Hezbollah’s entanglement in Syria has left the Lebanese Shi’ite organization in a more vulnerable position than at any time in its history.
Sunni rebels and radical jihadists are waging an existential war against Hezbollah throughout Syria. Hezbollah’s invasion of Syria has brought the conflict – including car bombings and rocket attacks – back home to Lebanese villages and south Beirut.
Middle East experts weighed in on the possible demise of Hezbollah. Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University and the head of the Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor, told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday, “Hezbollah is in the deepest crisis it has experienced since the founding 30 years ago."
"The myths of military invincibility and of a Lebanese militia defending against Israel have both disappeared, exposing the foundation of brutal terror exercised on behalf its Iranian and Syria allies,” he said.
An article in Foreign Affairs last week asked in its subheadline “Could the Bombing in Beirut Spell the End of the Shia Group?” Bilal Y. Saab, the executive director and head of research of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, argued in the article that segments of Hezbollah’s Lebanese Shi’ite base may drift away. “For the first time in Hezbollah’s history, this special bond is in danger,” Saab wrote.
However, speaking from the US, Phillip Smyth, a research specialist on Hezbollah affiliated with the University of Maryland, told the Post that he does not see the Shi’ite community “turning on Hezbollah.” Smyth said Hezbollah has a “good handle on the Lebanese Shi’ite community” and many Shi’ites are buying into their lines about the conflict centered on the fight against Sunni extremism.
Smyth, who has extensively analyzed Hezbollah casualties in Syria, does not believe Hezbollah is going to implode.
He estimates the number of Hezbollah losses is “closer to 200 at the very least because of the heavy fighting.” Hezbollah’s growing missile arsenal since the end of the Second Lebanon War (2006) with Israel is believed to be between 60,000 and 100,000. From the perspective of Israel’s defense establishment, Hezbollah missile sites in southern Lebanon remain a grave security threat.
Steinberg said, “Without protection long provided by [Syrian President Bashar] Assad’s army, Hezbollah’s missile arsenal will be vulnerable, and a loss of legitimacy in Lebanon, as well as its footholds in Europe, will add to the pressure. Nasrallah knows Hezbollah may follow the trajectory of other totalitarian movements, including the Soviet regime, and disappear into the dustbin of history.”
The EU slapped Hezbollah’s military wing with a terrorist designation last month because Hezbollah operatives killed five Israeli tourists and their Bulgarian bus driver in July 2012.
Many counter-terrorism experts have pointed to the sine qua non of Hezbollah’s existence, namely the Islamic Republic of Iran, as the ultimate pressure point to dismantle Hezbollah.
Smyth said Hezbollah’s “religious orders are coming from leading ayatollahs” and Hezbollah is merely an extension of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The long-term effort to strip Hezbollah of its terrorism agenda and political muscle within Lebanon would have to entail eradicating the Iran- Hezbollah connection. In short, for Hezbollah to implode the mullahs’ regime would have to experience its demise.