In a lengthy report published by the New Yorker magazine this week, the famous journalist Dexter Filkins wrote about the growing concerns within Hezbollah circles about the ongoing civil war in Syria, where the Assad regime is fighting for survival with the support of its allies in Iran, Lebanon, and Iraq.
Filkins, who spent some time in Beirut’s southern suburbs and in the border regions adjacent to Syria, was able to talk with some Hezbollah fighters and even attended the memorial services of some elements who had died while fighting alongside the Syrian regime in its efforts to quell the uprising.
The report quotes one Hezbollah commander as saying: “If Bashar goes down we’re next”. Elsewhere, Filkins quotes another leader acknowledging that a Hezbollah commander has died in Syria “performing his jihad duties”. Later on, another party source contends, “The Arab countries are spending money to destroy Syria and Hezbollah.”
The picture portrayed by Filkins reflects a party feeling threatened and anxious as the Syrian warfare approaches its own strongholds. There is a state of self-containment and mistrust among the Hezbollah leadership, with nihilistic tendencies dominating all discussions and talk of a final battle and death before surrender. For more than two years Hezbollah the party has tried to distance itself—in the media—from the course of events in neighboring Syria, while its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has launched statements in support of his Syrian ally, calling for “resistance” and opposition to the Israeli enemy. However, this rhetoric has not succeeded in justifying Nasrallah’s position towards the human suffering that the Syrian regime has caused.
Heroic Hezbollah, not anymore?
Inside Lebanon, Hezbollah gained the acceptance and appreciation of some due to its “resistance” work and its talk of liberating the land, and its popularity rose sharply following the Israeli withdrawal in 2000. The party reached heroic status in some parts of the Arab world even after igniting a costly thirty day war with Israel in 2006. However, part of this burgeoning popularity was subjected to a strong setback after Hezbollah’s military invasion of Beirut and other areas in 2008, which some saw as an attempt to intimidate the Sunni community and the party’s opponents from other sects. At the time, Hezbollah justified its actions by describing them as a response to attempts to link the party to several assassinations that had recently been carried out against opposition Lebanese figures, most notably Rafik Hariri, the late Lebanese prime minister. Even so, some popular circles remained understanding or silently accepting of Hezbollah’s position, but since the outbreak of the events in Syria the party has found itself in an unprecedented moral dilemma.
The overwhelming tendency of the Arab street sympathizes with the Syrian demonstrations, and Hezbollah’s inexcusable stance alongside the Syrian regime has generated a kind of frustration and anger towards the party. It seems that Hezbollah has decided to stand in line with a regime that kills its own citizens, and has even opted to send its own elements to participate in the civil war of a neighboring country. When the so-called “Arab Spring” broke out, the Hezbollah leadership adopted the official Iranian stance in support of regime change, but as the uprisings continued Syria changed the rules of the game, whereby Hezbollah sided with the Assad regime at the expense of the unarmed Syrian citizens. This can be considered the critical moment when the party lost its regional popularity, and transformed into a sectarian and ideological opponent for broad sectors of the region. There is no doubt that Hezbollah is currently going through its most difficult days. It is no longer considered a hero in the Arab world but rather the odious enemy of the masses themselves, who used to boast of the party’s achievements a few years ago. These losses—at least for the foreseeable future—could change the position of Hezbollah and its forces not only in Lebanon but in the whole region; a region that is strongly against the party’s participation in the killing of innocent people. Perhaps Hezbollah’s leaders never imagined that all their achievements would one day transform into a heavy burden, but the most important question today is: What is the future of Hezbollah in light of what has happened?
To begin with, it must be noted that Hezbollah, despite its grave losses, still has some allies both inside and outside of Lebanon, particularly among some minority circles who feel threatened. Above this, the party boasts an arsenal of weapons and popular Shi’ite support, both of which encourage it to pursue military force within its immediate surroundings. But nevertheless, these factors are being genuinely under threat with the Syrian armed opposition forcing Hezbollah to defend its border positions. In the event of the fall of the Assad regime, there are no guarantees that the war will not spread towards Hezbollah’s areas of influence inside Lebanon, and the party could soon find itself confronted by many forces greater than it. Perhaps it is necessary to consider the party’s alternatives following the fall of its traditional ally, which used to provide it with a safe passage financially and militarily from Iran.
Here we should not forget that Hezbollah was founded before the consolidation of Iranian-Syrian relations, and that the party itself originally fought battles with the Syrians to impose itself as a military reality parallel to—but independent of—the Syrian army.
During the years that preceded the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon, Hezbollah used to declare that it alone had the final say in what was going on. Nevertheless, the party—which was established mainly for military purposes—has been unable, ever since dominating the Lebanese government in 2004, to put itself forward as a political alternative to the Lebanese state, despite the best efforts of its Iranian stepfather. Perhaps this is what is concerning Hezbollah at the current moment, namely that it will be forced to change its radical course to become more conciliatory and accepting in the Lebanese environment, in order to regain its popularity in the wider region. In other words, Hezbollah today has to choose between fighting a regional war to regain what it has lost in terms of its moral and military presence, or to follow the “peaceful” road and change its philosophy, if not its leadership, which has lost all its former legitimacy. At this moment, no one is able to predict, but it would be surprising if Hezbollah remained as it is after all that has happened. We have become accustomed to the party—as an extension of Iran—changing its policies and even its leaders in order to protect Iranian interests first and foremost, and only then the interests of the party.
Some might think that it would be difficult for Iran to get rid of a charismatic personality like Hassan Nasrallah, but there are historical precedents to suggest that the Iranian regime does not mind sacrificing its men in order to preserve its interests. Perhaps such a scenario is unlikely at the current moment, where it can be said that Nasrallah has transformed into a symbol for the party and the Shi’ite’s struggle for “resistance”. However, past experience suggests that the removal of certain personalities does not mean their retirement but rather their assassination, as regimes only seek to protect their interests, not their loyal men.
Hezbollah warns from al-Nusra
A Hezbollah activist recently appeared on television warning of the danger of the Al-Nusra Front in Syria and its alleged links to Al-Qaeda, claiming that this is evidence of the armed Syrian uprising deviating from its course. The activist then accused Gulf entities of supporting a “Sunni jihad” threatening minorities.
In truth it is interesting that Hezbollah leaders have begun to scaremonger by portraying others as jihadists, while the same rhetoric applies to them.
During his last recorded appearance, Nasrallah argued that his party would not tolerate any attempts to curb its influence, and that it would fight to the end. There is no doubt that Nasrallah meant what he said, or that he is ready to sacrifice the innocent in order to retain the influence of his party, just as Assad is doing now. Indeed it is sad that those currently in control of the fate of Syria and Lebanon are people who believe that when it comes to history, they will have the last word.
Adel Al Toraifi is the Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat and Editor-in-Chief of Al Majalla magazine. As a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs his research focuses on Saudi-Iranian relations, foreign policy decision making in the Gulf and IR theories on the Middle East. Mr Al-Toraifi is currently a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science.