''Resistance'' facing resistance


At the beginning of the year, the Iran-led rejectionist axis was flying high. Hezbollah''s long campaign to wrest control of the Lebanese state from the March 14 coalition finally reached fruition, while the downfall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak effectively decommissioned Iran''s principal Arab nemesis. The outbreak of the Syrian uprising and the recent indictments in the Rafik Hariri murder naming Hezbollah members have dramatically altered this picture, highlighting the limitations and vulnerabilities of the Party of God and its Iranian patrons.

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A strategic ally of Iran for three decades, the Syrian regime had been instrumental in Hezbollah''s emergence as a fearsome paramilitary force. Its overland transshipment of weapons, intelligence cooperation and logistical support are vital, as was evident in Hezbollah’s 2006 war with Israel. During that conflict, Syria provided critical strategic depth to Hezbollah as well as shelter to Shia refugees. 


If Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah had any doubts about whether the fall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would impact Syria''s patronage of Hezbollah, they were answered early on.  Nasrallah’s pictures and Hezbollah flags have been burned, along with those of Iran, by Syrian protesters, particularly in Sunni-majority areas. This hostility has only been exacerbated by Nasrallah’s repeated expressions of unqualified support for the Syrian president. 

As Assad’s predicament worsens, the likelihood of increased Turkish involvement—perhaps with Saudi and Qatari blessing—in shaping a new political order in Syria will further complicate the strategic picture for Tehran, as it finds itself competing with Ankara over Syria’s place on the regional chessboard. Perhaps that is why Syrian and Hezbollah propaganda have recently been eager to assert that whatever reforms Assad may need to implement to stabilize the situation, he will not abandon support for the “Resistance.”

There have been several reports of Iranian assistance to the beleaguered Assad, especially in the form of advisors and technological know-how for better tracking and suppressing online communication between dissidents. While there have been unconfirmed rumors of Hezbollah fighters taking part in paramilitary reprisals against demonstrators, much more pertinent has been the speculation that Hezbollah will seek to reshuffle the political cards in Syria and bolster Assad''s legitimacy by igniting a war with Israel.

There is some logic to this.  Hezbollah has been known to launch attacks against Israel for diversionary purposes, and Assad has long used the threat from Israel to justify martial law.  However, the uprising has demonstrated that the political utility of anti-Zionism has declined greatly for the regime.  Assad''s effort to capitalize on anti-Israel sentiments by dispatching Palestinian refugees to swarm the Golan Heights on Nakba Day (May 15, commemorating Israel''s establishment) and Naksa Day (June 5, commemorating the start of the 1967 war) failed to achieve any tangible results on the Syrian street. 

It is instructive to revisit Hezbollah’s performance on those days. On Nakba Day, Nasrallah synchronized with the Syrian command and orchestrated a similar march to the Israeli-Lebanese border. However, on Naksa Day, the Lebanese army—doubtless with Hezbollah’s acquiescence—prevented a repeat by blocking any advance to the border. On that day, Assad stood alone, as the limit of Hezbollah’s maneuverability was exposed.

Moreover, Nasrallah is keenly aware that igniting hostilities with Israel would result in massive retaliation. He also has good reason to question whether the unrest in Syria has compromised its ability to effectively support Hezbollah in the event of war with Israel. While recent French and Israeli reports have noted that Hezbollah has been transferring weapons and equipment from Syrian warehouses into Lebanon, which can be read as preparation for war, another, perhaps more likely, explanation is that Hezbollah is nervous about losing access to facilities in places like Homs and other restive areas. 

Anti-Hezbollah sentiment among the Syrian protesters in these cities and towns now poses new dilemmas for Nasrallah, raising questions about the kind of reception his followers will receive in the event of a war that would certainly send hundreds of thousands of displaced Lebanese Shia across the border into Syria. To this vulnerability, one must add the problem of inflamed sectarian tensions within Lebanon, especially in the wake of the indictments. 

Ultimately, the decision to have Hezbollah provoke a war with Israel rests neither in Assad’s nor in Nasrallah’s hands, but in Iran’s. But in the final analysis, it is unclear that such a conflict would necessarily affect the drive of the Syrian protester movement, which has shown no inclination to retreat from the streets. In other words, were Iran to employ Hezbollah in the attempt to give Assad some breathing room, the result might well be a badly damaged Hezbollah without making any difference in Assad’s fortunes. 

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay. This article was first published on NOW Lebanon.
 


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