Hezbollah Hesitates?

The Group's Uncertain Transformation

A picture of Hezbollah commander Mohamad Issa is seen in Arab-Salim, January 19, 2015. Ali Hashisho / Courtesy Reuters

Israel’s killing this week of six Hezbollah fighters and a top Iranian general in a helicopter raid in Syria is the latest and boldest attack by the Jewish state against the Shia party in recent years. Hezbollah has vowed to retaliate, and many of its supporters, urging the party to respond swiftly and forcefully, have advised Israel to “prepare its shelters.” If the three-decade history of confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah is any guide, the latter is likely to strike back to protect its credibility. But that is not inevitable. The Syrian conflict has transformed Hezbollah, arguably turning it into a more cautious foe of the Jewish state.

Hezbollah is a survivor. Since its formation in the early 1980s, the Shia party has made it through three high-intensity military conflicts with Israel, the assassination of several of its top leaders, the departure of its Syrian patron from Lebanon in 2005, and significant political crises in Beirut. Power, money, and performance, chiefly enabled by Iran and Syria, have allowed Hezbollah to become the dominant group in Lebanon and a key player in the high politics of the Middle East.

But the Syrian civil war is challenging Hezbollah’s domestic and regional position. If Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime falls, Hezbollah would lose a key supporter from a country that historically has played a dominant role in Lebanese politics. Even more important, Syria is Iran’s closest ally, and Tehran was calling in its chits by asking Hezbollah to close ranks around the Assad regime. Should Syria fall, Hezbollah could lose a storage facility and transit route for weapons from Iran and Syria to Lebanon. But should Assad leave, or his jihadist opponents grow stronger, the gravest threat Hezbollah (and Lebanon as a whole) would have to imminently deal with is Sunni extremism as represented by groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Sunni radicals would not settle for controlling Syria. They would also seek to expand into

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