Hizballah backs Assad – and pays the price

In early January, 2011, Hizballah and its allies took up the reins of
government in Lebanon, having ensured the collapse of the coalition
led by March 14 leader and then Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri.
Hizballah needed a coalition which it thought would staunchly oppose the Special
Tribunal on Lebanon, investigating the killing of former Lebanese
Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri.

But many at the time discerned a more significant meaning in the rise
to government of the March 8 coalition. It looked like the latest
stage in the inexorable rise of the Lebanese Shia Islamist movement,
founded under the patronage of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in 1982.
Hizballah had survived Israel’s
onslaught in 2006, and gone on to successfully intimidate its internal
opponents in the mini civil war of May, 2008.

With a reputed yearly donation of $200 million from Teheran, Hizballah
had built a state within the state. it had developed a matchless
military and security capability, independent of the organs of the
Lebanese government, and in most ways more powerful. By January,
2011, Hizballah looked set to absorb its host.

Today, however, much of this is open to question. Hizballah no longer
looks so unassailable. The movement has been one of the less remarked
upon victims of the Arab upheavals of 2011. Let’s take a look at how
this has happened.

Over the last two decades, Hizballah defined itself along a number if
parallel lines, each of which before 2011 appeared to support the
other. The movement was simultaneously a sectarian representative of
the Lebanese Shia, a regional ally of Iran and Syria, a defender of
the Lebanese against the supposed aggressive intentions of Israel, and
a leader of a more generically defined Arab and Muslim ‘resistance’
against Israel and the west.

As a result of the events of 2011, these various lines, which seemed
mutually supportive, have begun to contradict one another. This is
diminishing Hizballah’s position – though it remains physically
unassailable for as long as the Assad regime in Syria survives.

When the ‘Arab Spring’ first broke out, Hizballah was able to happily
endorse it. This is because in its first three significant
manifestations – in Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain – the ‘Arab Spring’ was
directed against pro-western, anti-Iranian regimes. And in Bahrain,
even better, a Shia populace was rising up against a pro-western,
Sunni monarch.

The problems began with the outbreak of the revolt against the Assad
regime in Syria. Syria is a charter member of the pro-Iranian
regional alliance to which Hizballah also belongs. It is also a vital
strategic conduit for the organization, providing a hinterland, a
potential safe haven in the event of war with Israel, and a route for
the supply of Iranian arms. For all these, reasons, Hizballah is
determined that Assad survive. Reliable sources suggest that
Hizballah men are involved in infiltrating opposition groups in Syria
and providing

This investment in the survival of Assad indicates which of the four
aspects of Hizballah’s identity mentioned above are most important to
it. The link with the Iran-led alliance and maintaining the ability
to wage war against Israel are the cardinal interests. To maintain
these, Hizballah has to a great extent sacrificed its more nebulous
self-image as a leader of pan-Islamic ‘resistance.’ Syrian Sunnis
leading the uprising against Assad now count Hizballah among their
enemies. The movement’s flag has been burnt at opposition rallies.

So the uprising in Syria has served to remove the veil of ‘resistance’
from the face of Hizballah. The sectarian visage beneath has been
revealed. Hizballah has been exposed as a sectarian, iran-aligned
Shia force, backing a vicious, non-Sunni dictatorship in its war
against its own, largely Sunni people.

Polls show the resulting disappearance of the high regard in which
Hizballah was once held across the Arab world.

Of course, for as long as the Assad dictatorship survives, this has no
immediate physical implications for Hizballah. And despite the
overenthusiastic predictions of some westerners and Israelis, the
Assad regime may well be around for some considerable time to come.

But in Lebanon, there are already signs that non-Shia communities,
long chafing under the heel of Hizballah, are beginning to grow
restive. The governing coalition is no longer unified on Syria. The
perennial political weathervane, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, now
supports the Syrian dictator’s departure.

More ominously, there are signs of growing Sunni restiveness on the
ground. The sectarian nature of the conflict in Syria is spilling
across the border. Hizballah operatives have been engaged in the
arrest of Syrian oppositionists seeking refuge in Lebanon, and their
despatch back to Assad. The Lebanese government is claiming that the
border town of Arsal has become a haven for ‘al-Qaeda’ elements. In
the town of Tarshish, local residents in October physically prevented
Hizballah from extending its telecommunications networks into the

Hizballah is also engaged in putting down opposition within its own
community. Two Shia clerics are set to face charges of ‘conspiring
with Israel’ later this month. The two, Sheikh Hassan Mchaymech and
Sayyed Mohammad Ali al-Hussein were known for their independent and
critical positions toward Hizballah.

None of this portends the imminent demise of Hizballah. What it does
reveal is a nervous, diminished organization, which has shed most of
the region-wide charisma it earned through its fight against Israel.

The logic of the emerging post 2011 Middle East is one of Islamism and
sectarianism. In this context, Hizballah is now exposed as a gendarme
in the Levant for Iran and the Shia Islamism it adheres to. The
movement, like its friend Bashar Assad, increasingly holds power by
force alone. This can be maintained while it is the stronger party.
For as long as Bashar is in his seat, it will be so. If he falls,
Hizballah’s enemies in Lebanon (and Syria) will be waiting.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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2 Responses to Hizballah backs Assad – and pays the price

  1. Jonathan Karmi says:

    Such a pity that the United States and western countries like France and Britain don’t have the balls to apply a “no-fly zone” over Syria. That would give cover for Syrian armoured units to defect and would probably be the tipping-point in causing the demise of Assad. OK, there’s a risk that the new regime won’t be too palatable either, but the strategic damage to Iran and Hizballah means it’s a price well worth paying. And Russia can go jump.

  2. Jonathan Spyer says:

    Hi, Jonathan, – I entirely agree. Looks unlikely for the moment, tho.

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