Hezbollah Under Fire

By Bilal Y. Saab – 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.

This article originally appeared in Foreign Affairs on August 16, 2013.