The Hezbollah Apocalypse

July 8, 2011 Topic: AutocracyTerrorismPolitics Region: IranMiddle East

The Hezbollah Apocalypse

Besieged and backed into a corner, Hezbollah prepares for the fight of its life.

In the opening weeks of the year 2000, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon’s militant Shiite movement Hezbollah, granted a series of lengthy interviews to the Arab media that directly addressed the gravest threat hitherto seen to his party’s continuation as “The Resistance”: a looming peace agreement between Syria and Israel.

Acknowledging that such a deal would necessarily obligate Hezbollah as well as Lebanon (given the tens of thousands of Israeli and Syrian troops occupying different swaths of the country), Nasrallah answered the provocative question of what he would do when the Star of David flag was raised over the Israeli embassy in Beirut by saying that this would, in fact, represent a victory for the “rationale of resistance” which had forced an end to Israeli occupation. Still, he and his constituents would “refuse to normalize” the relationship in the coming years.

No trade, no Israeli tourists visiting South Lebanon, he suggested.

Backs turned.

Crucially though, no rockets and no car bombs.

The end of violent resistance.

The “Syria Track,” of course, collapsed spectacularly in March of 2000, largely as a result of a dispute over a few hundred meters of shoreline around Lake Tiberius which the Syrians and the Israelis refused to concede (although U.S. President Bill Clinton didn’t help matters by lying to the dying president of Syria, Hafez al-Assad, promising him that he had the shoreline in his pocket as a means to cajole Assad into coming to Geneva to sign a deal).

Eleven years on from this intensely regrettable episode, Hezbollah again faces a major existential challenge, but this time the ending, if there is to be one, looks decidedly more violent and open to all possibilities.

Indeed, much to its surprise and chagrin, the party is now besieged.

The Iranian regime, and the supreme guide for Hezbollah, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is involved in a bitter power struggle.

Syria, where Hezbollah finds much of its logistical support—or “strategic depth”—is in crisis.

And it is Hezbollah’s stalwart backing of the Assad regime, which even Hamas has bucked, that is largely eroding its vital claim to reason and genuine public support at home and in the Middle East more broadly (even though most of Hezbollah’s enemies think it relies only on a toxic mixture of fear and brainwashing to sustain its power, officials and cadres have long deemed the party’s ability to appeal to reason as indispensable).

In a similar vein, even though the party has done a good job of discrediting the Special Tribunal for Lebanon that is set to try Hezbollah members (and possibly others) in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri, the indictments for the murder of a leading Sunni in the Middle East, when combined with Hezbollah’s use of arms in May 2008 against its mainly Sunni opponents in the streets of Beirut, has only exacerbated the sectarian divisions and outright hatred which many of its opponents—and Hezbollah itself—rightly view as the most potent offensive weapon it faces in the field.

Across the border in Israel, Nasrallah’s multifaceted strategy and multiple pronouncements vis-à-vis his most bitter enemy are also fast unravelling.

For the last few years, Nasrallah had been able to masterfully appeal to those in the region who yearned for a final settlement as well as those who yearned for a total victory over Zionism.

On the one hand, he exhorted, Hezbollah’s critics and opponents in the Arab world should use the growing—though still asymmetric—military strength of Hezbollah and its Resistance Axis allies in the region (mainly Syria, Iran and Hamas) to force Israel into a two-state, negotiated solution. Though Hezbollah did not want this to come to pass, he admitted, the only way to get Israel to change its bargaining position is to increase your side’s military power in the field.

On the other hand, since the internal contradictions of the Resistance Axis states were lessening, Nasrallah stressed, while Israel’s were growing, time was on the side of those who would prefer to patiently wait and see a one-state solution rise from the internal implosion of Zionism (on account of demography, emigration as a result of growing fear over military encirclement, corruption, international deligitamazation etc.).

Unfortunately for Nasrallah, all of the resistance clocks appear to be ticking down far faster than Israel’s, where the economy is humming along and the United States is funding a massive effort to “Iron-Dome” the country against the threat of the Resistance Axis’s rockets and WMDs.

All of this, understandably, begs the question: What will Hezbollah do in this next stage?

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.

A collapse of the Levant leg of the Resistance Axis is simply unacceptable for Hezbollah. And seeing no reasonable options for escaping such an outcome in a "just" manner (a course that was available in March 2000 when the party was ready to lay down its arms), Hezbollah will have little choice but to become a part and parcel of one last climactic conflict.

Since the Assad regime’s threshold for doing the same is probably lower (and far more incendiary with its WMD capability), the actors now consolidating themselves to boil Assad (and secondarily Hezbollah) to the breaking point, including many influential voices in Washington and European capitals, need to very carefully consider the wisdom of the road that they are going down—a road that will, in all probability, bring great destruction to the region, including to Israel whose home front will undoubtedly be a main frontline.

Saying this, however, does not have to mean simply withering away in the face of a threat. Instead, it could mean—it should mean—that outside actors who hold such comparatively great power (Israel alone could probably bomb both Syria and Lebanon back into the Stone Age whereas its opponents cannot), might finally have to find a means and a discourse to grant concessions to far weaker, though to many still detestable, parties—a course that would actually fatally undermine their ability and desire to exercise violence over time, either against their own people or against other nations.