Children of a Much Lesser God


Hezbollah and pro-Syrian parties are holding a massive demonstration in downtown Beirut right now, against UN Security Council Resolution 1559 (which calls for a Syrian departure from Lebanon and the disarmament of armed groups, meaning mainly Hezbollah). The Syrians and their Lebanese allies will use this episode to say that Syria still has much support in Lebanon, but are not likely to admit the absurd caveat to that argument–namely that Syria has support to maintain its hegemony over Lebanon.

I think this is an essential moment in the history of Hezbollah (the demonstration is no more than an effort to flex Shiite muscles), which has spend a decade and a half during Lebanon's postwar period setting itself above the fray of Lebanese society. Pumped up by conceit, but also by a remarkably adept leadership, the party successfully sold its resistance against Israel as a reflection of its being at the center of a national consensus. Even when the party engaged in the most partisan behavior, it would invariably regard itself as something of a supranational organization that was, somehow, too good for Lebanon.

Perhaps it was, but today Hezbollah has completely undermined that premise in the eyes of its fellow countrymen. There is little doubt that a majority of Lebanese–Christians, Druze, Sunni Muslims (particularly after the assassination of Rafik Hariri), and not a few Shiites (how I recall that the most violent postwar confrontations with Syria occurred between Syrian soldiers and Shiite soccer fans after matches in which Syrian and Lebanese teams competed)–want an end to Syrian domination. Today, the truth is clear: Hezbollah seeks to become the Praetorian Guard of a Syrian-dominated order in Lebanon for after Syrian soldiers withdraw. In that context, the killing of Hariri also becomes clearer: it was preparation for what Damascus understood would be an inevitable Syrian pullout, ensuring that a strong Sunni, with a national project for Lebanon (who could also have threatened the stability of the Alawite regime in Damascus), would be eliminated.

The flip side of that strategy is giving Hezbollah ever more power in a post-Syrian-withdrawal Lebanese state. That's perhaps why a senior Lebanese politician told me recently: "I do not consider it out of the question that Hezbollah played a role in the assassination of Hariri, on Syria's behalf."

Can such a plan work? I rather doubt it, given the anger of Syria's Lebanese adversaries and international wariness, but unless Hezbollah refuses to get further sucked into such a project, it will both lose its national credibility and might carry Lebanon into a period of prolonged crisis as the party tries to protect its gains. On top of this, fears in Riyadh, Amman and Cairo of a so-called "Shiite crescent" stretching from Iran and Iraq to Lebanon (via Syria and its support for Shiite Lebanese power), will make the Sunni Arab states redouble their efforts to undermine the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. If that happens, where will Hezbollah be?

Ultimately, the party's destiny is within Lebanon, not forever tied to the interests of Iran or Syria. But the party's secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, is devoured by hubris. He's an astute leader, but also someone utterly contemptuous of parochial Lebanese political life. The irony is that Hezbollah has only been imperfectly able to play above its size. It has helped arm and train Palestinian groups, but that has posed two problems: first, the Palestinian fight is exactly that: a Palestinian fight, not Hezbollah's; secondly, the Palestinian Authority has openly called on Hezbollah to stop arming Islamist militants.

In Iraq, Hezbollah has also shown poor results. It is believed to have, or to have had, ties with Muqtada al-Sadr, who performed poorly in the January elections. In contrast, the party is not believed to be especially close to Ayatollah Sistani, or to the more quietist Iraqi clergy, even as it does maintain close ties with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the more conservative wing of the Iranian establishment. In that context, we have a party that is regionally ambitious, but not quite able to put the meat on the table in that regard.

Will Hezbollah resolve its dilemma? It may if Nasrallah understands that by hooking himself to Syria, he is going against the grain of history. The Syrian regime, which is essentially led today by two families and a brother-in-law, is not of this time. Nasrallah has always prided himself on being ahead of the curve. Today's demonstration places him behind it, more than ever in the pocket of a Syrian regime that, in order to survive, is willing to push Hezbollah into a war against Lebanese society.

Here is the one time that Nasrallah should have deployed conceit and his legendary haughtiness, and instead he allowed himself and his party to be turned into Syrian goons.