Jumping into the Syrian fray is taking a significant toll on Hezbollah, and it could ultimately take an even greater one on Lebanon. Still, Hezbollah calculates the risk would be even greater if it sat out the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Whether that decision will pay off is yet to be seen.
Europe was careful to name Hezbollah’s “military wing” in its terrorism decision even though the organization is thoroughly unified. In effect, without its military operations Hezbollah would not amount to very much. But some in the EU thought the distinction might help prevent even more instability in fragile Lebanon, where the Shiite militant group is the most powerful political and military player, complete with a private military force that is stronger than the national army.
Despite those concerns, there was no getting around Hezbollah’s long string of politically motivated attacks on civilians, which clearly met the definition of terrorism. The U.S. State Department’s annual terrorism report said, “Iran and Hezbollah's terrorist activity has reached a tempo unseen since the 1990s.”
Europe managed to look the other way for a long time. But when a number of the plots unfolded on European territory, the pressure on Brussels to follow its own rules increased. Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsors have been linked to a string of attacks in recent years, including several last year, one of them in Bulgaria that killed five Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian driver, and a thwarted one in Cyprus for which a Hezbollah operative was convicted. As Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said, “The EU has decided to call Hezbollah what it is: a terrorist organization.” His 28 colleagues agreed and voted unanimously to blacklist. And yet, it was Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria that finally tipped the scales.
The European move complicates Hezbollah’s operations, freezing assets and making travel and financial transfers more difficult, and potentially crippling fundraising activities in the continent. But the decision is significant for another reason: It is part of a trend that has seen the steady collapse of the heroic image Hezbollah worked for decades to construct.
The group’s crumbling reputation is weakening Hezbollah’s position in Lebanon, at a time when Beirut is at a perilous political standstill.
On July 10, the head of the country’s Christian Maronites, Michel Aoun, announced he was removing his party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), from its alliance with Hezbollah. As a result, the so-called March 8 alliance, which had been the ruling coalition under the previous government, ceased to exist. The country has been unable to form a new government for months, and the obstacles only seem higher with each passing day. Aoun’s decision was based on discord over a number of issues—Syria is one of many—and Hezbollah is still working hard to lure him back into the fold. Without the FPM, Hezbollah loses the last fig leaf in its claim to be anything other than a Shiite sectarian group.
It may be too late for that anyway. Sunnis throughout the region now view Hezbollah as the enemy.
The organization had been widely admired throughout the Middle East for standing up to Israel. It portrays itself as a patriotic Lebanese organization. Critics had long complained that Hezbollah was, in fact, undermining Lebanese sovereignty and accused it of acting for the sake of Iran more than Lebanon. Those charges are much more difficult to dispute now.
For Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, the fierce regional backlash that followed his decision to fight in Syria could not have come as a surprise.
He clearly knew Hezbollah would pay a price, otherwise he would not have kept his intervention secret for so many months. But Assad’s troubles grew to the point where Nasrallah concluded it was riskier for Hezbollah to allow the Syrian regime to fall than to be seen backing Assad. Hezbollah’s survival could not be guaranteed without Assad, who allows Syria to act as a conduit for Iran’s massive and indispensable sustenance of Hezbollah.
In late-May, with Lebanese Shiites dying by the dozens in the Syria, Nasrallah at last showed his hand, announcing that Syria’s war is Hezbollah’s war. The speech almost instantaneously earned the scorn of the Arab street, where Assad is viewed as a butcher. The influential Sunni cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi proclaimed that Hezbollah, whose name means Party of God in Arabic, is “the Party of Satan.”
In Lebanon, Hezbollah was accused of endangering the country’s fragile peace and threatening to bring the Syrian war across the border. The intervention in Syria has deeply sharpened sectarian divisions in Lebanon, triggering many outbreaks of deadly fighting. A couple of weeks ago, a massive car bomb in a Hezbollah-controlled suburb south of Beirut killed some 50 people.
Hezbollah predictably blamed Israel, but the talk in Lebanon was about whether the bomb was set by militant Salafists, by the Syrian opposition or by Hezbollah’s Lebanese enemies.
The starkest conclusion from the speculation is that Hezbollah has a rather long list of enemies, at least some of whom are prepared to go to great lengths to hurt the Shiite group.
According to one report, the CIA has warned the Lebanese government that al-Qaida affiliates are planning a major anti-Hezbollah bombing campaign. For Washington, incidentally, the situation is an unnerving sectarian minefield. The U.S. cannot officially communicate with Hezbollah, which it long ago listed as a terrorist group, but Washington would rather not see a bombing campaign, which could unleash a major war in Lebanon. The Lebanese government is heavily weighted with Hezbollah representatives.
Instead of a champion of Lebanon, Hezbollah is viewed today by much of the region as an enemy of Sunnis—even as an enemy of Arabs and Muslims—and a protector of a brutal dictator.
Even Hezbollah’s own members are complaining about the intervention in Syria, which has cost the lives of scores of Lebanese men; saving the Assad regime is a cause not all consider worth dying for.
The rising cost of Hezbollah’s decision to help Assad is evidence of Nasrallah’s calculation. Clearly, he believes that a toppled Assad would be even more costly for Hezbollah. If Assad survives, Hezbollah can try to rebuild its reputation. In the meantime, the steep price of helping the Syrian dictator continues to rise.
Frida Ghitis is an independent commentator on world affairs and a World Politics Review contributing editor. Her weekly WPR column, World Citizen, appears every Thursday.