Why Qassem Suleimani’s death will have minimal impact on Hezbollah and Lebanon

Lebanese group has deep ties with Iran and needs to maintain stability in crisis-racked country

Supporters of Shiite Hezbollah movement watch as the movement's leader Hasan Nasrallah delivers a speech on a screen, in the Lebanese capital Beirut's southern suburbs on January 5, 2020.  Nasrallah called on Iraq to free itself of the American "occupation" after top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani was killed in a US strike in Baghdad. / AFP / ANWAR AMRO
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America’s assassination of Iranian general Qassem Suleimani, the mastermind of his country’s military operations abroad, represented a massive blow to Iran-backed proxies in the region.

But the impact of his death on Lebanon, where Hezbollah is one of Iran's most cohesive and influential Shiite paramilitary groups, will likely remain minimal in the short term, analysts told The National.

The relationship between Hezbollah and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is one of "complete harmony", said Waddah Charara, retired sociology professor at the Lebanese University and author of a book on Hezbollah.

"This means that the death of Suleimani will not impact Lebanon because the structure of the co-ordination between the two groups – including the choice of men and the type of warfare – goes back so far," he told The National.

Suleimani, 62, headed Iran’s Quds Force, the foreign operations wing of the IRGC, for 22 years. The Quds Force helped establish Hezbollah in 1982 in Lebanon and the two groups have worked closely together ever since.

With Iran's support, Hezbollah became a highly influential political party in Lebanon and the only one allowed to keep its weapons at the end of the civil war in 1990, in the name of the fight against Israel. Suleimani's absence will not change that, Mr Charara argued.

"Hezbollah wants to keep showcasing Lebanon as a prime example of a country under the domination of a pro-Iran force with a roughly functioning political system," he said.

Last October, Suleimani revealed that he spent almost the entire duration of the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah conflict in Lebanon, alongside Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and one of the group’s top military commanders, Imad Mughniyeh.

“This reveals the decisive aspect of their co-ordination,” said Mr Charara. “Nasrallah constantly reminds us that Hezbollah is part of the 'axis of resistance' and repeats that Suleimani represents the 'ummah', or the Islamic community which includes all Muslims.”

Unsurprisingly, Hezbollah organised an emotional tribute to Suleimani, widely believed to have been Iran's second-most-powerful leader, after only supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

During Nasrallah’s over two-hour speech promising bloody retaliation against US military interests in the region, thousands of men and women who had gathered to listen to him in South Beirut repeatedly interrupted him to chant “death to America”.

Hezbollah supporters hold pictures of Qassem Soleimani, an Iranian commander, and Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah, center, as Nasrallah delivers a televised speech, in Beirut, Lebanon, on Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020. Nasrallah, the leader of Iran’s Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, said the the conflict had entered a “new phase” and the price of Soleimani’s death should be the end of U.S. military presence across the region. Photographer: Hasan Shaaban/Bloomberg
Hezbollah supporters hold pictures of their leader Hassan Nasrallah with Qassem Suleimani, the Iranian general killed by the US, at a rally in Beirut January 5, 2020. Bloomberg

Nasrallah warned that the “coffins of American soldiers” deployed in the region would start returning to their home country soon but did not specify when and where attacks would take place. He stressed that American civilians would be spared.

Iran retaliated for Suleimani's killing by firing missiles at US forces in Iraq on Wednesday, in what Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif described as "proportionate measures in self-defence". There were no casualties.

But a reprisal via Hezbollah against US soldiers in Lebanon is highly unlikely despite media reports of recent troop movements near the Israeli border in southern Lebanon, according to Mr Charara and other experts.

“For the moment they are maintaining ambiguity by taking positions that can be interpreted as meaningful, but without arriving to a point of no return,” said Mr Charara.

“There are far better ways that Hezbollah can help with the general narrative of pushing the Americans out of the Middle East than attacking Americans in Lebanon,” added Washington Institute fellow Philip Smyth.

According to Lebanese media, US soldiers are deployed in small numbers at two Lebanese military bases. Contacted by The National, the US Embassy in Lebanon would not confirm this, saying that it does not comment on security operations.

The US is the most important international backer of the Lebanese army, which it views as an important counterweight to Hezbollah’s military strength.

"We should probably watch government formation and political developments in Lebanon as sometimes the dessert is best served cold," Mr Smyth told The National.

Lebanon has been rocked by anti-government protests since mid-October, triggered by the worst financial crisis since the end of the civil war in 1990.

Western-backed prime minister Saad Hariri resigned on October 29, collapsing the government, and the new prime minister designate, Hassan Diab, is struggling to form a Cabinet, a common occurrence in Lebanon where power-sharing along sectarian lines often entails long political negotiations to reach a compromise.

"Lebanon already has enough problems. I think the Lebanese can remain calm," said Hezbollah MP Anwar Jomaa told The National. "Hezbollah never took a position that threatens the internal situation of Lebanon."

The Shiite group is keen to stress that its main focus is domestic despite being part of a trans-national Iranian ideology, observed Mr Smyth. “It would be hard for them to sell a retaliation to Suleimani’s death to the Lebanese who are already very angry with what is going on.”

Hezbollah may currently err on the side of caution, but this could change in the future, he said. “They are very big on acting at a time and place of their choosing. It comes down to when they feel that they are stable enough to act, and this is definitely something to watch.”