2 October 2012
by Alexandria Ahrendsen, JTW
Hezbollah has always had close ties to Iran and Syria, but with the ongoing crisis in Syria and the international sanctions that are affecting the Iranian economy, Hezbollah has growing cause for concern. The Syrian crisis has left the country’s future unknown and more importantly for Hezbollah, the leadership of Syria uncertain. Since the party’s inception, they have depended on Iranian and Syrian influence in Lebanon to prop them up and garner the support they need to stay influential and on top, but with this support system failing and on the brink of collapse, Hezbollah is looking down the barrel of a gun. Now the armed party as well as the international community are asking the question: “What steps is Hezbollah taking to secure their future, existence, interests and influence in Lebanon once the Assad regime in Syria collapses?”
The most likely scenario Hezbollah will find itself in after the current Assad regime disintegrates will consist of a few different elements; elements that Hezbollah is taking actions to counter. First, Hezbollah will find their main weapons supply line cut off. Hezbollah has relied on the allowance Assad has given Iran to use their airport as a hub for shipping and dispersing Iranian weapons to Hezbollah depots and training camps. Without Assad’s Syria this weapons lifeline will be severed and it is possible that Hezbollah will suffer from it later down the line.
Second, Hezbollah has relied on the support of Syria to enforce their credibility and give them power and influence in the country. They have used Iranian and Syrian influences to become the strongest political and military group inside of Lebanon. Without the continued support from Syria, Hezbollah will become weaker and more vulnerable and susceptible to the growing dissent in Lebanon toward Hezbollah from members of the Sunni community as well as from some members in the Christian community, where Hezbollah’s power has been deeply resented. Stronger resistance will also come from their Sunni-dominated political opposition, the March 14 coalition.
Third, once the Assad regime falls, Hezbollah’s right to arms will also come into question. With the exit of one of the party’s biggest supporters and the severance of access to their largest benefactor, the party is likely to see increased demands in Lebanon for their disarmament. This pressure is nothing new, but Hezbollah has always been able to evade discussions on disarming because of Syrian and Iranian support. When Assad falls and this line severs, Hezbollah will be on their own and left in a weakened state.
Facing the possibility of being contested as an armed political party and facing the loss of weapons and influence in Lebanon, Hezbollah has started to become proactive in securing their future and interests in the country.
Hezbollah’s image and credibility is already suffering in Lebanon because of negative public opinion, growing hostility and disagreement over the party’s support of Assad in the ongoing Syrian crisis. This support is continuing to negatively impact Hezbollah and will get worse when Assad is finally overthrown. This hostility is seen through the increasing anti-Hezbollah protests and rhetoric in Lebanon. For example this is seen by the actions of an up and coming cleric from Saida who has started to stage more and more protests and gain more followers against Hezbollah and their arms.
To counter this Hezbollah has been trying to stay out of the limelight and has been trying to capitalize on any situation that comes up in the country or in the region that they could capitalize on and use to preserve their image. For example Hezbollah has been able to hijack the attention, violence and protests in the region stemming from an anti-Islam movie for their own gain. Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, made a rare televised appearance calling for protests in Lebanon against the film as well as calling for the leaders of the Muslim World to take care of those responsible and to hold American and Western powers accountable for the movie. Nasrallah used this movie and the violence surrounding it to shift the negative attention from his party onto the United States. Hezbollah wanted to and needed to keep fanning the flames of tension this movie caused in order to showcase their solidarity with the Muslims of the world as well to transfer negative attention and heat away from themselves and toward the United States.
Voices within the Lebanese government and in the opposition have been getting louder and have become sterner in their demands for Hezbollah to disarm since the Syrian regime has been distracted and have become increasingly aggressive with their demands since the prospect of a Syria without Assad has become reality. In light of the recent demands for the party to disarm and the opposition’s use of the language found in the Taif Accord, an agreement that was ratified in 1989 and is the basis for the Lebanese constitution and calls for political parties in the country to disarm, Hezbollah has started to push for the renegotiation of the terms outlined in the agreement to counter these demands. Hezbollah is trying to take advantage of their current dominant status in the government to try and secure their arms.
These are just some of the ways that Hezbollah is trying to counter the possible impact that Assad’s demise could possibly have on the party.
It is unlikely that the actions Hezbollah is taking now to counter the impact they could feel after Assad’s departure will truly make a significant difference. So what will the most likely future of Hezbollah look like?
It is important to understand that even with the bleak outlook and new obstacles Hezbollah will face after Assad, they will not collapse entirely or at all. Hezbollah is a strong political party in Lebanon currently dominating the Lebanese government. They are a strong military strength in the country, even stronger than the Lebanese Army, and have a massive arsenal of weapons that can last the militia a long time (barring the exception of any possible future Israeli-Lebanese conflicts). Hezbollah still hold all the leverage and chips in the hand. The impact that Assad’s departure will have on Hezbollah’s existence will be small. However, Hezbollah will not come out of this crisis unscathed. They will have to act with more restraint and will have to be careful on what missions they adopt as their own in the future so as not to add to their damaged reputation. They will have to compromise more with the other political parties in the country especially since the party is facing increasing pressures and demands internally and internationally to give up their arms, specifically after Assad is overthrown in Syria and their lines are cut to Iran. However, while they are dominating the political scene and holding the future of Lebanese peace in their hands, they will not likely be able to be forced to disarm in the near future even with Assad’s removal.