During the more than two decades of its existence, Hezbollah earned the allegiance of the Lebanese Shia population by building its image as a group whose sole interest is a combination of social justice in the form of resistance to Israel’s belligerence, coupled with strict Islamic piety. Although many Western countries have defined it from its inception as a terrorist organisation, Hezbollah has earned the respect of many within and outside the Arab world not only for the courage exhibited in its repeated confrontations with Israel, but especially for the social work carried out in the poorest parts of Beirut and South Lebanon.
It is then all the more disconcerting to hear the words of its leader, Hasan Nasrallah, when discussing the Syrian crisis. Nasrallah has blamed the fighting on the (mainly Sunni) resistance movements rather than on the cruelty of the Assad regime. Further, he has provided the regime with diplomatic support by stating, for instance, that the opposition is the result of American and Israeli interference, rather than a genuine rebellion of the native population in response to decades of ruthless rule.
As Hezbollah has thrived on Iranian and Syrian financial and military support, Nasrallah’s statements might not come as a surprise. All the same, the legitimisation on behalf of Nasrallah of the Assad regime backfires by having the obvious result of deligitimising Hezbollah’s role as a bastion of justice for the weak. The problem is that this self-inflicted deligitimisation has severe implications both for the group and, more importantly, for the complex dynamics within the region.
Hezbollah’s loyalty to the Assad family is viewed by many as the result of religious affiliation due to both being Shiite and not as what it truly is, namely the outcome of pragmatic agreements and mutual political interests. This has the consequence of fostering distrust of the Shias on behalf of the Sunnis and thus of creating disunity between the two sects. This disunity has a triple effect. Firstly, as Michael Hudson, the director of the Middle East Institute at the National University in Singapore, argued, disunity among opposition movements is one of prime hindrances to the fall of whichever regime is being fought. In the case of Syria, disunity postpones indefinitely the demise of Assad’s rule. This is attested by the known fact that many Syrian (Shia) Alawites support Assad merely out of fear of Sunni retaliation.
Secondly, disunity is exacerbating sectarian strife within Lebanon itself. Reports abound of rising tension between the two communities in the Northern city of Tripoli, a tension which has recently given rise to deadly clashes . Moreover, the two leading coalitions, the pro-Assad March 8 and anti-Assad March 14 coalitions, are growing ever more distant. In a country renowned for its political fragility and for a past defined by fifteen years of civil war such tensions should alarm anyone interested in Lebanon’s stability. Thirdly, the question of whether such disunity might impact rebellions in other countries, such as Bahrain, becomes imperative. If so, then it would seem as if Hezbollah’s uncompromising position on the Syrian crisis is helping Arab regimes to stay in power by fractioning and thus weakening the various oppositions.
Furthermore, Hezbollah’s decision to back up Assad is backfiring against its own raison d’etre: the fight against Israel. This is so for two reasons. Firstly, Hezbollah’s loss of legitimacy means at the same time that one of the most important players in the resistance against Israel and for the Palestinian cause is losing legitimacy. Israel can then justifiably state that its main opponent is a group which supports dictatorships and thus has no credibility in judging the demeanor of other nations. Secondly, it is recognised among various Middle East experts that contrary to what Assad’s speeches might assert about his hatred for Israel, the Jewish majority state has actually enjoyed stability on its borders with Syria since the Assad family took over. In fact, it is plausible that Israel would have a much tougher time if a different Islamist group ruled Syria.
Finally, Hezbollah, by losing credibility, is also losing many potential votes in next year’s Lebanese elections. This also means that many parties in the March 8 coalition might reconsider their affiliation with the group lest they themselves lose the appeal of the electorate. This could potentially leave Hezbollah with little if any political power at the executive level.
Hezbollah has answered criticisms expressed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar about its support of Assad by pointing to their hypocrisy since both are tyrannical in their rule against the respective Shia communities and both have a close relationship with the US. Moreover, Hezbollah has noted that nobody else does as much for the Palestinian cause and thus it cannot be criticised. But the fact of the matter is that it is not about Israel, the US or Palestine: it is about the thousands of brave Syrian men and women who have lost their lives and the thousands who keep on defying the Assad regime regardless of their religious affiliation.
Ultimately, the sad irony is that while Hezbollah has built its image as the resistance movement of the poor and weak against the great power of Israel and the US, it is now acting the other way round. Hezbollah must not be afraid of distancing itself from the Assad regime because although it will lose a pragmatic albeit powerful ally, it will earn the support of a much greater power: the people.