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date: 23 July 2017

The State of Hezbollah? Sovereignty as a Potentiality in Global South Contexts

Summary and Keywords

The understanding of the differences in what a state and nonstate actors are and do in the Global South is augmented if we historicize these categories. In particular, the category of the nonstate actor is best understood when contextualized in the project of the state in which such actors operate. Building on established critical approaches, it is necessary to interrogate the a priori assumption that distinctions that frame as exclusively distinct categories of state and nonstate actors hold blanket validity for understanding politics in the Global South.

A meaningful understanding of how an actor’s influence—regardless of category—is enhanced when placed in a context, and where analysis addresses strategies and actions and their effects. To this end, an actor is defined as an entity with two characteristics: it is able to develop preferences and goals, and it is able to mobilize individuals and material resources in their pursuit. Presenting the benefits of contextual analysis shows how a focus on actors’ “sovereign potentialities” (i.e., attributes such as control over territory, service provision, generation of markers of identity, and the international recognition that an actor has and through which it can impose change on its context and environment) allows for a clearer understanding of what constrains or enables actors qua actors.

One way to explain the analytical purchase of this argument is via a novel reading of Hezbollah and of Lebanon’s politics, which is the party’s anchoring context. This makes it possible to analyze the profound effects of Hezbollah’s actions in Lebanon and regionally through its alliance with Syria (and Iran), its appeal to a wider Arab audience, and its confrontation with Israel. Special attention is given to Hezbollah’s actions in Lebanon, its involvement in the 2012–2013 Qusayr battle in support of the Syrian government, and its decision-making during the 2006 Israel War. This discussion will highlight Hezbollah’s state-like and non-state-like sovereign potentialities, and the factors that limit or enable its strategies in different contexts.

Keywords: Hezbollah, nonstate actors, empirical statehood, sovereignty, Lebanon, Israel, Syria, empirical international relations theory, Global South


The dynamic patterns in Global South politics pertaining to states and nonstate actors’ interactions demand critical assessments of how such categories are used as analytical constructs in theory building. The need for such a review of state and non-state analytical categories draws on realities that are prevalent particularly in the Middle East, while, not new, are unfolding. In addition to Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Islamic State had set up a framework for a state (including policing, identity documents, currency, and legal codes) in parts of Syria and Iraq; regardless of the duration of its survival, it was able to establish control and set up contours of a state over internationally recognized sovereign territories of others. The Islamic State, importantly, had regional and global supporters who believed in (and some fought for) the legitimacy of its political project. Another regional example is the authority of the Kurdish zones in Iraq and, more recently, in Syria (especially during the conflict post-2011). The government in Erbil today was established after the announcement of Iraq as a federal government by constitutional change in 2005, yet a government had been set in place since the early 1990s. Iraqi Kurdistan has long been in conflict with the government in Baghdad, moving in and out of zones of independence and submission since at least 1958. Today, is an internationally recognized Syrian Kurdish sovereign entity taking shape?1 How would these “domestic” changes implicate regional states whose Kurdish populations are clustered geographically in a way that can possibly make historic Kurdistan a reality, especially Iran and Turkey? So far, Iran has been on the defensive and high alert,2 whereas Turkey has increased its diplomatic (and economic) exchanges.3 The Kurds had been recognized internationally (prior to 2003) as having a special status; they did not have legal status as a state, but they were not a “normal” nonstate actor—moving between categories and having attributes of both. The fact that these realities are unfolding at the beginning of the 21st century does not mean they are new; rather, their origins lie in the social formations of the region’s modern states in the 20th century. There is a reason, therefore, that Kurds have a special internationally recognized status, as well as a reason why many recognize the legitimacy of the Islamic State’s project. This article explains the analytical purchase of analyzing the social origins of the contexts in which actors operate.

In much of mainstream international relations (IR) and political science, a model state is understood in rather unambiguous ways in order to theorize and to evaluate the performance of states globally—a tendency that is largely the outcome of genuflection to Westphalian traditions in Western historical moments. Building on Western sociopolitical history since the Peace of Westphalia, model states are assumed to uphold two necessary characteristics, both tied to sovereignty (Held, 2002). First, model states must have domestic sovereignty, which recognizes the supreme right of a ruling government to establish authority over a delineated territory and population.4 Domestically, states are also understood to have administrative and legally sanctioned sovereign bodies with legitimate monopoly over instrument of force, means for producing identities and related symbolic identifiers, and exclusivity in creating and directing political and economic administrative bodies. Second, model states must have external sovereignty, which demands mutual peer recognition by other governments, and requires them to engage in recognized protocols, such as obtaining a seat at the United Nations (UN). The model Westphalian state has full control of these characteristics and oversees them via legitimate, unified, and effective institutional bodies. This model state underlies claims that portray nonstate actors as entities that do not have the same privileges, functions, and weight domestically and in the international system. Nonstate actors, such as arms manufacturers, multinational companies, pirates, unions, militant ideologically committed groups, and so on, are often explained as having risen mainly out of the changing nature of the international system in the 20th century toward globalization, complex communication networks, and nationalist aspirations (Florea, 2014).

However, the Westphalian state system is a product of a specific sociohistorical moment; the states this system produced should be thought of as products of historically contingent empirics, and not as conceptual ontological givens. While it is more accurate to think of the model state as a product of a historical moment than as a conceptual category, the latter has been a common (and commonly criticized) practice (see Spruyt, 1994). A more appropriate and generalizable conceptual intuition could, perhaps, be that humans organize into political groups; the modern state has been a typical framework for political organization, but not the exclusive one. This means that there are—or could potentially and theoretically be—“other ways of legitimately and effectively organizing political-social life” (Mansour, 2017). This elision between historical outcome and conceptual category allows for a subsequent divide between categories of state and nonstate actors based on an imagined ideal type state. The divide reifies states and non-states, simultaneously sanitizing them from the complexity and sociohistorical relational contingencies that produced them, and rendering monochromatic a very complex image of politics; while this is especially true for analysis on the Global South (Bilgin & Morton, 2002), others have explained how analysts tend to undermine de facto states that exist globally and operate under conditions of fragmented sovereignty (Florea, 2014, p. 789). Moreover, the divide frames nonstate actors as less legitimate, less constrained, and less pressured than states. Legal sovereignty is the main enabler of such thinking, and the culprit is the model state.

However, recognizing that there are problems in theorizing politics and generalizing ontologies should not mean throwing the baby out with the bathwater by uncritically discarding categories’ boundaries. Varied state performances lend the nonstate actor category merit if the context in which it is used is properly considered. Today, model Westphalian states, generally in the Global North, represent cases in which empirical statehood is congruent with juridical statehood and both fare highly on measures of legitimacy and effectiveness; such cases valorize state–nonstate distinctions. From this perspective, Canada or France could be thought of as ideal state models, whereas Lebanon would represent a state with non-model characteristics. Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which emerged from and exists and operates in Lebanon, is an actor with its own political apparatus and with exclusive control over a geographic space in which loyal partisans live; it successfully provides a wide range of needed social and educational services, and it acts both domestically inside Lebanon and regionally. Actors like Hezbollah would not be accepted in the contexts of model states such as France and Canada. In fact, outside a context like that of Lebanon, Hezbollah would not have found the formal or customary institutional rules that would have allowed it to form and organize in the first place, let alone make it domestically legitimate. Hezbollah would have been forced to organize underground, at which time it would have been subject to pursuit by government organs. Depending on the specific context, then, internationally recognized states, such as Lebanon, can lack critical state attributes, while actors such as Hezbollah can come to exist and act in ways that are effectively state-like. In general the state-non-state nexus in political and economic processes merits closer attention even in model states (Cowles, 2003, p. 103); the focus here is on thinking through the divide with Global South dynamics in mind.

Problematizing State and Nonstate Actor Categories in the Global South

Realities prevalent particularly in the Global South pertain to the weaknesses of national governments which disallow them to have their states do what a model state does (Jackson & Rosberg, 1982, p. 1). Global South realities also expose state-building on logics unfamiliar to the model state one. Critical theoretical approaches and empirical studies (see Florea, 2014, Table 1, p. 793) allow us to make two observations. On the one hand, the analytical tendency to deploy analysis of states and non-states without historicization and attention to context has not been without challengers. More globally, because not all states have bodies that can enforce exclusive control over the means of physical force in a designated territory or monitor and punish violations to collective well-being domestically, some have claimed state sovereignty to be a form of “organized hypocrisy” (Kranser, 1999). Critical security studies has for decades sought to “emancipate” how we study the world; its strength has been questioning assumptions that are often taken as truths and left analytically unproblematized (Booth, 1991). The field, of course, has since developed and branched. Starting from an initial discomfort with the emphasis on state security, a central goal of this scholarship has been highlighting the shortcomings of ontological orthodoxies that have confined analysis of states and other actors in the field. Many have aptly demonstrated how categories of state and non-state are socially and historically contingent creations rather than value-free constructs (Bilgin, 2002; Davis, 2009).

Lessons from critical security studies scholarship have not gained widespread traction in the broader mainstream IR literature, which remains stubbornly at ease in passing normative judgment, especially with respect to experiences in the Global South. The reason is that mainstream scholarship has generated certain understandings of what a state should look like (especially legitimating the model state idea), and has not widely called into question the assumptions underlying these expectations. Consequently, whenever “idealized” characteristics are not empirically met, the only recourse is to frame the polities in question as “failed,” “collapsed,” “weak”—in other words, as less than what the model state should be. Similarly, for example, when states’ foreign policies do not follow dictates set by major powers, or when they resist hegemony, they are often branded as “rogue” or “pariah” states. This normative assessment, however, does not consider if there are other ways in which politics actually is organized, experienced, and understood (see Spruyt, 1994). That is, other than failing to meet the standards set by an ideal type, what else is going on in these non-model states? In sum, greater analytical attention is needed in order to revise current approaches to the plethora of actors in world politics (Wallace, 2002).

At the same time, a revision of the meaningfulness of referencing the model state is particularly necessary in the study of the Middle East, and especially of the Arab states. The Arab state has often been critiqued as compromised or as a non-valid project—a critique that came at different historical junctures. A major questioning of the validity (and legitimacy) of the Arab state, which still resonates, highlighted how competition between the logic of the Arab state system (which necessitated the protection of sovereignty and the hardening of independence with legitimate institutions) and Arab nationalism (which called for the merging of Arab states driven by a shared language and a general history) discombobulated the nascent state system (Barnett, 1993; Korany, 1994). The logic of the state later imposed itself mostly through exclusionary political practices, physical force, and with the weakening of the appeal of Arab unity ideals; analysis argued that the Arab state will always carry with it a burden of illegitimacy, a questioned birth, or doubt of its appropriateness as a political project (see Ayubi, 1996; Al-Naqeeb, 1990). These critiques remain today in analysis of the Arab Middle East; renewed and robust popularity of varieties of the idea of the “fall of the Arab state” have been widely popular in the midst of Arab Spring revolts (Ahram & Lust, 2016). What most of the scholarship on the region has in common, however, is evaluating the state based on the Westphalian Western model; it thus generally remains amenable to the dominance of a “statist common sense,” even when state sovereignty had historically been empirically questionable, or even when “states” were created with a non-Westphalian blueprint.

The discussion begs some reflection on the starting point of any analysis of states and non-states acting today. This point could be a Weberian legally entrenched approach that commences with identifying dimensions of statehood, and then proceeds to analyze how states and non-states perform on them (Weber, 1948); or it can start with a Charles Tilly–influenced approach (Tilly, 1977), which commences with the sociological constitution of states to evaluate what states are and what they do. Although the empirical composition of states should not be the exclusive factor in the evaluation, the sociological approach is favored because of the need to not evaluate Global South states largely as failures or weak, but rather as creations that have had distinct founding projects and developmental trajectories.

The article proposes thinking of both states and non-states as actors can have different sovereign potentialities in different contexts. An actor is an entity with two characteristics: it is able to develop preferences and goals, and it is able to mobilize individuals and material resources in their pursuit. Sovereignty is a political actor’s control over territory, service provision over this territory, generation of markers of group identity (such as flags, discourses, collective meetings in a show of unity), and legitimacy (which is provided by the local groups inhabiting the territory in their reactions toward the actions of this actor). Statehood is the endowment of a political actor with sovereignty, in addition to (and this is a necessary condition) the international recognition of this actor by relevant institutions (e.g., the UN), other actors, and rules of the existing world system. Not all Global South states have “full” legal and empirical dimensions of sovereignty; some became so with time and as a result of atrophy or conflict, while others’ political projects set them up as they are today at independence (and this is the Lebanon case analyzed here). Consequently, sovereign potentialities are measurable, and include control over territory, monopoly over military force, provision of identity markers as well as security and related services, as well as legitimacy. Legitimacy “involves the capacity of the system to engender and maintain the belief that the existing political institutions are the most appropriate ones for the society” because “groups regard a political system as legitimate or illegitimate according to the way in which its values fit with theirs” (Lipset, 1963, p. 64). In this sense, international legitimacy, such as that provided by the UN and through which actors are accorded special treatment (e.g., ability to issue recognized travel documents), is intimately tied to the form and order of the global system. Actors, such as the Palestine Liberation Organization, covet such legality, and thus state status, because of the value which the system places on them and what that consequently means for such actors position in the system. The model state, nevertheless, remains a product of a historical moment, same as the system which birthed it, and the system remains unequal in recognizing actors’ potentialities or helping some augment theirs.

From this perspective, we can conceive of both state and nonstate actors in how they are more or less enabled in their sovereignty. Consequently, all actors have the potential to be state-like while simultaneously having the potential to be non-state like. UN recognition, for example, provides states with important/legal sovereign potentialities, which does not mean that they cannot have their functions undermined by an officially designated nonstate actor. An approach that focuses on sovereign potentialities of various actors in a given context—rather than on definitional categories—would allow us to examine how governance and decision making do occur under conditions of “limited statehood” and “how security and other collective goods can be provided under these circumstances” (Risse, 2013, p. 2). Moreover, this approach allows for an understanding of how sociohistorical processes are constitutive of these actors themselves, and for an appreciation of actor agency under varied enabling and constraining conditions. Finally, it also allows for moving beyond the various labels—weak, failed, etc.—attached most frequently to postcolonial states, to an investigation of how politics in the Global South unfold. Enter Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Framing Hezbollah

Despite its considerable military strength, domestic legitimacy, and capacity to provide services, Hezbollah is often analyzed as subordinate to its allies and patrons because they are states, especially Iran and Syria. Hezbollah is also understood as subordinate to Israel; a framing often confirmed by the latter’s military superiority (Azani, 2008; Maoz, 2007). The literature on Hezbollah can be divided into four general strands. In strand one, Hezbollah is locked in varied degrees of subservience to states, given the military, economic, political, and moral patronage it receives (DeVore, 2012; Szekely, 2012). In strand two, this first approach is taken to an extreme, with Hezbollah often denied agency; it is analyzed as a tool for Iran and Syria (Avon & Khatchadourian, 2012; Barak, 2010; Harik, 2004).

In strand three, Hezbollah is defined as a violent nonstate actor or a terrorist actor. Here analysis is infused with assumptions about its intentionality to harm (Byman, 2011; Montgomery & Pettyjohn, 2010; Wehrey, 2002). In this approach, not only is the state/non-state dichotomy left unquestioned, but the term “terrorist” carries very specific assumptions about Hezbollah’s attitudes, intentions, and future actions that are not attributed to any other actor involved—states or “non-states” (Howard & Hoffman, 2011). Labeling an actor as terrorist also frames them as incapable of obtaining or servicing an important legal Westphalian requirement and that is abiding by international norms, and especially the protection of their people, constituencies, and citizens. Moreover, in such approaches, everyone who supports Hezbollah—or who does not continuously condemn it across the board—is pathologized, and the reasons driving this support or lack of condemnation are discredited (Nacos, 2010). Strand four is more critical about such framings, suggesting that an agnostic approach to analysing Hezbollah allows for a more accurate understanding of its influence within Lebanon and regionally (Harb & Leenders, 2005; Saouli, 2011).

Departing from most of the literature above, the article explains why it is crucial to try and understand Hezbollah as an actor within the complex—and sometimes contradictory—contexts in which it finds itself and acts, and does so through value-free analysis of its strategies at specific places and times. Such an approach would allow us to appreciate why, for example, military or policing capacities do not always exert influence: how the context of their deployment and its use in combinations with certain potentialities thus have them carry influence. Moreover, analysing Hezbollah as a subordinate actor only because it is not a state masks the important question of what its power derives from. Therefore an approach, such as the one provided here, would expose Hezbollah’s potentialities and how they are conditioned by the multiple contexts within which it is embedded and/or act. The approach helps explain how these contexts constrain its choices in ways that it might wish to avoid.

Analysing Hezbollah through its sovereign potentialities starts from interesting observations. Hezbollah does not have juridical sovereignty, i.e., it does not have internationally recognized legal control over a territory populated by citizens over which is flown a UN-recognized flag as a marker of sovereign status, and it does not have the right to issue travel documents that would allow their holders international mobility. However, beyond this “limitation” (which is largely related to the international-juridical context), Hezbollah is an actor with massive presence in Lebanon and the Levant. It possesses many dimensions of sovereignty especially in the sense that it acts inside and outside Lebanon in ways that it sees fit; not only does Hezbollah often disregard the legal authority of the Lebanese government, but its actions implicate the Lebanese government as well as other states.5 Hezbollah also engages in the successful production of a social identity for its followers, which defines their distinctness from the plethora of other communities in Lebanon (Hamze, 2004; Sharara, 2006).

In the past decade in particular, Hezbollah has also been trying to animate two identity dimensions to entrench its social legitimacy: first is a Lebanese national social identity with appeals to Palestine and thus to Arab-wide causes of interest; second is one of Lebanon as a space of plurality and thus that Hezbollah is defending Lebanon from the onslaught of exclusionary ideas/movements. These Hezbollah identity-generating efforts have been demonstrated as successful in at least two recent and critical moments: first was against waves of “takfir” (i.e., the radicalism associated with groups such as the Islamic State), and second, was the alliance with Christian actors which demonstrated that many Lebanese who are not Shiite do feel included in this vision. It is should be noted that this very limited “national identity” becomes significant given that it is competing against an equally limited identity that the Lebanese “state” tries to circulate—i.e., that the Lebanese are diverse and a “mosaic” (which effectively is talk for limited consumption). In sum, Hezbollah is providing a stronger national narrative than the “state”—at least for some Lebanese. This is important because Lebanon itself does not have an agreed upon and legitimate means of generating a unified national identity. Moreover, Hezbollah leaves massive influences on Lebanon’s domestic and foreign policies, and is often recognized as surpassing Lebanon and even Syria (since 2011) in influence. Therefore, focusing on typology misses out on thoroughly understanding politics in such a context; what gets obscured is the important issue of how we identify the forms of political subordination that a state imposes and is subjected to, particularly in a context where the Westphalian state system/model is not deeply entrenched.

The analysis, therefore, starts from the context which created the conditions of possibility for an actor like Hezbollah to form, to be legitimate, and allow it to obtain sovereign potentialities. Attention here is on how physical context can strengthen an actor especially in terms of allowing it to develop preferences and increase capacity, while also making it vulnerable. The main context for Hezbollah has been Lebanon.

Lebanon’s Hospitable Political System

In the model Westphalian sense, Lebanon has never been a state; rather, it is best thought of as a locus for intersecting, often competing, and sometimes unequal, sovereignties held by various confessional communities. The political project that birthed Lebanon constructed it in the way it is today. Lebanon ranks poorly on measures of a model Westphalian sovereign state. It does not have authority centralized in a unified administrative and legal body that governs over an organized community, and its government does not have a legitimate monopoly over instruments of force, and never really did since independence. Actors, like Hezbollah, have grown in size and influence under the aegis of the Lebanese constitution, which created/s spaces for sovereign enclaves. That is, Hezbollah did not emerge in the shadow of a weakening central government. In this sense, Lebanon is not comparable to other states often labelled as “failed” states, such as Somalia: the latter progressed in its ostensible failures over time, whereas Lebanon, in many ways, and from the perspective of a “failed state paradigm” was born failed. Thus the fallacy, for example, of an oft-cited adage that Hezbollah created “a state within a state”; this is inaccurate because there was never an empirically dominant state in Lebanon in the first place, in which another actor could then build a state. Moreover, Lebanon does not have a “stable community” as “an integrated political community resting on a common culture” (Jackson & Rosberg, 1982, p. 5). Rather, it has eighteen communities, and each one has its particular cultural markers that are often mutually exclusive. Moreover, Lebanon never had a unified identity against which various groups could build their specific identifiers. The identity markers of Lebanon’s various confessional groups have been built against markers of other sectarian communities and not against a state (Traboulsi, 2008; el-Khazen, 2003). Thus, legislative and executive political structures that run Lebanon operate based on agreement among confessional communities regarding what they should do, but consensus among them frequently ceases, thus paralyzing national institutions.6

Lebanon’s independence was pillared on the consent reached domestically (with major power interventions) that sovereignty and governance be organized vis-à-vis religious confessional communities as corporate actors rather than vis-à-vis individuals as citizens (which is what the model state does). The political system therefore accords rights to confessional communities, whose interests override any attempt to deny them being the final arbiters of policy.7 Since independence, communal elites have bargained over state-derived resources, such as employment for their respective followers in the public sector (el-Khazen, 2003, p. 611). Intra-confessional alliances are a central feature of the system where confessional leaders pool resources, such as human followership and material capacities. These alliances primarily function to increase influence on policy, as well as to prevent monopolies of the system by any one community in order to avoid the elimination of any one community. Finally, confessional leaders agree to the intervention of external patrons to back domestic allies via military hardware, financial aid, and political support; thus they agree that external patrons can and will influence outcomes. External patronage has historically come from France, the United States, Syria, Israel, and the Islamic Republic of Iran, and has always influenced domestic politics.

Lebanon is representative par excellence of a polity that was not built as a unified modern sovereign Westphalian state. Yet, it is common to analyze politics in Lebanon through the entrenched statist mindset. Most prominently, scholarship on Lebanon is often puzzled over why its political system fails periodically in delivering the functions and services associated with a model state; the assumption here is that it was a functional state that at some later point was compromised. As such, scholarship on Lebanon’s political system can be organized into two broad groups. The first assumes that the political system is built on the democratic principles of modern model states and investigates various power-sharing permutations that have been generated to govern society, as well as the triggers responsible for varied levels of “high” and “low” democratic practices (Hudson, 1976; Jabbra & Jabbra, 2001). Most of this literature evaluates democratic practices (elections, constitutionally mandated oversight, multiple legislative and judicial systems with cross-cutting supervision and checks) but not the essence of modern democracy. The latter, associated with the model state, developed over centuries during which wars and ethnic cleansing helped homogenize populations’ political expectation and identities, and where shared preferences and rules were developed around which political representatives agreed to organize. Lebanon’s form of democracy, in contrast, emerged when the country’s constituent confessional communities were unable to eliminate or subdue each other and thus had to find a formula for a heterogeneous society to live in a shared territory. Since the state’s independence, several attempts at reciprocal elimination or overpowering have been undertaken in a series of crises or wars the country has witnessed. In essence, Lebanon’s form of democracy emerged because confessional actors were unable to eliminate others, leading to a very particular type of legitimate political system and rules for power-sharing that cannot be evaluated with reference to 20th-century Western political systems in stable nation-states.

In contrast, the second scholarship cluster studying Lebanon emphasizes the inherent contradictions facing a country that is trying to build itself around a nation-state model—which values high levels of homogeneity—when it is formally fractured along multiple competing religious and communal cleavages (Abul-Husn, 1998; Salibi, 1988). This group sees as problematic the assumption that Lebanon can be defined from the Westphalian state perspective.

Finally, what is interesting about Lebanon is that external actors with interests in the Levant, such as Russia, the United States, France, and Iran, all had domestic patrons in Lebanon with the understanding that such domestic allies can block the policy process, which is a privilege allowed to them via the “divided sovereignty” set up of the country. Meanwhile, Lebanon’s government officials observe performative politics (in travel, receiving dignitaries, having membership in the UN). Legal international recognition, in effect, offers only a cursory understanding of Lebanon’s politics and thus of the position of actors like Hezbollah.

Hezbollah as an Actor With Potentialities

Lebanon therefore created the conditions of possibility for Hezbollah’s birth, while allowing it to act domestically and externally; the party’s leaders are cognizant of the freedoms this context provides in strategizing and resource mobilization (Qassem, 2005). Hezbollah’s relationship with its main context, however, has changed over the years. From its formal inception in 1985 until 1992, Hezbollah claimed the moral high ground by not partaking in the confessional division of spoils. Instead, Iran financed its services. Lebanon’s 1992 parliamentary elections, however, forced Hezbollah to contend with two realities: first, that the domestic consensus among Lebanon’s actors was that the political process was the only viable option through which they should continue to interact, and that the use of military force should be avoided in domestic political competition. Second, that given this change in environment, and in order to maximize benefits, alliances were valuable strategies, which could serve important functions for actors, such as pooling capacities and preventing monopolies. Signaling its decision to abide by these rules, Hezbollah ran candidates in the 1992 parliamentary elections to represent the Shiite community; it has since selectively partaken in the political game, while keeping unchanged its social and economic services, financed mostly by Iran. Until 2005, Hezbollah did not participate in the executive branch.

In this context, Hezbollah developed military capacities to assert its control over territories, mainly around Beirut’s suburbs and in eastern and Southern Lebanon.8 Two observations are important here on Hezbollah’s strategizing, especially concerning its use of military force. First, when Hezbollah acts and uses force through its military capacities, it does not violate state sovereignty. That is, the negative reactions it provokes from other communal actors stem not from their desire to uphold an ideal statist model against intrusion, but, rather, from their understanding that Hezbollah’s actions transgress on the perceived or acquired sovereign turf of other Lebanese actors. Second, relative to other actors in Lebanon, Hezbollah had been less constrained by the rules of the political system until 1992. This relative freedom was rooted in the fact that Hezbollah’s domestic legitimacy and support stemmed precisely from the fact that it did not share spoils, allowing its constituency to claim that their representative was the only one not robbing the state as the others were doing. Moreover, as long as Lebanon was occupied by Israel, Hezbollah’s resistance endowed it with requisite political and moral capacities to be a credible actor and representative of Lebanon’s Shiites (Harik, 2004, pp. 53–60).

Hezbollah’s domestic environment changed significantly when Rafiq Hariri’s assassination, on February 14, 2005, provoked the Cedar Revolt, which in turn birthed the March 14 coalition and culminated with Syria’s exit from Lebanon in 2005 (Bkasini, 2008). In response, Hezbollah became the agenda setter of the diametrically opposed March 8 coalition, composed of Syria’s sympathizers in Lebanon, primarily the Amal Movement (Hezbollah’s competitor for Shiite representation) and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM, a Maronite Christian grouping).9 Alhough they rely on different external alliances, both March 8 and March 14 were, and remain, cross-confessional alliances that play by the rules of the sovereignty-sharing system.

Israel’s 2006 war allowed Hezbollah to affirm important sovereign potentialities: since neither Syria nor Iran would risk a direct confrontation with Israel, Hezbollah had to handle its own fighting, which allowed it to stretch its political and military muscle in the Lebanese context, as well as vis-à-vis Israel. Israel’s recognition of Hezbollah’s potentialities came when it declared that all of Lebanon was a legitimate target because of Hezbollah’s participation in government. If the Lebanese government could not reign in Hezbollah, Israel contended, then, as a domestically legitimate force recognized by the “state,” it was effectively acting as the state. That is, Hezbollah was no longer a rogue nonstate actor, but a proxy for Lebanon.10 Israel’s ability to view Hezbollah as sometimes a terrorist group and sometimes a state (i.e., not a nonstate actor) speaks to the benefits of placing emphasis on actors’ sovereign potentialities.

For Hezbollah, the 2006 war had somewhat dissonant effects. On the one hand, the sheer scale of the human casualties and infrastructural damage in Lebanon evoked a strong empathic response from both Lebanese and Arab audiences, who saw such suffering as part of a broader confrontation with Israel. On the other hand, many also blamed Hezbollah for provoking such an outcome because it had acted independently in its decision to capture Israeli soldiers. Given this discontent, Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hasan Nasrallah, publicly acknowledged that the party had miscalculated Israel’s potential reaction to the operation against its soldiers.11 Hezbollah tried to temper anger in Lebanon by demonstrating that unlike other actors, it was willing to own the consequences of its actions, admit error rather than provide a litany of excuses, and—in theory—integrate the lesson learned into future decision-making. In accepting responsibility, Hezbollah signaled its understanding that it was accountable to Lebanon as a whole and that it could not act with impunity. This willing submission to public censure had the effect both of highlighting and consolidating the party’s sovereign and state potentialities, since it placed Hezbollah—at least symbolically—in service to the country and its people, not outside of it. Moreover, Hezbollah framed the outcome of the war as “Divine Victory” to appeal to the sensibilities of its followers and sympathizers (van Creveld, 2011).

In this same period, the war on terror, the invasion of Iraq, and heightened regional sectarianism focused attention on Iran’s allies as the source of instability in Lebanon (Mansour, 2010). Although not all of Hezbollah’s detractors openly attacked the group because it is a Shiite organization, they nevertheless benefited from discourses that sought to undermine the public’s perception of Hezbollah. Hezbollah reacted by playing by the rules of the domestic political game: it strengthened its domestic alliances with non-Shiite groups.12 Hezbollah also grounded its actions in a discourse of collective efforts toward state-building.13

In this polarized domestic context, the Lebanese Council of Ministers, then controlled by the March 14 coalition, issued orders, in 2008, to monitor Hezbollah’s communications network. This move, Hezbollah argued, risked undercutting the resistance operations. Consequently, the party took up arms and engulfed Lebanon in a “mini” civil war in which it effectively took control of large swathes of Beirut not traditionally under its control (Salem, 2008). In deploying its arsenal internally, Hezbollah had not acted against the LAF but against other armed confessional groups. The main result was a distinct shift whereby Hezbollah came to be referenced as “a militia” and not the resistance.14 This change in discourse reflected, in essence, a decline in the domestic legitimacy that Hezbollah had enjoyed.

Hezbollah’s Relations With Its External Allies

Three dynamics are discernible in Hezbollah’s relations with its external allies. First, Hezbollah received financial and military aid from Iran, and it takes pride in being associated with Iran’s resistance against America and Israel.15 Second, under Syria’s tutelage, Hezbollah expanded its alliances with Syria’s Lebanese allies, developed military capabilities, and received facilitation, such as operational intelligence networking, for its resistance against Israel. “By 1995, the Syrian order in Lebanon was in place, glued together by what opposition Lebanese politicians later labelled al-nizam al-amni almushtarak, or the mutual Syrian-Lebanese security apparatus controlling the country” (Salloukh, 2005). Third, Hezbollah received critical moral support from the Arab societies in general, especially given its demonstration that resisting Israel is possible, something most Arab governments had both failed to achieve and abandoned as a policy goal. Hezbollah’s strategies in this context augmented its sovereign potentialities, especially as a legitimate “state-like” actor. For an Arab audience that identified with the Palestinian plight and resistance to the Israeli occupation, Hezbollah demonstrated that the Palestinians could be aided. Most visible in this regard were its successful arrangement of Palestinian prisoner swaps with Israel. Hezbollah was able to engage in an exchange of prisoners with Israel, and that Israel negotiated directly with Hezbollah through German mediation showcases Hezbollah’s sovereign potentialities, especially its recognized control over a territory and ability to police and make decisions related to that territory that have societal acceptance. The issue even has strong elements of international recognition: the fact that Israel recognized Hezbollah as the negotiator forces us to rethink recognition exclusively as a formal process (e.g., with papers deposited at a UN office or through exchanging diplomatic mission; Khalili, 2007). What the prisoner negotiations show is that having or not having international recognition is only one way for actors to engage across internationally recognized borders; instead, in certain instances some actors, in this case Hezbollah, can obtain de facto recognition, just as certain states (in this case, Lebanon) can lose it.

Moreover, when tensions arose between Hezbollah and others in the Lebanese context, the party strategically oriented itself to this external audience and context, seeking acceptance and even validation for its policies. Arab audiences valued Hezbollah’s discursive and material commitments (e.g., military operations) to causes, such as Palestine, that garnered wide support. Moreover, by framing its resistance as a revival of Arab honor at a time when Arab governments had overwhelmingly ruled out military options to support the Palestinians, Hezbollah was able to convince Arab audiences to willingly suspend criticism of its Shiism and its Iranian ties. As Ali Larijani, then Iran’s Speaker of Parliament, declared in 2010, Hezbollah’s alliance with Iran and Syria forms a “resistance front” to American and Israeli designs for the region.16 Hezbollah’s strategies were grounded in a realist understanding of the region, that is, that actors attend to, and act in, their own immediate environments so as to keep themselves intact.

Increasing Shiite-Sunni sectarian divisions after the 2003 Iraq invasion and Iran’s perceived role in regional instability coalesced to open a chasm between Hezbollah and its Arab audience, one that was seriously amplified by its use of force inside Lebanon in 2008. The potentialities that Hezbollah had gained prior to 2006 in being a state-like ally to Syria and Iran (and others) were eroding, and regional sectarian polarization was increasing. Arab audiences filtered Hezbollah’s use of force in Lebanon through a sectarian prism, as a Shiite attack on the Sunni-dominant coalition. The party’s violation, in 2008, of the rule on restraint in the domestic use of force cost it the moral support of a regional audience (Haddad, 2011). Importantly, Hezbollah did not lose this support because it was a nonstate actor, but because its actions were deemed unacceptable. Hezbollah’s strategizing lost it some legitimacy (as a measure of sovereign potentialities), without being a “detrimental” moment.

Early in the Arab Spring, Hezbollah came out clearly in support of the popular revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Bahrain. When the unrest began in Syria, in March 2011, however, Hezbollah took a more muted position, calling on Syria’s opposition groups to politically dialogue with their government17; this provided Hezbollah’s critics with the ammunition to accuse it of hypocrisy and of having little real respect for human rights and freedoms.18 Hezbollah, in turn, tried to justify its position and its eventual entry into Syria’s internal conflict in November 2011 (when it lent support to the Syrian government in its fight against protesters). Hezbollah argued that, far from reactionary, its intervention was intended to aid the last remaining Arab resistance front—a position which credits the Syrian government as defender of collective Arab rights. Despite the changing understandings of resistance, Hezbollah still sought to justify its actions by framing them as part of its overall mission to safeguard a resistance front that was laboring to restore Arab solidarity against an American-Zionist conspiracy. Later on in the Syrian conflict, Hezbollah also sought to justify its actions through a religious discourse (its obligation to protect Shiite shrines) and also a national one: its obligation to safeguard Lebanon from the encroachment of takfiris—violent extremists and self-appointed defenders of the purity of faith.19 Here Hezbollah appealed to two broader discourses on state rights: first, a general discourse on the right to protect, or the right of sovereign states to encroach upon the sovereignty of another in order to protect vulnerable communities; second, a national security discourse where it sought to gain from the legitimacy it had garnered as the defender against Israel, to frame its actions on the Syrian front as rightful and legitimate against another common enemy (the takfiris). Despite these attempted justifications, however, Hezbollah was accused of acting against its own principles by aiding a government that was killing its own people, instead of fighting Israel in the occupied Golan.20

Then, in March 2012, a fierce battle began between the Syrian military and protestors and rebels in the city of Qusayr. For about a year, the Syrian military tried to destroy the opposition rebel forces, without success. Hezbollah intervened in a battle in April 2013 alongside the Syrian military in defence of what the party declared were its interests. Hezbollah’s assistance was crucial in enabling the Syrian military to regain control. The battle of Qusayr allows us to make several observations on Hezbollah’s strategies, freedom to act, and agency in dictating the timing and pace of events, something that the Syrian government was challenged to do. Hezbollah showed tactical innovation, a capacity to learn from daily encounters, and flexibility in fighting. It successfully adapted to street-to-street combat against bands of rebel groups whom it was able to drive out of their entrenched terrain. Its urban warfare tactics were deemed as successful as its fighting against Israel in South Lebanon. Significantly, the Qusayr battle was Hezbollah’s first wide-scale offensive military operation outside its conventional terrain.21 In the Qusayr battle, Hezbollah acted as a state in two respects: it formally and publicly committed its resources from Lebanon to Syria, crossing an international border in doing so; and it supplanted the capabilities, training, tactics, and political commitments of the Syrian army. Discursively, Hezbollah presented itself as a central pole in the Syrian-Iranian alliance, acting against American-Zionist plans to control the Middle East. It also branded rebel groups seeking to construct an “Islamic state” in the Levant as “agents” of outsiders (commonly understood as Israel or the United States, or other “reactionary” forces). In the Qusayr battle, Hezbollah’s interventions dictated the pace of events in the field and the direction of military operations, and supplanted the Westphalian role of the Syrian government in defending juridical sovereignty from militants’ violations. Meanwhile, Lebanese actors, including the government, had to deal with the fallout when they were informed of Hezbollah’s actions.

In terms of legitimacy, as a sovereign potentiality, Hezbollah had to contend with a changing regional environment. Prior to the Arab Spring, the main issue around which dissent across most Arab societies was permitted (albeit in a limited fashion) was Israel and support for the Palestinians. Therefore, when Hezbollah attacked Israeli targets in 2006 and kidnapped soldiers to exchange for Arab detainees, the result was considerable Arab support because it was acting against the collective enemy—Israel. In the Arab Spring, people have been reinterpreting what honor, independence, and self-determination mean, and especially how one obtains honor. Since 2011 different issues, causes, and forms of dissent have proliferated: fighting Israel has been only one way. Hezbollah tried to adapt to this new reality by framing its interventions in Syria as linked to Palestine. In December 2013, Hezbollah argued that Qusayr was an existential battle. Here again, it coupled the forces against which Hezbollah was fighting in Syria with a Zionist plan to weaken Arab resistance; hence, its intervention was arguably consistent with its resistance raison d’être.22 Although Hezbollah framed its intervention as being calculated to safeguard sovereignty of Lebanon and the well-being of its entire population, not just that of the Shiite constituency, reactions were nevertheless mixed. General support for Hezbollah is reported to have remained solid, legitimated by the support of its constituency. After several car bombs targeted the Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut’s southern suburb, there were reports of popular fears increasing and a looming sense of insecurity brought about by the bombings.23 Despite this, the party seems to be proceeding with its strategies unhindered, acting in response to actions by a range of actors in the Syrian conflict—some of which are major global and regional powers. Precisely because of the altered regional context and rules regarding resistance, deployments of Hezbollah’s military capacities have been largely interpreted as a form of repression, not resistance. This helps us understand the decline in Arab legitimation of Hezbollah’s actions in Syria—but not a complete loss of legitimacy.24 Finally, an indication of how other states’ governments view Hezbollah and its sovereign potentialities (in terms of statehood) was the announcement by Yemeni representative to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), in 2016, that his (UN-recognized sovereign) government would table a formal complaint to the council against Hezbollah’s intervention in Yemeni domestic politics.25 The announcement, regardless of the outcome, represents how Hezbollah is perceived and interacted with by governments in international forums.

Hezbollah’s Confrontation With Israel

Israel’s occupation of Southern Lebanon made it acceptable, and expected, that Lebanon pursues action against Israel consistent with its internationally recognized right of resisting an occupying force. This right to resistance, however, was upheld by various actors that came to operate in the South, including Hezbollah, as much as it was by the Lebanese government (sometimes perhaps even more persistently). Since its creation, Hezbollah has had an occupying enemy, territory on which to fight, ideological commitment and purpose, and material capacities, as well as domestic backing.26 By the early 1990s there was a weakening of the secular or nationalist parties (Arab and other) that had previously been involved in resistance operations against Israel. This had resulted from their own internal decline, Syria “undercutting” political activism in Lebanon, and from changes in the political landscape and in electoral and party regulations that elevated the influence of sectarian-based discourses and causes over nationalist and secular ones. In this environment, Hezbollah had obtained a near monopoly on resistance operations, developing in the meantime its military capacities with Iranian support and Syrian facilitation. By the early 1990s, Lebanon’s communal representatives had agreed to legitimate Hezbollah’s military force on the condition that it not be used against any other actor in Lebanon, and that Hezbollah’s freedom to act against Israel should be undertaken responsibly (which implicitly meant avoiding military escalation). Meanwhile, the United States and Syria had agreed to stabilize Lebanon after ending its domestic war. While Washington attended to an unraveling Cold War, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, and the Madrid Process, Syria kept the deployment of Hezbollah’s material capacities in check and acted as a guarantor to the agreement within Lebanon (Mansour, 2010).

Israel’s Operation Grapes of Wrath in 1996 was the first major test of the agreement within Lebanon: Israel launched a Lebanon-wide retaliation against Hezbollah operations in South Lebanon. Hezbollah faced public questioning regarding the appropriateness and purpose of its operations. Nevertheless, the process of ending Israel’s attack consolidated Hezbollah’s political position in Lebanon and the region. This crisis ended with the 1996 April Understanding (AU) negotiated between the United States, European states, Israel, the UN, and Hezbollah. The agreement ended Israel’s operation, and the United States, France, and Syria acted to ensure that Hezbollah and Israel abided by the AU rules. The AU emphasized that Israel and Hezbollah had to avoid targeting civilians, and formally recognized and legitimated both Hezbollah’s right to resist the Israeli occupation of Lebanon and Israel’s right to self-defense (al-Masri, 2000). The AU also signified that Hezbollah’s actions imposed legal and political obligations on Lebanon in the UN and vis-à-vis the United States, and its influence lasted roughly until 2000. Hezbollah’s actions also placed internationally recognized sovereign obligations on Israel, most crucially to protect its citizens. Hezbollah’s potentialities were tested in a consequent and related crisis—the 2006 War.

The 2006 War can be traced back to Israel’s retreat and withdrawal from the security zone to the Shebaa Farms in 2000. Israel’s retreat from most of South Lebanon elicited positive popular and elite reactions in Lebanon and abroad and translated into a surge in support and legitimacy for Hezbollah, since its operations were seen as instrumental in forcing Israel’s exit. Operationally, Hezbollah expanded its presence in South Lebanon and engaged Israel in retaliatory and periodic military operations, but both avoided escalation or targeting civilians (Bergman, 2009). However, kidnapping became a feature of Hezbollah-Israel interactions; Hezbollah, in fact, showed initiative in its ability to exchange persons and corpses of Lebanese, Palestinians, and others with Israel (Khalili, 2007). Operations helped “burnish Hizballah’s pan-Arab and pan-Islamic resistance credentials while demonstrating to Israel that its policies toward the Palestinians cannot be isolated from the region as a whole” (Blanford, 2004). Hezbollah’s constituency and supporters felt immense pride in claiming a leading role in defending Lebanon (Haddad, 2013, p. 74). In that defense, Hezbollah played roles otherwise held by the official state military under UN-sanctioned rights. In effect, Hezbollah took almost exclusive control over important state functions.

What was clearer prior to 2000, and added to Hezbollah’s capacities and influence, was that Israel was violating the basic Westphalian principle of Lebanese state sovereignty. Israel’s occupation of South Lebanon had enabled Hezbollah to expand its sovereign potentialities to act on behalf of the Lebanese state. Once Israel withdrew, in 2000, however, rules of Westphalian sovereignty were placed mostly in its favor (especially the right to defend itself and retaliate against external transgressions on its sovereignty). After May 2000, Israel claimed that it had fulfilled the terms of UNSC Resolutions 425 and 426 demanding its withdrawal from Lebanon, and that the Shebaa Farms were Syrian, which meant that any withdrawal from them needs to be subject to a Syrian–Israeli agreement, such as a peace treaty or otherwise. That Hezbollah was part of the Lebanese political system (via its parliamentarians and ministers) meant that Israel was much less formally confined in its use of force against Lebanon. In fighting Hezbollah, Israel argued that actions by Lebanon, as a sovereign state, conducted by a member of its government, implicated the entire state. In an important way, Israel’s withdrawal in 2000 undermined Hezbollah’s claim that its resistance operations post-2000 were upholding an internationally recognized sovereign right. Thus, the entire relational context changed, and in significant ways. Israel’s withdrawal allowed it to claim that it had adhered to rules of sovereignty and international agreements (like UNSCR 425). Hezbollah’s sovereign potentialities declined significantly when it could not deploy the same strategies, since crossing the “contested border” would be a violation of the rules of legal sovereignty not an instantiation of legitimate resistance. By retreating/withdrawing from Lebanon, Israel in effect trapped Hezbollah within the confines of legal sovereignty, arguing that it could hold Lebanon responsible for Hezbollah’s actions.

Furthermore, prior to 2000, Israel was an occupying force; hence, most of Hezbollah’s operations by Hezbollah had been against occupying troops or allies. With Israel’s withdrawal and the pursuant (if contested) legal debate over the Shebaa Farms, the general rules of engagement necessarily became opaque: according to the logic of Westphalian sovereignty, after 2000 Hezbollah had no concrete reason to fight Israel, because the violation of Lebanon’s territorial integrity has been removed. Israel and Lebanon referred to international arbitration to mark lines, confirming the reality that Hezbollah—as a member in Lebanon’s government—would be subject to “sovereignty rules” along the same lines as Lebanon’s official government. By increasing its potentiality as a state-like actor, or at least in representing the internationally recognized Lebanese state, Hezbollah’s policy options were therefore constrained. Consequently, Hezbollah did tread with caution to avoid escalation between 2003 and 2006; it sought to increase its deterrent capacities, as well as to signal operational readiness. Hezbollah’s strategies in Lebanon were also shifting in line with changing domestic politics: Syria’s military withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005 created a gap that Hezbollah could fill. This gave Hezbollah a larger say in Lebanon’s politics; it was particularly the case that Hezbollah had more direct influence in setting the tone of Lebanon’s foreign policy via its domestic alliances and in appointing to the position of foreign minister individuals adopting positions that favored Hezbollah interests (Mansour, 2010).

The 2006 Israel War on Lebanon, however, constrained Hezbollah’s range of possible strategies. In the midst of the 2006 War, Hezbollah acted—by signaling to Israel—as a government would: it reportedly requested a ceasefire after other militant actors began firing missiles at Israeli civilian targets from Southern Lebanon, for which Israel held Hezbollah responsible. “Diplomatic sources said the cease-fire … was the result of Hizbullah’s refusal to continue military engagement for fear that the incident might be used against it politically” (Choucair, 2006). Hezbollah’s position was that such unsanctioned acts broke its own monopoly on the use of force in South Lebanon and not only risked altering the rule that civilian areas, at least in principle, not be directly targeted, but also undermined its reputation and sovereign potentialities as a guardian of the area. Hezbollah was constrained by its commitments vis-à-vis Israel, therefore, in ways that other actors were not. It not only had to communicate to Israel that such actions were not its own but also demonstrate that it could reign in such actions in the future, for any ceasefire to be meaningful.27

Two outcomes of the 2006 War altered the relational context and Hezbollah’s tactical and strategic options. First, was the deployment of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) in a vast territory in Southern Lebanon after an involuntary near absence for some thirty years.28 Though Hezbollah’s security operations had been generally coordinated with the LAF since the mid-1990s, tensions periodically arose over respective defense roles and turf. It became necessary to increase that coordination in light of the LAF moving deeper into Southern Lebanon because the region was (and remains) central to Hezbollah’s existence (given its constituency there) and resistance operations; both actors therefore chose to adopt a discourse emphasizing complementarities in national defense (Nerguizian, 2009). This is where state-like potentialities become a helpful analytical tool: the LAF guards a role that was developed in the context of legal statehood; but with Lebanon’s political system having divided sovereignties, the LAF actually needs collective agreement to act. Thus, short of direct confrontation, the Lebanese government cannot override Hezbollah’s functions without the party’s consent.

The second outcome of the 2006 War was the expansion of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) to monitor the newly created interim border (the Blue Line); this UN–Lebanese government agreement further constrained Hezbollah’s theater for using its military capacities. UNIFIL deployments increased the geographic buffer between Lebanon and Israel, but also increased tensions between the UN and Hezbollah over operational dimensions, such as posts, and personnel and arms movement. Some welcomed such moves as constraining the party’s freedoms29; Hezbollah meanwhile denied that it was “encircled in Southern Lebanon by the UNIFIL” and asserted its continued right to operate against Israeli occupation.30

Finally, while the post-2000 rules of engagement between Israel and Hezbollah were opaque (because the exit of Israel, as an occupying force, was contested) the Blue Line post-2006 made the withdrawal highly official, even if it did not produce a final demarcation. Hence Israel’s 2006 War (a) highlighted that the rules of the 1996 April Understanding were no longer in place, (b) clarified that Israel’s withdrawal in 2000 had indeed precipitated substantive changes in the rules of engagement; and (c) legitimated and made acceptable domestic criticism of Hezbollah’s sovereign potentialities in acting against Israel, and sharing the costs of its strategies with the Lebanese society and national institutions.

The Lebanon case demonstrates how attending to context, not categories, furnishes a better understanding of politics. Lebanon is not a model state: its political system is not one of centralized sovereignty that had eroded over time with external interventions and domestic conflicts; instead, Lebanon’s political system was pillared since its inception on divided legitimate sovereignties among religious confessional groups. In this context, actors like Hezbollah are encouraged to emerge; and when Hezbollah did emerge, it was accorded a legitimate right to participate as a corporate actor, with preferences and capacities. But actors’ potentialities are influenced by how strategy gets deployed vis-à-vis opponents or allies. Qualified distinctions drawn between state and nonstate actors are, therefore, appropriate and analytically useful. Analyzing Lebanon as a context is a confirmation of the argument that not all UN-recognized states are hospitable to an unproblematized analysis of actors. The idea of sovereign potentialities allows for an appreciation of complex political maneuvrings, without the necessary reference to legal recognition; this would be more enriching for analysis interested in agency, strategy, and identity.

Studying the sociological foundations of states in the Global South promises to offer more meaningful understandings of their current conditions, and it allows for more accurate means to evaluate the influences from nonstate actors. Kurdish parties, as was noted, have been approached by important actors (especially the United States and Turkey) as legitimate representatives. These parties have been invited to peacemaking talks, brought in as reliable partners in international military campaigns (after 2014 to fight the Islamic State), and traded with by states and companies; such parties have considerable sovereign potentialities. The Islamic State was itself able to achieve significant potentialities in a rather short time frame. Its foundational project was not shared by many, especially other states, and it did not have overwhelming support from its subject or those it subjugated, and it did use indiscriminate force and violence against the local population; these three dimensions of state-building, however, have been foundational for the modern state system in Europe, from which the current model state is extracted. Normatively neutral and sociologically inclined analysis, therefore, goes a long way to explain the international relations of the Middle East today. Specifically, such analysis connects today’s dynamics with historical projects that birthed regional states, especially in the light of the end of the Caliphate; with nationalist projects that offered alternatives; and the formation of some states in territorial spaces with founding ideas that did not necessarily resonate with local practices that had been in place for at least a few hundred years, as well as with populations’ aspirations. Such an approach not only helps to explain current instability in the Levant but also the various forms of sovereignties and rights that nonstate actors have in the Gulf, for example, and especially the tribe and the family. These examples highlight that regions, especially in the Global South, are today passing through state-formation processes that others concluded a while back; yet these processes are subject to approaches that do not seem to attend to their realities.

It is pertinent to conclude by highlighting an ongoing Lebanon-related process that provides insights on actors and contexts—that is, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) set up in 2009 to investigate the assassination of former Prime Minister Hariri (Riachy, 2010). STL operations expose the tensions that emerge over shared state functions. Specifically, Lebanon challenges processes of international monitoring and policing: who in Lebanon, for example, would execute an STL decision to apprehend suspects? By its constitution and laws, the “state” in Lebanon (its legal and legislative apparatuses) does not have full monopoly over legality; certain parts—especially around accepting arbitration—belong to sectarian communities’ consensus and sometimes unanimity, and not a state per se. In that sense, STL processes symbolize challenges facing international law and relevant executive bodies built around ideal-type Westphalian states when they come into contact with peculiar cases, such as Lebanon. It remains uncertain the lengths to which Lebanon’s government would be able to go to execute STL demands.


Thank you to Giulia El Dardiry, Mazhar Al-Zo’by, and Mark R. Brawley for comments on earlier drafts. I would also like to thank two anonymous reviewers and the series editor Bill Thompson for comments on the article.


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(2.) Adel al-Salimi and Delshad Abdallah, Iran threatens to invade Iraqi Kurdistan, Alsharq Alawsat newspaper (July 2, 2016). Retrieved from See also Ghaleb Dalay, Where do Kurdish Iranians fit in Iran’s Kurdish Policy? Huffington Post Arabic (September 18, 2016). Retrieved from

(3.) For different perspectives, see Khorsheed Dali, Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan: From Enmity to Partnership, Al Jazeera (January 17, 2010). Retrieved from See also “Kurdistan’s Government: Turkey’s Military Presence in Iraq was Approved by the Government,” Al Mayadeen (October 6, 2016). Retrieved from Al Mayadeen is generally associated with a pro-Iranian position.

(4.) Max Weber highlighted differences between juridical-legal attributes and the empirical foundations of statehood, as well as in how states could fail the test and have their ability to impose effective control challenged (Weber, 1948). “Failed states” hold on to their legal status even when failing the empirical test because the international system sustains its selective peer-based recognition (Jackson & Rosberg, 1982).

(5.) For example, in April 2014, Lebanon’s interior minister invited Hezbollah to attend a ministerial meeting designed to expand “state” control over Hezbollah territories, given its “reality on the ground.” See Hazem Al Amine, Wafiq Safa, Now Lebanon (April 24, 2014). Retrieved from Now Lebanon has been taken “temporarily off air.”

(6.) Absence of consensus has been a frequent occurrence since independence, reaching its height with the 1975–1990 War. Lebanon’s political elite actively prevents the construction of a professional governing body at an arm’s length from competing confessional communities. In effect, Lebanon has “official” offices that legislate but very weak apparatuses of the kind needed to enforce legislation.

(7.) Families play important roles in local areas, sometimes overriding confessional loyalties; these dynamics surface during intra-family feuds, vendettas, or over distribution of resources.

(8.) For measures of Hezbollah capacities see the official website of Hezbollah which has a drop down menu documents capabilities as well as significant operations against Israel, as well as those that have fallen since the Syrian revolt in 2011. Retrieved from

(9.) Hezbollah and the FPM signed a Memorandum of Understanding in 2006; for its text, see

(10.) On the Israeli recognition and dealing with Hezbollah, see Israel, Hezbollah swap prisoners, CNN (January 29, 2004). Retrieved from; on Israel’s perceptions of threat from Hezbollah and not Lebanon see Barak Ravid, Israel to UN: Hezbollah has Tripled its Land-to-sea Missile Arsenal, Haaretz (October 31, 2007). Retrieved from

(11.) Nasrallah interview in As-Safir (September 27, 2006).

(12.) See a 2008 Hezbollah-FPM meeting reported in one of Hezbollah’s media outlets. Retrieved from

(13.) Despite its appeal to a collective state-building effort, Hezbollah did not need to act to realize this vision. Given that in Lebanon the ideal Westphalian state is not a favorable model, state-building—in the sense of creating institutions that act at arm’s length from factions—is therefore also avoided because it risks diluting confessional turf. State-building discourses are deployed by all Lebanese actors, however, because they allow governments to procure international financial assistance.

(14.) See Sana’ Al Jack, Hezbollah Hands over its Dirty Laundry in Beirut to the Militas of AMAL and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (May 11, 2008). Retrieved from

(15.) Hezbollah issues periodic reports documenting and praising its military capacity and its assistance to allies. See such a report on one of its media outlets at

(16.) See a statement by Ali Larijani, Iran’s former Parliamentary Speaker. Retrieved from

(17.) Nasrallah to Assange: Hezbollah talked to Syria opposition; we want dialogue, US & Israel want civil war, Russia Today (April 17, 2012). Retrieved from

(18.) Maher al-Jabaari, The Syrian Issue and Resistance Media: A Reversal of Images? al-Quds al-Arabi (May 3, 2011). Retrieved from

(19.) See Hassan Nasrallah speech on Hezbollah’s main news medium, Al Manar. Retrieved from

(20.) Hezbollah initially denied accusations that it was fighting on the side of the Syrian government; see Wahid Saqr of I’itilaf Shabab al-Thawra (the Youth Union for the Revolt), Al-Arabiya (August 26, 2011). Retrieved from See also The Coordinating Body of the Syrian Revolution, Naharnet (January 18, 2012). Retrieved from

(21.) Nicola Nassif, Hezbollah: The Qusayr Battle is the first training in offence, Al-Akhbar (June 13, 2013). Retrieved from

(22.) In 2013, Israel bombed alleged weapons transfers to Hezbollah. See Nicolas Blanford, Israeli strike indicates Syria, Hezbollah may have crossed its “red line”, Christian Science Monitor (January 30, 2013). Retrieved from The Israeli hit confirms the ability of Hezbollah to maintain its complex strategizing vis-à-vis states in multiple war zones.

(23.) See Maya Gebeily, Social, Economic tolls wear down Dahiyeh residents, Now Lebanon (February 4, 2014). Retrieved from

(24.) See Majid Kayyali, The Syrian Revolt and problems of militarization, Al Jazeera (May 6, 2013). Retrieved from

(25.) See “An official complaint against Hezbollah in front of the UN Security Council,” Al Arabiya (February 26, 2016). Retrieved from See also an interview with the Yemeni ambassador to the UNSC, Al Arabiya (February 26, 2016). Retrieved from

(26.) Official Lebanese support of resistance operations—with an indirect reference to Hezbollah—have been codified in Parliament and the Council of Ministers meetings, and designated as a source of national pride as published in the Official Gazette, published by the Lebanese Council of Ministers on May 17, 2006. Retrieved from See report of an interview with Mustafa Nasser, Rafiq Hariri’s adviser (February 17, 2013). Retrieved from

(27.) It is significant to note that in the process of negotiating an end to the 2006 War, the UN and the United States (among others) engaged directly with Hezbollah as the pertinent actor in the field.

(28.) Many factors are responsible for the absence of the LAF, including arrangements between the Lebanese government and the PLO in the 1960s and American-brokered Syrian–Israeli deals (Salloukh, 2005).

(29.) In some confrontations between UNIFIL and locals, reports hint at Hezbollah provocations; see “UNIFIL: Our presence in the South of Lebanon is difficult had it not been for the locals’ help,” BBC Arabic (July 9, 2010), Retrieved from

(30.) Mohammad Raad, interview with NBN TV. Reported by the Central News Agency (September 19, 2006). Retrieved from