In the Lebanese village of Mleeta, Hezbollah displays war booty captured from Israeli soldiers at a shrine to showcase the group’s rise from obscurity in 1982 to the country’s most influential force.
With backers in Syria and Iran mired in civil war or economic sanctions, the organization is now trying to show it can retain that power. Chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah claimed his militants launched a drone assembled from Iranian-made parts that flew over Israeli territory on Oct. 6 and Hezbollah’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is unwavering.
Almost two years since the start of what became known as the Arab Spring, the turmoil in the Middle East is engulfing Hezbollah and keeping its three decades of ascendancy in check.
“The crisis now certainly has the potential to be the toughest predicament Hezbollah has ever faced,” said James Petretta, principal analyst at Maplecroft, a U.K.-based risk consultant. “The conflict in Syria and the pressures mounting on Iran will certainly test Hezbollah’s resilience and maturity, and this will only get harder for the organization.”
Opponents in Lebanon are posturing to seize on weakness in Hezbollah’s traditional Shiite Muslim power-base as Assad clings to power and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad contends with protests over the economy. The anti-Syria March 14 coalition is demanding that Lebanon’s Hezbollah-backed Cabinet step down after an Oct. 19 car bombing in Beirut killed a security chief who had investigated several attacks and plots the group blamed on Syria.
Coming of Age
Several March 14 politicians have accused Syria of being behind the assassination of Brigadier General Wissam al-Hassan. One of them, Ahmed Fatfat, told Future TV that anyone who supports Assad is an accomplice. When contacted for comment, the group’s media office in Beirut said the policy is to release a statement when the party has something to say. Calls to the mobile telephones of two Hezbollah lawmakers weren’t answered.
The U.S., which labels Hezbollah as terrorist, designated it for further sanctions in August because of support for Assad.
International efforts have failed to end 19 months of bloodshed in Syria and more than 30,000 people have been killed, according to the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Hezbollah fighters are part of Assad’s “killing machine” and Hezbollah leaders continue to coordinate with Iran to “prop up a murderous and desperate dictator,” Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said on Oct. 15.
Party of God
In Iran, the rial has slumped as much as 40 percent against the dollar since August, leading to rampant inflation as U.S. and European sanctions curb oil output and the flow of hard currency. Police fired teargas in Tehran’s markets this month to disperse protesters.
Hezbollah’s backing for the Assad regime has “reverberated widely throughout the Arab world and fed the perception that indeed Hezbollah, when push comes to shove, is part of an Iranian-led strategic alliance and not as it claims a general movement in support of the downtrodden and the oppressed,” said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Center in Beirut.
Arabic for Party of God, Hezbollah is the only group that refused to disband following the end of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, swelling from a small militia to the most powerful political group in Lebanon with seats in parliament, ministers in the Cabinet. It also boasts a social development program, with hospitals, educational facilities and news services.
It says it needs its arsenal of weapons to defend against Israeli attacks. Hezbollah spearheaded the fight against Israel’s occupation of an enclave in south Lebanon. Israel withdrew in 2000 after 18 years, a move Hezbollah claimed as a victory.
Burn the Flag
While ties with Iran are more crucial, any new Syrian government is going to be less friendly toward Hezbollah, weapons will be more difficult to get and the group’s influence will diminish, Michael Stephens, a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute, said in an interview from Qatar.
“In terms of the stability of the party, Hezbollah will stay intact,” said Stephens. “If Assad goes they’re in trouble, but it’s not a critical blow.”
Hezbollah portrays itself as a pan-Islamic, rather than a sectarian Shiite, party. Its inconclusive war against Israel in 2006 earned it popularity across the region, including in overwhelmingly Sunni Gulf countries, despite its ties to Shiite Iran. Today, Syrian rebels regularly burn Hezbollah’s yellow flag and stomp on its leaders’ pictures.
The group has been open about its support for Assad, 47, who belongs to the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, from the start of the March 2011 insurrection in Syria.
Nasrallah, 52, has made a distinction between Assad and other Arab leaders undermined by a wave of protests that was initially welcomed by his group. In a speech on Feb. 7 as fighting escalated, he referred to an “American-Western-Israeli-Arab decision” to bring down Assad.
In the same speech, Nasrallah for the first time said his party has received financial and military support on top of moral and political help from Iran.
The increasingly direct involvement of Hezbollah in the Syrian conflict is exacerbating tension between Lebanese supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime. The March 14 coalition said that Hezbollah’s claim of sending a drone over Israel makes the Lebanese more convinced that they are being used to do Iran’s dirty work.
“They serve as a scapegoat in the current regional-international conflict and are a shield for Iran,” the coalition said in a statement on Oct. 17.
Relations between pro-and-anti-Assad groups in Lebanon have already been strained by clashes in the northern city of Tripoli and the capital Beirut. Thousands of supporters of Lebanon’s opposition March 14 coalition poured into Beirut for yesterday’s funeral of an assassinated security official and for a “day of rage” against Assad.
The extent of Hezbollah’s support for the Assad government is not known. Syria’s opposition says the group is sending fighters to crush the uprising and shelling rebels from Lebanese villages along the Syrian-Lebanese borders.
Nasrallah this month denied sending members to fight alongside the Syrian regime though he did not preclude the possibility of this happening in the future.
“This will place a spotlight on Hezbollah’s divisive role,” said Petretta in London. Hezbollah’s support for “the increasingly unpopular Assad regime may prove to be its biggest source of weakness,” he said.