When Syria erupted in 2011, the potential damage to Hezbollah became immediately apparent. The downfall of President Bashar Assad and a tidy win for the region’s Sunni powers and their American patron would not only have denied the group geographic depth and logistical routes vital to its effectiveness as Iran’s projection in the area, but it would also have located it, Shiite force that it is, in a stretch of very hostile Sunni expanse.
At best, it was thought, Hezbollah, cut off and encircled, would pragmatically turn definitively Lebanese and exclusively political; at worst, it would resist, invite even further isolation and exposure and become existentially vulnerable against its Sunni Syrian and Israeli neighbors. The first scenario implied containment; the second, military defeat, possibly even elimination. Both betrayed a thirst for very neat outcomes from a hopelessly messy Syrian situation.
That was then. But although it is very clear by now that a clean victory in Syria—for any of the warring parties—borders on the fantastical, thanks in part to the artfulness and tenacity of Assad’s friends and dithering and incompetence of his enemies, most commentators have yet to abandon their habitual predictions of gloom and doom for the Shiite movement.
The argument that animates this prognosis is that Hezbollah’s recent boldfaced plunge into the Syrian morass has shorn it of its nationalist credentials, undermined its resistance against Israel and entangled it in a dangerous Sunni-Shiite conflagration that is depleting its resources and encouraging Jihadist wrath against its people. In short, the very raison d'être of the organization is now under threat, and with it, Iran’s own strategic interests.
But such conjecture imagines the Syrian crisis wreaking havoc only on Hezbollah’s plans, as if all holds still for its antagonists, when the reality is that the past two years have scuttled everybody’s idea of a narrative in the Levant. Pick through Hezbollah’s opponents one by one and you would be picking through one-time possibilities that lie now in shambles: March 14, hailed at birth as the “civil” coalition that engineered Syria’s ouster from Lebanon in 2005; Saad Hariri, Saudi Arabia’s man and Lebanese Sunni zaim (boss); the opposition in Syria…
You don’t have to be privy to members-only conversations or strain yours ears too close to the ground to hear March 14’s leaders complain about dire financial need, about Saudi chagrin with Hariri’s leadership and, extraordinarily, about Hezbollah’s offers of support (many taken with thanks) to cronies of a cash-strapped Hariri in critical cities like Tripoli.
Reliable whispers have it as well that Saudi fury with the fiascoes of Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, head of intelligence and the man with the Syrian and Lebanese files, has rendered Lebanon unmentionable in the presence of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. Among Bandar’s many bizarre tactics, none has been more unnerving--even to the Kingdom’s keenest Lebanese allies--than his insistence on anointing the very objectionable Samir Geagea (yes, that would be the war criminal) as President.
Such an interesting panorama, and we haven’t even touched on the tensions that have begun to creep into the longstanding US-Saudi alliance as the Obama and Rouhani administrations attempt a paradigm shift in American-Iranian relations. It’s been a while since we’ve heard Saudi Arabia rail publicly against the US the way it has over the super power’s recent reticence in Egypt and Syria. Moreover, I am not sure there is a word more accurate than panic to describe Saudi reaction to an Iranian-American detente.
Mainstream commentary here tends to obsess about how disappointed crucial allies, like Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are in a fickle and retrenching America. But more consequential to the Middle East, frankly, is how unimpressed the US has been with the delivery of these countries, especially on Syria. And should an over burdened US be looking for regional stabilizers as it retreats, it would want, in this post-uprising climate, to look beyond the Arab Gulf and, say, Egypt for assistance. It is, of course too early in the day to declare a radical change in US policy—there are just too many unknown variables and caveats. Suffice to say, as Roger Cohen has helpfully offered, one is hard pressed in the current turmoil to point to a regime more in command of itself than the Iranian one.
The bottom line is that everybody’s in a sweat in the region. To posit that Hezbollah could have done without the distractions and risks borne out of its direct involvement in the Syrian debacle is to state the obvious. It cannot feel too good to be fighting Sunni insurgents as the “great Satan” and Israel look on with much gratitude. But in a environment that has turned virulently more sectarian, Hezbollah’s Shiite constitution is actually more the boon than the drawback conventional wisdom paints it.
In times when Sunni extremists have become uncontrollably violent against minorities from Pakistan to Iraq, it is of considerable comfort to Lebanese Shiites--including those not particularly sold on Hezbollah’s agendas--that they have an army to protect them. The suggestion that this army’s operations in the war raging next door have needlessly drawn Jihadist vengeance against it and its followers is, well, not credible in full view of unprovoked Sunni slaughter of Shiites in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan. Hezbollah has therefore had very little trouble convincing its compatriots that Jihadists were sure to be heading for them even if the group had opted for neutrality or non-interference in Syria.
The truth of the matter is that when the Syrian uprising collapsed as a civil and national project, so did Hezbollah’s own quandaries in having to side with brutality against revolution.
This is a very nervous sectarian moment in the Middle East. But as Toby Matthiesen pointed out in a recent piece in Foreign Policy, “vicious sectarian hate speech,” an enduring component of Arab politics, precedes Syria’s bloodshed. Insisting that Iran and Hezbollah should have wisely retired in silence to the sidelines of this Sunni-Shite conflict is to grossly underestimate the role their Shiism plays in shaping their rejectionist axis. And while it is indisputable that these two players have had to move Israel to the periphery of their vision as they deal with Syria, the shift comes, in fact, as the last in a series of adjustments.
Ponder this: of the many conundrums that have beset Hezbollah since its inception in 1982, none has been more intriguing than the paradox of retreat in victory. With the stunning withdrawal of Israel in 2000 from Southern Lebanon came an avalanche of unrelenting questions about the purpose of an exclusively Shiite arsenal. With the robust performance against Israel in 2006 came devastation, the UNIFEL and the Lebanese army as buffers on the Southern border--to boot, Hassan Nassrallah’s famous had-I-Known apology. With the 2008 whipping of West Beirut came the rude transformation of a presumably noble resistance pointing its rifles outward into a militia thuggishly using them inward.
Long before it crossed the borders to do battle for Assad, Hezbollah had been contending with the burdens that came with too many identities to match too much ambition by a formidable political party-cum-social movement-cum-resistance-cum-army based in an embarrassingly silly state pretending to represent a flagrantly sectarian country.
Considering these herculean responsibilities and the lamentable state of its nemeses in this marvel of a Mediterranean enclave, I would hazard that the Party of God is fairing much better than most of us are willing to concede.