As the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria violently struggles for its life, observers of the region are wondering about the future of Iran’s alliances in the eastern Mediterranean. In particular, questions abound about what lies ahead for Iran’s primary regional proxy, the Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah, which for decades had relied on the Assad regime for arms supplies and political and military backing.
With the regional balance of power undergoing a potentially dramatic shift, the publication of “Warriors of God,” by journalist Nicholas Blanford, comes at a rather opportune moment. Blanford, the Beirut correspondent for the Times of London and the Christian Science Monitor, has been following Hezbollah in Lebanon since the 1990s. As a longtime resident of Lebanon, he has developed an intimate knowledge of the country. He has also built personal relations and acquired access to Hezbollah officials and soldiers.
“Warriors of God” doesn’t set out to dissect Hezbollah’s ideology or organizational structure as other books have done. Instead, Blanford provides a loose chronological account of Hezbollah’s war with Israel since the early 1980s and all the way to the present.
The book’s primary interest is in the group’s military evolution over the decades, including its adjustments and preparations for further conflict following the most recent war with Israel in the summer of 2006. For this task, Blanford relies on his familiarity with the terrain and a wealth of anecdotes (if often bordering on the hagiographic), as well as quotes gleaned from his interviews with various Hezbollah officials, field commanders and fighters. He also sprinkles in the personal stories of the Shi’ite residents of south Lebanon.
The result is an account that offers an intimate window into Hezbollah’s theater of operations, especially in south Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley. The reader is afforded a rare look, accentuated by testimony from participants, into various aspects of the group, including Hezbollah training — both military and ideological. Blanford relays first-hand accounts of participants in Hezbollah’s training camps and takes his readers into its bunker network in south Lebanon, which was uncovered during the 2006 war. Those interested in Hezbollah’s military tactics and its procurement of weapons from Iran will find useful material in the book.
However, Blanford’s analysis is sometimes lacking. He views the relationship between Hezbollah and Iran largely through the lens of the conflict with Israel, with particular emphasis on Iran’s “deterrence posture” and “retaliatory options.” In his discussion of Hezbollah’s early history, he fails to mention the group’s infamous self-description, emblazoned on its flag, as the “Islamic Revolution in Lebanon” — an unmistakable marker not only of its mission and identity, but also of its genesis in the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Blanford writes that “the task for which [Hezbollah] was born” is “confronting the Israeli occupation.” This is not only too simplistic, it ignores the early history of the movement.
Hezbollah emerged out of an inter-Iranian power struggle between two factions of the anti-shah opposition: the Islamic Republic Party (IRP) and the Liberation Movement of Iran (LMI). When the Shah was ousted, these factions fought bitterly over the direction of the revolution and its alliances abroad.
Both factions had cadres operating and training in Lebanon in the mid-1970s. One close associate of the LMI was Shi’ite cleric Musa Sadr, who, along with a founding member of the faction, Mostafa Chamran, formed the Amal movement. The rival IRP was composed of students and protégés of Ayatollah Khomeini who were deeply committed to his ideology. They viewed the LMI as a threat to the Islamic Revolution, and through their control of the Office of Liberation Movements — the predecessor of the infamous Quds Force, a special unit in the Revolutionary Guards Corps responsible for overseas operations, — cloned their structures in Lebanon as a means to counter Sadr and the LMI and extend their own influence. They called themselves Hezbollah.
While such history may be beyond the purview of this book, Blanford continues to waffle on Hezbollah’s identity today. He notes that scholars are divided over how to view the group; on one side are those who see it in “Lebanoncentric” terms, and on the other are those who believe it is a “tool of Iranian power projection.” His position is that the reality lies “somewhere in between.” He acknowledges Hezbollah’s deep operational ties and enduring ideological commitment to Iran, but rejects the position that it is an Iranian “puppet” or “Trojan horse” as derision by the group’s opponents. Rather, he maintains, the group “long ago outgrew the ragtag Iranian proxy militia status of its earliest years.” Hezbollah is surely not a ragtag group, but it was and remains an organic extension of Iran.
It is also curious that Blanford avoids calling Hezbollah members militiamen, which would imply the group was just another of Lebanon’s civil war-era militias required to disarm as part of the accord that ended the war. Instead, he refers to Hezbollah members as fighters, combatants or warriors, which aligns with the group’s preference to be portrayed as a resistance movement.
The book’s primary weakness is that it uncritically reiterates aspects of Hezbollah’s narrative and leaves quotes by its officials to stand on their own, without analytical evaluation. For instance, at one point Blanford reproduces a claim by the group’s chief that he had turned down an attempt by the United States to “buy off Hezbollah with hundreds of millions of dollars in exchange for the party’s renouncing its struggle against Israel and dismantling the Islamic Resistance.” This dubious claim is left to stand on Hezbollah’s authority alone. The only reference to back it up is an interview with the group’s secretary general.
Although “Warriors of God” is likely to be an important source on the subject for years to come, a comprehensive critical history of Hezbollah has yet to be written in English.
Tony Badran is a research fellow focusing on Hezbollah, Lebanon and Syria at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a non-partisan policy institute in Washington.