BEIRUT -- A boast by the leader of Hezbollah that he commands 100,000 fighters came as a surprise to many Lebanese, not least because it was addressed to a domestic audience rather than the militia's archenemy Israel.
Experts say the figure, which exceeds the size of Lebanon's army by about 15,000 troops, is an exaggeration. But Hassan Nasrallah's brag is likely to further ratchet up anxiety about a return to sectarian fighting in the small country roiled by a series of devastating crises.
“This is more about flexing Hezbollah’s muscles to demonstrate its power against other opposing political parties that want to undermine it,” said Dina Arakji, a researcher at Control Risks, a Dubai-based global risk consultancy group.
Nasrallah made the declaration Monday as part of the growing confrontation over a judicial investigation into last year’s massive Beirut port explosion that killed more than 215 people and devastated parts of the city. Hezbollah and its Shiite allies from the Amal Movement led by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri want the lead judge removed, accusing him of bias.
Deadly gunbattles broke out last week in Beirut during a demonstration organized by the two Shiite parties, after their supporters came under fire as they marched through Christian neighborhoods on their way to the Justice Palace. Clashes with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, reminiscent of the 1975-90 civil war, played out for several hours along a former front line separating the Muslim and Christian sectors of the city.
The Iran-backed Hezbollah accused the Christian Lebanese Forces party of starting the fighting in which seven Shiites were killed. Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea denied 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 reignite 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.
Most estimates for the number of fighters, however, range between 25,000 and 50,000, including 10,000 elite troops known as the Radwan Force and a separate reserve force. Hezbollah is known to have stepped up recruitment in the years after the 2006 war with Israel. In the past decade, however, it lost nearly 2,000 members while fighting in Syria alongside Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces in that country’s civil war.
Nasrallah said in his speech that those troops were armed and trained for warfare against Israel, not for an internal armed conflict. Arakji, the analyst, said it was significant that he chose a speech about the Lebanese Forces and last week’s Beirut violence to reveal the figure.
Hezbollah's claim about a 100,000-strong fighting force was particularly jarring because Lebanon's army only has about 85,000 troops. The country's financial crisis and currency collapse have severely impacted the military as an institution, and affected troop morale.
Last week’s fighting was a rare instance of members of Hezbollah clashing with internal rivals, something the group has repeatedly pledged to avoid.
The group’s reputation took a major hit in 2008, after its fighters overran predominantly Sunni Muslim neighborhoods in Beirut. It was considered the first time Hezbollah used its weapons internally since the end of the civil war in 1990. It came in response to the then-government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's decision to dismantle Hezbollah’s crucial secret telecommunication network.
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 Shiite constituency, like other Lebanese communities, has been thrown into poverty by the country’s severe financial crisis. More Lebanese regard the group, which once had popular support across religious sects for its resistance to Israel, as being part of a corrupt ruling class that drove the country to bankruptcy.
The group’s recent campaign against Tarek Bitar, the judge leading the port blast investigation, is further pitting the group against many Lebanese who support him and seek justice and accountability.
Civil strife pitting Hezbollah fighters against rival Lebanese groups would be disastrous for the group, which already lost popularity for its involvement in Syria’s civil war. Hezbollah officials have repeatedly said the group will not be pulled into an internal war — a weak point its opponents like the Lebanese Forces might be looking to exploit as a way to gain popularity ahead of general elections expected next spring.
Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese general who heads the Middle East Center for Studies and Political Research, said Hezbollah will avoid civil war at all costs.
Hezbollah could easily take control of most of Lebanon militarily within a week, but this would hurt the group in the long term, Jaber said. “Whenever they storm and control areas it will be the countdown for its (Hezbollah’s) existence, because their presence in Lebanon is a resistance movement and not a force to fight in a civil war," he said.
Sarit Zehavi, a former Israeli military intelligence officer who runs the Alma research institute in northern Israel, said Nasrallah greatly exaggerated his group’s military capabilities with the aim of intimidating his domestic rivals.
“His message is ‘I’m the strongest player in Lebanon'," Zehavi said.
She said it could backfire against Nasrallah and draw further criticism in Lebanon. “What he’s actually saying is ‘I’ve built up great power not only to fight Israel but to fight Lebanese’," she said.
Associated Press writer Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed reporting.