Hezbollah fights for relevance

The Shiite militia defends Iran's mullahs at the expense of the Arab Spring. Its best hope may be war with Israel

Topics: Middle East, Iran, Hezbollah,

Hezbollah fights for relevance Hassan Nasrallah (Credit: AP/Mahmoud Tawil)

Since the heady first days of the Arab Spring, it has become increasingly obvious that things are not quite as they seem.  Many of the idealistic, youth driven uprisings have been manipulated by great powers to serve a much bigger regional game.

The age old rivalry between Russia and the West is being played out in the Middle-East, pitting the largely Sunni Muslim Arab states against Russia’s ally  in the region- Iran. An important player bridging the gap between Shi’ite Iran and the Arab Sunnis is Lebanon’s Shi’ite resistance movement known as Hezbollah (Party of God.)

Hezbollah has enjoyed enormous popularity across the entire region, perceived by many as the champions of the Arab world, successfully standing up to the bully in the playground, Israel. There was a time when the portrait of Hassan Nasrallah hung on the walls of homes and cafes from Baghdad to Casablanca. Yet, following a relatively cool reception of Nasrallah’s speech on the 16th of February , one got the distinct impression that the Lebanese resistance leader may not enjoy the same popularity he once did with the Arab masses.

A simple explanation might be Hezbollah’s unequivocal support for Bashar el-Assad’s regime in Syria.  In a speech broadcast by al-Manar on May 25th 2011, Nasrallah declared his group’s strong support for the Assad regime. He hailed Syria for its support of the Resistance movement in Lebanon and Palestine. Many have been unable to comprehend why the former champions of the resistance would side with the regime against the people, especially considering Hezbollah’s unreserved support for the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain. This has eroded the party’s popularity not only among Sunnis in Syria, who dominate the opposition, but also in the Arab world at large as regional tensions intensify between Shi’ite Iran and the predominantly Sunni Arab states.

Ironically, the very cause which won Hezbollah respect from thousands across the region, also, lost them the support of their own people. Throughout the 1990s, the Lebanese, regardless of sect, were united by Hezbollah’s resistance to the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon and again in 2006 when Israel threatened reinvasion. However, critics point to Hezbollah’s reluctance to disarm as the main source of national instability. Lebanese political leader Samir Geagea asserting that “The ones who are involving Lebanon [in crises] are those wielding power outside the Lebanese state” and demanding that Hezbollah put down its arms and integrate itself with the official Lebanese army and government.

In a similar vein, Hezbollah has alienated many followers by becoming embroiled in a petty tit-for-tat exchange with the March 14 coalition over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, investigating the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq el-Hariri.  Many, regardless of their politics, had respected Nasrallah for his commitment to his cause and ability to avoid entanglement in party politics.

Though not Hezbollah’s fault, as such, the persisting devastation of the socio-economic condition and infrastructure of southern Lebanon has also served as a harsh reminder, to the organisation’s critics, of the consequences of war with Israel

In the Asia Times, Sami Moubayed, points out Hassan Nasrallah’s total withdrawal from public life in Lebanon in recent years; choosing to address his supporters on live television rather than the massive public rallies for which he has been famed. His disappearance has been due to security fears. However, this has made it difficult for followers to connect with him. It is, also, now harder to draw in new supporters from across the Arab and Islamic worlds.

Despite their somewhat dented popularity, Hezbollah is still massively important on a strategic level, with regard to predicting the outcome of unrest in Syria.

In a speech broadcast by al-Manar on the 25th August 2011, Nasrallah named Syria as a very important ally in the region “The Syrian support has been crucial. A great part of the Iranian support comes through Syria. If it had not been for the will of Syria, even the Iranian support would have been blocked”.  So, it is reasonable to assume that the fall of the Assad regime would serve a tremendous blow to Hezbollah, but also, act as catalyst to a power struggle within the country. A regime in Syria based on the Sunni Muslim majority would most likely be more friendly to Hezbollah’s local rivals in the March 14 coalition. Such a regime would also have good relations with regional powers that have severe disagreements with the Hezbollah movement over sectarian and political issues.

Prof. Joseph Bahout at Sciences Po in Paris notes that, in such a situation, Hezbollah would be faced with two alternatives, if faced with waning support from Syria “will Hizballah gradually become more flexible in terms of Lebanonization and civilianization? Or, on the contrary, will it increasingly pursue a radical position and bitterly defend its share of the Lebanese system while echoing Tehran’s dictum that Assad’s rule in Syria is a red line?” Judging by Hezbollah’s stern rhetoric over the past few months, the leadership has already decided on the latter and will continue to stand by the Assad regime.

Perhaps, most dangerously, Hezbollah also play an extremely important strategic role in what has been suggested as an imminent conflict between Israel and Iran. Would Israel be capable of conducting an aerial battle with Iran at the same time as defending itself against Hezbollah, closer to home?

Ha’aretz commentator Yoel Marcus thinks not, saying that a strike on Iran would be out of Israel’s league and points to cautions issued by former Mossad chief Meir Dagan against attacking Iran, amidst concerns that such a move would drag Israel into a regional war, which would involve Hezbollah, Hamas and possibly Syria.

Tensions have been escalating between Israel and Iran for some time, recently, heightened following attacks on Israeli embassies in India, Thailand and Georgia. An official for the Israeli counter terrorism bureau, quoted in Ha’aretz warned Israelis of further attacks and noted that Nasrallah’s threats of revenge for the 2008 assassination of Hezbollah commander Imad Mughaniyeh were being taken into account.  Nasrallah categorically denied any involvement in the explosions in his speech on February 16th.

But what would such a conflict mean for the Arab world at large? It seems unlikely that Egyptians, Jordanians or, the Palestinians, all not so embroiled in the sectarian debate, would support Israel in any conflict against Muslims whether they be in Lebanon or, in Iran. However, countries in the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) might have more to gain from a weakened Iran.

The GCC have been concerned about Iran’s capabilities, behavior and intentions for a long time, but it takes on an additional importance in light of the Arab Spring. This has certainly been the case in Egypt and Bahrain, in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, possibly in Yemen, and now in Syria.

GCC countries have repeatedly accused Tehran of attempting to destabilise their internal security, and attempting to instigate sectarian strife. Iran has rejected these accusations, and pointed to the GCC’s appalling treatment of Shi’ite citizens. Particularly, concerning the brutal suppression of the largely Shi’ite uprising in Bahrain against the Sunni al-Khalifa monarchy, a struggle which was obviously covered up by Gulf sponsored media such as al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya.

Tensions have also been rising over Iran’s ability to developing nuclear weapons, something that is already of great concern to the GCC. Without a nuclear advantage, the Gulf far outguns Iran in terms of military capability, although, Iran is not reluctant to use its geopolitical position and has threatened to close off the Strait of Hormuz, through which about 20% of the world’s oil passes, if pressured.

When placed in the context of a larger regional conflict between Israel and Iran, Hezbollah plays an absolutely crucial part as an ally of Iran, especially in the absence of Syria. Yet, when the financial might of the GCC is also turned against Iran, Hezbollah, which is ultimately a financially dependent arm of Iran, becomes inconsequential.

It is possible that Hezbollah may look to find solutions to its waning popularity, and a possible run in with the GCC, by pre-emptively launching a strike against Israel. In his speech on Feburary 16th, Nasrallah ambiguously claimed that “We have arms and they are increasing [in number]. We have well-known weapons and there are others which are hidden and unknown. We are hiding them because we need to protect our country and prepare surprises for the Israelis.” Whilst this may be an empty threat, a Hezbollah spokesman has said that the organisation would be willing to go to war with Israel, should Syria be attacked. It seems likely that the same logic would apply if an attack were to be staged against Iran.

Prof. Juan Cole has said that, in the case of a conflict with Iran, Hezbollah would almost certainly launch a rocket attack, which would threaten up to a quarter of the Israeli population. The casualties might be even worse if Hezbollah is able to target toxic gas storage in Haifa or nuclear reactors in Dimona and Nahal Sorek. Already Israel has been taking steps to shut down these facilities, in the event of an attack.

This seems to be a departure from Nasrallah’s statement in 2006, shortly after the 34 day war between Hezbollah and Israel, when he told Lebanon’s NTV that had he would not have ordered the capture of two Israeli soldiers, had he known that this would lead to such devastation. However, six years on, the situation between Iran and Israel has escalated, and for Hezbollah this has become a battle for existence. In an earlier speech, February 7th, Nasrallah admitted that the organisation has been completely dependent on Iran for “moral, political and financial support” since 1982.

Hezbollah has found itself in the unenviable position of choosing between its Iranian financial backer and its Arab popular support base. Ironically, Hezbollah’s only hope may be an Israelis attack on Iran, thus gaining it some support, once more, as the champion of resistance against the Zionist aggressor. But should the pressure on Iran be laid on by the Gulf states, Hezbollah will be left with no alternative but to cut its ties with Iran or, face complete irrelevance within the Arab world.


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