As Syria implodes and Iran stands cornered, the ‘Crescent of Resistance’ that also includes Hamas and Hezbollah seems to many of its detractors to be on its last legs. While Hamas still has ‘leverage’ because the Palestinian issue is perennially imbedded in the Muslim and Arab consciousness, Hezbollah’s credibility as resistance organization seems to be truly under threat. Many were shocked when the Shia Lebanese organization turned its weapons against its own in 2008. Hezbollah’s identity as a ‘movement of the people’ was eroded more critically when the organization refused to emphatically sever its ties with the brutal Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad when it set about massacring its own citizens (in contrast, Hamas did). Moreover, local detractors primarily represented by the March 14th alliance have found a renewed voice in questioning Hezbollah’s legitimacy in maintaining its armed operations. But just as it seemed as the Arab Spring had all but squelched the group’s political project, the spill-over of the Syrian uprising into Lebanon has not only given Hezbollah another life line, but has once again proven its ability to maneuver through the minefields of Middle Eastern politics and emerge victorious.
When Hasan Ali Akleh from Al-Hasakah in northeastern Syria set himself on fire mimicking the Tunisian fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi who kicked off the Arab Spring, the streets of Beirut were rampant with fear of its implication for Lebanon, long-considered a playground for regional power struggles. With a fractured social fabric and domestic stakeholders historically invested in the same power struggle, it seemed only a matter of time before Lebanese factions would need to draw a line in the sand and stand on the ‘right side of history.’ Things appeared to be even more challenging for Hezbollah as it seemingly had a stake on both sides of the Syrian uprising, i.e., as movement of the masses and as one allied with the Syrian regime. Instinctively grabbing the opportunity, the March 14th alliance led by Sa‘ad Hariri was quick to rally support behind the uprising with the hope that a new Syria would result in a new Lebanon where Hezbollah would be demoted from its status as a political king-maker. Things were working for Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, and his cohorts until three quick events once again tipped the scales. First, on May 12th Sunni cleric Sahdi al-Moulawi was detained and charged with aiding terrorist groups. The arrest resulted in clashes between supporters of the cleric (who claim he was helping people flee the fighting in Syria) and the Sunni and Alawite supporters of the Syrian regime. Subsequently, streets of Tripoli echoed with sounds of gunfire and five were left dead with several more wounded. Second, on May 20th Sunni Sheikh Adbul-Wahid was killed near the northern town of Halba, by a Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) soldier. Reminiscent of the civil war (1975-1990) many were then left guessing about the religious and sectarian affiliation of the soldier in question. Nevertheless, like before, the immediate aftermath saw gun battles in Beirut between pro and anti-Assad factions. The funeral itself was littered with symbols of the oppositions, namely Syrian (old national flag) and Lebanese (March 14th banners). Finally, on May 22nd eleven Lebanese Shia pilgrims were kidnapped in the Aleppo region of northern Syria while on their way back from Iran. The alleged kidnappers were first thought to be members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) but were later categorized as a splinter group of the opposition. The news of the kidnapping led to spontaneous demonstrations by enraged residents in the Shia suburbs of southern Beirut resulting in the burning of tires and blocking of roads. Through this all, the Hezbollah strategy has been ‘slow and steady.’ Committed to the national strategy of dissociation, it has been hesitant to openly criticize the Syrian regime and has called for a peaceful resolution to the crisis. While Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah was quick to condemn the kidnapping, in a broadcast on national TV he insisted that blocking roads, violence, and individual actions would not help the situation. But above all, a key stance that has elevated Hezbollah above its Lebanese detractors is the fact that it has never drawn a correlation between the events in Syria and the situation in Lebanon. The March 14th alliance has openly condemned the Syrian regime and aided the opposition, reportedly within Lebanese territory, thus dragging the conflict into the country. In comparison, Hezbollah has been cunning enough to refrain from giving even tacit approval to the arrests and killings of anti-Assad activists and had repeatedly called for a tempered approach to the events. As a result, rising from the lethargy of its initial response to the Syrian uprising, Hezbollah has ironically emerged as the calming factor in Lebanon. At a time when the wishful thinking of the opposition led them to brashly allow the Syrian uprising to spill-over into the streets of Lebanon, Hezbollah has demonstrated a far more tactful political mind and diplomatic acumen that truly comprehends how Syria-related hostilities could misbalance an already fragile Lebanon that seems to be perennially on the ‘brink’.
On the one hand, Hezbollah’s success in the current crisis is testament to its already proven political maneuverability and ability to impact without participation, qualities displayed since the Lebanese civil war. But more critically Hezbollah has capitalized on the Lebanese’s worst fear, i.e., the country (once again) becoming the battleground for others’ war. While rhetorical hyperbole as engaged in by the March 14th Alliance may work to mobilize their core constituencies, when this translates into violent hostilities it becomes a reality that the Lebanese commoner will refuse to relive. It is this ‘red line’ that Hezbollah recognizes, thus enabling it to win another battle in the war for Lebanon.