The most fascinating aspect of the war in Syria this month – and perhaps also the most significant in terms of long-term regional geopolitics – is the direct involvement of Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese Shiite party and resistance group that is closely allied to Iran and Syria. The significance of Hezbollah’s participation in the battle for the Syrian town of Qusair comprises several distinct elements – its reputation as a fighting force, its political wisdom, its perception among Lebanese, its independence from Iran, and its standing in the region and globally as it identifies more closely with the Syrian regime that has been increasingly isolated and sanctioned.
Together, these factors make this a potential turning point for the organization whose history since its establishment in the early 1980s has been one of the most remarkable achievements in modern Arab political life. It can be credibly argued that Hezbollah is the single most successful political party or organization in modern Arab history, given its many accomplishments: It has transformed Lebanese Shiites from a downtrodden and subjugated community to the most powerful single group in Lebanon; it has forced Israel to end its occupation of southern Lebanon, and it has helped shape a regional “resistance and deterrence front” with Syria and Iran that defines many regional policies and confrontations.
These achievements have been countered by its single biggest weakness to date, which is inherent in all such resistance or revolutionary movements: difficulty in making the transition from liberation hero to governance maestro. The multiple strengths that have defined Hezbollah’s many successes in community empowerment and military resistance – secrecy, external support from Syria and Iran, anchorage in a powerful form of theocratic nationalism, independence from state controls or public accountability – have all proven to be weaknesses in its slow and imprecise move into the political arena in Lebanon.
Since driving Israel out of Lebanon in 2000, fighting a major war against Israel in 2006, and asserting its military supremacy in Beirut in May 2008, Hezbollah has repeatedly shown it is far more proficient at military resistance against its foes than at political engagement with domestic compatriots.
Based on its history, Hezbollah will not much care if Lebanese and Arabs criticize it for fighting alongside President Bashar Assad’s regime and buttressing Iranian strategic interests in the region. It does what it feels it must to carry out its mission, which it sees as protecting Lebanon from foreign predators, resisting the regional hegemonic threats of Arab or Western parties, and achieving these goals by assisting its allies, most importantly Syria and Iran, and forever ending the humiliation and mistreatment of Lebanese Shiites.
Fighting inside Syria alongside the Assad regime will exacerbate all the pressures and constraints that Hezbollah already feels. More Lebanese will criticize it for dragging Lebanon into the Syrian war and fostering greater internal fighting in Lebanon among pro- and anti-Assad groups. Many Lebanese say Qusair exposes Hezbollah as a puppet of Iran, as many had always charged. Some of the party’s own supporters may grumble about why dozens of able young Lebanese men are dying in a battle for a small provincial town in Syria. Many foreign countries will seek new ways to pressure, sanction and isolate Hezbollah, and public opinion around the Arab-Islamic world will become more critical and hostile, seeing Hezbollah as mainly as a militia beyond state authority that responds more to Iranian commands than to Arab-Lebanese popular sentiments.
The bigger threat emanating from this episode is that by asserting dramatically its ability and willingness to fight wherever, whenever and whomever it wishes, Hezbollah could add to existing forces that threaten to fracture the integrity of the Lebanese state. This could force it to assume a greater role in running the entire country – something it has always said it does not seek.
Should the Syrian war and Hezbollah’s role there lead to all this, it would also vastly increase the likelihood of massive internal Lebanese strife between pro- and anti-Hezbollah groups, pitting Sunnis and Shiites against each other, while also inviting another major war with Israel, or possibly participation in an American-Israeli-Iranian-Syrian war.
The battle for Qusair is only the haphazard spark within the larger Syrian war that could ignite this fire. The real causes of this combustible condition of the Arab region are the dysfunctional nature of modern Arab states and governments, the ascendancy of police states and military regimes, the repercussions of the century-long conflict between Zionism and Arabism, and the fact that the Middle East is a proxy battleground for regional and foreign powers.
We will find out in the coming years if Hezbollah is merely another symptom of these problems, as its critics say, or the first credible and historical antidote to Arab-Islamic weakness, complacency, subjugation and vulnerability, as its supporters say.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.