Hizbullah’s Predicament in Light of Syria’s Decline


Vol. 11, No. 10     July 31, 2011

  • Five years after the Second Lebanon War, a war whose results Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah considers a “divine victory,” Hizbullah has currently reached one of its lowest points due to the endangered survival of the Assad regime in Syria, as well as the international tribunal that has demanded the extradition of four Hizbullah members suspected of murdering former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. 
  • Damascus functions as the primary bridge between Iran and Hizbullah in terms of all military and other assistance arriving from Tehran. This comes on top of the direct transfer of rocket and missile weaponry from the Syrian army’s arms depots to Hizbullah’s fighting units.
  • Hizbullah has adopted a clear-cut stand in support of Bashar Assad, and therefore Hizbullah flags are being burned in the streets of Syria together with Nasrallah’s portrait. Without Syrian backing, Hizbullah will find it hard to continue dictating political moves in Lebanon.
  • Recent signs of Hizbullah’s weakened position include the public revelation of an espionage network run by the CIA of people in important positions within the movement; the open sale of alcoholic beverages in Nabatiye, Hizbullah’s capital in southern Lebanon; and the attempt by the Lebanese government to appoint a security chief for Beirut International Airport from within the Maronite community, contrary to Hizbullah’s wishes.
  • In light of all this, Nasrallah is looking for a new pretext to confront Israel, focusing this time on the gas fields that Israel is developing within its maritime economic zone. Nasrallah believes his threats will distract attention from the decline in Hizbullah’s status and the international accusations that it currently faces.

Hassan Nasrallah delivered an address on July 26, 2011, commemorating the fifth anniversary of the Second Lebanon War. He recounted the war’s achievements from his perspective, including Hizbullah’s increased military build-up and its power to deter an Israel that is frantically maneuvering to protect its civilian rear. As a result, Israel has strictly preserved the quiet in southern Lebanon. Nasrallah made it clear that Israeli warnings about “surprises” that it was preparing for Hizbullah in the event of a military confrontation were merely psychological warfare that was doomed to fail. In response to the demands by the international tribunal in The Hague (STL) to extradite Hizbullah members accused of murdering former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, Nasrallah observed that the accused are examples of the “honorable resistance” and they would not be extradited.1

Nasrallah used the occasion to make it clear that in addition to acting as the defender of Lebanese security, henceforth he would also protect the Lebanese state’s natural resources. “Lebanon now has a real chance to become a wealthy state since treasures of natural gas and oil lie opposite its shores.” “These treasures do not belong to any sect or party, but constitute the national treasures of the Lebanese state and are valued at billions of dollars. This represents an opportunity to improve living conditions in Lebanon and pay off the Lebanese state’s debts. This is a golden opportunity and we must behave responsibly.” Israel claims about 850 km of maritime waters that contain Lebanese gas and oil and Israel has no rights to this gas and oil, Nasrallah said.

Nasrallah demanded that the Lebanese government act expeditiously to chart Lebanon’s maritime boundaries and commence production at the appropriate time. The Hizbullah leader clarified that this was the Lebanese government’s top national priority. Nasrallah followed this up with threats: “I can say with confidence that Lebanon is capable of defending its oil and gas installations. We will avenge any attack on these installations. We warn Israel against taking any steps whatsoever to steal natural treasures from beneath our territorial waters.”2

Five years after the Second Lebanon War, a war whose results Nasrallah considers both a “veritable miracle” and a “divine victory” that God bestowed on his party, Hizbullah has currently reached one of its lowest points. Nasrallah is confronting a genuine crisis that poses a significant challenge to Hizbullah’s status in Lebanon.

Two major reasons account for this strategic reversal:

  • The endangered survival of the Assad regime in Syria.
  • The international tribunal in The Hague has demanded the extradition of four Hizbullah members suspected of murdering Prime Minister Hariri. Heading the group is Mustafa Badr al-Din, who replaced Imad Mughniyeh as head of the military and security wing and is part of the Hizbullah leadership.

The threat to the Assad regime’s survival is having a direct impact on Hizbullah’s strategic position in both the internal Lebanese arena and vis-à-vis Israel. It is true that Iran gave birth to Hizbullah as a small militia during the era of Hafez Assad, but during the reign of Bashar Assad it matured and attained the dimensions of a state in social, economic, and military terms, one that threatens the very existence of the Lebanese state. Syria represents the womb in which Hizbullah was born and it served as the militia’s adoptive mother that suckled and nurtured it, together with Iran, since its establishment.

Damascus functions as the primary bridge between Iran and Hizbullah in terms of all military and other assistance arriving from Tehran. This comes on top of the direct transfer of rocket and missile weaponry from the Syrian army’s arms depots to Hizbullah’s fighting units. Hizbullah has adopted a clear-cut stand in support of Bashar Assad, and therefore Hizbullah flags are being burned in the streets of Syria together with Nasrallah’s portrait. The images of Saladin and Gamal Abd el-Nasser that were once displayed together with that of Nasrallah have been replaced by derogatory slogans against the Shiite leader who is offering support to the Alawite leader in the mass slaughter in Syria. It is now clear to Hizbullah that without Syrian backing it will find it hard to continue dictating political moves in Lebanon. The removal of Hizbullah missiles from the Syrian interior and their recent transfer to the Bekaa Valley provides the most tangible sign that Hizbullah is apprehensive about the Assad regime’s future.

At the same time, Hizbullah is being forced to contend with the demands of the International Tribunal at The Hague (STL) to extradite the murderers of Prime Minister Hariri, a demand that enjoys the support of the international community. Nasrallah’s blatant refusal to extradite the “patriotic mujahedin,” “neither in 30 days nor in 30 years,” carries with it the potential of touching off an internal Lebanese conflagration. Powerful parties in Lebanon are just itching for Hizbullah to weaken as a result of the Assad regime’s fall in Syria and intensified international pressures on Nasrallah in order to erode Hizbullah’s political standing and subsequently Hizbullah’s military power as well.

The first signs of Hizbullah’s weakened position have recently appeared:

  • In internal meetings that Nasrallah held with Hizbullah activists, he spoke frankly about the difficult circumstances in which Hizbullah finds itself – the most serious that the movement has experienced since the 1990s. Its main problems include the public revelation of an espionage network run by the CIA of people in important positions within the movement, including Mahmoud al-Haj (“Abu Turab”), the man responsible for training Hizbullah’s military forces, and Mohammed Atwe, responsible for supervision and inspection of the armed forces. Likewise, an additional person, who only had his initials A.B. publicized, turns out to be none other than Ahmed Badr al-Din, who holds no official Hizbullah position but is related to Mustafa Badr al-Din and served as a money-launderer for Hizbullah.3
  • In Nabatiye, Hizbullah’s capital in southern Lebanon, the total prohibition imposed by Hizbullah on the sale of alcoholic beverages is being violated and one can find alcoholic beverages on sale. Previously, Hizbullah hastened to forcibly shut down any store that violated this prohibition, but now it is hesitating to act. Hizbullah vented its humiliation and anger on the village of Houla in south Lebanon, where Hizbullah activists attacked a store selling alcohol. However, for the first time, they encountered opposition by leftist elements and members of the Communist Party who defended the sale of alcohol – an incident that is a most definite rarity in recent decades and ever since the beginning of the 1980s.4
  • An additional event that could cloud Hizbullah’s prospects is the attempt by the Lebanese government to appoint a security chief with the rank of Brigadier General for Beirut International Airport from within the Maronite Christian community, contrary to Hizbullah’s wishes. It may be recalled that in 2008 Hizbullah set Beirut ablaze and took over regions that it had not previously controlled in response to the attempted removal of a Shiite officer loyal to Hizbullah from the same position.5

In light of all this, it would appear that Nasrallah is looking for a new pretext to confront Israel in order to make it clear that jihad – the movement’s raison d’etre – is alive and well and that Hizbullah constitutes the spearhead of the struggle against Israel. The pretext this time is the gas fields that Israel has discovered and is developing in the framework of its maritime economic zone. Nasrallah is threatening a renewed conflagration and believes that his threats will distract attention from the decline in Hizbullah’s status and the international accusations that it currently faces. Nasrallah has already argued in the past that had he anticipated the Israeli response, he would have refrained from kidnapping the Israeli soldiers in 2006, the event that triggered the Second Lebanese War. One can only hope that five years after this war, Nasrallah still remembers his grievous mistake.

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Notes

1. Moqawama.org, July 26, 2011.

2. Ibid.

3. Majalat Aleman, July 16, 2011; al-Shiraa, July 15, 2011.

4. Hanin Ghaddar, “Hizbollah Is Bleeding Alone,” Now Lebanon, July 25, 2011.

5. Naharnet.com, July 25, 2011.

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Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Dr. Shimon Shapira is a senior research associate at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

About Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Dr. Shimon Shapira

Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Dr. Shimon Shapira is a senior research associate at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He served as Military Secretary to the Prime Minister and as Israel Foreign Ministry chief of staff. He edited the Jerusalem Center eBook Iran: From Regional Challenge to Global Threat.