News / Middle East

Column: Hezbollah, Iran Pay Price for Syria Role

Fighters celebrate after Syrian government forces and their Hezbollah allies capture the key town of Qusair, June 5, 2013.Fighters celebrate after Syrian government forces and their Hezbollah allies capture the key town of Qusair, June 5, 2013.
x
Fighters celebrate after Syrian government forces and their Hezbollah allies capture the key town of Qusair, June 5, 2013.
Fighters celebrate after Syrian government forces and their Hezbollah allies capture the key town of Qusair, June 5, 2013.
Two years after President Barack Obama confidently predicted a swift demise for Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president seems relatively secure. Pro-regime forces have clawed back swaths of key territory as the opposition splinters into hundreds of rebel groups.

However, the means that Assad is using to survive – primarily, fighters from the Iran-backed Lebanese militant group, Hezbollah – is also a potential vulnerability.
Once the most popular political/military movement in the Middle East, Hezbollah is losing its allure throughout the region and facing new challenges even in its homeland because of its intervention in Syria.

Families of the hundreds of Hezbollah fighters killed in the recent battle for Qusair wonder why their loved ones died fighting other Arabs instead of Israel. Rockets, car bombs and improvised explosive devices are striking Lebanese Shiite areas along the border with Syria and in the Hezbollah stronghold in the southern suburbs of Beirut.

Regionally, suspected Hezbollah supporters are being expelled or denied work visas and residence permits in the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Faysal Itani, a fellow at the Hariri Center of the Atlantic Council, wrote last week that the GCC states, which “pledged in June to target Hezbollah loyalists and their financial and commercial interests in the Gulf” as punishment for the Syria intervention, realize “that targeting the Lebanese diaspora and remittances threatens Lebanon’s economy and can ostensibly be used to pressure the Lebanese government to take action against Hezbollah.”

Meanwhile, the European Union on Monday (July 22) designated Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist organization. The step was in response to terrorist attacks last year that killed five Israelis in Bulgaria and threatened others in Cyprus. But the war in Syria also was a factor, says Matthew Levitt, an expert on Hezbollah at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
 
Terrorism in Europe
 
“For some EU member states, what pushed them to support the ban was terrorism in Europe, but for others, like France, events in Syria played a big role,” Levitt said. 

The terrorist designation does not extend to Hezbollah political operatives – raising the question of how Europeans will distinguish between the organization’s political and military wings -- but could still lead to some asset freezes and travel bans.

“This designation will have a significant impact on Hezbollah’s ability to operate freely in Europe by enabling European law enforcement agencies to crack down on Hezbollah’s fundraising, logistical activity and terrorist plots on European soil,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday.

Hezbollah receives millions of dollars a year in aid and weapons from Iran, but its primary source of financing is remittances from the large Lebanese Shiite Diaspora. While the bulk of them live in Africa and Latin America, there are still thousands in Europe and the GCC states. Even a slight drop in remittances could affect Hezbollah’s ability to provide cradle-to-grave services for Lebanon’s Shiites – the basis for the organization’s popular support.
 
Sunni-Shiite divide
 
The biggest impact of the Syria intervention, however, may not be economic but political and social: deepening the centuries-old sectarian divide between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Hezbollah and its backer Iran have tried to project a pan-Islamic narrative that transcends sectarian divisions and unites all Muslims against Israel. Recent opinion polls, however, show a collapse of support for Hezbollah and Iran in Sunni Muslim majority countries as far afield as Pakistan and Central Asia.

Israeli and American officials are blaming the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah for the July 18, 2012 bombing that killed five Israeli tourists, a Bulgarian bus driver and the bomber in Burgas, Bulgaria. Shown here is a funeral for one of the Israeli vicIsraeli and American officials are blaming the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah for the July 18, 2012 bombing that killed five Israeli tourists, a Bulgarian bus driver and the bomber in Burgas, Bulgaria. Shown here is a funeral for one of the Israeli vic
x
Israeli and American officials are blaming the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah for the July 18, 2012 bombing that killed five Israeli tourists, a Bulgarian bus driver and the bomber in Burgas, Bulgaria. Shown here is a funeral for one of the Israeli vic
Israeli and American officials are blaming the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah for the July 18, 2012 bombing that killed five Israeli tourists, a Bulgarian bus driver and the bomber in Burgas, Bulgaria. Shown here is a funeral for one of the Israeli vic
Jim Zogby, of Zogby Research Services and president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), presented polling in March that dramatized the drop in regard to Iran.

“Syria is the nail in the coffin of Iran’s favorable rating in the region,” Zogby said.

Rising sectarianism doomed Iranian hopes to benefit from the overthrow of the Mubarak regime in Egypt when the new president was a Muslim Brother, Mohamed Morsi. With Morsi deposed, there is zero chance that Iranian diplomatic relations with Egypt will be restored anytime soon.

The war in Syria is also jeopardizing the Shiite government in Iraq, fomenting terrorist bombings and creating new tensions within the Shiite community. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has the largest following among Shiites worldwide, has refused to approve participation in the Syria war by non-Syrian Shiites in support of Assad, whose Alawite faith is an offshoot of Shiism. That puts Sistani at odds with Iran-based Iraqi clerics such as Kadhim al-Haeari as well as with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

While Khamenei and Nasrallah have left no doubt about their commitment to the Assad regime, the price they are paying for that support is rising and could ultimately limit their regional influence rather than enhancing it.

The best way for them to turn a potential liability into an asset is to support talks that produce at least a cease-fire in the Syrian bloodbath. The Obama administration can help by dropping its opposition to an Iranian role and taking advantage of a new Iranian president who says he wants to be part of the solution to the Syrian war and not merely one of its many enablers.slavin hezbollah syria

(To see more of Barbara Slavin's columns, click on the link below)

Barbara Slavin

Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.

You May Like

Disappointing Report on China's Economy Shakes Markets

In London and New York shares lost 3 percent, while Paris and Germany dropped around 2.4 percent More

DRC Tries Mega-Farms to Feed Population

Park at Boukanga Lonzo currently has 5,000 hectares under cultivation, crops stretching as far as eye can see, and is start of ambitious large-scale agriculture plan More

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Areas are spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, source of livelihood for fishermen and herders who have called the marshes home for generations More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOAi
X
August 31, 2015 2:17 AM
Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.

VOA Blogs