BEIRUT — Lebanon’s militant Shi’ite movement Hezbollah has always been opaque. But since intervening in the Syrian civil war it is even more secretive -- to the frustration of Lebanese political opponents trying to discuss with Hezbollah leaders what happens if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad falls.
Few Lebanese doubt that the fortunes of Hezbollah and Assad are linked. The Shi’ite party-cum-militia would never have grown as powerful without Syrian manipulation of Lebanese politics and the patronage of Assad’s intelligence services.
Hezbollah has linked its future with Assad even more by fighting on his side.
But if the Syrian president should fall, what’s Hezbollah’s future? Will it stay aligned with Iran, try to retain its arms and argue it is the only deterrence against an Israeli attack on Lebanon? Or will it turn into more of a domestic political movement and less of a militia?
Lebanese author and commentator Michael Young argues the ouster of Assad will weaken Hezbollah significantly, although it will not mean the end of the movement.
“I don’t think there’s an assumption that it will be the end of Hezbollah. That is a very simplistic assumption. Hezbollah will not end because the Syrian regime falls," Young said. "Hezbollah’s capacity to engage in war will be much diminished, it will not have the same ability to re-arm itself and it won’t have this big ally sitting on the Lebanese border that can help it.”
Publicly, Hezbollah leaders insist Assad won’t be defeated and the “axis of resistance” of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah will endure. But Lebanese Shi'ites are growing nervous amid heightened sectarian tensions in Lebanon and Lebanese Sunni Muslim and Christian leaders are trying to engage Hezbollah in discussions about how it sees the future, but to little avail.
In 2000, many Lebanese -- including Sunni Muslims -- applauded Hezbollah for its role in the war against Israel but that admiration has now diminished said Bassel Salloukh, a political scientist at Beirut’s Lebanese American University.
“In 2000 when Israel withdrew from most of the territory it occupied, Hezbollah was the hero of the region," Salloukh noted. "Today Hezbollah is a pariah in the region for most of the people of the region.”
Already, Sunni Islamists in Lebanon are becoming more outspoken in their hostility towards Hezbollah, warning the group it will be held accountable for any Sunni blood it sheds in Syria. An Assad defeat would likely embolden Sunni opponents to challenge Hezbollah’s status as a state within the state.
Political scientist Salloukh believes that before the events in Syria, Hezbollah was ready to start transforming itself into more of a political party, but he worries the Syrian civil war has stopped that evolution.
“As a Shi’ite minority in a greater Sunni world with the sectarianization of the region I think they realize now that if anything they should stockpile more weapons," Salloukh said. "And the biggest victory, I think, against Hezbollah in the past couple of years has been this sectarianization of the region, which has transformed them from a pan-Islamist, pan-Arabic revolutionary resistance movement really to a sectarian militia.”
A toppling of the Assad regime would deprive Hezbollah not only of a key political ally but leave it weakened and facing foes keen to further diminish its power.