The Muslim World Is Turning on Hezbollah

Despite the group's initial popularity, it is at risk of losing goodwill throughout the Muslim world...

Hezbollah is currently the strongest group in Lebanon, both politically and militarily. In the past decade it has made a series of tactical decisions that yielded momentary victories. However, these victories might prove costly in the long term. Indeed, in the past couple of years Hezbollah has slowly positioned itself as a sectarian actor instead of a pan-Islamic organization that appeals to both Sunnis and Shia. This is a tipping point for the organization, and its involvement in Syria signals the acceleration of its fall from grace in the eyes of the majority of Muslims. To survive in the long run, the organization will have to execute another volte-face similar to its Lebanonization in the early 1990s.

The 2006 war with Israel was Hezbollah’s Pyrrhic victory, and in retrospect, Hezbollah’s first major mistake in a series of mistakes that the group has made over the past few years. These mistakes have alienated it from Sunnis, especially in Lebanon.

The 2006 war was the moment the group reached its zenith: it greatly raised Hezbollah’s standing in the Arab world, and the organization’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, became a hero. Despite misgivings about the rationale for starting the war, Lebanese of all confessions rallied around Hezbollah as long as the conflict raged. Following the war’s end, the Lebanese increasingly split along sectarian lines in their support for Hezbollah. The Shia, and some Christian allies, saw the organization as having snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. For others, especially the Sunnis, the human and material cost of the “divine victory” over Israel was too high. Furthermore, the Sunnis were still reeling from the assassination of their leader, former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. There were suspicions that the Syrian regime, Hezbollah’s ally, was behind that murder.

In May 2008, Hezbollah made its second mistake when in a show of force, the organization invaded the Sunni areas of Beirut. The main goal in these incursions was to force the Lebanese government to retract its decision to dismantle the group’s telecommunication network. After a tense conflict, an agreement brokered by Qatar consolidated Hezbollah’s hold on the Lebanese state. Many saw this agreement as Hezbollah’s ultimate victory and a consecration of the rise of the Shia in Lebanon. However, these events also sounded the death knell for any (Lebanese) Sunni support for the group.

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The third mistake was reflected in the events surrounding the Special Tribunal for Lebanon which investigates the assassination of Hariri. In 2011 the tribunal finally handed down an indictment of Hezbollah members’ involvement in this crime. The result was a protest by Hezbollah-aligned cabinet officials, leading to what many saw as an engineered coup d’état. The protests led to the collapse of the administration run by Saad Hariri (son of the slain prime minister) as he was out of the country visiting U.S. President Barack Obama. This move was seen as an attempt to humiliate Hariri and by extension his entire community. It compounded Lebanese Sunni resentment and hatred toward the Shia in general, and toward Hezbollah in particular.

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The fourth and final mistake in Hezbollah’s calculus came two years later. In May 2013, the organization admitted to something that had been long suspected—its involvement in the Syrian war on the side of the Bashar al-Assad regime. The Battle of Qusair, in which Hezbollah lost over a hundred fighters, forced Nasrallah’s hand. Young Shia men were coming back from Syria en masse in body bags, and these losses could no longer be hidden. Funerals for the “martyrs” were taking place in southern Lebanese villages, and the press was aware of this fact. Ultimately, Nasrallah was compelled to admit his organization’s direct involvement which was the final nail in Hezbollah’s coffin among the region’s Sunnis and others critical of the Assad regime.