Hezbollah has been caught off balance by the uprising in Syria. Hezbollah leader
Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah’s recent words of solidarity with his embattled ally in
Damascus led to the burning of the Lebanese Shi’a Islamist leader’s image by
angry Syrian crowds during last Friday’s demonstrations.
stance on Syria reveals a basic contradiction between Hezbollah’s practical
interests and the image it likes to project of itself.
in turn may reveal the inherent limitations of the Iranian, Shi’ite-led
“resistance bloc” in the overwhelmingly Sunni Arabic-speaking world.
practical level, it is not difficult to see why the fall of the Assad regime
would be a disaster for both Hezbollah and its Iranian patron.
the secure conduit through which Tehran is able to arm its Lebanese proxy on the
Significant elements of Hezbollah’s armory are stored
safely under Assad’s care. The M-600s and Fateh-110 missiles, which might
provoke an early Israeli strike if deployed in Lebanon, wait in secure
facilities across the border for the appropriate moment.
But Syria is
much more than a storehouse for Hezbollah. Since the accession of Bashar Assad,
the relationship between the two has become increasingly symbiotic. Hezbollah
was the instrument whereby Syria was able to regain influence in Lebanon
following its inglorious retreat in 2005. Syria provided a vital logistic
hinterland for Hezbollah during the 2006 war.
There are suspicions that
the two may have cooperated in the murder of former Lebanese prime minister
So the relationship is strategic, grounded in a variety of
shared interests. Neither party is entirely a client or a senior partner of the
other. Rather, the patron of the two is Iran. Nasrallah’s expressions of support
for Assad derive from the same impulse as the large-scale practical support
currently being offered to Syria by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. These
are members of an alliance, uniting in the defense of a member of the team
currently in trouble.
No proof has emerged to confirm the rumors of
Hezbollah fighters engaged on the ground in Syria.
And it is difficult to
see what they could achieve that Assad’s own men could not. The Syrian leader is
not short of gunmen. But the “moral support” that Hezbollah has offered Syria
serves to lay bare the emptiness of Nasrallah’s oft-stated claim to represent
the broad, popular will of the Arabs.
Both Assad and Nasrallah use the
language of “resistance,” yet the two are today united in resistance to the
plainly expressed will of the Syrian people.
There is a deeper logic at
work here than simply the timeless spectacle of dictatorial regimes and
movements having the emptiness of their rhetoric made apparent. The Iran-led
bloc may have presented itself as the voice of regional authenticity and
But if one looks at its component parts, it rapidly becomes
apparent that this was and is largely an alliance of Shi’ite (or at least
non-Sunni) Arab forces behind a large, non-Arab Shi’ite state.
members of the alliance are Iran, the Shi’ite Hezbollah, the Alawite-dominated
Assad regime, and the Shi’ite movement of Muqtada al- Sadr in Iraq. Iran has
sought to make gains from the current ferment in the Arab world. But its arena
of activity has been limited mainly to areas of majority- Shi’ite population,
such as Bahrain. Outside the narrow bands of Shi’ite Arab communities, there is
a built-in suspicion of the Iranians.
The Iranian war on Israel is
intended to disprove these suspicions, and this has seen some success. But the
kudos gained by Shi’ite elements for fighting Israel do not seem to be easily
transferable to other areas.
The single major exception to the largely
Shi’ite complexion of the Iran-led bloc was and is Hamas. The Hamas enclave in
Gaza was maintained by Iranian money and weaponry. But one of the most
noteworthy fallout events from the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt has been
Hamas’s apparent attempt to reorient away from the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis,
and back toward Sunni Arab Egypt.
The (Sunni) Emirate of Qatar,
meanwhile, which has flirted with the resistance axis in the past years, has
directed its hugely influential Al Jazeera network firmly against the Syrian
regime in recent weeks. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, too, has grown critical
of Assad and is hosting gatherings of the Syrian opposition.
short, is hemorrhaging Sunni friends. Its Shi’ite ones, by contrast, have fewer
options and are staying loyal.
So Hezbollah’s and Iran’s cleaving toward
their Syrian ally has the look of a non-Sunni alliance closing ranks to defend
itself against a ferment in the Sunni Arab world. Lebanese analyst Michael Young
has noted a growing view that the Syrian regime is engaged in the ethnic
cleansing of Syrian Sunnis from the town of Tal Kalakh, near the border with
Tal Kalakh is a Sunni enclave in a largely Alawite
Whether the regime’s motivations are indeed sectarian is almost
immaterial. The fact that they are widely believed to be so lays bare the
sectarian logic at work.
From Israel’s point of view, the built-in
limitations of the Shi’ite-led resistance bloc are good news. The lessgood news
is that rival centers of anti-Western and anti-Israel Sunni power are emerging
in the region.
Hamas’s rebuilding of ties with Egypt, after all, is based
on the rapidly deteriorating relations between Cairo and Jerusalem. The Sunni
Islamist AKP, meanwhile, looks set to win another term in office in
Nor is the “Shi’a crescent” itself about to collapse. At the
moment, its unrivaled capacity for brutality looks set to keep its Syrian client
in its seat. But its claim to represent the forces of Arab “resistance” to the
West and Israel has taken a heavy blow as a result of the turmoil in the Arab
world. And meanwhile, a rival “Sunni crescent,” with a rival claim to this
mantle, is in the process of being born.