‘Without a shot’: How a local warlord aims to break Hezbollah’s hold

Why We Wrote This

Guns or butter? Hezbollah made its name fighting Israel and inspiring supporters. But in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, a local warlord says what the people need now are services and better lives.

Aziz Taher/Reuters
Demonstrators block a main road during an antigovernment protest Oct. 19, 2019, in Jdita in the Bekaa Valley, a neglected area of Lebanon where the Shiite party Hezbollah has influence and military bases.

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Al-Hajj Mohamed Ja’afar led 1,000 armed members of his tribe into battle in Syria, where his militia fought with Russian support against Islamic State jihadists. He was fighting on the same side of the Syrian civil war as the militarily and politically powerful Hezbollah, but at home in Lebanon they are rivals.

Since last year Mr. Ja’afar has vowed to take on Lebanon’s political elite and improve people’s lives in the long-neglected Bekaa Valley. And he sees an opportunity in the anti-corruption protests that have targeted Lebanon’s sectarian leadership. All he needs, he says, is foreign financial support to “change the calculations” of Bekaa residents, and turn them away from Hezbollah.

Mr. Ja’afar says Hezbollah, which was founded as an anti-Israel resistance force, is worthy of respect, but he has different priorities.

“If I get the resources, I can take the whole area not by fighting, but by giving [people] what they need. They don’t have schools. They don’t have food,” he says. “By receiving support, we can tell Hezbollah, ‘You are on your own. You want to liberate Palestine? Go ahead. We want better lives for our families.’”

Al-Hajj Mohamed Ja’afar looks more like an unassuming businessman than a powerful Lebanese Shiite tribal warlord hunting for an infusion of cash to challenge Hezbollah in his native Bekaa Valley.

Interviewed in Qasr – a village on the northeast edge of Lebanon overlooking farms, orchards, and Syrian battlefields – Mr. Ja’afar is clean shaven and dressed in a dark blue windbreaker, dress trousers, and sensible shoes.

But from their homes in a region of Lebanon known more for smuggling and lethal tribal disputes he led 1,000 armed members of his Ja’afar tribe into battle in Syria. His militia fought as a unit of Syria’s Russia-backed V Corps. With Russian air support, they helped oust Islamic State jihadists from Palmyra in 2016, and later fought in Deir Ezzor.

All told, Mr. Ja’afar lost 47 men in Syria, and says he “won many awards” from Russian commanders and kudos from President Vladimir Putin. Video footage on his phone shows him in Syria – wearing the same Everyman windbreaker – inspecting military hardware and meeting Russian commanders.

But since last year he has vowed to return to Lebanon to take on the political elite and improve lives in the long-neglected Bekaa Valley, where the Shiite militia Hezbollah has heavy influence, as well as its training bases.

Mr. Ja’afar sees an opportunity in the nationwide protests that erupted on Oct. 17 and have targeted Lebanon’s chronic sectarian and corrupt ruling system – tainting Hezbollah along the way. With foreign financial support, he says, he could “change the calculations” of Bekaa residents, and turn them away from Hezbollah.

“We aren’t asking to fight Hezbollah head on; the whole country knows how [worthy of] respect they are,” says Mr. Ja’afar, fingering a pair of black prayer beads with silver overlay as cigars from a humidor are offered to guests.

“By receiving support, we can tell Hezbollah, ‘You are on your own. You want to liberate Palestine? Go ahead. We want better lives for our families,’” says Mr. Ja’afar.

What the people need

He says 1,500 members of his tribe fight with Hezbollah for $600 per month, “but come back from Syria broke. They keep you poor.” He says if he had the resources he could “guarantee” that such Hezbollah fighters would cross to his side.

“If I get the resources, I can take the whole area not by fighting, but by giving [people] what they need. They don’t have schools. They don’t have food,” says Mr. Ja’afar. “I will not go on the stand and badmouth Hezbollah, but [do it] through reforms. If that happens, Hezbollah will be finished in this area.”

Mr. Ja’afar claims he could attract 10,000 fighters to his cause. The Bekaa clans they would come from – including his own – have long had a love-hate relationship with Hezbollah.

The Bekaa Valley produced many of the original fighters for Hezbollah when it was founded to fight Israel in 1982, though the Shiite militia’s primary recruiting pool has shifted to its strongholds in southern Lebanon, adjacent to the front with Israel, and in Beirut’s southern suburbs.

While his Dir al-Watan (Homeland Shield) militia fought alongside Hezbollah in Syria – with government troops, Iranian advisers, and Russian support – Mr. Ja’afar says he was warned in 2017 by a Russian officer of a Hezbollah plot to assassinate him. Possibly, he suggests, because his stature had grown into a political threat.

Syrian Central Military Media,/AP/File
Hezbollah fighters advance up a hill holding Lebanese, Syrian, and their own flags in the mountainous region of Qalamoun, Syria, Aug 28, 2017.

Already, the militia leader is wanted by the Lebanese government for a blood feud that started with the killing of his son at a Lebanese Army intelligence checkpoint in 2016. He reportedly orchestrated a revenge killing of the perpetrator near Damascus.

But strategically, Mr. Ja’afar sees Hezbollah as overstretched beyond Syria in Iraq and Yemen, and therefore vulnerable at home.

Hezbollah “got too big”

“Now Hezbollah is hanging by a thread, anyone can come along” to challenge them, he says. “The Russians told me, ‘If anything goes wrong in Lebanon, then Hezbollah will take over the country.’ But the Russians are not studying the tribes.

“Hezbollah can be brought down without a shot, if you bring factories and resources and what people want,” asserts Mr. Ja’afar. “The bigger they are, the harder they fall. They don’t care about people. They got too big, and they are corrupt. ... They eat the whole loaf and give you a crumb, that is their tactic. We want to change that.”

And there is much to change, in a region renowned for smuggling of all kinds, and lawlessness.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

“For a while now, there’s been resentment about the fact that particular area feels marginalized, both in terms of development and economy, and that is why these grumblings come about,” says Aymenn al-Tamimi, a Ph.D. researcher at Swansea University in Wales, who has interviewed Mr. Ja’afar several times.

In those interviews, Mr. Ja’afar has said his forces “are available for the Syrian command.” Every time he mentions Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, he uses the phrase “may God protect him.” In 2018, he told Mr. Tamimi that the Syrian government was “victorious over global imperialism – that is, America – and more than 80 countries,” funded by Persian Gulf states.

Yet now he says he is looking for foreign support and wouldn’t rule out Gulf or even British cash.

“They want to set up their own party to represent their interests, not ideologically breaking from the resistance axis as a whole but trying to better represent the interests of that area,” says Mr. Tamimi, noting that state services are poor and that electricity came no more than six hours at a time during his visits.

“But I don’t think it’s going to happen immediately, because setting up a political party in Lebanon requires money, and it’s difficult for new names to break in,” he says. “The problem is you can talk big like that, but you need far more resources to set up your own party and challenge Amal and Hezbollah.”

A weakened narrative

Still, Hezbollah has been one of the targets of Lebanese protesters who view them as part of a sectarian ruling elite that has done little to prevent the suffering of their fellow citizens. The raison d’être for Hezbollah’s founding – ending Israeli occupation and defending Lebanon – has receded since the last Hezbollah-Israeli war in 2006.

“It’s becoming harder and harder for Hezbollah to sustain the resistance narrative ... when years pass and there’s no conflict with Israel,” says Nicholas Blanford, a Beirut-based fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of “Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel.”

“This is particularly true in Beirut and the Bekaa Valley, which are geographically distant from the front with Israel,” says Mr. Blanford, who has interviewed Mr. Ja’afar several times. “These areas were never really occupied anyway. In the Bekaa there are very tribal dynamics, where the tribes come first. So Hezbollah has always had trouble trying to placate the tribes.”

And that trouble will continue, if Mr. Ja’afar has his way – and can find any money. He says his ambitions reach beyond the forested hillsides of the western Bekaa into the rest of Lebanon, to remove “these politicians who made it, upon the blood of the people.”

“They brainwashed these people and use sectarian issues,” says Mr. Ja’afar about Lebanon’s competing ruling elites, echoing the sentiment of many protesters. “If they have a problem among themselves, the Lebanese people pay dearly. When they become friends, the people again suffer.”

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