The links between Hezbollah and the Bashar al-Assad regime are tight and very well known. Consequently, Hezbollah members are watching the situation in Syria very closely, as the fall of Assad would deprive the group of one of its most important backers (Iran being the other). Thanassis Cambanis and Nicholas Noe wrote two pieces in the National Interest, and both scholars maintain that it is likely that the end of the Assad era would beget the end of Hezbollah’s dominance in Lebanon and the Middle East. Unfortunately, both Cambanis and Noe are missing several key points as they write the eulogy for the Party of God.
Noe warns that Hezbollah could initiate a regional conflict to protect its Syrian backers (or more specifically, to protect the flow of support from Damascus):
Should Assad’s multiplying list of enemies, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey, choose to go in for the kill, either bluntly or obliquely, Hezbollah, it now seems evident after meeting with party officials, is prepared to use all necessary means to fight back, and fight back widely.
Cambanis, on the other hand, believes that Hezbollah is too in touch with domestic political trends and too concerned with survival to start such a conflict, saying:
Historically, Hezbollah has shrewdly embarked only on wars that will have the full support of its constituents. Lebanese will support a war against Israel that appears to be a question of national sovereignty or dignity; they would chafe at a war perceived to be engineered in the interest of a foreign regime, whether Syria’s or Iran’s.
Rather, Cambanis believes that the group will more or less whither away under its support for the Assad regime as other nonviolent resistance tactics take hold. In other words, Hezbollah will be seen as supporting the repressive Arab regimes, rather than the people while Egyptians forge a new resistance tactic by sabotaging natural gas deals and refusing to share intelligence with Israel:
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.
Both authors raise some valid points. In the current atmosphere, Hezbollah is feeling a lot of pressure. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) has indicted four members of the group for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri while the group’s support for Assad will certainly be scrutinized by people throughout Lebanon and Syria. Although Hezbollah is certainly feeling the heat, neither or the potential fall of the Assad regime is likely to be an existential threat to the party. Undoubtedly, the STL indictments have upset many Lebanese and the loss of a major benefactor (Assad) would change the way in which Hezbollah is able to operate (effigies of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah were burned in Syria), but the sectarian support enjoyed by Hezbollah and the ideological foundations of the Party of God makes its demise (through elections or regional war) extremely unlikely.
Indeed, the sectarian divisions that plague Lebanon are exactly the same lines that will ensure Hezbollah’s domestic survival. Last year, some 97% of Lebanese Shi’a expressed confidence in Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah; including all Lebanese denominations and sects, Hezbollah sported a 35% favorability rating (not great, but better than many other Middle Eastern political groups). In Lebanon, specifically in the Shi’a dominated suburbs of Beirut, the Bekaa Valley and the south of the country, Hezbollah retains support among the Shi’a by not only having religious authority thanks to religious leaders in holy sites in Iraq and Iran, but also through providing a complex network of social services. The other Shi’ite political group in Lebanon – Amal – is not nearly as popular or as effective at the provision of services, meaning that domestic support for Hezbollah is unlikely to diminish soon.
Throughout the region, Hezbollah’s ideological stance is likely to guarantee at least some support. It seems highly unlikely that the Shi’a in Iraq and specifically in Iran would abandon their religion in Lebanon. In Syria, Egypt, Jordan and Palestine, the Party of God’s ideological stance against Israel is likely to ensure support among many of the revolutionaries, even if the group maintains contact with Assad. 51% of Jordanians, 43% of Egyptians and 61% of Palestinians had a favorable view of Hezbollah last year. The use of Palestinian flags at the protests in Egypt as well as the resistance tactics discussed by Cambanis does not imply a competing resistance movement, but rather a complementary one.
As for a post-Assad Syria, support for Hezbollah is unlikely to fade. While many will associate the Lebanese group with the Assad regime, Hezbollah has historically linked its resistance not only to the liberation of the Palestinian territories, but also to the end of the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights. The recent Naksa day violence demonstrates the continued grievances between Syrians and Israel. A post-Assad Syria, therefore, will probably not look to end the resistance movement or to weaken what has been the most effective resistance group of the last two decades. Indeed, it was only 2008 that Hezbollah chief Nasrallah was the most admired Arab leader. The Arab admiration could and will fade with support for Assad, but it will not disappear.
Lastly, Hezbollah is a political party that is mainly concerned with survival. The support for the Assad regime could eventually bite Hezbollah (much to the pleasure of its domestic enemies), but it is unlikely to be either the impetus for regional war or the death blow to Hezbollah’s relevance. Most likely, Hezbollah will continue to play a major role in the resistance movement regardless of what happens in Syria. Hezbollah enjoys wide support throughout the Arab world for its stance vis-a-vis Israel and has virtually untouchable support among the Shi’a in Lebanon and Iran. Supporting Assad may make some impact on the group popularity, but it is highly unlikely that Hezbollah will begin any type of descent into irrelevance. Even if Hezbollah’s regional standing takes a hit for supporting an unwanted dictator, it is a lock to remain at the center of the resistance movement and is virtually guaranteed a starring role in Lebanese politics.
Photo from Aburas