Iran-backed Hizbollah tightens its grip on sinking Lebanon

A man riding his motorbike past a picture of Lebanon's Hizbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.
A man riding his motorbike past a picture of Lebanon's Hizbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIRUT (BLOOMBERG) - The most basic foods have become political assets in economically devastated Lebanon.

And no one has tapped that currency of oil, milk and bread like the Iran-backed Hizbollah.

Designated a terrorist group by the United States, it has galvanised its power by taking on more functions of a state hollowed out by an imploding economy and sectarian feuding.

By offering food, cash and medical services amid widespread poverty in this once middle-class nation, the Shi'ite Muslim group has become a lifeline for many.

On a global scale, the Hizbollah's influence resonates as Iran's most powerful proxy militia.

In Syria, it has lost hundreds of combatants, but through its cooperation with Russian forces has been exposed to more sophisticated fighting that it can apply to other arenas.

It still sporadically trades fire with Israel, including a calibrated exchange last month that did not cause casualties.

Critics say the Hizbollah profits from Lebanon's misery, giving no incentive to fix it.

A 36-year-old Lebanese father of two, who opposes the group but lives in one of its strongholds, said he was forced to turn to the Hizbollah to survive.

Relatives got him a card that won access to the group's discount warehouses in his Shi'ite community stocked with goods from Lebanon, Syria and Iran.

"I had to do it. I've been without a job for a year and a half now, and my wife doesn't work," the man said, withholding his name for fear of retribution. "They starve you, so you have to run to them for food."

The Hizbollah says the US is trying to incite the Lebanese people against the group by blocking aid during the crisis, which deepened two years ago as protests over a failing, corrupt elite toppled the government.

"Now they have turned to water, fuel and gasoline to gradually - because they can't do it suddenly - pressure the Shi'ite community and move it away from the Hizbollah, and that's what prompted the Hizbollah to intervene," Hizbollah press official Mohammad Afif said.

The group had to bring in food, medicine and fuel from outside of the system, he added.

Fighters and dollars

Formed in the 1980s, the Hizbollah's armed force is now, by some estimates, mightier than Lebanon's army.

Its dominance, gained through not only guns but also the sprawling network of schools, medical centres and financial services it has built, has cost Lebanon investment.

Sunni Gulf states that oppose Iran do not want their money falling into the Hizbollah's hands and its involvement in Yemen on behalf of Iranian-backed fighters has strained ties with Saudi Arabia, once a major donor.

Though disliked by many outside the Shi'ite Muslim community, the Hizbollah is empowered by its political alliance with President Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian, and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.

Without a political alternative, supporters and sympathisers will not turn against it, said Mr Joseph Daher, author of Hezbollah: The Political Economy Of Lebanon's Party Of God.

"They want people from A to Z to be reliant on the group, whether businesses or supermarkets or even education."

Lebanon's economic foundations began collapsing in 2019 after decades of corruption and mismanagement.

The government defaulted on a US$30 billion (S$40.2 billion) debt and the currency has been on a steep slide against the US dollar.

A massive blast last year in Beirut ushered in greater chaos.

A third candidate since the explosion is trying to cobble together a government after predecessors gave up.

Political elite

The entire political class is at the heart of Lebanon's woes: Failure to undertake reforms has undermined a potential International Monetary Fund bailout.

And as Lebanon reeled from worsening blackouts and petrol shortages last month, the Hizbollah chief announced that a ship carrying fuel from Iran, which is under US sanctions, was on its way to help.

Western attempts to reverse the Hizbollah's influence through sanctions are not working without total reform of the political system, Ms Lina Khatib at the Chatham House think-tank wrote in a recent report.

But in a sign of the limits of its domestic influence, the gap between the lives of many Lebanese and well-heeled supporters is starting to chafe.

Hizbollah fighters have grown richer during the crisis because they are paid in US dollars.

The lowest-ranking fighters earn more than 15 times the minimum wage.

As the crisis has escalated, at times it has also struggled to secure supplies for its own communities.

"It's true that they have more money than others and that gives them the upper hand whether via Iran or illicit activities," said Mr Sami Nader, head of the Beirut-based Levant Institute research centre.

"But the crisis has shown them that they can't completely replace the state," he added. "They're suffering a little less than others but this is not sustainable."

Villages in the Hizbollah's southern strongholds have also run short of bread, flour, fuel and water.

Last month, army officers were mobilised to sort out the traffic around a petrol station in the southern border town of Bint Jbeil, a Hizbollah bastion.

On a recent day, at least 70 cars lined up at the pump. When the petrol ran out, people left their vehicles parked in line until the next day.

"We have many reservations about the Hizbollah, of course," a shopkeeper in Bint Jbeil said. "But we remain grateful for what they have done for us. Our relationship runs deeper than that."