Hezbollah's Plunge into the Syrian Abyss

By Randa Slim | Senior Fellow and Director of Conflict Resolution and Track II Dialogues Program - The Middle East Institute | May 28, 2013
Hezbollah's Plunge into the Syrian Abyss

This article was originally published by ForeignPolicy.com on May 28, 2013

Hezbollah built its legitimacy fighting Israel. On April 30, Hezbollah's Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah admitted publicly for the first time what was until then an open secret in Lebanon's Shiite community that Hezbollah was fighting in Syria, with the objective of preventing the Assad regime's fall. Hezbollah's decision to plunge into the Syrian abyss is a potential turning point in Hezbollah's trajectory since its founding in the early 1980s and might prove to be the undoing of the monopoly Hezbollah has so far enjoyed over Lebanon's Shiites.

Partly this is because the Shiite community of today, which Hezbollah calls on to fight, is different from that of the 1990s when Hezbollah and other Lebanese political groups waged the war of liberation in the south of Lebanon and eventually forced Israel to withdraw from villages and towns it occupied. Since then, mainly thanks to Hezbollah and Amal, Shiites have been on an ascending course of political and economic empowerment. There is a significant Shiite middle class that now has a stake in a stable and secure Lebanon where economic conditions are conducive for business and investments.

While Hezbollah has successfully cultivated the cult of the martyr among its fighting force, this cult is not necessarily shared in the Shiite community writ large including those who are considered political supporters of Hezbollah though not part of its fighting manpower. In a way, the success Hezbollah has achieved in delivering to the Shiite community the political empowerment they promised them stands to serve as a limiting factor to Hezbollah's long and protracted engagement in the Syrian civil war.

Moreover, Hezbollah cadres have been involved in Lebanese political life since 1992. While Hezbollah entered politics mainly to protect its weapons, the party now includes a sophisticated cadre of political operatives who have grown to appreciate and master the art of retail politics. While the founders' generation which makes up the Shura Council, Hezbollah's decision-making cell, remains committed to the resistance raison d'etre, the younger tiers in the party's numerous political, administrative, and social organs see in politics a means to achieve other party objectives, which are of equal importance to the armed struggle. 

Finally, Hezbollah enters this new front in Syria after a series of self-inflicted wounds, which they suffered as a result of a string of corruption scandals of which some of their senior officials and their relatives have been accused. This has also put some daylight between the leadership and the families of those who are now being called on to fight and die in Syria. Around Dayieh, Beirut's southern suburbs, the expensive cars that relatives (especially wives and daughters) of party officials drive are striking. Often, people joke about these cars. They murmur about the expensive apartments in which party leaders live and they ask from where they got all this money. Hezbollah's image of a resistance movement led by leaders who are not corrupt and who engage in selfless behavior is not there anymore. Hezbollah's public has a more jaded picture of the party and its leadership. The more sacrifices this public is asked to deliver the more it will feel it has the right to raise questions about the endgame in Syria.

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Hezbollah enters this new front in Syria after a series of self-inflicted wounds