Hezbollah Under Pressure
3:56 PM, Oct 23, 2012 • By DAVID SCHENKER
The explanation strained credulity, and the following day Shiite Lebanese journalist Nadim Koteich spent ten minutes on prime time television picking apart Nasrallah’s tortured justification. For the past nineteen months, Hezbollah has been in the Lebanese Government and never once raised the issue of Lebanese in Syria before the cabinet. The explanation, Koteich said, “was just not convincing.” Hezbollah supporters are also starting to ask questions. To wit, during a September visit to Lebanon, I was told about a founding member of the party who was shocked and dismayed to learn that his grandson had been deployed to Damascus to defend the Shiites’ Seyyida Zeinab mosque.
While Hezbollah has been active in Syria, nearly six years have passed since the group’s last significant military operation against Israel. In the absence of so-called resistance, Hezbollah is struggling to maintain its relevance in Lebanon. Accordingly, last month Hezbollah held a mass rally in the southern suburb of Beirut to protest the YouTube trailer mocking Mohammed, in which the keynote address was delivered by Hassan Nasrallah. It was his first public appearance since December 2011.
More recently, on October 11—perhaps in an effort to deflect growing criticism of the resistance’s provision of military assistance to the Assad regime which has so far killed nearly 30,000 Syrian civilians—Nasrallah claimed credit during a television appearance for flying an Iranian-built unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, over Israel. While the UAV stunt may at least temporarily remind Lebanese of the popular role Hezbollah has historically played in “resisting” Israel, the proliferation of body bags returning from Syria remains a problem for the organization.
Changing political dynamics in Beirut—largely the result of events in Syria—also pose a challenge for Hezbollah. Today, not only does the militia face the prospect of losing Assad, it also stands to lose the next elections and control of the Government. For while Hezbollah itself continues to command broad support among Shiites, the organization’s Christian coalition partner, the Free Patriotic Movement led by Michel Aoun, appears to be losing popularity. At the same time, Lebanon’s small but politically powerful Druze community headed by Walid Jumblatt is poised to bolt from Hezbollah-led bloc and realign with the remnants of the pro-West, so-called March 14 coalition, enabling it to form a Government.
To be sure, this combination of developments will not lead to the unraveling of the militia anytime soon. Even if Hezbollah is unable to rearm, with an estimated 100,000 rockets and missiles in its arsenal, the organization could potentially conduct several more wars with Israel and has the wherewithal to indefinitely withstand all domestic adversaries.
However, the Syrian uprising has changed Nasrallah and will ultimately transform Hezbollah. The resistance today is not what it was in 2006. Diminished in stature if not capability, after Assad falls, the organization will almost certainly find itself in a more disadvantageous position in Lebanon and the region. Over the years, Hezbollah has demonstrated resilience, ingenuity, and the repeated ability to surprise. Make no mistake, the organization remains dangerous and will surely continue to threaten and kill Lebanese and target Israelis. But barring some dramatic change in the trajectory of events in Syria, Hezbollah’s days of dominating Lebanon are numbered. As the militia’s recent behavior suggests, Hezbollah sees the writing on the wall.
David Schenker is director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.