Last week Hezbollah buried one of its princes, Jihad Mughniyeh, the 22-year-old son of the late Imad Mughniyeh, a legendary Hezbollah commander implicated in such infamous operations as the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut. The assassination
of the elder Mughniyeh in Damascus in 2008, typically attributed to Israel, is regarded as one of the organization’s most traumatic blows. However, some in the Shiite community here say that Israel’s January 18 strike on a three-car convoy in the Golan Heights near the Syrian town of Quneitra—which killed the younger Mughniyeh and five other Hezbollah operatives, along with as many as six Iranians—is evidence of a dangerous crisis for Hezbollah.
The throngs attending the younger Mughniyeh’s funeral on January 19 yelled “Death to America” only once. “I counted,” says Lokman Slim, an anti-Hezbollah Shiite activist. “And they said ‘Death to Israel’ only a few times. Then they went to more religious slogans.”
According to Slim, the scaled-down rhetoric and modest size of the funeral are evidence that Hezbollah is caught in a bind. “The [Lebanese Shiites] don’t want another war with Israel,” says Slim, “but they also want to know Hezbollah can protect them like it says.”
Hezbollah’s general secretary Hassan Nasrallah can threaten to open the gates of hell on Israel’s northern border, but if he doesn’t take action he’s only underscoring his weakness and that of the Shiites in general. If he does take action, he risks escalation with a powerful neighbor at a time when Hezbollah is already stretched. Its campaign in Syria to defend Bashar al-Assad is absorbing the bulk of the group’s manpower, Syria and Assad being hugely important assets to their Iranian patrons. Moreover, if Hezbollah’s retaliation brings a crushing Israeli response, Nasrallah will have opened not only a fight with Israel, but a third confrontation as well, inside Lebanon, with the country’s Sunni community. “It would mean the Sunni-Shia conflict has come to Lebanon in earnest,” says Slim.
The political situation in Lebanon is therefore as freighted with danger as the actual war Hezbollah is fighting across the border in Syria. The organization portrays its combat there as a defensive war to prevent the Sunni extremist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS that are battling Assad from entering Lebanon and targeting the Shiites. Suicide bombings in Beirut’s southern suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold, and the pitched battles between Hezbollah and Sunni fighters on the Syrian border in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley are proof that the threat of Sunni violence is genuine. But the fact that Jihad Mughniyeh and his cohorts were killed in the Golan Heights—where they would pose a threat to Israel and less so to the Sunni extremists whose strongholds are elsewhere in Syria—is an embarrassment for Hezbollah in general and Nasrallah in particular.
In a long interview with a pro-Hezbollah TV station just two days before the Israeli strike, Nasrallah claimed that Hezbollah was not active on the Golan. As it turns out, Mughniyeh and the others, including Iranian Revolutionary Guards Brigadier General Mohamed Ali Allahdadi, a confidant of Iran’s Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani, were reportedly preparing the groundwork for an Iranian missile base. In other words, Hezbollah’s ostensibly defensive fight in Syria, to protect the Lebanese Shiites, has a significant offensive component as well—to open a second front against Israel, in addition to the group’s South Lebanon stronghold, on behalf of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The Shiites, says Slim, have come a long way from their self-proclaimed “Divine Victory” over Israel in 2006. By its own telling, Hezbollah proved its bona fides as a resistance movement by standing toe-to-toe with an Israeli enemy that had repeatedly walked over Sunni powers like Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. The Shiites wanted to enjoy the spoils of their victory—money, prestige, and perhaps above all peace. But now they’re being dragged back to war, not with a regional superpower like Israel, but rather as an accomplice in a conflict in Syria that contradicts the values of their community.
“The Shia are supposed to side with justice against injustice,” says Slim. “Shia stand with the underdog. And now Hezbollah is fighting alongside a dictatorial regime.” Moreover, Hezbollah has also staked the Shiites to a position against the regional Sunni majority in a war whose best outcome, says Slim, can only be a political settlement. “Hezbollah will have fought this war, and at the end the Shia will ask to what purpose did we sacrifice so much?” The worst outcome, says Slim, is a war that won’t end.