Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Hezbollah's Fatal Mistake?

Israel’s headline-grabbing airstrike on a Syrian convoy garnered much attention this week, with some asking if this signaled a greater external presence in the ongoing conflict. It distinctly does not, since Israel’s main target is not in fact Bashar al-Asad’s government, but rather Hezbollah in Lebanon. The strike this week did, however, shine a light on the degree to which the Lebanese political party and militant wing have become embroiled in the Syrian conflict next door, as well as highlight the precarious position Hezbollah finds itself in as a result of its pro-Asad position.

Hezbollah supporters rally with both Hezbollah flags and pro-government Syrian flags (courtesy Bilal Hussein / AP)

In other Arab countries, a Pew research poll in June 2012 found an overwhelming percentage of residents from all religious backgrounds support the fall of the Asad regime. In Lebanon, a delicate sectarian balance coupled with complicated ties to Syria and Asad has resulted in a more nuanced picture. While overall 53 percent of Lebanese supported the Asad stepping down, when broken down by sect, 67 percent of Christians and 80 percent of Sunnis supported the fall of the regime, while only 3 percent of Shias said they supported the end of Asad’s rule. Additionally, 96 percent of Lebanese Shias had “favorable” views of Asad. This support goes beyond religion and is deeply rooted in Shia Alawite-dominated Syria’s historical support for Lebanon’s Shia population, which is much larger proportionally than in other Levantine countries.

Hezbollah has supported Asad since the beginning of Syria’s civil war more than two years ago, but due to popular condemnation of the regime it attempted to distance itself from direct actions to aid the Syrian government. Elected officials in the political branch of Hezbollah advocated for a policy of “dissociation” with Asad’s government to appease the large numbers of Lebanese who denounce his regime and the atrocities being visited upon the Syrian population. Yet rumors of Hezbollah’s militant fighters being filtered into Syria are no longer just rumor: just this Tuesday, the Syrian opposition “reported that rebels had killed 15 Hezbollah fighters in Qusair[1].” In summer 2012, reports surfaced of a group of 5,000 Hezbollah fighters being sent to Syria, earning the approbation of Lebanese and international observers alike.

Hezbollah-backed Shi'ite Lebanese fighters cross into Syria (courtesy Bilal Hussein / AP)

Israel’s recent airstrike on a convoy of Syrian weapons supposedly heading for Hezbollah therefore does not reflect a political will for deeper involvement in the deadly conflict, but a sincere fear of the direct arming of Hezbollah with Syria’s arsenal, including chemical and biological weapons. While Israel cannot stop the Syrian conflict nor keep Hezbollah from supplying it with fighters, it can prevent weapons from flowing freely to Lebanon and raising the likelihood of not only another Israeli-Lebanese war, but also an Israeli-Syrian one.

This (barely) covert support for Asad has had serious political consequences for Hezbollah domestically. Lebanon had been ruled by a March 8 coalition made up of Hezbollah and several other parties, in opposition to the Sunni and Christian-led March 14 movement. Prime Miniter Najib Mikati resigned from the government in March, citing the ongoing domestic crisis in Lebanon that has resulted from the Syria conflict as one of the primary reasons behind his decision to step down. Violence has rocked the country over the last two years as pro- and anti-Asad Lebanese as well as Syrian refugees and migrants engage in street battles, especially in northern Lebanon where the civil war’s effects are particularly acute.

Daddy's boy: Bashar al-Asad pictured with Hassan Nasrallah and his father, Hafez al-Asad (courtesy REUTERS/Ali Hashisho)

While Israel’s airstrike and involvement in any Arab war will be controversial and play on pre-existing anti-Israel sentiments in the region, reactions are not nearly negative enough to counter the bad publicity Hezbollah is suffering at home and abroad for its support of Asad’s regime. The leader of Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah remains loyal to the Hezbollah-Iran-Syria axis that has served his party well for years. As the Syrian civil war drags on with no end in sight, however, he may find that his once incredibly popular group made a losing gamble both in the Arab world and in Lebanon itself. One can only hope that any Hezbollah-led government would realize its error before civil war returns to Lebanon.


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