lebanese state and Hizballah are in effect indistinguishable.
Against this view, many Lebanese observers point to the continued existence of a functioning electoral political system, of authentic political parties separate from and opposed to Hizballah and its allies, and of instruments of state, including military and security bodies, clearly not subordinated to Hizballah or organizations associated with it.
This debate is not merely an academic one. Rather, it has direct policy implications for both Israeli and western policy. If the Lebanese state has effectively been swallowed up by Hizballah, then in the event of a future war between Israel and the organization, Israel would be advised to conduct its campaign against the Lebanese state as a whole, ignoring artificial attempts to claim that Hizballah is an independent actor. Such a distinction would only serve to enable Hizballah to hide behind the supposedly legitimate structures of a state which is in fact under its control – ie the distinction would enable Hizballah to make war against Israel while seeking to prevent an effective Israeli response with the artificial claim that the Lebanese government has no involvement in and bears no responsibility for Hizballah’s actions.
Representing this view, then Education Minister Naftali Bennett said in May 2018, following significant electoral gains by Hizballah and its allies, that “the State of Israel will not differentiate between the sovereign State of Lebanon and Hezbollah, and will view Lebanon as responsible for any action from within its territory.”
Also, if Hizballah has effectively taken possession of the essential decision making nodes of the Lebanese state, then western assistance to elements of that state supposedly or formally outside of the ‘control’ of Hizballah would be counter productive, since it would effectively constitute assistance to Hizballah, a listed terrorist organization.
This latter element is of particular relevance given the recent US decision to designate the IRGC as a terror organization. Hizballah is an extension or franchise of the IRGC, and constitutes its main Arabic speaking creation and subsequently client, partner and tool. Hizballah is of course itself a designated terror organization. It is thus an important question for western policy to clarify its position regarding the issue of how it relates to organizations cooperating with IRGC franchises, and whether cooperation of this kind ought to bring with it any penalty.
If, on the other hand, there are parts of the Lebanese state independent of or opposed to Hizballah which can still impact on core decision making in the field of national security and foreign policy, this will require a different approach, in which efforts to strengthen these parts of the state would have meaning and application.
This paper will argue that the notion of Hizballah and its Iran-supported structures constituting a ‘deep state’ in today’s Lebanon is a useful tool for conceptualising and understanding the current situation in the country. This is because it is able to take in the fact that Hizballah today occupies and dominates the key nodes of decisionmaking, while simultaneously bodies genuinely not under the control of the movement continue to exist and function in a variety of public spheres. The existence of these bodies, crucially, does not impede on Hizballah and its patron’s ability to act independently. But no less importantly, Hizballah and its patrons are able today to directly dominate key organs of state, and direct them according to their will. This paper will look at the military, political, intelligence and economic spheres.
The use of the term ‘deep state’ to describe Hizballah’s domination of Lebanese institutions is not the author’s own. Rather, the term emerged in discussion with a number of Lebanese colleagues in describing this situation. It is, the author considers, currently the most useful conceptual tool in understanding the situation in Lebanon.
Political life in Lebanon
The elections of May 2018 saw significant gains by Hizballah and its allies. The movement itself retained its previous level of representation in the parliament (13 out of 128 seats), but the bloc of which it is a part won just over half of the seats in parliament. The Future Movement of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, meanwhile, suffered considerable losses, falling from 33 to 21 members of parliament. Because of the nature of the Lebanese system, which requires that the prime minister be a Sunni, Hariri retained his position as premier, but the government formed following the elections reflected the dominant position attained by Hizballah and its allies.
In the coalition negotiations that followed the elections, Hizballah held out for the public health ministry, a lucrative source of patronage. It acquired this portfolio. The new minister, Jamil Jabak, is the former personal physician of Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah, according to a recent report by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. The ministry’s budget is the fourth largest in the country. Hizballah general secretary Hassan Nasrallah, when announcing the appointment, stressed that Jabak is not a member of the movement, though he was, according to the Hizballah leader, ‘a brother and friend... close and trusted.’ Jabak’s formal lack of membership in the movement is clearly intended to ensure that he will be able to travel in the context of performing his duties, without being impeded by Hizballah’s designation as a terror group. However, Nasrallah’s words confirm that he is an appointee and to all intents and purposes a functionary of Hizballah.
The bloc of Hizballah, its ally the Shia Islamist Amal movement, and the various Sunni and Christian ‘independent’ movements aligned with them achieved 45 seats in the elections.
But Hizballah’s dominant position cannot be understood merely by observation of the movement’s direct representation. The bloc of Hizballah, its ally the Shia Islamist Amal movement, and the various Sunni and Christian ‘independent’ movements aligned with them achieved 45 seats in the elections. In addition to Hizballah and Amal themselves, this bloc includes, for example, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and the Lebanese branch of the Ba’ath, as well as local parties built around a particular family, such as the Arab Liberation Party (Tripoli based, and the vehicle of the prominent Sunni Karami family) and the Marada movement of the Christian Frangieh family.
These parties are far smaller and far less powerful than Hizballah and Amal and are entirely dependent upon them for their position and influence. Thus, Hizballah and Amal have control of 45 seats in the parliament. An additional 29 seats, ensuring a comfortable parliamentary majority, are controlled by the Free Patriotic Movement of General Michel Aoun and its allies. The Aounists similarly control their smaller partners, and themselves lack the armed and street power of Hizballah and Amal. Hence Hizballah is the decisive force and senior partner in a coalition which controls 74 seats in the 128 member parliament.
Hizballah also exerts influence beyond its own bloc. Thus, according to Tony Badran writing for FDD, Hizballah was able to prevent the anti-Hizballah Lebanese Forces list (based on support from Christian Maronite Lebanese) from receiving the defense portfolio in the government formed after the May elections. The movement ensured instead that this sensitive portfolio went to one of its allies, Elias Bou Saab of the Free Patriotic Movement. Badran further notes that Hizballah forced Druze leader Walid Jumblatt to give up one of three alloted seats to Talal Arslan, a Druze figure associated with Hizballah, and forced Hariri to include a pro Hizballah Sunni minister in his Cabinet.
Thus, in the current Lebanese reality, Hizballah is the dominant element within the majority faction in the parliament, and which currently controls 19 out of 30 Cabinet portfolios. Nevertheless, it should be noted that the ascendant coalition in Lebanon is not one in which all other elements may be treated merely as clients, still less as puppets, of Hizballah and Iran. The FPM and Amal are sizeable and genuine political movements in their own right. Hizballah is the senior partner because it can bring to the table assets which neither of these movements has, and against which they have no answer – namely, the financial and military sponsorship of Iran and specifically of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
The Military Sphere
As was established in the May events of 2008, Hizballah has the ability to physically thwart any attempt to interfere with its actions and decisions by any other element in Lebanon. Its armed forces today are more powerful than those of the Lebanese state.
According to a Janes’ estimate, Hizballah has around 25,000 full time fighters, along with 20-30,000 reservists. They possess a large rocket arsenal, reckoned by Israeli estimates to reach 150,000 rockets. They also have thousands of anti-tank missiles and a number of anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles. The movement has an extensive independently controlled military infrastructure in the south and east of Lebanon. It also has a small heavy armor force of T-55 and T-72 tanks and BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicles stationed in Syria. Such a force would be of little or no use in a war against a modern western armed force like the IDF, but could be of relevance in a future internal challenge to Hizballah.
The LAF on paper is larger than Hizballah (LAF – 72,000 personnel) and possesses an air and naval capacity. In practice, however, Hizballah is a more cohesive and united force than the LAF, which is riven by sectarian divisions. However, the important point here is not the relative strength of Hizballah vis a vis the Lebanese state’s armed forces. Rather, the issue of note is the evidence of cooperation between the two forces, and penetration by Hizballah of the LAF.
Since 2006, the US has supplied $1.7 billion of aid to the LAF. During that time, the LAF has signally failed to implement UNSC Resolution 1701, intended to prevent the return of Hizballah to the area south of the Litani. Rather, as is now clear and undeniable, Hizballah has rebuilt and extended its infrastructure in that area under the noses of and to a degree with the cooperation of the LAF.
The Iranian approach to building influence in a state, as witnessed in Lebanon, Iraq and in a different form in Syria, involves not the replacement of the existing bodies of state, but rather the establishment of parallel Iran-associated bodies alongside the organs of the official state
Senior IDF officials have noted that the IDF has observed Hizballah and LAF cooperation in the area south of the Litani – up to and including known Hizballah personnel being sighted wearing LAF uniform while present in villages in southern Lebanon. This cooperation is also noted in media reports sympathetic to Hizballah. Thus, al-Manar in an article dated February 27, 2017, noted the “almost daily” coordination between the LAF and Hizballah on Lebanon’s eastern border, regarding the joint opposition to Syrian rebel forces. According to Lebanese sources, many of the LAF officers and commanders deployed in the south and east of the country are themselves Shia, and sympathetic to Hizballah.
The Iranian approach to building influence in a state, as witnessed in Lebanon, Iraq and in a different form in Syria, involves not the replacement of the existing bodies of state, but rather the establishment of parallel Iran-associated bodies alongside the organs of the official state, and the subsequent blurring of the borders between these and the official state. In the case of Hizballah and the LAF, this process appears to be already advanced. The unwillingness of Hizballah to grant the defense ministry to its rivals demonstrates the importance the organization attaches both to controlling the official military from above, while also matching it for strength and penetrating it. This has largely been achieved.
A series of appointments at the leadership level of Lebanon’s intelligence services since the appointment of President Michel Aoun on October 31, 2016 suggest that the president is playing a key role in removing obstacles to any challenge to Hizballah’s influence and ascendancy in this crucial field. Lebanon has four intelligence services: the General Directorate of General Security (GSDG), the Internal Security Forces (ISF), the Military Intelligence Directorate (MID) and the State Security Directorate (SSD).
The GSDG is currently headed by General Abbas Ibrahim, who is a Shia and is close to Hizballah. The GSDG is today the most powerful of Lebanon’s internal state security organs. Ibrahim is considered by many Lebanese analysts to function on behalf of Hizballah within the state security system, often playing a mediating role. For example, following the explosion outside the HQ of Blom Bank on June 12, 2016, Ibrahim acted as a middleman between Hizballah and the Lebanese banks. The bombing took place just days before the bank was scheduled to begin implementing the Hizbullah International Financing Prevention Act (HIFPA) which would have adversely affected Hizballah’s abilities to transfer funds. The explosion was seen as a warning by the movement, following which Abbas Ibrahim mediated a solution whereby Hizballah’s key assets would remain untouched.
Despite Abbas Ibrahim’s role as a close ally of Hizballah, and the growing influence of the GSDG, the agency continues to be the recipient of major assistance from the EU. Ambassador Christina Lassen, Head of the Delegation of the European Union to Lebanon, in a statement on EU assistance to the GSGD in 2016, said “the General Security are on the forefront in the fight against terrorism, the control of illegal immigration, and the internal stability of the country.” General Ibrahim’s position as head of the GSDG was extended for a further six years by President Aoun in 2016. The role of the GSDG has also expanded under Aoun. By contrast, in the MID and State Security, Aoun has replaced figures close to Saudi Arabia (General Camille Daher) in MID, or who had been involved in investigations of Hizballah (General George Karaa) in State Security, with figures more congenial to Hizballah and its allies – Generals Antoine Mansour and Tony Saliba, respectively.
The Internal Security Forces had constituted under former director Ashraf Rifi a potent Sunni-led intelligence organization, associated with the Future Movement and anti-Syrian and anti-Hizballah forces. Rifi, a Sunni from Tripoli with close ties to Saudi Arabia, retired from his post in April, 2013. On October 19, 2012, Colonel Wissam Hassan, who headed the ISF’s Information Branch and was involved in the ongoing investigation into the murder of Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, was murdered in a car bombing close to the Ashrafiyeh neighborhood. No one has ever been arrested or charged for this crime. In August 2012, Hassan was a key player in the arrest of former Information Minister Michel Samaha who had been charged with bringing explosives into Lebanon in cooperation with Syrian intelligence chief Ali Mamlouk. Imad Othman, who currently heads the ISF, is associated with the subsequent ‘rapprochement’ between the Future Movement of Saad Hariri and Hizballah, which is better understood as the effective surrender of the former, and the cessation of efforts to effectively counter-balance Hizballah in the Lebanese context.
Hizballah has large investments in the Lebanese banking sector and in businesses across a wide variety of sectors in the Lebanese economy. The organization is also active in the NGO sector. This side of the organization’s activities exposes the Lebanese economy to financial sanctions. But conversely, this also increases the movement’s power, since broader fears of sanctions tend not to produce pressure on Hizballah from other parts of Lebanese society (the movement is too strong for that).
Rather, the impossibility of neatly differentiating between Hizballah’s interest and the broader Lebanese economy tends to produce a broader opposition to economic sanctions against the movement. In April, 2017, for example, President Aoun warned that sanctioning Hizballah would ‘greatly harm Lebanon and its people.’ In the same month, Prime Minister Saad Hariri said that the Lebanese authorities would work with the US to minimise additional sanctions (Hariri, of course, is often presented as Hizballah’s main adversary in the Lebanese political context.) Lebanese lobbying groups in Washington DC and delegations from Lebanon regularly argue against further sanctions, on the basis that weakening the Lebanese economy brings with it the danger of turning Lebanon into a failed state.
The impossibility of neatly differentiating between Hizballah’s interest and the broader Lebanese economy tends to produce a broader opposition to economic sanctions against the movement.
Such argumentation can be made because of the entwining of Hizballah with the Lebanese economy as a whole, coupled with Hizballah’s strength in other areas – military, paramilitary and political – which have resulted in its opponents adopting a strategy of accommodation to it, rather than resistance. The result of this, however, has not of course been business as usual. Rather, a precipitate decline in foreign investment in Lebanon has taken place. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, once Lebanon’s largest trading partners in the Gulf, have downgraded their involvement in recent years, because of the increasing power of Hizballah.
This logic extends also to the NGO sector. Iran and Hizballah-supported ‘charities’ such as the Martyrs Foundation play an important role in transferring funding to Hizballah supporting communities in Lebanon. Most famously, Hizballah has used a supposed environmental NGO, Green Without Borders, to carry out surveillance along the Lebanese-Israeli border. Legitimate Lebanese NGOs cooperating with or having contact with these bodies risk becoming subject of international sanctions against Hizballah. Yet once again, the strength of Hizballah and its ability to intimidate domestic opponents means that this does not result in public expressions of discontent against the movement.
The Iranian role
Hizballah has from its establishment constituted a franchise of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Its extensive armed capacity is made possible by Iranian assistance. The movement emerged as a direct result of the dispatching by Teheran of 1500 Revolutionary Guardsmen who were based in the Bekaa valley and who began the process of agitation and organization that led to the foundation of Hizballah in 1982.
Hizballah’s initial manifesto called openly for the establishment of an Iran-style Islamic Republic and Hizballah’s visual symbols are almost identical to those of the IRGC. As Amal Saad Ghorayeb, a British-Lebanese writer sympathetic to Hizballah wrote in her 2002 study of the movement: “From the inception of Hizballah to the present, the status and role of the concept of the Wilayat al-Faqih (Governance of the Jurisprudent - ie the current Iranian system of governance) has remained an integral part of the party’s intellectual foundations.”
Of course, Hizballah’s association with the Iranian system is not solely intellectual. From the very earliest days, Iranian money and Iranian know-how were an essential component in underlying both the social infrastructure and the military capability which set Hizballah apart from and above both its opponents and its partners. Iranian money (around $200 million a year even at this early stage) enabled the movement to provide services that the official state could not – and to arm the movement beyond the capabilities of any competitors.
Iran did not establish and does not support the movement for altruistic purposes. Hizballah has been intimately and verifiably engaged in joint operations across the Middle East and beyond it with the IRGC and its Qods Force – in the Burgas bombing against Israeli civilians in 2012, in the training of Iran-aligned Iraqi Shia militias and the Teheran-allied Ansar Allah (Houthi) movement in Yemen, in assistance afforded Palestinian terror organizations via the movement’s Organization 1800, in the IRGC’s operations in Latin America and Africa, and of course in the successful counter-insurgency fought by the Assad regime backed up by a variety of Iranian regional and global assets in Syria in the 2012-2018 period. The movement, which once sought to proclaim itself as an ‘independent’ Lebanese actor is today seen by western governments and regional players as an integral part of a trans-national, Iranian and IRGC-led network of Shia political-military organizations.
Today, Iran is estimated to provide $700-800 million per year to Hizballah. Evidence however has emerged that the movement’s symbiotic relationship with Iran means that Hizballah has also been hit by the renewed and intensified US sanctions against Teheran. This is hitting at the movement’s ability to provide its supporters with the levels of assistance to which they are accustomed. It is also increasing Hizballah’s incentive to siphon off monies intended for assistance to the Lebanese state. Nasrallah’s speech in early March openly acknowledged the difficult financial straits the movement finds itself in. In this admission, the Hizballah leader also tacitly admitted Hizballah’s dependence on its masters in Iran.
Hizballah and Iran: the power against which there is no right of appeal in Lebanon
In “Politics as a Vocation” (1918), Max Weber defined the state as a “human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” This short survey of Hizballah’s influence and its modus operandi in the political, economic, military and intelligence fields in Lebanon reveals a situation in which the organization now in a certain sense possesses this monopoly. The formal bodies and instruments of state – armed forces, internal security organizations, legislative and executive bodies etc – continue to exist. But a reality has emerged in which none of these can conceivably be mustered against the wishes of Hizballah, because Hizballah has inserted itself into these bodies themselves, and/or into the structures that command them – usually a combination of both. This has led to a situation in which Hizballah, which long constituted a kind of shadow quasi state alongside the official state, has now effectively swallowed up the official state, and its will now constitutes the final authority, against which there is no appeal, in Lebanon.
To sum up: In the political arena, Hizballah dominates a bloc which in turn controls both executive and legislature. Thus, it dominates both the decision making process and the process of implementing decisions. In the military arena, Hizballah posesses an armed force stronger than and of equal size to the official state military. It also clearly has a presence within and influence within the official armed forces. In the field of internal security, an ally of Hizballah commands the most powerful internal security body, and fellow travellers of the organization or appeasers of it command all the others. In economics Hizballah controls an economic empire of its own and can intimidate or implicate any bodies seeking to act against it.
The result is that it is impossible today in key areas of Lebanese life to determine exactly where the official state begins and Hizballah’s shadow state ends. The latter has penetrated and taken up residence in the former. But it has left the official mechanisms of the former intact. These today serve both as a protective camouflage for Hizballah and, more prosaically, as the organs responsible for carrying out those secondary functions in which Hizballah and its patrons have no interest and which do not effect the fundamental question of power.
For this reason, it is appropriate today to characterize Hizballah as having come to constitute a kind of ‘deep state’ resident within the body of the official Lebanese state, and controlling the levers of real power, through associations and networks independent of the supervision or control of the official state. In this regard, it is worth noting that this ‘deep state’ is itself not an independent body. Rather, Lebanese Hizballah is a franchise of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), itself an agency of the Iranian state.