With Syria imploding, is Hezbollah next?

Hezbollah’s loyalty to the brutal regime in Syria is costing it support and exacerbating divisions in Lebanon. Its message runs contrary to the Arab Spring. If a link is found between the militant group and the bus bombing of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, that makes it look even weaker.

Sharif Karim/Reuters
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah addresses supporters by video during the sixth anniversary of the Israel-Hezbollah war, in Haret Hreik, Beirut, July 18. He condemned the Damascus bombing that killed key Syrian leaders that same day, calling them "comrades" in the struggle against Israel. He said Hezbollah's "most important rockets" in the 2006 war came from Syria.

Hours after the bombing that killed senior security officials in Damascus on July 18, Hezbollah’s leader resolutely backed his ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But such support does not help this militant group, which relies so heavily on Syrian assistance.

The occasion for the remarks by Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah – delivered from the safety of his bunker in Lebanon – was the anniversary of Hezbollah’s “divine victory” in the July 2006 war against Israel. However, there was nothing victorious about his televised appearance. It merely confirmed Hezbollah as increasingly out of touch with the Arab Spring – hastening its decline.

After the 2006 war, many Lebanese and many in the greater Middle East perceived Hezbollah as a legitimate and powerful military and political organization. Indeed, it has since gained the majority in Lebanon’s coalition government.

But Hezbollah’s unwavering loyalty to the brutal Assad regime places it on the wrong side of history – costing it support and exacerbating sectarian and political divisions in Lebanon. This is confirmed in my conversations with people in Lebanon and the region, and in the Lebanese and Middle Eastern media.

Polls by the Pew Research Center released this month also show Hezbollah losing its luster. The favorable view of Hezbollah in the past five years dropped by 36 percent in Egypt and 25 percent in Jordan.

In the sectarian tinderbox that is Lebanon, views of Hezbollah are more polarized than ever, with 94 percent of the Sunni community against Hezbollah and 94 percent of Lebanese Shiites approving of them. Support from local Christians is also diminishing, with only about a third of the community openly favoring Hezbollah.

But its crisis goes further. Hezbollah looks out of touch with the discourse of the Arab Spring itself. It called for mourning over the July 18 attack, even while it refused to speak out against the thousands of Syrians killed by the Assad regime.

While the militant group Hamas has invested significant political capital in shifting its rhetoric and alliances to fit the post-Arab Spring period, Hezbollah’s message and loyalties have not adapted. Its double standard toward freedom-seeking Arab revolutionaries demonstrates that it’s part of the ancien régime.
Hezbollah’s stubborn stance presents a strategic and operational challenge as well. 

Historically, Syria has served as the connecting link between Iran and Lebanon, allowing the flow of weapons and logistical support to Hezbollah. Also, Syria’s strong presence and influence in Lebanon made sure that Hezbollah’s weapons and “resistance” agenda would not be challenged from within.

As the Syrian regime looks to be imploding and civil war rages, both functions are threatened. What’s more, a post-Assad Syria will likely reverse the existing partnership with Mr. Nasrallah’s group. The political opposition in Syria has heavily criticized Hezbollah’s support for the regime, with protesters burning Hezbollah flags and openly accusing Nasrallah of having blood on his hands.

The May kidnapping of a group of Lebanese Shiites in Syria by an anti-Assad opposition group is a perfect example of this enmity. The kidnappers initially requested Nasrallah’s apology to them as a condition for releasing the captives.

Regime change in Syria could also give a powerful second wind to the backers of Lebanon’s 2005 “Cedar Revolution” who rebelled against Syria’s military presence and outsized influence in their country. This would undermine Hezbollah’s political position.  

Hezbollah therefore finds itself in a weaker position – ideologically, politically, and strategically.

The picture looks more bleak if it is found that Hezbollah, in partnership with Iran, is involved in the July 18 suicide bombing of Israeli tourists on a bus in Bulgaria. Hezbollah denies any role. Still, it’s plausible they were involved. If that’s the case, the group’s decision to project power through attacking soft Israeli targets – after repeatedly failing to hit “official” ones like Israeli embassies – reflects declining strength.

It’s true that the sophistication and magnitude of Hezbollah’s military apparatus and its partnership with Iran probably mean the fall of the Assad government would not be enough to bring down the group. Also, within Lebanon, the vast majority of the Lebanese-Shiite community continues to support Hezbollah, partly as a result of the lack of serious political alternatives.

But with the Assad regime entering a stage of even more brutal violence and instability, Nasrallah’s group faces a particularly complex challenge. Unless it changes course, it will become increasingly marginalized.

[Editor's note: An earlier version referred to the status of Lebanese Shiites kidnapped in Syria. That reference has been removed because their status is not clear.]

Benedetta Berti is a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University, a member of the Atlantic Council’s Young Atlanticist working group, and coauthor of the book, “Hamas and Hezbollah: A Comparative Study” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012). Follow her on Twitter at @benedettabertiw.

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