SPEAKING FREELY Hezbollah on shaky ground in Syria
By Riccardo Dugulin
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During the winter of 1942, following the Axis forces' defeat in El Alamein, Winston Churchill looked back at the Allied forces’ strategic victory and gave his conclusion on the impact of those events: "this is not the end, this is not even the beginning of the end, but maybe it is the end of the beginning".
One should not be mistaken, Hezbollah as a political force, an armed organization and a source of nuisance for the State of
Israel and for anti-Bashar al-Assad rebels is not likely to be diminished in the near future, but recent events should be read as a plausible "end of the beginning" for the self styled "Party of God".
To fully comprehend this statement, the core nature of Hezbollah must be understood. Both the armed and socio-political parts of the Shi'ite organization have marketed themselves as the beating heart of the Arab resistance against Israel.
Over the last two decades, this posture has flourished thanks to two elements. As a part of the Lebanese political chessboard, Hezbollah has played the social card, being the spokesman for the poorer classes and gaining a wide support of the population as it has defined itself as the only party truly looking out for the Lebanese interest. This has been made possible as a result of its foreign policy stance.
The relentless offensive campaign waged against Israel, using the stated goal of the liberation of the Cheba'a farms and the Ghajar village, has always been seen with admiration by the Arab street, regardless of the Sunni-Shi'ite divide. In itself, Hezbollah did something that no Arab government could achieve, face Israel in an overt armed struggle and still come out with offensive capabilities.
The mood is nevertheless meant to change in the near future. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah's saying, that Hezbollah's gun would only be turned toward Israel, has been time and again proved wrong. On top of that the movement's internal policy can no longer fool anyone: in the Lebanese power grabbing situation, Hezbollah is using its force and logistical means to subdue any signs of opposition - and by doing so it is acting as a regular Lebanese party who is no longer morally above the local paradigm of confessional corporatism and armed pressure.
For this, the beginning of the end is marked by a slow and mechanical erosion of Hezbollah's Lebanese support accompanied by the counter-effects of an all-out support to the Syria's Assad regime.
The formal end of the March 8 coalition, announced by Amal's Nabih Berri on July 9, may be considered an essential indicator to address Hezbollah's political problems in Lebanon. Since the fall of Saad Hariri government, the Shi'ite movement has been increasingly heading toward a political and armed monopoly of power in the country.
The collapse of the parliamentary alliance which provided Nasrallah's party with a much needed Christian backing has to be carefully considered for what it is. Hezbollah maintains its fighting strength and the fact that it could take over Lebanon's points of power in less than 48 hours remains true, yet the social support away from its Shi'ite power base is eroding and it will keep doing so in the near future.
Many, non-Shi'ite Hezbollah supporters have grown disillusioned about the movement after it drew the whole country in the disastrous war of 2006. The current war in Syria and the thug-like power grabbing techniques used in the streets of Beirut are destroying the "resistance" myth and positioning Hezbollah as an Iranian proxy who is playing with Lebanese lives to further a foreign power's strategic interests in the region.
The movement’s overt and complete role in the Syrian war has to be considered as the equivalent of what Afghanistan has been for the Soviet Union. The fall of the terrorist movement will not be as rapid and as drastic as the USSR one; yet popular dissent over a war which few, non-Hezbollah, Lebanese want to be part of and an increased armed challenge to the movement along with human loses in Syria will drain the party's economic, military and moral strengths.
In the medium term, Hezbollah’s raison d’etre along with its traditional modus operandi will be altered as the party will need to position itself on a defensive line rather than the historical offensive grounds it has gained and kept since the 1990s.
The fact that Lebanese Sunni extremist movements have openly declared Jihad to counter Shi 'ite, read Hezbollah, forces in Syria is an indicator that the party is less able to project fear into its opponents inside Lebanon. The same can be verified as car bombs have rocked the breathing point of Hezbollah's power, Beirut Southern suburb of Dahiye. While Syrian rebels and Sunni terrorist organizations will have a larger ability to maneuver and plan attacks inside Lebanon, the near future seems to indicate that Hezbollah will fight a two-front war.
As Hezbollah understands the weaknesses of its strategic posture it does nevertheless maintain strong assets. Its long and medium range missiles, anti-air and anti-ship possibilities and the overall presence in Southern Lebanon remains an imminent threat to Israel's security, while its logistical and armed presence in Syria reflects the movements military superiority to many of its Arab adversaries. In addition to that Hezbollah’s well developed global terrorist presence is unlikely to suffer directly from internal Lebanese turmoil.
For this, Hezbollah's "end of the beginning" must be read as a phase during which the party loses his moral high grounds among the Arab street, a phase where its internal doings are increasingly challenged and where its operatives will need to fight a war in two countries against fellow Arabs.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Riccardo Dugulin holds a Master degree from the Paris School of International Affairs (Sciences Po) and is specialized in International Security. He is currently working in Paris for a Medical and Security Assistance company. He has worked for a number of leading think tanks in Washington DC, Dubai and Beirut. His personal website is www.riccardodugulin.com