All eyes on Hezbollah

If at any point it feels that its survival is at stake, Hezbollah will not hesitate to unleash chaos and ignite the Lebanese powder keg.

Bashar Assad flag (photo credit: Reuters)
Bashar Assad flag
(photo credit: Reuters)
Following the 2006 Lebanon War, Hezbollah was widely regarded as one of the last eminent Arab forces to successfully confront the Israelis – and to seemingly defeat them on many fronts. The powerful images of destroyed Merkava tanks and Israeli funerals provided the predominately Sunni Muslim world with a new hero, despite the fact that Hezbollah is a Shi’ite organization and widely considered to be an Iranian puppet. Even though the war devastated Lebanon, Hezbollah utilized the political capital it gained from the prisoner swap with Israel to topple the pro-western government then led by Sa’ad Hariri, forcing his party into the opposition.
However, the events of the Arab Spring tarnished Hezbollah’s image in Lebanon and the Arab world. Hezbollah’s staunch, vocal support for Syrian President Bashar Assad throughout his brutal crackdown on pro-reform protesters suddenly placed the organization on the side of the oppressor. Of course, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah had no choice – Syria is one of his primary suppliers of weapons, finances and support. It has been disclosed by the Syrian opposition that Hezbollah fighters are actually assisting in suppressing demonstrations, quite possibly in collusion with members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
In Lebanon, demonstrations outside the Syrian embassy and elsewhere have been met with counter protests by Hezbollah supporters brandishing Syrian flags, often resulting in violence. In response to Hezbollah’s blatant support of the embattled Alawite dictator, proreform Syrian bloggers have plastered social media networks with caricatures and videos blasting Hezbollah and its leadership.
In addition to the Syrian issue, the findings of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) were recently released, implicating four Hezbollah members in the killing of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. The indictment dealt a strong blow to Hezbollah’s image and credibility.
While Hezbollah’s involvement in the killing of the former anti-Syrian premier was anticipated by many in Lebanon and the international community, the publication of the indictments – which included one of its high profile operatives – have increased domestic pressure on the organization and reduced its popularity. Hezbollah has since responded with accusations that the tribunal is a puppet of the United States and, of course, the Zionist regime.
Above all, Hezbollah is a pragmatic organization which will do what is necessary to ensure that Lebanon’s Shi’ite population remains in power, ensuring that its provider – Iran – has an ally on the Mediterranean. Ever since a prominent Shi’ite cleric issued a fatwa (formal Muslim legal opinion) designating Syria’s Alawite sect as a stream of Islam, the Assad regime has repaid Hezbollah by providing it with weapons and support, including stockpiles of long-range and SCUD missiles to be used against Israel in a future conflict.
As it becomes increasingly clear that the Assad dynasty will collapse, Hezbollah and Iran are starting realize that their efforts to prop up the regime may be futile. It was thought that Hezbollah would resort to a flare-up on the Israeli border or within Lebanon itself to divert the world’s attention, allowing Assad to crush the opposition once and for all.
On the contrary, it seems that such an option has been shelved, at least momentarily. Last week, both Hezbollah and Iran made unprecedented calls for Assad to implement reforms, the first such statements to express even a hint of human decency. In addition, reports have surfaced that Iranian officials have been meeting with elements of the Syrian opposition, perhaps in an effort to probe the possibility of forming future alliances.
If Hezbollah betrays Assad, it will need to find a new partner in the Syrian opposition. Should they fail to find such a partner among Syria’s Sunni majority, a diversionary war with Israel is still an option. Tension has risen recently between the two neighbors over the demarcation of the maritime economic area in the Mediterranean, offering a fitting excuse to launch a provocative attack on Israel’s offshore drilling sites.
Despite the popular Syrian uprising and damaging STL indictments, there is little chance of Hezbollah being ousted from power due to the group’s clear military and political domination, and fears of the consequences of civil war. Sa’ad Hariri, the son of assassinated Rafik Hariri, has used his position as leader of the parliamentary opposition to demand Hezbollah turn over the indicted members and give up its weapons.
Despite a constant barrage of stinging criticism, no one in Lebanon expects Hezbollah to cooperate with the STL indictment. To make matters worse, the Lebanese army is now said to be almost completely submissive to Hezbollah, eliminating any real possibility of forcing the group to give up its arms.
Lebanese politics are divided along sectarian lines, meaning Hezbollah will always enjoy the support of the nation’s Shi’ite population, as well as that of the Druse, Sunni and Christian parties as long as they remain coalition partners. Hariri and his opposition won’t dare call their supporters into the streets, as they wouldn’t dare to provoke a return to the horrors of civil war that gripped the country for decades. The opposition understands that Hezbollah will to fight to the bitter end before it gives up its weapons. This fact was emphasized in 2008 by the group’s brief takeover of Beirut when the Lebanese government attempted to remove their communications equipment from the international airport. That incident resulted in dozens of deaths and demonstrated Hezbollah’s ability to quickly gain control the country.
Hezbollah’s political power, influence and weapons caches won’t diminish in the foreseeable future. Despite his fiery anti-Hezbollah rhetoric, a confrontation between Hariri and Nasrallah is not forthcoming, as the former wouldn’t stand a chance against the latter’s advanced weaponry, ideology and superb organization. Hezbollah’s unholy coalition is realpolitik in its rawest form, held together by opportunism and fear as opposed to ideology, the best example being its inclusion of former Hezbollah opponent Walid Jumblatt and his Druse faction.
Most nations would not likely tolerate its governing coalition being a party to the assassination of its own prime minister, or maintaining a private, sectarian military force. However, Lebanon is clearly not like “most nations.” The organization’s current interest in keeping the peace shouldn’t be taken for granted by Israel or the Lebanese opposition. If at any point it feels that its survival is at stake, Hezbollah will not hesitate to unleash chaos and ignite the Lebanese powder keg.
The writer is an Argov Fellow for Leadership and Diplomacy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. He works for Max-Security Solutions, a security consulting firm in Tel Aviv and is co-founder of the Israeli Centrism website.