The Middle East Channel

Hezbollah’s plunge into the Syrian abyss

Hezbollah’s plunge into the Syrian abyss

Hezbollah built its legitimacy fighting Israel. On April 30, Hezbollah’s Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah admitted publicly for the first time what was until then an open secret in Lebanon’s Shiite community that Hezbollah was fighting in Syria, with the objective of preventing the Assad regime’s fall. Hezbollah’s decision to plunge into the Syrian abyss is a potential turning point in Hezbollah’s trajectory since its founding in the early 1980s and might prove to be the undoing of the monopoly Hezbollah has so far enjoyed over Lebanon’s Shiites.

Partly this is because the Shiite community of today, which Hezbollah calls on to fight, is different from that of the 1990s when Hezbollah and other Lebanese political groups waged the war of liberation in the south of Lebanon and eventually forced Israel to withdraw from villages and towns it occupied. Since then, mainly thanks to Hezbollah and Amal, Shiites have been on an ascending course of political and economic empowerment. There is a significant Shiite middle class that now has a stake in a stable and secure Lebanon where economic conditions are conducive for business and investments.

While Hezbollah has successfully cultivated the cult of the martyr among its fighting force, this cult is not necessarily shared in the Shiite community writ large including those who are considered political supporters of Hezbollah though not part of its fighting manpower. In a way, the success Hezbollah has achieved in delivering to the Shiite community the political empowerment they promised them stands to serve as a limiting factor to Hezbollah’s long and protracted engagement in the Syrian civil war.

Moreover, Hezbollah cadres have been involved in Lebanese political life since 1992. While Hezbollah entered politics mainly to protect its weapons, the party now includes a sophisticated cadre of political operatives who have grown to appreciate and master the art of retail politics. While the founders’ generation which makes up the Shura Council, Hezbollah’s decision-making cell, remains committed to the resistance raison d’etre, the younger tiers in the party’s numerous political, administrative, and social organs see in politics a means to achieve other party objectives, which are of equal importance to the armed struggle. 

Finally, Hezbollah enters this new front in Syria after a series of self-inflicted wounds, which they suffered as a result of a string of corruption scandals of which some of their senior officials and their relatives have been accused. This has also put some daylight between the leadership and the families of those who are now being called on to fight and die in Syria. Around Dayieh, Beirut’s southern suburbs, the expensive cars that relatives (especially wives and daughters) of party officials drive are striking. Often, people joke about these cars. They murmur about the expensive apartments in which party leaders live and they ask from where they got all this money. Hezbollah’s image of a resistance movement led by leaders who are not corrupt and who engage in selfless behavior is not there anymore. Hezbollah’s public has a more jaded picture of the party and its leadership. The more sacrifices this public is asked to deliver the more it will feel it has the right to raise questions about the endgame in Syria.

In the short-term, Hezbollah needs not worry about a rebellion in its midst. Two factors serve as mitigating factors. First, Hezbollah still enjoys a deep reservoir of goodwill among the majority of Shiites. As many supporters told me, "Nasrallah and Hezbollah delivered on every promise they made." "They promised to rebuild Dahieh after the 2006 war and they did." This reservoir will not be exhausted anytime soon. A major component of this reservoir is the personal trust the majority of Shiites have in Nasrallah. Having lost his son in the war against Israel, he can speak from a place of authenticity to the families whose sons are now being called to fight in Syria. This kind of authenticity in a leader is almost unchallengeable and very hard to compromise. A second factor is the discipline of the Hezbollah fighting force. Similar to a regular army, the fighters will go to battle when they receive their orders to do so.

In the long-term, if Hezbollah cannot achieve a clear-cut victory over the Syrian rebels as Nasrallah promised on May 25, there is a risk that the goodwill reservoir might start to thin. Being engaged in a civil war on a foreign, albeit a neighboring land, is a different fight from dying defending your village, family, and honor against an Israeli occupier or in a war with Israel as was the case in 2006. While Nasrallah is correct in arguing that people on the outside do not understand Hezbollah’s resistance and its social milieu, I would argue that Hezbollah leaders might in the future be forced to rediscover that same milieu.

Hezbollah’s Syria narrative has evolved along with the party’s deepening military involvement in Syria. On May 25, Nasrallah admitted that his party and operatives had been involved in Syria for months. The nature of Hezbollah’s role in Syria evolved along with its calculus about President Bashar al-Assad’s survival chances. The bomb that killed four senior Syrian military and security officials in July 2012 marked a turning point in that calculus. Prior to that, Hezbollah’s assessment was that the war in Syria was going to be long, the opposition was too weak and disunited to defeat Assad, and Assad had enough firepower, manpower, and control over his military and security apparatuses to deny the armed opposition a victory.

After the bomb struck at the heart of the Syrian regime, Assad looked vulnerable. The decision was made to shift from what was until then an advisory and a training role to a more active fighting mode. Soon after, funerals for young men who died in Syria started being held in Shiite-majority villages in Hermel and in Dahieh, Hezbollah’s stronghold in the Beirut southern suburbs. Initially, a wall of silence was imposed on these funerals, whose number was small in the beginning. Families were asked not to say where their sons died and how. Since April 30, when Nasrallah made the first public admission about Hezbollah fighting in Syria, the wall of silence on Hezbollah’s fallen in Syria has been lifted. While it is hard to ascertain Hezbollah’s death toll in Syria, funerals are now being held almost on a daily basis in Shiite-majority towns and villages around Lebanon.

As Hezbollah’s role deepened in Syria, its narrative shifted accordingly. The challenge facing Hezbollah leadership was how to shift the narrative about the war in Syria from what was initially perceived as a political choice in support of a long-standing ally to a war of necessity to protect Shiites. The last three speeches by Nasrallah were about making this shift. In the latest version of Hezbollah’s Syria narrative, the threat facing Shiites from the jihadi-takfiri groups in Syria is existential, equal to the Israeli threat. The war in Syria is a war of pre-emption that has been imposed on Hezbollah by the takfiris and their political and financial backers in Israel, the United States, and the Gulf countries. Fighting these groups in Syria is not only needed to safeguard Shiite interests, it is also being waged to protect all Lebanese. This last twist on the narrative is addressed mainly to the Christian supporters of Michel Aoun, Hezbollah’s principal ally, who have been lukewarm about the prospects of deeper Hezbollah engagement in Syria and in opening a new front with Israel in the Golan Heights.

So far, Hezbollah’s constituency has bought into this narrative. Based on conversations I have been having for the last three weeks with Hezbollah supporters in Beirut’s southern suburbs, it seems the mood prevalent inside the Shiite community is of feeling caught between two threats: Israeli from the south and takfiri-jihadi from the north and east. Most p
eople feel trapped in what they now believe is an irreversible course of action in Syria. Now that Hezbollah is fighting in Syria, it must commit all it possesses to secure a military victory otherwise the enemy (which for average Shiites now includes mainstream Free Syrian Army and Salafi-jihadi groups) will come to their doorsteps. As one Hezbollah supporter told me, "Do you want us to wait until the takfiris come to our homes and pull our hearts out of our chests?"

That Lebanese state institutions are almost in a state of collapse does not reassure the average Shiites who still remember the years of neglect and abandonment by their state institutions when their southern villages were being bombarded and then occupied by Israel. Even if Assad were to fall, many people argued, Hezbollah and its weapons will be the only means to protect them and their families. 

Two factors have helped Hezbollah in its mission to frame and monopolize the Syria narrative. The first factor includes videos and threats coming out of Syria. One video seemingly showed a rebel fighter pulling the heart and lungs out of his enemy soldier, and another showed Jabhat al-Nusra fighters shooting 12 Syrian soldiers at short range. Additionally, Free Syrian Army commanders have leveled threats such as that from General Salim Idriss who called Nasrallah a "criminal" and warned him on February 21 " we know how to get you," affirming the existential nature of the fight in Syria. The videos and statements are referred to over and over in conversations I have been having in Beirut’s southern suburbs. A second factor cementing Hezbollah’s hold over the framing of the Syria narrative is the absence of a credible Shiite counter-narrative to Hezbollah’s about the conflict in Syria and what should be done to deal with the real and legitimate threats to the Shiite community.

While there are few "independent" Shiite voices questioning Hezbollah’s decision to drag the Shiite community into the Syrian civil war these voices which hail mostly from the religious, academic, and civil society spheres, remain isolated from each other. Their support inside the Shiite community is limited. They have been mostly discredited in the eyes of the majority of Shiites mainly because of their funding sources (mostly Western and Gulf) and their political affiliation with the March 14 camp. It has always been the case that a serious challenge to Hezbollah’s political and military supremacy in Lebanon can only come from within its Shiite base. So far, none of these independent voices amounts to a serious challenge to Hezbollah’s leadership monopoly.

Syria is a different fight than the ones in which Hezbollah and its constituents have engaged in the past. Hezbollah is fighting people who are defending their villages and families — a position it knows well since it is the same position Hezbollah was in when it was fighting the Israelis in the 1990s and in 2006. It is a new type of war for Hezbollah and it is still not clear how Hezbollah, its fighters, and their families will be affected by it. As a result, it is hard to ascertain the Shiite community’s endurance threshold. How many deaths will it take before people start asking questions whether this has been a just war? When will the first mother in black who has already lost one son fighting in Qusair refuse to send her second and third sons to fight in Rif Dimashq? Time will tell.

Randa Slim is a research fellow at the New America Foundation and a scholar at the Middle East Institute.