A Supporter of Hezbollah gestures as he stands at the site of a car bomb in Beirut's southern suburbs, August 15, 2013.
A Supporter of Hezbollah gestures as he stands at the site of a car bomb in Beirut's southern suburbs, August 15, 2013.
Hasan Shaaban / Courtesy Reuters

Hassan Nasrallah has to wonder whether his approach to the civil war in Syria is starting to backfire. In a recent speech in the southern suburbs of Beirut on a Shiite day of mourning, the Hezbollah chief, in a rare public appearance, urged hundreds of followers to continue the fight against Sunni extremists in Syria. The result, he claimed, would be to spare his Shiite organization and Lebanon as a whole from Sunni extremism. But the double bombing that hit the Iranian embassy in Beirut this afternoon, killing more than 23 people, shows that Nasrallah’s preventive war in Syria is having exactly the opposite effect.

It is not just that al Qaeda, despite Hezbollah’s military advances in Syria, has been able to penetrate deep into the Shiite party’s sphere of influence and wreak havoc. More important is that the same extremists that Nasrallah was hoping to fight outside Lebanon are on the verge of turning Lebanon into another Iraq, a country defined by Sunni-Shiite sectarian violence. In this increasingly likely scenario, Hezbollah stands to lose the most. That is because Lebanese Shiites, Hezbollah’s main constituency, fear sectarian civil war more than anything else. Even the staunchest Hezbollah supporters want to keep the peace with the Sunni and Christian communities, as I argued in this publication in August (see below for the original article).

But don’t count on Nasrallah to change course. Perhaps he believes that current circumstances, as dire as they are, are much more tolerable than the horror scenario of Syria falling into the hands of his enemies. Regardless of what Nasrallah’s convictions are, the bottom line is that he has put his party on a collision course with the region’s Sunnis -- moderates and extremists alike -- and it is too late for him to take a step back. The tragedy is that he has dragged Lebanon along with him.

Masters at tit-for-tat, Hezbollah and Iran will undoubtedly respond with force and precision to today’s pair of explosions. They may target the Saudi embassy in Beirut (or Saudi interests in Lebanon and abroad), given their belief that Riyadh is supporting Sunni extremists in Syria and across the region. It is more likely that Hezbollah, rather than Iran, will carry out any revenge attack. The two suicide bombings come at a time of rapprochement between Iran and the United States and one of increasing discord between Riyadh and Washington. Iran’s current priority may not be to punish the Saudis but to prepare for tomorrow’s round of negotiations with the P5+1, arguably the most consequential diplomatic summit since the Iranian Revolution. A strategic accord with the Americans, the mullahs are probably thinking, is more urgent than striking back against the Saudis or their proxies.

For his part, Nasrallah, the man who has made a living out of vilifying the United States, has gotten excited about the prospect of warmer ties between the United States and Iran. Last week, he said that a nuclear deal would only enhance the power of his party. That depends, of course, on what the Americans and the Iranians actually agree on.

Regardless, Hezbollah would be deluding itself if it got too comfortable and saw the U.S.-Iranian détente as a sign that its strategy was working. No matter how positive regional or international circumstances may be, Hezbollah’s own house is currently burning. The proxy confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the sectarian warfare that it has brought to the region, has allowed al Qaeda to knock on Hezbollah’s door, putting the Shiite party’s relationship with its constituency -- and thus its very survival -- at risk.

ORIGINAL ARTICLE: August 16, 2013

With the bloodbath in Egypt, ongoing carnage in Syria, and gruesome bombings in Iraq, another explosion in the Middle East might hardly seem like news. But the importance of the blast that rocked Beirut’s southern Shia-dominated suburbs on August 15, killing around 20 people and wounding hundreds more, should not be diminished. It could spell the beginning of the end for Hezbollah, the dominant political-military actor in Lebanon and one of the United States’ most powerful nemeses in the region.  

Reports of Hezbollah’s death have abounded in the past eight years. In 2008, only two years after a devastating war with Israel, Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah’s most senior military commander, was killed in a car bombing in Damascus. Analysts claimed that Hezbollah had lost its military and strategic edge. They also claimed that Israeli intelligence services had infiltrated the organization and that it was only a matter of time before spies within sewed chaos. In fact, Hezbollah was doing just fine. Despite Mughniyeh’s unique skill-set and accomplishments, he was only one part (albeit an important one) of a much larger institution. The group has an organizational structure that would be envied by the most sophisticated corporations, and it was fully capable of replacing Mughniyeh. In fact, it did so less than a week after his funeral.

In July 2011, when an international tribunal investigating the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri formally accused four Hezbollah members of the crime, commentators again rushed to say that the Shia group was doomed, since it had lost legitimacy in the eyes of most non-Shia Lebanese. Yet Hezbollah weathered the storm with a mix of political strategy, violence, and defiance. The group hardly loses any sleep over its deteriorating popularity among non-Shia. As long as it has the guns and the support of its social base, it is business as usual for Hezbollah.

Hezbollah’s prospects truly started looking grim about a year ago, months into the conflict between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah’s staunch ally, and the Sunni rebels attempting to depose him. The Assad regime seemed on the verge of collapse. About to lose its ally (and the arms and intelligence he passed along), the thinking went, Hezbollah would become politically isolated at home. Those assertions had the ring of truth, but it was never clear that isolation would lead to the group’s demise and, in any event, Assad survived. Even if he is toppled down the road, there is a high probability that Hezbollah and Iran have plan Bs. For example, Iran already seems to be reaching out to Sudan, which, although not a perfect alternative to Syria, has a friendly government with viable Shia connections in Iraq.

Since Hezbollah has survived war, the death of Mughniyeh, the international tribunal’s powerful verdict, its loss of popular legitimacy, and the near loss of its strategic alliance with Syria, it might seem like there isn’t much that could touch it.

But there is: the deterioration of its relationship with its Shia supporters. Throughout Hezbollah’s 31 years of existence, the organization has made cultivating good relations with Lebanese Shia a top priority, knowing full well that such ties would serve as its first and last lines of defense. It is the one source of support that the organization simply cannot live without or replace.

For the first time in Hezbollah’s history, this special bond is in danger. By entering the fray in Syria earlier this year or last to come to Assad’s aid, Hezbollah has flirted with open conflict with the region’s Sunnis -- both moderate and extremist. Regional demographics have always worked against the Shia -- and they know it. Even the staunchest Lebanese Shia supporters of Hezbollah would prefer peace with their fellow Sunni Lebanese and the region to agitation.

That is what makes the attack in Al Ruweiss so remarkable. Hezbollah’s leadership will see it as an attempt by its enemies to put pressure on the Lebanese Shia community to call for Hezbollah’s withdrawal from Syria -- just as it did after a bombing last month in the same area, and when two other bombs were discovered in the southern suburbs earlier in the year. If Lebanese Shia start to doubt Hezbollah’s strategy, Hezbollah is doomed.

Soon after the first bombing last month, Hezbollah’s leadership vowed to continue the fight in Syria, saying that attacks will only deepen their conviction. At the time, Shia sentiment was still pro-Hezbollah, although some in the community were already starting to question why the group was risking everything. In the last attack, though, there were no deaths. Not this time. And now anxiety is starting to set in.

It would take a long time for increased Shia dissent and dissatisfaction to shake Hezbollah’s grip on the community. After all, Hezbollah has been nurturing these ties since 1982, providing Shia with social goods, a political voice, security, and a sense of empowerment. But with every bomb that goes off in its stronghold -- and with every loss of Shia life that is not caused by Israel -- the group’s control of its support base will wane. Unless Hezbollah changes its Syria strategy, it might soon find itself really alone at home and in the region. 

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  • BILAL Y. SAAB is the executive director and head of research of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) North America.
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