Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’s two speeches in Beirut earlier this week before large crowds of Lebanese Shiites commemorating Ashoura did not break any new ground in domestic or regional affairs, but they did clarify trends that have been developing in recent years. Most of these trends continue the trajectory of Hezbollah’s political situation of the last decade, which comprises impressive, but contradictory and challenging, realities that seem to be accelerating.
Without judging Hezbollah’s cultural or political ideology, I continue to see the party as the greatest success story of the modern Arab world in political and organizational terms. Its impressive feat is how, since its inception during the 1980s, it has transformed the core of the Lebanese Shiite community from the subjugated and abused third-class condition of many decades into the most powerful group in the country, and perhaps the strongest non-governmental party, social force and military unit in the entire Arab world.
This strength, however, may also be its weakness, because it has generated intense opposition from many Lebanese, Arab and international quarters. This opposition has grown steadily since Hezbollah’s zenith in 2000, when it forced Israel to withdraw from south Lebanon, reaching the point where many Lebanese who dislike its various political, ideological, cultural and Iranian-linked identity dimensions not only openly criticize it politically, but also mock it culturally. Hezbollah says it does not care about such criticism and will continue along its chosen path of resistance.
This is one major dilemma – that at the moment of greatest strength, it seems willing to operate outside and above the Lebanese political system, and ignore its many critics at home. It is natural that Hezbollah would show a strong and determined face of resistance and independence, but this is problematic if it leads to its operating in arenas beyond its Lebanese base and anchorage. If its message is that Lebanon is not, in fact, its base and anchorage, but rather that Hezbollah is a regional actor merely domiciled in Lebanon like an offshore bank operating regionally is domiciled in Bahrain on the Bahamas, then this raises even more problematic challenges.
More and more Lebanese might argue that if Hezbollah is working primarily on Syrian, Iranian, Palestinian and anti-takfiri issues, it would be best for it to base itself in the epicenter of those resistance challenges on frontier territories among Syrian-Iraqi-Iranian lands. The more Hezbollah accentuates its military actions abroad in the service of preserving the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah Resistance and Deterrence Front, the greater will be the criticism it generates inside Lebanon accusing it of being mainly an agent of Iran.
Another dilemma that was accentuated by Nasrallah’s two speeches this week stems precisely from his insistence that the party will continue to operate militarily in Syria for as long as the government of Bashar Assad needs its help. Nasrallah stated that Assad needs Hezbollah’s military assistance in order to stay in power and roll back the challenges posed by foreign-assisted domestic and regional opposition groups. This raises two other dilemmas for Hezbollah.
First, if Assad is so weak that he needs Iranian and Hezbollah troops to remain in office, what is the benefit of such a vulnerable strategic ally? The Syrian opposition groups are not particularly well organized, financed, equipped, trained or coordinated, and in fact are something of a mess right now. Yet despite their weaknesses they have taken large swaths of territory from the Assad government. We are likely to see significant increases in Saudi and other Gulf assistance to the opposition, which will increase the capabilities of those fighting to overthrow Assad.
This means Hezbollah’s fighting days in Syria may be just beginning, which will only increase the criticisms and pressures on the party in Lebanon, the Middle East and worldwide. Many people in recent years have asked if Hezbollah is a pliant appendage of Iran (which I do not believe it is); soon many may ask if the rump state of Syria under Assad government control is an appendage of Hezbollah, which probably is not a healthy situation for the party to be in.
Second, the free movement of Hezbollah forces in and out of Syria to join the battle there means that the formal sovereignty of states in this region, as manifested in territorial borders, is slowly being erased. This is not only due to Hezbollah’s role in Syria, to be fair, but rather reflects a much broader recent legacy of free movement of Salafist-takfiri fighters and political provocateurs across the Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian and Lebanese borders, along with refugee and arms flows across the Jordanian and Turkish borders.
We should expect to hear counter-arguments now that because Hezbollah is fighting inside Syria, pro-Saudi or other forces can enter Lebanon at will to support anti-Hezbollah groups in the country.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.