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Hizbullah and the Price of Supporting al-Assad

Hizbullah declining popularity
The funeral procession of one of the six Hizbullah members- who were killed by a Israeli Defence Force raid  in the Golan Heights, Syria-in the Southern village of Arab Salim, Lebanon, 20 January 2015. Photo AP/Mohammed Zaatri

The Lebanese Shiite party Hizbullah has been mired for more than two years in one of the deadliest conflicts in the region, and this might weaken it considerably in the medium and long term. The popularity and legitimacy of the party has declined since it became involved in Syria in 2012, fighting alongside Bashar al-Assad’s army. Its popularity had been increasing during the 1990s and 2000s, following years of fierce struggle against Israel—in the name of the “Arab nation”—and several “victories,” amongst them that of 2006, called “divine” by the party leader, Hassan Nasrallah.

The reputation of the “Resistance,” as it was then called by citizens, media, monarchs, and heads of state throughout the region, had, in fact, reached a historical peak in the aftermath of that war, in a region with more than 300 million people. Some had even drawn a parallel between the charismatic party leader and the former pan-Arab leader Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Today, the landscape has changed dramatically. Amongst many Lebanese and other Arabs—especially Sunni, but also secular, and including former radical allies such as the Palestinian group Hamas—Hizbullah is no longer the supreme symbol of the armed resistance against the Israeli enemy. Instead, it is seen as militia allied with the Islamic revolutionaries of Tehran and the Alawites of Damascus, fighting the Syrian people as well as Sunnis in the region. This is the frequent assertion, for example, of Lebanese Sunni clerics and politicians from the Future movement, as well as Syrian opponents and Saudis. From a less confessional perspective, Hizbullah is said to defy the democratic aspirations of the revolutionaries of the “Arab Spring.”

In addition to Hizbullah’s decline in popularity, its unconditional support of al-Assad has cost substantial human losses. It has been estimated that, of the approximately 5000 combatants involved in Syria, between 500 and 1000, or 10 to 20 percent, have died in the last three years.

Another consequence of Hizbullah’s alliance with al-Assad was the sudden increase in insecurity between 2013 and 2014 in the Shiite stronghold of Dahieh, a southern suburb of the capital Beirut, which is now relatively secure, thanks to the drastic measures taken by the Lebanese army and the party. The neighbourhood was the site of several bombings and commando operations led by Islamists linked to al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, amongst others.

These operations caused panic amongst the popular base of the party and was a blow to the myth of the ironclad security of Hizbullah, whose perimeter had never been penetrated since its creation in 1982 (except for an air attack by Israel in 1992). Of the 20 car bombs and other political killings that shook Lebanon between 2005 and 2012, more than half had taken place in Christian neighbourhoods, while the remainder were divided between exclusively Sunni neighbourhoods and mixed areas.

Weaker in the South?

Another major cost of Hizbullah’s military involvement in Syria has, according to its opponents and several analysts, been the loss of its raison d’être, the struggle against Israel. Even more important is its present inability, from a technical and military point of view, to manage two fronts and its consequent weakening in the south, against the Jewish state.

The January 2015 incident on the Golan Heights illustrates this inability, exacerbated by its tactical caution. The Israel Defense Forces raided the area, killing a general of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and six Hizbullah fighters. The operation was followed by only a very limited reaction from the Shiite party.

From a strategic point of view, Hizbullah now privileges the defence of the Syrian regime over any other consideration, as the latter continues to be the central (though now very fragile) pillar of the bridge that links Tehran to Beirut. Its fall may, in fact, have serious political and military repercussions for the party, whose supply of weapons and other types of aid are channelled through Damascus.

The risk of direct confrontation is still small in the short term, despite the recent incident in the Golan. The Jewish state, one of whose national priorities is energy independence, also wants to avoid escalation for fear of jeopardizing exploration in its offshore gas fields, all located near the Lebanese border, in the south.

Nevertheless, Hizbullah remains vulnerable in the current context and might, in the event of the outbreak of a new war in Lebanon, find victory even more difficult to achieve, mainly because it has so many fighters involved in Syria.

The Agreement with Iran—a Good Thing?

For several analysts, however, a new war remains unlikely, especially after the historic agreement reached in Geneva between Iran and the 5+1 Western powers on 14 July 2015. This agreement might indeed open new horizons, according to US and Iranian officials, and thus lead to reconciliation and perhaps a broad coalition to fight the Islamic State and other terrorist groups in the Middle East.

Given this situation, the cost of supporting the Syrian regime will undoubtedly decrease—unless Western powers insist that the departure of Bashar al-Assad and the disarmament of the Shiite militia be part of the agreement with Tehran.

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