Reports that a Hezbollah member, Ali Hussein Nassif, was killed in Syria last week, along with other party members, should not surprise us. While Hezbollah has denied involvement in the Syrian conflict, the participation of its members in President Bashar Assad’s campaign of repression has been an open secret for some time in Lebanon.
Hezbollah, through a party publication, announced the death of its members, but not their presence in Syria, saying only that they had been killed “while performing their jihadi duties.” The party, echoing the Iranian regime, has viewed events in Syria as an effort to undermine the axis of resistance against Israel. In other words the collapse of the Assads is a strategic threat to be prevented at all costs.
In this context, recently the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, Gen. Mohammad Ali Jaafari, admitted that members of the Guard’s Quds force were present in Syria and Lebanon, albeit only as “advisers.” Tehran later disavowed Jaafari’s remarks, saying that he had been misquoted. However, no one doubted the veracity of his statement, given Iran’s perceptions of the stakes in Syria.
As Hezbollah’s role in Syria becomes clearer, and as the party continues to contribute to the Assad regime’s viciousness, its vulnerabilities will increase. However, the notion that the Shiite community will turn against Hezbollah is wishful thinking. If anything, as sectarian hostility rises in Syria, therefore in Lebanon, Hezbollah will find it easier to impose Shiite unanimity behind the party’s choices, no matter how repugnant its behavior in Syria.
But where Hezbollah will not escape blowback is in those aspects of its public image where, for years, it has put up façades of deception. The party has always asserted that it is on the side of the dispossessed and justice; it has systematically played down its image as a sectarian Shiite organization; and while it has always affirmed its loyalty to Iran and its supreme leader, the party has promoted an outlook that it has a wide margin of maneuver vis-à-vis Tehran.
All three of these arguments are disproven by Hezbollah’s actions in Syria. There the party is, plainly, on the side of the dispossessors and injustice. Drawing Arab attention back to Israel is not going to alter this. Strategic necessity has torn away the party’s mask of virtue. This virtuousness had already been dented in Lebanon, after Hezbollah worked hard to return Syrian hegemony over the country following the assassination of Rafik Hariri – a crime in which four party members stand accused of having taken part. Nor was there much moral decency on show when Hezbollah and its allies militarily occupied western Beirut in May 2008, killing dozens of civilians.
Strategic necessity is a reason why Hezbollah has supported Syria’s Alawite-dominated regime, but sectarianism is also a factor. In Syria, the Iranians and Hezbollah have played a game of paradox and nuance: They have sought, on the one hand, to portray themselves as avatars of pan-Arab impulses, above all opposition to Israel and the United States, thereby appealing to perennial “Sunni” ideological preferences. On the other hand, Iran and Hezbollah have pursued in Syria, as they have in Lebanon and Iraq, a policy of bolstering Shiite pre-eminence though political, military and financial means.
Few are fooled anymore. Gone are the days when Hezbollah and its leader, Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, won popularity contests in Arab streets. Thanks to Syria, the Arab world has been cracked by the pulsations of sect. Hezbollah’s old partner Hamas has largely abandoned the Assads, as have the different branches of the Muslim Brotherhood, above all in Egypt. Long before Bashar Assad ordered his warplanes to bomb civilians, Syrians were already burning Iranian and Hezbollah flags, grasping that power politics, but also communal fear and solidarity (even if Shiites and Alawites remain considerably different), reinforced Shiite backing for the Alawites.
As for Hezbollah’s devotion to the Iranian leadership, the party’s growing isolation over Syria has strengthened the umbilical cord tying it to Tehran. It is nothing new for Hezbollah members to act as covert operatives for Iran. From Iraq to Latin America, and now in Syria, only the naive would insist there is much sunlight between Iranian military and security institutions and those of Hezbollah.
Party members have tried to suggest otherwise, usually by offering up a non sequitur: because Nasrallah is so respected in Tehran, Hezbollah cannot possibly be a mere accessory of the Revolutionary Guard and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Nasrallah is respected, and in Lebanon during the past months Hezbollah has had the latitude to act with subtlety in order to avert a Sunni-Shiite confrontation. And yet when it comes to the fundamental issues affecting Iran’s interests, such as deploying men on behalf of Assad rule or defending Iran’s nuclear program, that latitude suddenly and inexorably shrinks.
There is an erroneous conviction among March 14 leaders that Hezbollah may be irreversibly crippled by the fall of the house of Assad. The party will lose a great deal, but it will also retain a great deal, not least its formidable arsenal. Hezbollah’s declining reputation is one thing, but its effectiveness is something else entirely. With or without Syria it will have the ability to wreak havoc in Lebanon and elsewhere. So, take heart that the party’s contradictions are being exposed, but don’t assume Hezbollah is on its last legs.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.