How Hezbollah Sees Arab Revolution
April 03, 2011
Hezbollah is keeping a close eye on the
unprecedented uprising in neighboring Syria, wary that the collapse of the
Al-Assad regime could fundamentally reshape the strategic balance of the Middle
East and present stark challenges to the Lebanese group and its Iranian patron.
For now, Hezbollah officials and cadres are expressing a quiet confidence that
President Bashar Al-Assad will prevail.
Syria plays a key role in the so-called Jabhat al-Muqawama, or
Resistance Front, grouping countries and militant organizations opposed to
Israel and United States policy in the Middle East. It is the crucial lynchpin
that connects Hezbollah and Iran, serving as a conduit for the transfer of
weapons into Lebanon, providing strategic depth (and in the past, political
cover) for Hezbollah and granting Iran a toehold on Israel’s northern border.
Al-Assad may yet contain the unrest that has
gripped his country since March 15, but the opposition vowed to intensify their
uprising after his uncompromising speech last week failed to elaborate on an
anticipated reform package.
Hezbollah certainly long ago internalized the
possibility that Syria might one day leave the alliance. It was generally
assumed, however, that Syria’s departure would occur as a result of a
breakthrough on the Israeli-Syrian track of the Middle East peace process
rather than an internal upheaval. That moment almost occurred 11 years ago when
the two countries appeared on the verge of signing a peace deal. At the time,
Hezbollah refused to reveal its course of action if peace would be achieved,
but it was evident that Syria, then the dominant actor in Lebanon, would have
required the Shiite Muslim party to dismantle its military wing as a component
of its settlement with Israel.
Hezbollah has grown more powerful since then,
especially after Syria militarily disengaged from Lebanon in 2005 following the
assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Iran entered the vacuum
left by the Syrians and will doubtless seek to consolidate its influence in
Lebanon through Hezbollah if the Al-Assad regime falls or Syria collapses into
As for the longer term impact on Hezbollah
and Iran, it depends very much on what new order would emerge in Syria. For
example, if a Sunni-dominated regime reaches power in Damascus, it could ally
itself with Saudi Arabia at the expense of Syria’s three-decade alliance with
Iran. A Saudi-friendly Sunni regime may prefer to cooperate more closely with
Sunni elements in Lebanon and seek to rollback some of Hezbollah’s power.
Another scenario being discussed is a
continuation of the present authoritarian system in Syria but under a new
leadership, possibly drawn from the military or security establishment
replacing the Al-Assad clan at the helm since Al-Assad’s late father Hafez took
power in 1970. Such a regime may prefer to maintain the alliance with Iran and
the confrontational stance against Israel.
Hezbollah officials seem confident that there
will be no fundamental change to the Resistance Front. But the Arab world is
passing through a major upheaval where previous maxims no longer apply. The
Arab-Israeli conflict paradigm has been superseded by the new reality of the
people against the state.
Iran, Syria and Hezbollah traditionally derive much
of their legitimacy from their anti-Israel positions and it must be
disheartening for them to see the struggle become relegated to the second tier
of regional interests.
A question now is whether the coming weeks
might see an escalation of tensions with Israel–possibly along Lebanon’s
southern border, from Gaza or even perhaps the Golan Heights–stoked by the
Resistance Front in an attempt to deflect domestic unrest and focus once more
on the struggle against the Jewish state.
Nicholas Blanford is the Beirut-based correspondent for The Times of
London and The Christian Science Monitor. He is author of the forthcoming
"Warriors of God: The Story of Hezbollah's Military Struggle Against
Israel" (Random House, August 2011).