Hezbollah is facing a crisis that is unprecedented in its 30-year history, and it’s a crisis that the party’s strategic backers, Syria and Iran, are powerless to solve.
The intense pressures of the violent confrontations in Syria, the Arab uprising, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) and the possibility of another war with Israel have combined to take a toll on the “Party of God.” These developments have increased the likelihood of Hezbollah’s biggest nightmare—that it finds itself alone and isolated at home, a scenario it has always worked with particular intensity to prevent (along with that of civil war). How Hezbollah navigates this truly existential crisis is a story U.S. officials are following with much attention.
Old and new challenges have made life increasingly difficult for Hezbollah over the past six years. The latest is the Arab uprising, which has profoundly challenged its philosophy of “champion of the downtrodden, underprivileged, and disenfranchised.” Hezbollah can hardly claim that it stands for restoring the Arab man’s rights and dignity when it has chosen to side with a Syrian regime that is killing its own people. More broadly, the Arab uprising has made Hezbollah irrelevant in Arab political discourse. While the concept of resistance against Israel will always generate strong emotions and resonate deeply in the Arab world, the Arab uprising’s clear message is that such a struggle cannot be at the expense of freedom and democracy. Hezbollah clearly thinks otherwise; for it, nothing takes precedence over the military struggle because no other form of resistance works.
Hezbollah’s stance on events in Syria has also shattered its image in the Arab street, a street that not long ago adored the party for standing up to Israel and the United States. No more. Hezbollah’s flags are being burned in Syria and elsewhere.
Hezbollah may have contained the immediate effects of the STL, but the international institution has already caused considerable damage to the party’s reputation by instilling serious doubts, even among Hezbollah’s friends, about the party’s role in killing former Lebanese prime minister and leader of the Sunni community Rafik Hariri.
Finally, another war with Israel may pump life into Hezbollah's hardcore cadres and add fire to its resistance approach, but in reality such an extremely risky adventure could entail massive costs from which Hezbollah may not recover easily if at all this time around. Iran may not be in a position to send cash to the group after the war. And the Syrian regime, facing an existential crisis of its own, may not be operationally capable of providing necessary military and logistical support during any such war.
But for Hezbollah, the world can turn upside down and the party will still believe that it can survive as long as two critical factors exist: first, the unconditional backing of the Lebanese Shi’ite community; second, a non-threatening political coalition in the Lebanese political system. The first factor seems to be intact for now (given the deeply-rooted and historical bond between Hezbollah and Lebanese Shi’ites), but the second one is slowly but surely eroding, and it could become a fatal threat.
Since Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, Hezbollah has had to adjust domestically to compensate for the absence of direct political sponsorship previously provided by Syria. For that, it had to immerse itself deep into the Lebanese quagmire that is the sectarian political system, forming new political alliances, reaching out to old foes, and seeking adequate political representation in both the cabinet and Parliament to block any political attempts by its rivals to weaken or disarm it.
The current government of prime minister Najib Mikati is the latest attempt by Hezbollah to create a friendly political environment that poses no major threats to the party. The problem is that five months after its creation this government is on the verge of collapsing in large part, ironically, due to Hezbollah’s own actions.
The most immediate threat to governmental stability is the feud between Hezbollah and Mikati over the issue of STL funding. This is a serious issue over which Mikati has threatened to resign. Mikati does not want a confrontation with the international community that could turn Lebanon into a pariah state, and mostly for that reason (among other personal reasons), he has vowed to fulfill Lebanon’s commitment to provide funding to the STL. Hezbollah says that this is no time for niceties with the international community and has refused to pay a single dime to an entity it considers a tool used by the Israelis and the Americans to defeat it.
Relations between Hezbollah and Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) have also been problematic, and it may be only a matter of time before things explode. Aoun’s increasing and aggressive political demands (the most recent of which is his electricity plan) have caused a dilemma for Hezbollah: if the party doesn’t accede to Aoun’s wishes, it could find itself without Christian backing in Lebanese society. If it does so unconditionally, it becomes hostage to Aoun’s politics. The fact that Druze leader Walid Jumblat and Lebanese president Michel Suleiman (two other crucial players in Hezbollah’s coalition) have serious issues with Aoun’s political agenda complicates things even further for Hezbollah. Aoun’s obsession with becoming president might have diminished recently, but should it come to the fore again, and should Hezbollah be unable to deliver the presidency to Aoun, it could well be game over between Hezbollah and the FPM.
As far as Jumblat is concerned, Hezbollah knows very well that it cannot rely on him indefinitely. He is notorious for his unpredictability, having unashamedly switched sides in his career more than any other politician in Lebanon’s history. A vignette of Jumblat’s fickleness is showcased in an important interview last week on Hezbollah’s TV station al-Manar, where he said that he was still part of Hezbollah’s camp but with reservations and in strong disagreement with the party over its blind support of the Syrian regime. Whether the Jumblat-Hezbollah relationship lasts is unclear, but a sound reading of Jumblat’s views suggests that the Druze leader is already weighing his options in anticipation of a collapse of the Syrian regime in the not-so-distant future.
Left in the fragile coalition that Hezbollah has built around it is Michel Suleiman. In short, despite his status as president, Suleiman is not in a position to rescue Hezbollah should things fall apart in Damascus or inside the Lebanese government. Suleiman may be popular among some segments of the Christian community, but his political power and popularity is minimal compared to Aoun and Samir Geagea, the head of the Lebanese Forces.
Hezbollah has faced numerous challenges since its formation in the early 1980s, and some have threatened to rip it apart. But whether it was Israel, the United States or the international community, it managed to overcome all those obstacles and survive. The reason is that it could always fall back on the support of its Shiite constituency and non-threatening Lebanese politics. Lebanese Shi’ites will probably always side with Hezbollah. But the winds of change are whipping the region furiously, creating new political dynamics in Beirut and forcing Hezbollah into a zone of danger more ominous than any it has ever experienced.
Bilal Y. Saab is Visiting Fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
Image: Harout Arabian