Hezbollah boasts of 100,000-strong force targeting enemies at home
BEIRUT (AP) – The Hezbollah leader’s boast that he has commanded 100,000 fighters surprised many Lebanese, not least because it was addressed to a national audience rather than the militia’s nemesis, Israel.
Experts say the figure, which exceeds the size of the Lebanese army by around 15,000 troops, is an exaggeration. But Hassan Nasrallah’s boasting is likely to further fuel concern over the return of sectarian fighting in the small country rocked by a series of devastating crises.
“It’s more about flexing the muscles of Hezbollah to demonstrate its power against other opposing political parties who want to undermine it,” said Dina Arakji, researcher at Control Risks, a global risk advisory group based in Dubai. .
Nasrallah made the statement on Monday amid growing confrontation over a judicial inquiry into the massive Beirut port explosion last year that killed more than 215 people and devastated parts of the city. Hezbollah and its Shiite allies in the Amal movement led by Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri want the chief judge to be dismissed, accusing him of bias.
Deadly shootings erupted last week in Beirut during a protest organized by the two Shiite parties, after their supporters were shot as they marched through Christian neighborhoods to the courthouse. Machine gun and rocket clashes, reminiscent of the 1975-90 civil war, unfolded for several hours along an old front line separating the Muslim and Christian sectors of the city.
Iran-backed Hezbollah accused the Lebanese Christian Forces party of starting the fighting in which seven Shiites were killed. Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea denied that his group was the aggressor, but said residents of Christian areas could not be blamed for defending themselves against armed Hezbollah militiamen marching through their neighborhoods.
In Monday’s speech, Nasrallah accused Geagea of seeking to rekindle a civil war and said he was forced to announce the number of Hezbollah fighters “not to threaten a civil war, but to prevent one” .
Hezbollah is a largely secretive organization and it is difficult to independently verify Nasrallah’s claim about the size of the force. Hezbollah rarely comments on its military structure, weapons, or number of fighters.
However, most estimates of the number of combatants are between 25,000 and 50,000, including 10,000 elite soldiers known as the Radwan Force and a separate reserve force. Hezbollah is known to have stepped up recruiting in the years following the 2006 war with Israel. Over the past decade, however, it has lost nearly 2,000 members as it fought in Syria alongside the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad in that country’s civil war.
Nasrallah said in his speech that these troops were armed and trained for war against Israel, not for internal armed conflict. Arakji, the analyst, said it was significant that he chose a speech on Lebanese Forces and violence in Beirut last week to reveal the figure.
Hezbollah’s claim of a 100,000-strong combat force was particularly shocking, as the Lebanese army only numbers around 85,000. The financial crisis and the collapse of the country’s currency severely affected the military as an institution and affected the morale of the troops.
The fighting last week was a rare instance of clashes between Hezbollah operatives and internal rivals, something the group has repeatedly vowed to avoid.
The group’s reputation took a hard hit in 2008, after its fighters invaded predominantly Sunni Muslim neighborhoods in Beirut. It was considered the first time that Hezbollah had used its weapons internally since the end of the civil war in 1990. It followed the decision of the then government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora to dismantle the secret telecommunications network. crucial Hezbollah.
Some observers say Nasrallah’s implicit threats reveal a degree of vulnerability of Hezbollah, even though it is the most dominant political and military force in Lebanon.
Hezbollah’s Shia constituency, like other Lebanese communities, has been plunged into poverty by the country’s severe financial crisis. More and more Lebanese see the group, which once enjoyed popular support from all religious sects for its resistance to Israel, as part of a corrupt ruling class that has driven the country into bankruptcy.
The group’s recent campaign against Tarek Bitar, the judge leading the investigation into the port explosion, pits the group even further against many Lebanese who support it and demand justice and accountability.
The civil war pitting Hezbollah fighters against rival Lebanese groups would be disastrous for the group, which has already lost popularity for its involvement in the civil war in Syria. Hezbollah officials have repeatedly stated that the group will not be drawn into an internal war – a weak spot that opponents like the Lebanese Forces may seek to exploit as a means of gaining popularity ahead of the general elections scheduled for next spring.
Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese general who heads the Middle East Center for Political Studies and Research, said Hezbollah would avoid civil war at all costs.
Hezbollah could easily take military control of most of Lebanon in a week, but that would hurt the group in the long run, Jaber said. “Every time they storm and control areas, it will be the countdown to its (Hezbollah’s) existence, for their presence in Lebanon is a resistance movement and not a force to fight in a civil war.” , did he declare.
Sarit Zahavi, a former Israeli military intelligence officer who heads the Alma research institute in northern Israel, said Nasrallah dramatically exaggerated his group’s military capabilities in an effort to intimidate his domestic rivals.
“His message is ‘I am the strongest player in Lebanon’,” Zahavi said.
She said this could backfire on Nasrallah and draw further criticism in Lebanon. “What he’s actually saying is’ I have built a great power not only to fight Israel, but also to fight the Lebanese,” she said.
Associated Press writer Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed reporting.