The Endangered Asian Century
America, China, and the Perils of Confrontation
Hezbollah faces a moment of reckoning. The increasingly likely demise of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus would deprive the militant Lebanese Shia organization of one of its main patrons and could constrain its ability to play an active role in regional politics. Moreover, by offering up unbridled support for Syria, Hezbollah has placed itself at odds with the popular revolts that are unseating autocratic rulers across the Arab world, undermining the narratives of resistance and justice for the oppressed that it has long espoused. Facing the loss of a key ally and with its credibility compromised, an off-balance Hezbollah could turn inward, deepening its involvement in Lebanese politics in order to consolidate its power.
Together with Iran, Hezbollah stands to lose the most from the fall of the Syrian regime. Over the years, the organization and the Assad regime have nurtured strong ties due to their often overlapping interests in Lebanon, a proxy arena for Western confrontation with Iran and Syria. The relationship deepened following Syria’s 2005 withdrawal from Lebanon, which forced Damascus to rely more heavily on Hezbollah to extend its influence in the country. Assad has reportedly supplied Hezbollah with training and access to sophisticated weapons systems, including long-range Scud missiles, on Syrian soil.
Beyond its bilateral ties to Hezbollah, Damascus has also served as an important conduit for Iranian arms and played a bridging role between the Persian power and its Lebanese acolytes. Bound together by their shared hostility toward Israel, these three allies, together with Hamas, have formed a so-called axis of resistance to serve as a counterweight to more moderate forces in the region. Although Hezbollah’s relationship with Iran would endure without Assad, the alliance would lose an important center of gravity.
Moreover, the instability in Syria has deepened sectarian divisions in Lebanon, which could further challenge Hezbollah. Lebanon’s Sunnis overwhelmingly support the Syrian opposition and have publicly demonstrated their outrage at Damascus’ repression; the ruling March 8 bloc, comprising Hezbollah, the Shia party Amal, and their Christian allies, has sided with Assad. Rival pro- and anti-Syrian rallies regularly occur in Beirut and in the northern city of Tripoli, where Sunni-Alawi clashes in June left several dead and required the Lebanese army to quell the violence. Although Hezbollah’s military predominance in Lebanon minimizes the prospects for renewed civil war, a surge in sectarian violence would significantly undermine its position.
Hezbollah’s steadfast support for Assad has already dealt its credibility a severe blow, in Lebanon and across the region. Its pro-regime declarations stand in marked contrast to the group’s boisterous encouragement of every other popular uprising during the Arab Spring. Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s charismatic leader, was once a hero across the Arab world but now appears increasingly tone deaf as he struggles to defend Damascus against a growing chorus of Arab and Muslim condemnation. Established media outlets, such as al Jazeera, as well as Arab youth using social media sites, charge Nasrallah with hypocrisy and double standards. The revolt against Assad has put Iran and Hezbollah on the wrong side of Arab history, and has compromised their mantle as champions of the oppressed.
No matter what happens in Syria, Hezbollah will retain its preeminent military and political role in Lebanon. But the likely end of the Assad regime poses an existential dilemma for the organization, accentuating the divide between its regional objectives of resisting the West and Israel and its local role in Lebanon as the representative of a once marginalized Shia community. The organization may need to recalibrate its priorities, choosing either to double down on its military objectives or evolve into a wholly political force and further develop as a grassroots movement with a vast political and social network.
If Hezbollah goes with the first option, it would likely move quickly to consolidate its control over Lebanon, possibly using military force. Such a move might be precipitated by emboldened Sunni aggression toward Hezbollah or by other circumstances that threaten the organization and its weapons. But Hezbollah’s probable triumph in an armed struggle would be a pyrrhic victory, dramatically undermining its popular credibility in Lebanon and leaving the country highly unstable.
Hezbollah might also choose to direct its militancy toward Israel. This could come as part of a broader struggle between Israel and Iran or as a result of escalating tensions between Israel and Hezbollah. Hezbollah is not likely to intentionally provoke another war with Israel; both sides have acknowledged that a third Israel-Lebanon war would be far more brutal, and encompass far more territory, than the one in 2006. But if either Israel or Hezbollah miscalculated and provoked a conflict, Hezbollah would be at a strategic disadvantage without a Syrian supply line and safe haven. War with Israel could rejuvenate Hezbollah’s resistance narrative, particularly if Israel used excessive force that produced massive civilian casualties. But Hezbollah would pay a significant price internally, particularly with its war-weary Shia constituency.
With all this in mind, Hezbollah may well opt for the second path, marked by an inward turn toward Lebanese politics. In shifting toward politics, Hezbollah would not completely abandon its regional ambitions nor its mantle of resistance, but would focus more on a national agenda aimed at garnering power inside Lebanon. This strategy would entail building alliances with other Lebanese communities and consolidating its role into Lebanon’s strongest political force. The party would be inspired by resistance to Israel, but chiefly propelled by an agenda for political reforms in Lebanon that broaden its political power, including proportional representation and a lowering of the voting age. Hezbollah would build on its existing alliances with Christians, further its attempts to build bridges to the Sunni community, and seek stronger ties to the Druze.
Such a turn would be the logical extension of Hezbollah’s deepening involvement in Lebanese politics since 1992, when its members were first elected to parliament. As it has done successfully over the past year by working through its allies to gain a majority in the Lebanese cabinet, Hezbollah would increasingly rely on political instruments of power to protect its prerogatives, further embedding itself in Lebanon’s fractious political arena.
As momentous change rocks the Arab world, Hezbollah could be forced to reconcile its long-standing dedication to resistance with the new narratives being written on the streets of Tunis, Cairo, and Damascus. The collapse of the Assad regime -- and with it, the entire regional order -- would accelerate Hezbollah’s impending moment of truth. In a new Middle East, Hezbollah may well opt for a more political path, positioning itself as the champion of a once marginalized community rather than as the defender of repressive regimes.