Geopolitics

The Hezbollah Connection in Syria And Iran

Hezbollah Flag
Hezbollah Flag
Bernard Gwertzman

In recent days, U.S. and Mideast officials have reported that Iran and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite group, are making military preparations for the sectarian chaos likely to engulf a post-Assad Syria. Counterterrorism expert Matthew Levitt says that Hezbollah has closely aligned itself with Iran's Quds Force, an elite paramilitary group linked directly to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, while fighting alongside the Assad regime. In recent years, the partnership between Hezbollah and Iran has tightened to the point that the group's allegiance to Khamenei is paramount, he says. "What we see now is that Hezbollah is going to do things today that are in Iran's interest even if they expressly run counter to the interests of Lebanon and Hezbollah's own interest there."

Israeli warplanes recently bombed a truck convoy in Syria, reportedly carrying antiaircraft missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Why would Syria be shipping weapons to Lebanon instead of the other way around?

Hezbollah has long stockpiled weapons in Syria, and the Assad government has long provided some of these weapons to Hezbollah. In addition, Iran has often supplied weapons to Hezbollah through Syria. As events in Syria turn worse for the Bashar al-Assad regime, Hezbollah is going to--as we've already seen--try to move as much of its weapons to safer ground. Some of its stockpiles are in Lebanon where it has dug caves into mountains.

Both sides of this conflict, the more radical Sunni extremists embedded with the rebels and the Shiite extremists aligned with Hezbollah and Iran, are setting up militias who will be loyal to them after the fall of the Assad regime. What we're seeing is the stockpiling of weapons for that second phase of conflict.

So you think Hezbollah now has come to the conclusion that Assad is not long for the world?

They came to that conclusion a little while ago. They want to set things up so they are positioned to continue to have influence in Syria even after Assad is gone and a Sunni majority remains.

How has Hezbollah been helping out Syria in this civil war?

There's tremendous amount of evidence that Hezbollah has been aiding the regime, especially with training. There are also reports of snipers trying to hold key pieces of territory, especially along the border with Lebanon.

Hezbollah was designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. government in 1997; it's on the State Department's list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations and on the Treasury Department's list of global terrorist entities. It was re-listed by Treasury just a couple of months ago for its support of the Assad regime and for its undermining security and stability in Syria. When the State Department released that designation, it included --as State and Treasury always do in these press statements--a little bit of declassified intelligence. One of the snippets that almost nobody's picked up on was that the individual responsible for overseeing Hezbollah's activities in Syria is Hassan Nasrallah himself, the group's long-time leader.

Is Hezbollah still a jihadist group?

It still is, but Hezbollah is multiple things: Hezbollah is one of the dominant political parties in Lebanon, as well as a social and religious movement, catering first and foremost to Lebanon's Shiite community. The group is also Lebanon's largest militia. After the 1989 Taif Accords, which ended Lebanon's civil war, the group was rebranded as a kind of an Islamic resistance.

People tend to misunderstand the relationship between Hezbollah and Iran, which has changed over time but is now extremely close. The U.S. intelligence community has publicly described this as a "strategic partnership." But people don't fully appreciate Hezbollah's ideological commitment to the concept of "velayat-e faqih," or guardianship of the jurists, which holds that a Shiite Islamic cleric should also serve as supreme head of government. For Hezbollah, this means the Iranian leadership is also their leader--not for every foot soldier, but for Hezbollah's senior leaders absolutely.

So what we see now is that Hezbollah is going to do things today that are in Iran's interest even if they expressly run counter to the interests of Lebanon and Hezbollah's own interest there. At the end of the day, the group's commitment to Iran trumps its identity as a Lebanese political movement. Part of that has to do with the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh in 2008, who led Hezbollah's military wing.

What was the fallout there?

Mughniyeh led Hezbollah and is believed to have had close ties with the Iranian Quds force. Because of that, Iran had tremendous faith in him. If he was told to do something by Iran, he could hold them off a little bit. But his successors, his cousin Mustafa Badre al-Dine in particular, are nowhere near Mughniyeh in stature, so Iran doesn't have the same trust in him. Therefore, the strategic partnership has become even closer.

If you look at Hezbollah's attacks against Israeli tourists worldwide, there's no way they can be described as in Lebanon's interests in any way. Look back at Hezbollah's support of Shiite militants in Iraq during the Iraq war; look now today to Hezbollah helping to ferry Iranian weapons to houthi rebels in Yemen; look just recently to Hezbollah's flying a dronenear the Israeli nuclear reactor in Dimona. None of this is in Lebanon's interest.

And this bombing in Bulgaria?

The Bulgarians recently concluded that Hezbollah operatives carried out the July 2012 bus bombing in Burgas. A week before the Burgas bombing, an individual Hezbollah operative with dual Lebanese-Swedish citizenship was arrested in Cyprus for carrying out surveillance on Israeli flights and tourists. Six months earlier, there was another Hezbollah plot targeting an Israeli tour bus on its way to Bulgaria for a skiing trip --an attack that was thwarted.

So the Bulgarian investigation is only the first shoe to drop in Europe. There's a tremendous amount of activity going on and none of it can be described as being in Lebanon's interests, or in the interest of Hezbollah's political aspirations in Lebanon.

What's going on in Lebanon? Is Beirut a thriving city now? How evident is Hezbollah's presence?

Beirut isn't a thriving city; it's a divided city. The signs of Hezbollah are all over the place, especially where the group is dominant, like south of the airport. There's a lot of tension because Hezbollah has recently been accused of doing things that are not in Lebanon's interest. Just last week, a Hezbollah member was arrested for the July 2012 attempted assassination of Bourus Harb, a member of parliament; and the group has also been implicated in the killing of Wissam al-Hassan a few months later. Moreover, Hezbollah operatives, including Mustafa Badre al-Dine, stand accused by the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon at The Hague of assassinating former prime minister Rafik Hariri, who was the de facto leader of the Sunni community.

Does the United States have any role to play in combating Hezbollah?

Without question the U.S. has a role to play, especially when it has partners that are willing to work with it. That means pressing the Europeans to take Hezbollah more seriously. The European Union designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist group would be a shot across the bow, telling the group that it needs to make a choice to be either political or militant. It would also empower European countries to do more to prevent the travel of Hezbollah operatives to Europe, which Hezbollah treats as its near abroad, and to raise funds there, which Hezbollah does today hand over fist.

White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan made an excellent point speaking in Ireland last October, where he said one of the reasons Washington wants the Europeans to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist group is that some European countries cannot or will not open counterterrorism investigations into the group until this distinction is made.

But it's not just an American or European effort: the Yemenis right now are tremendously concerned about recent arms shipments from Iran that they have seized destined for houthi rebels. The Yemenis have said there's evidence that Hezbollah is involved. And we see Hezbollah's activities elsewhere as well. Some of the Shiite militant groups that Hezbollah trained to fight coalition forces in Iraq have now turned up in Syria, fighting alongside Hezbollah and supporting the Assad regime. So, there's a lot that can be done to a) counter Hezbollah's actual terrorist operations, and b) frustrate the group's ability to procure weapons and fundraise worldwide.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

The Olympic torch is lit at the Archaeological site of Olympia in Greece.

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Asham!*

Welcome to Tuesday, where Pyongyang test fires a suspected submarine-launched missile, Colin Powell is remembered, Poland-EU tensions rise, and yay (or yeesh): it's officially Ye. Meanwhile, our latest edition of Work → In Progress takes the pulse of the new professional demands in a recovering economy.

[*Oromo - Ethiopia and Kenya]

💡  SPOTLIGHT

How China flipped from tech copycat to tech leader

Long perceived as a country chasing Western tech, China's business and technological innovations are now influencing the rest of the world. Still lagging on some fronts, the future is now up for grabs.

China's tech tycoons have fallen out of favor: Jack Ma (Alibaba), Colin Huang (Pinduoduo), Richard Liu (Tencent) and Zhang Yiming (ByteDance) have all been pressured by Beijing to leave their jobs or step back from a public role. Their time may be coming to an end, but the legacy remains exceptional. Under their reign, China has become a veritable window to the global future of technology.

TikTok is the perfect example. Launched in 2016, the video messaging app has been downloaded over two billion times worldwide. It has passed the 100-million active user mark in the United States. Thanks to TikTok's success, ByteDance, its parent company, has reached an exceptional level of influence on the internet.

For a long time, the West viewed China's digital ecosystem as a cheap imitation of Silicon Valley. The European and American media described the giants of the Asian superpower as the "Chinese Google" or "Chinese Amazon." But the tables have turned.

The Asian superpower has forged cutting-edge business models that do not exist elsewhere. It is impossible to find a Western equivalent to the WeChat super-app (1.2 billion users), which is used for shopping as much as for making a medical appointment or obtaining credit.

The roles have actually reversed: In a recent article, Les Echos describes the California-based social network IRL, as a "WeChat of the Western world."

Grégory Boutté, digital and customer relations director at the multinational luxury group Kering, explains, "The Chinese digital ecosystem is incredibly different, and its speed of evolution is impressive. Above all, the flow of innovation is now changing direction."

This is illustrated by the recent creation of "live shopping" events in France, which are hosted by celebrities and taken from a concept already popular in China.

There is an explosion of this phenomenon in the digital sphere. Rachel Daydou, Partner & China General Manager of the consulting firm Fabernovel in Shanghai, says, "With Libra, Facebook is trying to create a financial entity based on social media, just as WeChat did with WeChat Pay. Facebook Shop looks suspiciously like WeChat's mini-programs. Amazon Live is inspired by Taobao Live and YouTube Shopping by Douyin, the Chinese equivalent of TikTok."

In China, it is possible to go to fully robotized restaurants or to give a panhandler some change via mobile payment. Your wallet is destined to be obsolete because your phone can read restaurant menus and pay for your meal via a QR Code.

The country uses shared mobile chargers the way Europeans use bicycles, and is already testing electric car battery swap stations to avoid 30 minutes of recharging time.

Michael David, chief omnichannel director at LVMH, says, "The Chinese ecosystem is permanently bubbling with innovation. About 10,000 start-ups are created every day in the country."

China is also the most advanced country in the electric car market. With 370 models at the end of 2020, it had an offering that was almost twice as large as Europe's, according to the International Energy Agency.

Luca de Meo, CEO of French automaker Renault, said in June that China is "ahead of Europe in many areas, whether it's electric cars, connectivity or autonomous driving. You have to be there to know what's going on."

As a market, China is also a source of technological inspiration for Western companies, a world leader in e-commerce, solar, mobile payments, digital currency and facial recognition. It has the largest 5G network, with more than one million antennas up and running, compared to 400,000 in Europe.

Just take the number of connected devices (1.1 billion), the time spent on mobile (six hours per day) and, above all, the magnitude of data collected to deploy and improve artificial intelligence algorithms faster than in Europe or the United States.

The groundbreaking field of self-driving cars offers an interesting point of divergence between China and the West. Artificial intelligence guru Kai-Fu Lee explains that China believes that we should teach the highway to speak to the car, imagining new services and rethinking cities to avoid cars crossing pedestrians, while the West does not intend to go that far.

There are areas where China is still struggling, such as semiconductors. Despite a production increase of nearly 50% per year, the country produces less than 40% of the chips it consumes, according to official data. This dependence threatens its ambitions in artificial intelligence, telecoms and autonomous vehicles. Chinese manufacturers work with an engraving fineness of 28 nm or more, far from those of Intel, Samsung or TSMC. They are unable to produce processors for high-performance PCs.

China's aerospace industry is also lagging behind the West. There are also no Chinese players among the top 20 life science companies on the stock market and there are doubts surrounding the efficacy of Sinovac and Sinopharm's COVID-19 vaccines. As of 2019, the country files more patents per year than the U.S., but far fewer are converted into marketable products.

Beijing knows its weaknesses and is working to eliminate them. Adopted in March, the nation's 14th five-year plan calls for a 7% annual increase in R&D spending between now and 2025, compared with 12% under the previous plan. Big data aside, that is basic math anyone can understand.

Emmanuel Grasland / Les Echos

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• North Korea fires missile off Japan coast: South Korea military reports that North Korea has fired a ballistic missile into the waters off the coast of Japan. The rocket, thought to have been launched from a submarine, is the latest test in a series of provocations in recent weeks.

• Poland/EU tensions: Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has accused the EU of "blackmail" and said the European Union is overstepping its powers, in a heated debate with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen over the rule of law. The escalation comes in the wake of a controversial ruling by Poland's Constitutional Tribunal that puts national laws over EU principles.

• Colin Powell remembered: Tributes are pouring for former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, after his death yesterday at age 84. Although fully vaccinated, Powell died from complications from COVID-19 as he was battling blood cancer. A trailblazing soldier, he then helped shape U.S. foreign policy, as national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and served as the nation's top diplomat for George W. Bush. Powell's legacy is, by his own admission, "blotted" by his faulty claims of weapons of mass destruction to justify the U.S. war in Iraq.

• Russia to suspend NATO diplomatic mission amid tension: Russia is suspending its diplomatic mission to NATO and closing the alliance's offices in Moscow as relations with the Western military block have plunged to a new low. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced the move after NATO expelled eight diplomats from Russia's mission for alleged spying. Relations between NATO and Russia have been strained since Moscow annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

• Ecuador state of emergency to battle drug crime: President Guillermo Lasso declared a state of emergency amid Ecuador's surge in drug-related violence. He announced the mobilization of police and the military to patrol the streets, provide security, and confront drug trafficking and other crimes.

• Taliban agrees to house-to-house polio vaccine drive: The WHO and Unicef campaign will resume nationwide polio vaccinations after more than three years, as the new Taliban government agreed to support the campaign and to allow women to participate as frontline health workers. Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan are the last countries in the world with endemic polio, an incurable and infectious disease

• Kanye West officially changes name: Some say yay, some say yeesh, but it's official: The-artist-formerly-known-as-Kanye-West has legally changed his name to Ye, citing "personal reasons."

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

The Washington Post pays tribute to Colin Powell, the first Black U.S. Secretary of State, who died at 84 years old from complications from COVID-19.


💬  LEXICON

Jashn-e Riwaaz

Indian retailer Fabindia's naming its new collection Jashn-e Riwaaz, an Urdu term meaning "celebration of tradition," has been met with severe backlash and calls for boycott from right-wing Hindu groups. They are accusing the brand of false appropriation by promoting a collection of clothes designed for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, but giving it a name in Urdu, a language spoken by many Muslims.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Work → In Progress: Where have all the workers gone?

After the economic slowdown brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, companies all over the world are taking advantage of loosened lockdowns and progress on the vaccine front to ramp up operations and make up for lost productivity. But the frenetic spurts of the recovery are getting serious pushback. This edition of Work → In Progress looks not only at the coming changes in our post-COVID economy, but also the ways our world is re-evaluating professional obligations.

🗓️ Hail the 4-day week Across the planet, the shorter work week trend is spreading like wildfire. Four is the new five. Spain began experimenting with the concept earlier this year. New Zealand launched a similar trial run in 2020. And in Iceland, efforts to curb working hours date all the way back to 2015, with significant results: 86% of the country's workforce gained the right to reduce work hours with no change in pay.

🚚 Empty seats In the United States, meanwhile, a severe lack of truck drivers has the country's transportation industry looking to hire from abroad. The only problem is … the shortage is happening worldwide, in part because of the e-commerce boom in the wake of worldwide quarantines. The Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano reports that companies will be scrambling to fill the jobs of 17,000 truck drivers in the next two years. The article blames low wages and the dangerous nature of the job, stating that Italian companies are making moves to employ foreign workers.

💼 Key help wanted It's all well and good to question current working conditions. But what about 20 years from now? Will we be working at all? A recent article in the French daily Les Echos posed just that question, and posits that by 2041 — and with the exception of a few select jobs — automation and digitalization will decimate employment. The piece refers to the lucky few as "essential workers," a concept that originated with COVID lockdowns when almost all labor halted and only a minority of workers capable of performing society's most crucial in-person tasks were allowed to carry on.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I'm worried for my Afghan sisters."

— Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai Nobel Prize tells the BBC that despite the Taliban's announcement that they would soon lift the ban on girls' education in Afghanistan, she worries it "might last for years."

📸  PHOTO DU JOUR

The Olympic torch is lit at the Archaeological site of Olympia in Greece. The flame will be transported by relay to Beijing, China, which will host the 2022 Winter Olympics next February — Photo: Eurokinissi/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Are you more yay or yeesh about the artist currently known as Ye? Let us know how the news look in your corner of the world — drop us a note at info@worldcrunch.com!

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ