[Published in Foreign Policy.]
ARSAL, Lebanon — For more than a year, leaders in Lebanon have anxiously eyed the murderous civil war in Syria, wondering whether it would leap across the border and engulf the small, fractious country. And yet, it is Lebanon that now has jumped decisively into the fray, with Hezbollah’s help apparently crucial to the Syrian regime’s strategy and survival.
Uniformed Hezbollah fighters openly patrol the northern reaches of Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, fighting on either side of the increasingly porous border with Syria. Rocket and mortar teams target Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters a few miles away, and Lebanese Hezbollah infantry fighters crisscross the “Shiite villages” surrounding the city of Qusayr just across the border in Syria, which now forms one of the pivot points of the conflict.
The fighting around Qusayr has brought into the open the parlor game over whether Iran and Hezbollah are active combatants in Syria’s war. In an April 30 speech, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah hinted at greater involvement from the Lebanese paramilitary group in Syria, warning that the regime had “real friends” who would prevent Syria from “fall[ing] into the hands” of the United States and Israel.
The thunder of artillery fire in the mountains flanking the Beqaa Valley, like the spate of no-longer-hidden Hezbollah funerals, make clear that Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsors have crossed a Rubicon. They are now fully vested factions in the Syrian civil war, and they’re committed to an open and escalating fight.
Not 20 miles from Hezbollah’s position as the crow flies, FSA fighters flee across the border to the Sunni village of Arsal, nestled north in the Beqaa Valley in the mountains separating Lebanon and Syria. They make no distinction between the Syrian army, Hezbollah, and Iran — because, they say, they get shot at by all three.
“We could have common interests with Hezbollah, but they’re attacking us. Now there are grudges, which we will have to settle after the war,” said Shehadeh Ahmed Sheikh, 24, a self-described mortar man in the FSA. He was sitting cross-legged on the floor of an unfinished home in Arsal. Sheikh had brought with him 16 members of his extended family after their house in Qusayr had been destroyed earlier that week; as we talked, they squatted around him in the dwelling, which they had been assigned to by Arsal’s mayor.
Like many Sunnis in the area, he referred to Hezbollah, whose name means “the Party of God” in Arabic, as Hezb al-Shaitan — “the Party of Satan.”
By supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the hilt, Hezbollah and Iran are risking their hard-won reputation as stewards of an anti-Israel and anti-U.S. alliance that transcends sect and nationality. Syrian combatants increasingly understand the war in sectarian terms: On one side there is the Sunni majority; on the other side, other sects and a small group of Sunnis that have made common cause with the Alawite regime.
Western diplomats estimate that a few thousand Hezbollah fighters are involved in the Syrian fighting. Close observers of the group, which carefully guards its operational structure, say that they mistrust any precise numbers. But if Hezbollah has sent hundreds, or even a few thousand, of its best-trained fighters to Syria, that deployment certainly represents a significant percentage of its fighting force. During its 2006 war with Israel, the highest estimate of Hezbollah fighters killed was about 700, with the group’s own official death toll closer to 300.
Sunnis are increasingly framing the conflict as a sectarian jihad. The influential Lebanese Salafi cleric Ahmad Al-Assir has set up his own militia, suggesting his fighters would be just as willing to confront Hezbollah in Lebanon as they already are to travel to Syria to fight alongside the rebels there. Supporters of the regime and Hezbollah point out that the rebellion tolerates Sunni fundamentalist extremists whereas Assad and Hezbollah rely on a time-tested alliance of minorities, including Alawites, Christians, Druze, and Shiite Muslims. The propaganda of both sides has sharpened a narrative of the Syrian conflict as a struggle between Sunni extremists and old-style authoritarians, who at least protect the minorities they exploit. Deadly identity politics have taken root, and people on both sides of the conflict see it more and more as a matter of survival. Sheikh, the young Sunni fighter, planned to return to battle as soon as he settled his family: “We cannot go back to the way things were before.”
* * *
On the eve of the uprisings just three short years ago, many Arab analysts observed half-jokingly that the most influential state in the Arab world wasn’t Arab at all — it was Iran, awash in oil revenues and ready to lavish cash on a region in the throes of an increasingly hot Sunni-Shiite cold war. Sunni monarchs and dictators fretted about a “Shiite Crescent” linking Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Hezbollah. Tehran, for its part, strutted triumphantly across the Arab stage, bragging about an unstoppable “Axis of Resistance” oiled with ideological fervor and the supreme leader’s bank account.
What a difference a few uprisings can make. Today, Iran’s involvement in Syria has all the makings of a quagmire, and certainly represents the Islamic Republic’s biggest strategic setback in the region since its war with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein ended in 1988. Syria’s conflict has begun to attract so much attention and resources that it threatens to end the era when Iran could nimbly outmaneuver the slow-moving American behemoth in the Middle East.
Iran — already reeling from sanctions — is spending hundreds of millions of dollars propping up Bashar al-Assad’s regime. In the murky arena of sub rosa foreign intervention, it’s impossible to keep a detailed count of the dollars, guns, and operatives the Islamic Republic has dispatched to Syria. Westerners and Arab officials who have met in recent months with Syrian government ministers say that Iranian advisers are retooling key ministries to provide copious military training, including to the newly established citizen militias in regime-controlled areas of Syria. “We back Syria,” Iranian General Ahmad Reza Pourdastan reiterated on May 5. “If there is need for training we will provide them with the training.”
In private meetings, Iranian diplomats in the region project insouciance, suggesting that the Islamic Republic can indefinitely sustain its military and financial aid to the Assad regime. To be sure, its burden today is probably bearable. But as sanctions squeeze Iran and it comes under increasing pressure over its nuclear program, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) might find the investment harder to sustain. The conflict shows no signs of ending, and as foreign aid to the rebels escalates, Iran will have to pour in more and more resources simply to maintain a stalemate. If this is Iran’s Vietnam, we’re only beginning year three.
The cost of Tehran’s support of Assad can’t entirely be measured in dollars. Iran has had to sacrifice most of its other Arab allies on the Syrian altar. As the violence worsened, Hamas gave up its home in Damascus and its warm relationship with Tehran. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government has also adopted a scolding tone toward Iran on Syria. On Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy’s first visit to Tehran, he took the opportunity to blast the “oppressive regime” in Damascus, saying it was an “ethical duty” to support the opposition.
Gone are the days when Iran held the mantle of popular resistance. Popular Arab movements, including Syria’s own rebels, now have the momentum and air of authenticity. Iran’s mullahs finally look to the Arab near-abroad as they long have appeared at home — repressive, authoritarian, and fierce defenders of the status quo.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Iran’s commitment to Assad has put the crown jewel of its assets in the Arab world, Hezbollah, in danger. Just a few years ago, a survey found that Nasrallah was the most popular leader in the Arab world. Along with other members of the “resistance axis,” Hezbollah mocked the rest of the Arab world’s political movements as toadies and collaborators, happy to submit to American-Israeli hegemony. Today, however, it has sacrificed this popular support and enraged Sunnis across the Arab world by siding with a merciless dictator.
Hezbollah used to try to cultivate allies from all sects, so that it wouldn’t seem to be pursuing a purely Shiite agenda, but it now appears in the eyes of the Arab world to have cast its lot — hook, line, and sinker — with a brutal minority regime in Syria over a popular, largely Islamist movement. A Pew survey last year found that the group’s popularity was declining in predominantly Sunni countries such as Egypt and Jordan, while Lebanese Sunnis and Christians also increasingly soured on the party.
In the border town of Hermel, usually secretive Hezbollah fighters have openly mobilized. They fight on both sides of the border, protecting a ring of Shiite villages in Syria that connect Damascus to the Alawite heartland. An untold number of Hezbollah fighters have been killed in Syria — so many that the movement has stopped keeping the funerals secret and has even released videos of some of the martyrs. “We bury our martyrs in the open,” Nasrallah said in his recent speech. “We are not ashamed of them.”
Hezbollah positions in Hermel were shelled on May 12, and the Sunni jihadist Nusra Front reportedly claimed responsibility. In their rhetoric, Lebanese politicians have sought to downplay the sectarian nature of the fight in Syria, and there are plenty of individuals who say they have chosen sides out of interest or ideology, rather than sect. Yet to most of its participants, the conflict has taken on an undeniably sectarian hue: an almost entirely Sunni rebellion, against a regime supported by the majority of Syria’s other sects.
“There’s no difference between Hezbollah, the army, and the Syrian regime,” scoffed Mustafa Ezzedine, a driver in Arsal who was recently dragged into the conflict as a literal hostage, kidnapped because he was a Sunni Muslim by a Shiite clan that wanted one of its own kidnapped members released. It doesn’t matter that among his guests at a recent, lazy hashish-fueled afternoon tea was a member of that same rival clan: sectarian politics have little regard for personal views. For residents of the Beqaa Valley, the war in Syria has already drifted across the border, and they fear it could get worse quickly.
The regional stakes are high as well. On at least one occasion, the Syrian conflict has cost an Iranian military commander his life. In mid-February, a shadowy IRGC officer responsible for overseeing Iranian reconstruction projects in Lebanon who went by the names Hessam Khoshnevis and Hassan Shateri was killed on the road from Damascus to Beirut. Iran put out the story that Israel assassinated their man, but Western and Arab officials told me they had seen reliable intelligence reports that it was a Syrian rebel ambush.
A who’s who of Lebanese politicians paid condolences at the Iranian embassy, and Hezbollah’s number two, Naim Qassem, delivered a long tribute to the fallen IRGC offer at a memorial service in an underground theater in Beirut’s Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs. It was the latest sign that Hezbollah is willing to risk everything in supporting the Syrian dictator — and that Iran just may ask its Lebanese ally to fight to the end, or go down with the ship.
“We would be nothing without Iran!” Qassem thundered in his tribute. “Others hide the foreign funds they receive. We proudly open our hands to Iran’s gifts. What the resistance needs, they provide.”
Ian Masters spoke with me about the deepening war in Syria and its implications for the outside powers investing in the conflict. Syria’s civil war is increasingly a reflection of power struggles between the Sunni-Monarchical alliance (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Jordan, Turkey, Israel, the US, Lebanon’s March 14, the Syrian rebels) and the Shia-Resistance axis (Assad’s ruling coalition, Iran, Iraq, Hezbollah, Lebanon’s March 8, various Arab minority groups). Here we talk mostly about how the conflict affects Hezbollah and Iran, but the bigger picture is that — unfortunately for Syrians — the civil war is definitively deepening into a regional proxy fight as well.
Matthew Bell did a piece on The World this week about Hassan Nasrallah’s latest speech. In short, has Hezbollah gone all in? And why? You can listen to the conversation here. Quick points: Hezbollah felt compelled to more openly address its involvement in Syria after the big Qusayr offensive of the last month. But this isn’t so much a turning point. The turning point came last fall, when Hezbollah, and Iran, decided not to hedge their bets but rather to fully side with the regime. Now the “Axis of Resistance” stands to lose a lot more when or if Assad falls — but they could well have invested in pro-resistance alternatives.
Old friend Aaron Schaachter put me on the radio on Friday to ask what we know about Hezbollah’s latest maneuvers as the Syrian civil war deepens and spreads. I talked about Hezbollah’s spreading involvement in the conflict, which includes so many outside actors (US, Turkey, Qatar, KSA, Iran, most Lebanese factions, and more) and the dangers for Lebanon as Hezbollah finds its interests threatened by the collapse of the Syrian state. You can listen to the discussion on The World on WGBH/PRI here.
Google Plus hosted a hangout on Friday to talk about whether Hezbollah’s tactics are changing. I joined Gareth Porter, Ali Gharib and Josh Hersh to talk about the latest European cases against Hezbollah, the debate over terror-listing, and the question of Hezbollah’s motives. The conversation was good, full of healthy skepticism. Hersh made smart points about how little is actually known about Hezbollah, and most of us agreed that it was hard to ascertain why Hezbollah would get involved in assassination plots and terror attacks on civilians at this particular point in its history. We also for the most part agreed that putting Hezbollah on Europe’s terror list would accomplish little. Where we departed was on our view of the evidence — I see accumulating data that connects Hezbollah to plots and killings, although I have questions about the logic at play, while Gareth Porter seemed convinced that there was no actual evidence at all connecting Hezbollah to crimes since and including Rafik Hariri’s murder in 2005.
You can watch the whole half-hour conversation here.
The bus destroyed in the attack in Burgas, Bulgaria on July 19th, 2012. (Stoyan Nenov/Reuters)
Originally posted at The Atlantic.
The Lebanese Shi’ite militant group, now blamed for a July attack on a busload of Israeli tourists in a resort city in Bulgaria, is once again striking far beyond its home country’s borders.
Hezbollah, a growing body of evidence suggests, is back in the business of international operations after a long hiatus — striking out not only at military or official targets of its sworn enemies, but also, this time, at civilians. Bulgarian officials said on Tuesday that they could connect Hezbollah to the July 2012 bombing at a Black Sea resort that killed six civilians (five Israelis and their Bulgarian bus driver) along with one attacker. The results of Bulgaria’s investigation, if they bear out, add credence to a pattern that has slowly taken shape over the last seven years, ever since Hezbollah was first indicted for a political assassination in Lebanon and later accused of strikes on Israeli targets abroad. The Party of God, once eager to forswear tactics considered terrorist, appears to be tilting back into their embrace. The culmination of this transformation, or return to origins, could have serious consequences.
Observers of Hezbollah have kept track of the organization’s enduring ability to strike beyond Lebanon’s borders and its deep connections in Western diaspora communities. Still, Bulgaria’s claim that two of the alleged Hezbollah operatives carried real Western passports, from Canada and Australia, provides hard evidence. US officials have always worried about Hezbollah operatives with Western passports, but have never made any credible claims about the number of cells with military training that are believed to reside outside Lebanon.
The deliberate investigation of the Bulgaria bombing could heighten alarm about Hezbollah. Last year Hezbollah was accused in plots against Israeli targets around the globe, some foiled ahead of time (Bangkok, Baku), some botched in execution (India, Georgia), and some lethal, like the one in Bulgaria. Perhaps Hezbollah is frustrated by its own weakness; since 2008, it has sworn to retaliate against Israel for the assassination of Hezbollah’s military mastermind, Imad Mughniyeh. Yet more than four years have passed, and Hezbollah has failed in any plots against high-profile Israeli targets. Hence, perhaps, the targeting of Israeli holidaymakers instead.
Now, evidence from these cases is emerging at a time when the Lebanese party-cum-militia is feeling more threatened – and perhaps more militarized – than at any point in more than a decade. Hezbollah fighters have been actively involved in the Syrian civil war, on the regime’s side, another departure for an organization that for two decades has styled itself a national resistance movement, and has portrayed all its fights as defensive stands against Israel. In Syria today, Hezbollah can make no such claim for its fighters. Furthermore, if Syria decided to retaliate directly at Israel for its recent strike, Hezbollah would be the most efficient vehicle through which to do so.
Western intelligence and security officials have longed worried about Hezbollah’s presence among the Lebanese diaspora, which numbers somewhere between 10 and 14 million. Plenty of Lebanese abroad support Hezbollah politically. Some are known to engage in fundraising and other types of nonmilitary support. What’s not clear is how many of these dual nationals have any time of military training, or any role as sleeper or sabotage cells. The Bulgarian revelations suggest that Hezbollah might have some real strategic assets sprinkled in the West.
Since the massive attacks on Jewish targets in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994 (which Hezbollah denied but to which it was tied with conclusive evidence in Argentine courts), Hezbollah for a long time avoided kidnappings and terrorist spectaculars. But there’s growing evidence that that policy changed in 2005 with the assassination of Rafik Hariri. Hezbollah has denied any blame for that murder, resorting to increasingly improbable evasions of responsibility. Still, it was a political assassination, and deplorable as it was it didn’t mark a return to attacks on random civilians. Last year’s plots, however, if they are conclusively laid at Hezbollah’s doorstep, do amount to a substantive pivot.
Hezbollah has argued since the mid-1990s that it should be treated as a liberation movement, accorded the status of a quasi-state. It has claimed to behave within the norms of nations, concentrating after 1994 on military targets in its fight with Israel and making a plausible claim to proportionality vis-à-vis Israel’s use of force against Lebanese civilians.
One benefit of this approach for Hezbollah has been Europe’s refusal to list it as a terrorist organization. Hezbollah remains the dominant player in Lebanon’s government and the single-most powerful political and militia organization in Lebanon. While American diplomats by law can’t even talk to Hezbollah members, most Europeans have maintained relations.
Terror-listing is an inherently symbolic exercise; despite the financial sanctions it carries, the designation does little to change behavior and it reduces the political maneuver room of all involved. To what extent has the US listing of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization altered its behavior? (For that matter, what difference does it make when foreign states brand the Pentagon “terrorist?”) But if Hezbollah is going rogue, or returning to its rogue roots of the 1980s, it will hurt the group over the long run, as it loses the access it has won in the Middle East and in Europe, and squanders what credibility it earned beyond its immediate following. Hezbollah will remain a quasi-state, but a rogue one.
Today, Hezbollah faces tremendous pressure as its patrons in Syria are on the verge of a state collapse. The Sunni resistance movement that might take over the embattled country detests Hezbollah nearly as much as it does Bashar Al-Assad. So Hezbollah faces the prospect of regional isolation and a strategic dismemberment, with the loss of the hinterland long afforded by Syria
The best-case scenario is that the machinations of outside players in Syria, including Hezbollah’s, don’t alter the wider status quo: that what happens in Syria stays in Syria. Increasingly, however, that seems like a fragile supposition. Already four outside forces have their own guns more or less in the game: Turkey and Israel against the regime, Iran and Hezbollah for it. Plenty more players are sending money or weapons in: the United States, Qatar, Kuwait, Russia, along with other wealthy figures and factions around the region.
Would this imbroglio ignite a regional conflagration? Iran’s threats, like Syria’s, ring hollow, but aren’t without cause for concern. With so many outsiders in the mix, and so many partisan groups already fighting inside Syria, all it takes is one miscalculation. If Hezbollah already has activated secret cells to foment international attacks, making what appears to be several attempts across the world to hit Israeli targets, that marks another destabilizing escalation. It’s a volatile mix, and the more threatened Hezbollah and the Assad regime feel, the more likely they are to make wild moves – attacks guaranteed to provoke international retaliation, or actions that they themselves will come to see as mistakes. There’s no guarantee that we’re headed for a regional war, or a spate of international attacks spawned by Syria’s conflicts – but there’s more cause today than ever before to worry.
[Published in The New Republic.]
Hassan Nasrallah has always been more sophisticated than the caricatured nightmare featured in the breathless propaganda of Hezbollah’s many enemies. Even at his most noxious he usually managed to present himself as a man of principle. That’s why it was almost sad to see Nasrallah this week pandering like an old-time Arab despot to public anger over the misbegotten Prophet Mohammed YouTube clip.
“America, which uses the pretext of freedom of expression needs to understand that putting out the whole film will have very grave consequences around the world,” Nasrallah said at a Hezbollah rally on September 17, one of the exceedingly rare occasions on which he appeared in public since he went into hiding during the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon. “The world should know our anger will not be a passing outburst but the start of a serious movement that will continue on the level of the Muslim nation to defend the Prophet of God.” Though the message sounds militant, it was actually just a flailing attempt to catch up to developments elsewhere in the region. Hezbollah, which used to set the Arab world’s trends, now finds itself forced to opportunistically jump on the latest global Islamist bandwagon.
In fact, Hezbollah’s embrace of the controversy over the video marks a final stage of its speedy evolution from revolutionary militant resistance movement to Machiavellian establishment power center. Lebanon’s Party of God once literally threw bombs at those who stood in the way of its ideology, attacking powerful enemies like America and Israel as well as smaller rivals at home. Today, Hezbollah represents the very sort of power it used to oppose. It dominates Lebanese politics as the majority party, choosing the prime minister; it commands a formidable standing army; its complicity in domestic political assassinations no longer is credibly debated; and it remains comfortable with its deep, compromised embrace of Bashar Al-Assad’s criminal regime in Syria.
There’s no mystery here: Hezbollah has become essentially conservative, fearful of the status of its political interests and financial and military networks. The very fact that Nasrallah felt compelled to risk emerging from his underground safe haven suggests that he fears very seriously for his organization’s future. It’s a remarkable change for a movement that was once confident in its ideological rigor and in its ability to earn unparalleled popular support in the region.
IN THE FIRST two decades of Nasrallah’s stewardship, Lebanon’s Party of God transformed itself from a potent but small militant group, best known for spectacular terrorist attacks, into the driver of the Axis of Resistance, crafting a widely appealing message of nationalism and fearless self-reliance built on an uncompromising opposition to Israel and the United States. Just two years ago, Nasrallah was still crowing about an open war with Israel and was still reaping the political benefit of being seen as the sole Arab leader to stand up to the U.S. and Israel.
Today, of course, his critical patron in Syria is teetering, threatening to vastly curtail Hezbollah’s military power, and his source of money and weapons in Iran is distracted by sanctions, a feeble economy and its nuclear showdown with the West. More importantly, the Arab world is awash in genuine retail politics. Indeed, what ultimately broke Hezbollah’s monopoly on popular legitimacy—what ultimately put the Axis of Resistance to rest as a meaningful political or ideological bloc in the Middle East—were the Arab revolts.
Like any establishment power with too much to lose, Hezbollah has kept a distance from uprisings that empower competitors. Still, there is no denying that those rivals have risen throughout the region; fire-breathers and populists have taken position all along the political spectrum from the Islamist right to the secular-anarchist left.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood embraces many similar views to Hezbollah, without the call to violence and regional war. There are Salafi extremists running political parties, and there are secular nationalists who sound every bit as uncompromising as Hezbollah when it comes to Israel. To round out the picture, there are voices that oppose violence and endorse diplomacy and pluralistic electoral politics, again along all parts of the spectrum (although sadly, they form a minority). Even Hamas, one of the four pillars of the Axis, has quietly quit its alliance with Syria (and its reliance on Iranian money), gambling that a dignified and principled stand against Bashar Al-Assad will pay handsome long-term dividends in popularity and legitimacy.
Hezbollah, however, calculated that it had no such option. The Assad regime has long allowed Syria to serve as Hezbollah’s rear staging area. Weapons transit through the Damascus airport to Hezbollah training camps and depots. In times of war, trucks can ferry all manner of material into Lebanon from safe havens in Syria. Without Syria, Hezbollah could find itself isolated in the tiny confines of Lebanon, where about half the population detests Hezbollah and its project. For now, Hezbollah’s hard power is undiminished, but the future doesn’t look so secure for the Party of God.
And so, backed into a corner, Hezbollah has responded to the radical transformation of Arab politics much like American policy makers, improvising on an ad hoc basis. Hezbollah has doubled down on its anti-Israel and anti-American credentials, but has abandoned the more inclusive nationalistic part of its resistance credo that arguably propelled its meteoric rise and sustained power. Nasrallah used to unabashedly endorse any populist Arab movement that opposed dictatorship at home or Western ambitions abroad. Now, Hezbollah seems to pick and choose the occasions when justice matters: Yes for the Shia of Bahrain, less so for the citizens of Egypt, and not so much for the Sunnis of Syria. When Israel was occupying southern Lebanon or bombing its villages, and U.S.-backed tyrants were oppressing much of the region, the sense of a powerful, monolithic enemy united support behind Hezbollah. The new reality is patently more complex, with none of the old bugbears solely to blame for the Arab world’s woes. Without a villain, Hezbollah’s fundamental recipe for power and legitimacy loses its yeast.
Of course, Hezbollah has never become explicitly or exclusively sectarian. It has managed to maintain a tight, six-year alliance with Lebanon’s largest Christian party, Michael Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement. But this has never been an especially durable strategy. The contradictions are profound and irreconcilable. To some, Hezbollah is a pan-Arab guerilla front against Israel. To some it is a dogmatic Shia religious movement that sincerely embraces Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s theocratic theology. And to some, it is a shrewd and pragmatic political actor that knows how to make the trains run on time. Yet, it cannot be all of these things at once.
Hezbollah has never been free of such tensions and Nasrallah has always managed to masterfully hold the movement together despite them. As the disconnect has grown wider, however, the false narrative that Hezbollah uses to bridge the gap has grown ever more tenuous. It’s getting harder for even Hezbollah’s most committed supported to believe that Syria’s uprising is a foreign, American-backed plot to massacre innocents, create sectarian strife, and impose Israeli hegemony over the Levant. As the civil war next door spills ever more toxically across the border into Lebanon, claiming lives in Hezbollah’s neighborhoods, it has become impossible to maintain the charade of denial. As the nature of the Syrian regime’s brutality (and the cynicism with which Nasrallah has blessed it) begins to sink in, Hezbollah risks ending up looking more and more like a Shia sectarian movement, just another player in a polarized regional struggle.
If history is any guide, of course, Hezbollah will be nimble and adaptive, and use any circumstances possible to turn a bleak outlook to its advantage. Some holes, however, are too deep to climb out of. The fall of the House of Assad might be one of them. And, judging from his flailing, Nasrallah himself seems to know it.
Julian Assange’s interview with Hassan Nasrallah told us nothing new about Hezbollah, but it was interesting all the same for the very fact that it took place. Since 2006, Nasrallah has only spoken to one other Western reporter (Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker), and Hezbollah has minimized its contact with the Western media. The Party of God’s position effectively has been that it’s simply a waste of its time and resources to talk to an audience that views it as a bunch of recalcitrant terrorists under any circumstances.
Perhaps Nasrallah calculated that he stood to benefit from a direct address to a Western audience, what with Syria’s government teetering and Hezbollah situated no longer as a defiant underdog but as a status quo power in a transforming Arab world. Or maybe he just felt like he owed a karmic favor to the Father of Wikileaks and his new patrons at the Kremlin, who are underwriting Assange’s new TV show.
Either way, Mr. Wikileaks spoke for almost a half-hour with Nasrallah, and displayed some chops. He confronted Nasrallah about Hezbollah’s inconsistency, supporting all the Arab uprisings except for the one against its sponsor in Syria. He asked point blank about reports that Nasrallah was upset about corruption and a growing taste for luxury among Hezbollah cadres – concerns I’ve heard echoed by Hezbollah partisans.
A smiling Nasrallah replied in his usual confident and measured cadence, which might have come as a surprise to a Western audience that has never has seen a full performance. Syria has always backed the resistance, he said in a simple explanation for Hezbollah’s support of Bashar Al-Assad. About the Jewish state, Nasrallah explained Hezbollah’s long-held position in gentle language: the Party of God would be satisfied if there were one single state for Israelis and Palestinians.
There were only two, small, surprises.
The first came when Nasrallah, in what was either a display of humor or an unwitting security lapse, revealed some of the code words favored by Hezbollah’s fighters: “donkey,” “cooking pot,” and most intriguingly, “the father of the chicken.”
“No Israeli intelligence agent or computer agent is going to understand what the father of the chicken is or why they call him the father of the chicken,” Nasrallah bragged.
Then, in order to prove his mettle to dismissive career journalists, Assange asked a real stumper of a question: if Nasrallah really considered himself a freedom fighter, why didn’t he fight against the “totalitarianism” of a monotheistic God?
Nasrallah’s clearly got a kick out of it. “How could the universe last for billions of years in such beautiful harmony if there were more than one God?” Nasrallah said with a bemused smile. “We don’t fight to impose a religious belief on anybody.”
Throughout its history, Hezbollah has proven adept at reinventing itself in times of crisis, defying its challengers to roar back to power after appearing on the verge of marginalization and defeat.
With that caveat, it’s hard to look the current state of play in Beirut as anything but dire for Hezbollah and promising for those who would like to see a weaker “Axis of Resistance.”
Syria’s dictator is on the way out, and Hezbollah looks reactionary and out of sync with history. Hassan Nasrallah has resorted to citing the resistance record of Syria and Iran, as if the only point in their favor is that they’ve stood against Israel and the United States.
Aryn Baker, writing in Time, points out that Nasrallah feted the other uprisings in the Arab world but when it comes to Syria, has “repeated Assad’s tired canard about foreign influences (read: the U.S. and Israel) driving the revolt.”
That double standard doesn’t sit well with a new generation of Arabs who say Hizballah is doing exactly the same thing Nasrallah mocked U.S. President Barack Obama for at the beginning of the Egyptian revolution: supporting a tyrant just because of his stance on Israel. “They call themselves the party of resistance, of justice, but where is the justice?” asks Issa Hammoud, a documentary filmmaker who had been a decade-long member of Hizballah, until he left the group a few months ago in disgust over its pro-Syria policy. “By supporting Assad’s regime they are proving they have no morals.” Perhaps. But Hizballah is also demonstrating that self-interest often trumps values.
Nasrallah also has focused a lot of attention on the efforts of the CIA in Lebanon, some of which apparently have been foiled by effective Hezbollah counter-intelligence. This embarrassment for the CIA, of course, has nothing to do with Hezbollah’s legitimacy. If everyone is doing the jobs they’re supposed to be doing, America and Israel will be trying to spy on Hezbollah and Syria and Iran, and vice versa.
At a moment when Lebanese and Syrians are wondering why Nasrallah won’t put any daylight between his popular movement and Syria’s repressive minority regime, Nasrallah has used the CIA scoop as a monumental distraction.
It can’t hide his woes, which have spilled over to the domestic political arena. The Hezbollah-backed prime minister recently moved ahead to fund the Special Tribunal pursuing Hezbollah suspects in the Rafik Hariri assassination.
Mona Yacoubian argues in Foreign Affairs that Hezbollah might turn its attention to domestic politics for a period, in order to consolidate its power at home.
Others have wondered whether instability in Lebanon and Syria could prompt Hezbollah to pursue the destabilizing but legitimizing cover of regional war, but Hezbollah watchers have argued that both Hezbollah and Israel seem to want to postpone a rematch of the 2006 war that both sides are convinced will be much more destructive than the last war.
Lebanon’s political weathervane, Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt, has distanced himself from Hezbollah’s wildly pro-Assad position (he allied with Hezbollah a few years ago after spending a few years as Hezbollah’s loudest critic). “Those who are attached to the Syrian regime should recognize that they’re being hostile to the majority of the Syrian people,” Jumblatt told Al-Majalla magazine, as reported in The Daily Star.
Still, Hezbollah boasts the most formidable militia in the Arab world, and commands the undivided loyalty of its core supporters, even if the casual fans are drifting away. For the time being, the movement also can count of Iran’s critical funding. Even in the year of the Arab uprisings, Nasrallah scored as the most popular Arab leader on the Annual Arab Public Opinion Survey (although some non-Arabs did better; Nasrallah was tied with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and behind Turkey’s leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan).
So Hezbollah is unlikely in the short term to diminish as a player.
And Hezbollah’s unmasking of CIA agents in Lebanon serves as a stark reminder that the Party of God is a force with real tools in its arsenal, not just a rhetorically gifted leader who plays well on television. This week, Al Manar aired the name of a man it claims is the current CIA station chief in Beirut; the agency has replaced top officers in Pakistan twice in the last two years when their names were published.
However dim Hezbollah’s long-term prospects, it will remain a critical player in the short term. And if history is any indicator, it might just find a way to emerge – once again – stronger from a self-induced crisis that threatens to consign it to irrelevance.
Photo: Matthew Cassel, Al Jazeera
Sure, Hassan Nasrallah just made his second public appearance in five years, but I’d take that less as bravado and more as a sign that Hezbollah considers its situation especially grave. Syria is teetering, and with it much of Hezbollah’s strategic depth. To boot, Hezbollah has gone so far ahead of the curve defending Bashar Assad’s regime that it has lost much of its “resistance” luster with soft sympathizers — secular Arab nationalists, Christians, Sunni Muslims, and others in Lebanon and around the Arab world who hitherto have sided with Hezbollah even if they find some aspects of The Party of God distasteful.
Hezbollah supporters have long worried that their prospects would be dim in a post-Assad Syria. I suspect that Hezbollah’s full-throated backing of Assad, in contrast to its vocal derision of other Arab tyrants, has actually made those prospects far worse. Bringing that worry into the open is Syrian opposition leader Burhan Ghalioun, who has been telling lots of reporters that when the regime falls, so too will Syria’s special relationship with Iran and Hezbollah. He tells CNN:
“The Syrian people stood completely by Hezbollah once. But today, they are surprised that Hezbollah did not return the favor and support the Syrian’s people struggle for freedom.”
Hezbollah, I think, has good reason to worry. Their days of easy access to training areas and weapons resupply are numbered.
Owen Bennett-Jones runs down the age-old debate, and in the process surveys lots of talking heads, including me.
The apparent contradiction may never be tested for two reasons. First, there seems very little prospect of a two-state solution being agreed at least in the foreseeable future. Secondly, even if there was a peace deal it is likely that some Palestinians would reject it and Hezbollah could simply align themselves with that strand of Palestinian thinking.
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Hezbollah supporters have been watching the turbulence next door in Syria with apprehension. Rhetorically, the Lebanese Party of God has backed its patron in Damascus, although its embrace has grown tepid of late. But Hezbollah was worried enough to shift its weapons caches from Syria into Lebanon, reportedly, and its emissaries have been working behind the scenes to mend relations with Syria’s opposition. At the core of their worry is a sectarian concern: Syria without Bashar al-Assad might be willing to jettison Hezbollah — after all, Syria is a majority Sunni nation, and Hezbollah is a Shia standard-bearer.
“The Islamists who are fighting against Bashar Assad are not going to support us if they take power,” one Hezbollah partisan told me recently in Lebanon. “They might believe in resistance against Israel, but they won’t support our resistance.”
If, or more likely when, Assad’s government finally falls to the uprising that has shaken Syria for more than half a year, its successor will renegotiate Syria’s regional relationships. Assad’s long-time friends and clients have good reason to feel insecure. A more democratic Syria would represent the country’s Sunni majority, which includes a fair number of Islamists. They likely won’t share all the priorities of Assad’s brutal minority regime, whose commitment to secular government conveniently justifies its manic clinging to absolute authority.
A Syria led in part by the Muslim Brotherhood, or by a confederation of anti-Assad forces, would probably continue to support resistance movements that fight Israel, and would likely continue relations with Iran (and, possibly, pursue warmer relations with Iraq). But it might be less vested in the ideological absolutism of the existing “Axis of Resistance,” led by Hezbollah and Iran, and more interested in a new Arab nationalist front, which could unite Egypt, the Palestinians, and other post-dictatorial Arab states in an alliance that opposes Israel and some American projects from a less bellicose footing.
The threat to Hezbollah is tangible, and has broad regional implications.
Kelly McEvers has a story on NPR about Moqtada Sadr’s methods; he seems to be borrowing directly from Hezbollah’s playbook, and I discuss in an interview with Kelly all the potential for power and long-term pitfalls Hezbollah’s approach entails.
At a recent press conference, Iraq’s minister of planning, Ali Youssef al-Shukri, stepped to the podium, gave a brief and somber blessing, and announced the issue of the day: a new mechanism for quality control of imports to Iraq.
Shukri spoke softly and wore a pressed suit. The former academic has spent time in the United States, on a State Department program for international leaders. One could hardly guess that he belongs to the party of Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric best known for fierce battles against U.S. troops during the war and violent threats against the American presence in Iraq that continue today.
Analysts say the planning minister is the new face of Sadr’s party, which now holds 40 out of 325 seats in Iraq’s Parliament. They say Sadr is following in the footsteps of other Islamist groups in the region — namely, Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Remaking a militant group’s image starts with recruiting middle-class technocrats into the party’s ranks, says Thanassis Cambanis, author of A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel.
With Hezbollah, “militants, fighters and ideologues who were leading the party would be happy to assign an obscure dentist or biochemical professor to an important portfolio in Parliament or in the government — if that person could do a better job,” he says. “This lack of ego was a big part of their success.”
It’s a success Cambanis says Sadr hopes to copy. If, say, Iraq’s Planning Ministry can show it’s combating corruption by controlling imports, then the people will continue voting for Sadr’s party.
Just a year ago, Hezbollah was sitting pretty. Lebanon’s Party of God had consolidated its influence across the Arab world with a durable set of alliances. Its Axis of Resistance, formed with Iran, Syria and Hamas, had emerged as the most credible and authoritative force in Middle Eastern politics. Its central idea—to mobilize self-reliant communities around a frontal confrontation with Israel—seemed to be setting the region’s agenda.
But the Arab Spring changed the rules of the game that Hezbollah so masterfully played for the last two decades. Today, the party faces perhaps the biggest threats to the legitimacy it has worked so hard to cultivate among cadres, casual supporters and even the political opponents who have come to grudgingly respect the effectiveness of its leader, Hassan Nasrallah.
The first, and more short-term, challenge comes from Syria, where a tottering Assad regime could severely curtail Hezbollah’s military room for maneuver. The second, more enduring, issue is the Arab political renaissance underway, which could produce movements well positioned to steal Hezbollah’s anti-Israel thunder with a resistance program free from the party’s sectarian, militant baggage.
Ian had me on his show on Wednesday to discuss the Special Tribunal for Lebanon indictments. He’s particularly interested in the possibility for a regional war now, provoked by an Israeli attack on Iran, or by the Assad regime and Hezbollah because of the domestic threats they face. My view is that Hezbollah would be unlikely to start a war with Israel on behalf of one of its foreign sponsors – Syria or Iran – but it might fear the collapse of the Assad regime could threaten Hezbollah’s military viability. I also believe the Tribunal indictments don’t pose a serious challenge to Hezbollah anymore. (I’ve written an extended version of this argument which should be published soon in The National Interest.)
You can listen to the Ian Masters show here.
During the six turbulent years since Rafik Hariri was blown up on the Beirut waterfront, supporters of the outspoken billionaire former prime minister longed for the day that his killers would face justice.
But the indictments submitted this week by the UN-mandated Special Tribunal for Lebanon hit with more splutter than splash. In the short term, Hezbollah will face minimal fallout from the charges against two of its officials, which the Tribunal named as ringleaders in the assassination.
The more serious threats to Hezbollah’s primacy in the long run lie elsewhere. The first comes from the Tribunal, which will exert leverage over Lebanon not by the suspects it indicts but by the strength of the case it presents. The second and perhaps more important challenge to Hezbollah stems from the radical political changes sweeping the Arab world, which threaten its Syrian government sponsors in Damascus, and have put Hezbollah in the position of siding with authoritarian dictators in the era of the Arab spring.
In the weeks since I returned from Egypt, I’ve made a number of previously scheduled talks, originally intended to cover Hezbollah and the most recent developments in Lebanon. I’ve made a stab at addressing the tumultuous change more broadly, as three forces are now competing for popular momentum: revolution (the massive and ongoing regional wave), reaction (the old statist regimes and monarchs), and resistance (the axis of empowerment through armed uprising).
It appears that Salve Regina, the small college in Newport, R.I. that hosted one of those talks, has posted the video online. It is with some trepidation that I post the link.
Terry Gross interviewed me on Fresh Air today about the events in Egypt and their potential to create new space in Arab politics. From the Fresh Air website:
All of our assumptions about the Arab world have been turned on their heads in the past month, says veteran Middle East correspondent Thanassis Cambanis.
“Everything that the experts say and everything that the activists and politicians have taken for granted for a generation, at least, is really off the table,” he tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross. “What’s been happening, first in Lebanon and then in Tunisia and now in Egypt and who knows further afield, suggests that new forces have been unleashed and we have no idea where they might lead and what new dynamics they might create.”
On Wednesday’s Fresh Air, Cambanis puts what has been going on in Egypt in a historical context — and explains the rising influence of the political party Hezbollah in the region. He says the recent explosion of popular anger and activism in Egypt opens up the possibility for a new political movement — one not endorsed by autocratic regimes or rooted in Hezbollah’s Islamist ideology.
“There are a lot of people, both dispossessed and powerful, who want dignity but they don’t necessarily want endless war — which is what the Hezbollah school of thought advocates,” he says. “I think they would be hungry for, and very receptive to, an Egypt-centered political movement that talks about Arab empowerment but not endless war.”
A few weeks ago, when Lebanon was still big news, I gave a talk at the International Peace Institute in New York. They have posted a podcast and transcript of the remarks, moderated by Warren Hoge and punctuated witha very lively question-and-answer question, with some smart pushback from audience members who thought I overstate Hezbollah’s ideological motives and understate the extent of the party’s Lebanonization.
Robin Young had me on her show Thursday to discuss my oped in The New York Times. At the end she asked me what would change if the United States changed its policy and started engaging Hezbollah. In this case, I guessed, nothing; dialogue might give the U.S. more information that it currently has, and more insight into Hezbollah than it currently possesses, but little else.
Click here for our conversation.