Skip to main content

New Hezbollah museum puts spotlight on Syria intervention

New Hezbollah museum puts spotlight on Syria intervention
7 min read
28 September, 2023
In-depth: The newly opened museum in Baalbek showcases Hezbollah's military intervention in Syria. Analysts say it is part of a strategy to define the group's role in the region and influence its domestic image among supporters.

Tourists arrive in hordes each year to Lebanon’s city of Baalbek, eager to see its ancient Roman temples.

But today, another attraction is drawing in hundreds more - an extensive display of Hezbollah tanks, drones, and rockets, part of the militant group's newly-opened 'Jihad' Museum. 

As the road to the museum winds up from the well-known Temple of Bacchus, the yellow and green flag of Hezbollah crops up at every turn. Eventually, the road reaches the hill’s summit and the museum comes into view, marking the same place where the group carried out its first military exercises in 1982. 

Visitors can then proceed down a canon-lined promenade to an arsenal of nearly 100 weapons, a collection the group acquired during Israel’s occupation of Lebanon and through its military involvement in Syria, and some even manufactured in Lebanon.

With an estimated stockpile of 130,000 rockets and missiles, and some 20,000 active fighters and 20,000 reserves, the Iran-backed Shia group has risen to become the world’s most heavily armed non-state actor.

The weapons have elicited controversy among Hezbollah’s adversaries, the party the only faction allowed to keep them after the end of the country’s 1975-1990 civil war.

A recent gunfight between Christian inhabitants of Kahaleh and Hezbollah members in August after a truck carrying weapons for the group overturned in the village further added to calls for their disarmament.

The museum spans 10,452 square meters, symbolising the area of Lebanon (10,452 square kilometres). “Here is the dignity of Lebanon,” Jawad Fadel Tlais, one of the museum’s managers, said with his arms outstretched wide. 

Live Story

The Jihad Museum is Hezbollah’s second, highlighting the group’s “resistance” against Israel, but also showcasing Hezbollah’s military role in Syria. 

“The museum is a curation of linkages between totally unlinked conflicts,” Mohanad Hage Ali, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, told The New Arab. The group declares the expulsion of Islamic State (IS) militants from Lebanon in 2017 as the “second liberation”, in addition to the “first liberation” of the country from the Israelis in 2000.

“Connecting the Syrian conflict with the one in the south [against Israel] helps the organisation later on as it seeks to justify interventions in other places,” Hage Ali stated. 

Meanwhile, at the museum, local children from Baalbek come to see the weapons. They pretend to drive the tanks, practice shooting the rapid-fire machine guns, and take selfies with the nine Lebanon-made drones mounted in the air.

Tlais noted Hezbollah’s aim to break down the “boundaries of fear”. “The children can have fun with the weapons,” he said. “It’s like a playground for free.”

A young Palestinian who lives in Baalbek told TNA while playing with the weapons: “I feel that we’ve won [against Israel]”. 

Hezbollah's newly opened museum in Baalbeck. [TNA/Hanna Davis]

'Balancing act'

The plans for the 'Jihad' Museum are extensive, Tlais said, noting that by next summer visitors will be able to purchase Hezbollah merchandise at a gift shop and eat at a restaurant overlooking the farms of the Bekaa Valley. Plans are even in the works to build a cable car, offering tourists an in-the-air ride from the Roman ruins. 

Meanwhile, Lebanon’s national museum in the capital, Beirut, is struggling to keep the lights on — the state coffers drained from three years of an unprecedented economic crisis.

“The opening of the [Jihad] Museum is representative of the current landscape in Lebanon,” Hage Ali said. “The Lebanese government is failing to maintain the national museum - a resemblance of the country’s common identity - while there is a party [Hezbollah] that is opening a new museum and maintaining multiple other culture projects,” he said. 

“Hezbollah is defining how Lebanese Shia view themselves and their role in the region, at the expense of the Lebanese national project, or what’s left of it,” Hage Ali added. 

Hezbollah began as a movement of armed resistance to the Israeli occupation but has developed into one of the country’s strongest political parties and has dedicated immense resources to “sites of cultural production”, like the museum, Mona Harb, a professor of politics and urban studies, writes in a co-authored paper published in the Arab Studies Journal. 

But most of the party’s investments have been concentrated in the country’s southern regions, while the Shia populations of Baalbek and in the surrounding Bekaa valley have been historically marginalised.

Live Story

“The opening of the Jihadi Museum is a kind of balancing act within the Shia community,” Hage Ali commented, indicating Hezbollah’s intent to put more resources into the Bekaa. 

The party’s representation has also thus far been “monopolised” by the southern Shias, Hage Ali added. For instance, Hezbollah party leader Hassan Nasrallah and his deputy Naim Qassim are both from the south, as well as Lebanon’s speaker of parliament Nabih Berri, who has been in office now for thirty years and counting. 

“This exacerbates the feelings of marginalisation [in the Bekaa],” he said, whose residents already face higher poverty and more developmental setbacks than their southern counterparts.

A collection of rockets and military vehicles on display. [TNA/Hanna Davis]

Syria intervention 

Inside a camouflaged-covered simulation of a military hideout, museum visitors can stroll through a timeline of Hezbollah’s war triumphs. Mixed into the events depicting Hezbollah’s civil war victories and battles against Israeli incursions are markers of the group’s operations in Syria. 

For instance, highlighted is the 2013 Battle of Qusair, a decisive victory for the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and its Hezbollah allies, which stimulated the group’s commitment to an offensive military campaign in Syria.

From a military standpoint, Hezbollah has been significantly strengthened by the intervention in Syria - a role the group would like to maintain. The war has allowed the party to significantly increase recruitment and expand its proxy base, as well as learn from the military techniques and strategies of the Russian army, according to a report by the Foundation for Research Strategy (FRS). 

“Their presence in Syria, and then Iraq, turned them into a de facto leader in the region,” Souhayb Jawhar, a Lebanese researcher of Islamist political movements, told TNA.

Iran has also used the war to massively increase Hezbollah’s weapons stockpiles, bolstering the group’s regional clout and facilitating their operations in not just Syria, but also Iraq and Yemen. 

“Today, they are the most prominent field and political force in Syria,” Jawhar stated, where “the battles have not ended”. 

Live Story


However, Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria has not gone without casualties. Hezbollah’s death toll in the Syria war is higher than in their fight against Israel, estimated to surpass 2,000 to 2,500 in 2017, according to the FRS report. 

Along the windy road to the Jihad Museum is a graveyard for fallen Hezbollah soldiers, where their family members mourn the deceased “martyrs”. Hezbollah leader Nasrallah at the start of the Syrian intervention in 2014 reportedly made a trip to the Bekaa to pay tribute to some of the families who had lost their loved ones, and to calm their anger, according to a Washington Post article at the time. 

The museum is also a way to honour the “sacrifices and investments of the Beqaa and Baalbek populations”, Harb said. “It’s a way to show gratitude for the loyalty and the mutual respect for the people in the ranks”. She added, “There wouldn’t be a jihad if there weren’t jihadis”.

[TNA/Hanna Davis]

“They’re [Hezbollah] looking towards Syria as a place where their strategic interests lie,” Hage Ali stated. “And they want to show it’s worth sacrificing for,” he added. Thus the group has played on the concept of ‘jihad’ (an exertion or struggle as an obligation for all Muslims) in the fight against Zionism and the protection of Shia shrines and heritage in Syria and elsewhere.  

“They are coming up with a similar narrative in which they define their conflict as one,” Hage Ali added. “But commemorating that and making it sort of a holy war, it helps to understand the organisation’s trajectory,” he added, noting their calls for engagement outside the Israel-Palestine conflict, in countries like Yemen and Iraq. 

Back at the museum, its manager, Tlais, stands next to the row of Hezbollah flags, which billow in the breeze. “Hezbollah is protecting the people,” he said, “If it weren’t for Hezbollah, Daesh [IS] and Israel would be here.”

“Imagine someone comes to your house to kill you. Then, someone comes to stop him and save you - he is Hezbollah. For me and for the people of Lebanon,” he stated. “How can you not like this man?” 

Hanna Davis is a freelance journalist reporting on politics, foreign policy, and humanitarian affairs.

Follow her on Twitter: @hannadavis341