Book review: Warriors of God

By Bilal Y. Saab

If we are to understand the future of arms control in the Middle East, we must continue to study the growing role of non-state or hybrid actors in that part of the world, for some of them have more military and political power than national leaders and bureaucrats. One of these actors is Hezbollah, the pro-Iran Lebanese Shi’ite party that has a semi-autonomous military wing. My friend Nicholas Blanford, correspondant for the Times of London and the Christian Science Monitor, recently wrote a terrific book on Hezbollah’s military evolution called Warriord of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel(New York: Random House, 2011). I reviewed it in the May 2012 issue of the journal of Studies in Conflict and Terrorism. I have asked its editors for permission to post the full review, I am still waiting for their response. Meanwhile, here is one part of the review, as it appears on the online version of the journal. Should the editors answer affirmatively, I will post the whole thing.

Hezbollah is exhausted, and despite what its leadership claims in public, has increasing worries about its future.

First, there is a perception within the Lebanese Shi’ite party of being sandwiched between two critical dangers. Its ally to the north,Syria, is facing an existential crisis due to the ongoing popular uprising against its government. Its enemy to the south, Israel, is as concerned as ever about its national security because of regional changes created by the Arab uprising, causing it to be extra sensitive to military threats, especially from Hezbollah.

With rockets recently launched from southern Lebanon to its northern region (Hezbollah denied responsibility), Israelis on edge and on alert. Accordingly, any miscalculation or mistake on the part of Hezbollah could cause a large-scale military conflict, one which both sides have been preparing for since the end of the 2006 war and is likely to be far more destructive and consequential than any previous confrontation between the two.

If Syria’s future is in jeopardy, Iran, Hezbollah’s closest ally, is also at risk of military assault by Israel and/or the United States and suffering from what appears to be an effective sanctions regime for its controversial nuclear program. And with reports mentioning that Hamas is on the verge of downgrading relations with Syria and Iran, Hezbollah could also be left with no reliable partner in the Palestinian Territories. In sum, the “Resistance Axis,” which consists primarily of Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah is under tremendous pressure and could face a mortal blow should Damascus fall and Hamas break ranks.

At home, things have also been tough for Hezbollah. The party is clearly feeling the burden of governance. Syria’s forced exit from Lebanon in 2005 pushed Hezbollah to take matters into its own hands in order to protect itself from perceived domestic threats and foes. No longer enjoying direct political sponsorship byDamascus, Hezbollah was forced to adjust and immerse itself deep into a chaotic, sectarian Lebanese political system, to make sure that it did not produce any threats to its existence.

The government it helped to create in June 2011, led by prime minister Najib Mikati, is the most recent attempt by Hezbollah to create such a non-threatening political environment inBeirut. The problem is that Mikati’s cabinet has been anything but stable, causing Hezbollah to manage political feuds within its government coalition and make significant political concessions and compromises in order to preserve it. For example, in December 2011, Hezbollah’s leadership approved Mikati’s decision to fund the UN tribunal, which is investigating the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, despite the fact that the international institution has indicted four of its own members.

As the conflict in Syria worsens, Hezbollah will struggle to maintain government stability and contain Sunni–Shi’a tensions inLebanon. The party is keen to avoid sectarian violence at home, aware that this would destabilize the government, possibly awaken so far dormant Sunni extremist cells, and distract it from its primary goal of preparing for war againstIsrael. Hezbollah’s rivals, the pro-U.S. “March 14 coalition,” led by former prime minister Saad Hariri (Rafik’s son), sense that the Syrian crisis is causing Hezbollah to feel more vulnerable and isolated and thus are seeking to gain maximum benefit.

In addition to managing an unmanageable Lebanese system, Hezbollah has had to deal with alleged attempts by its international enemies including the United States to penetrate it and wreak havoc from within. Since 2006, there has been a war of intelligence and counterintelligence between Hezbollah on the one hand, and Washington and Tel Aviv on the other. The party’s leadership has recently revealed the identities of CIA officers working undercover in Lebanon, after having managed to partially unravel the agency’s spy network in the country. But it is unclear how much damage Hezbollah has suffered internally over these years and how much intelligence has been gathered on the organization’s jihadist body as a result of this underground war.

Not too long ago Hezbollah was an overly confident organization that had big thoughts of liberating Jerusalemand defeating Israel. It enjoyed constant military and political sponsorship from two powerful allies, Syria and Iran. It did not have to worry much about its political fortunes at home. It was very popular in the Arab world, an icon in the Arab street. To its enemies’ spy agencies, it seemed like an impenetrable and rock solid organization. Today, much of that has changed and it is increasingly unclear whether the party can survive the winds of change that are rocking the region or retain its identity as an autonomous politico–military actor.

This is a preprint of an article whose final and definitive form has been published in the Studies in Conflict and Terrorism (May 2012) [copyright Taylor and Francis]. The article is available online at