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Lebanon: Shi’ites need a new strategy - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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No one knows how the crisis in Syria might end. But one thing is certain. What happens in Syria would also affect the balance of power in Lebanon.

A balance of power resembles a kaleidoscope in which different colors are positioned in relation with one another. Turn it and you reposition all the colors in a new combination, excluding some in the process.

In that context, the Lebanese faction most likely to be affected by the outcome of the struggle in Syria is Hezbollah. It is the one most dependent on Syria for political support and as a conduit for military and financial aid from Iran.

Thus it is no surprise that, slowly but surely, voices within the Lebanese Shi’ite community are beginning to demand a review of the movement’s strategy shaped by its dependence on Iran and Syria.

Under its present leadership, Hezbollah suffers from three contradictions.

The first is the contradiction between its political persona as a people-based movement and the reality of its decision-making mechanisms. While it claims that its policies are shaped by internal debate, everyone knows that a telephone call from Tehran could produce an about-turn on almost any issue.

The second contradiction is between its championing pan-Islamic causes while operating as a strictly sectarian organization. This is illustrated by the claim that Iran’s “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei is the “leader of all Muslims”, whether they like it or not.

The third contradiction is caused by the party’s attempt at playing the political game according to Lebanese rules, which emphasize compromise, and the Mafia-style politics of the Syrian regime in which force and terror are dominant features.

Despite these contradictions a combination of factors had helped Hezbollah built a position at the heart of several concentric circles of support. Recently, the party has either lost or is in the process of losing some of those circles.

The first to go is the outer circle of support from nostalgics of pan-Arabism, the remnants of the Arab left and anti-despotic forces in the region.

By associating itself with the Assad regime Hezbollah has all but lost that circle.

The second circle of support consisted of those Lebanese who, cutting across sectarian boundaries, saw Hezbollah as an expression of their nationhood. That circle, too, has all but evaporated. Today, many Lebanese fear that Hezbollah may be leading them into conflicts that have nothing to do with their national interests and aspirations- conflicts too large in scope for Lebanon to handle.

The third circle of Hezbollah support consists of the Shi’ite community, the largest in demographic terms in Lebanon. Hezbollah never succeeded in winning a straight majority, a fact illustrated by its relatively modest scores in parliamentary elections. Nevertheless, almost all Lebanese Shi’ites were prepared to acknowledge Hezbollah as an important element in their community. Hezbollah was admired for its ability to assert Shi’ite power through propaganda, political maneuvering, and, when necessary, use of force. It also managed to bring in vast resources used to rebuild the south and create employment opportunities for Shi’ite.

That circle is fading as more and more Shi’ites realize that what Hezbollah has built, mostly with money from Iran, could also be destroyed by an adventurist policy imposed by Tehran. Worse still, Hezbollah’s largesse has created jealousies among Shi’ites. A Shi’ite who suddenly builds an imposing house or drives an expensive car instantly labeled a “Hezbollah parasite”.

It is the loss of the third circle that most concerns the party’ leadership. One sign of that is the gradual but no less perceptible efforts by Amal leader Nabih Berri to distance himself from Hezbollah. Although allied with Iran and Syria, Berri is essentially a Lebanese politician in the “Lebanon First” tradition. He is not ready to risk Lebanon’s national interests, in fact its very existence, in the interest either of Assad or Khamenei.

The traditional Lebanese politician may get involved in all manner of chicanery to receive foreign financial and political support. Deep down, however, he remains Lebanese, always ready to jettison a paymaster to protect Lebanese interests.

In contrast, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah describes himself as “a proud foot soldier of Khamenei.”

In that, Nasrallah represents some Communist leaders during the heyday of the COMINTERN. They regarded themselves as “proud foot soldiers” of Stalin and were prepared to sacrifice their own nation’s interests in the service of the Soviet Union. In 1939, Stalin told them to praise Hitler because Moscow had signed an alliance with Nazi Germany to partition Poland. In 1941, the same Stalin ordered them to fight Hitler who had invaded the Soviet Union.

There other signs that Nasrallah may be losing support among the Shi’ites. Until recently, the pro-Hezbollah media never referred to Nasrallah without the deferential titles. Now, he is plain Hassan Nasrallah. Again until recently, whenever Nasrallah emerged from his hideout to broadcast a speech through the TV networks he owns, his appearance would be greeted with Shi’ites firing celebratory bullets in the skies across Lebanon. Now, however, Shi’ites are saving their bullets, responding to Nasrallah’s diatribes with dismissive yawns.

The self-styled hero has become a TV personality and, like other TV personalities, he is subject to a rise and decline cycle.

Some Lebanese Shi’ites are pondering some crucial questions.

What if Assad falls? What if Khamenei loses the power struggle, paving the way for an end to his adventurism? What if Iran is dragged into a war that could lead to regime change in Tehran?

Some Lebanese Shi’ites are looking to Iraq as a potential source of support in the future. According to Iraqi sources, prominent Lebanese Shi’ites have visited Iraq to establish communication with the Shi’ite clerical leadership in Najaf and the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Baghdad.

Though concerned about the possibility of a Middle East dominated by Muslim Brotherhood, allied with the United States, Iraq, has managed to hedge its bets. In Baghdad the emphasis is on Iraqi interests not pan-sectarian dreams.

The regional kaleidoscope is changing, making Nasrallah’s conservatism all the more risky for Lebanon and its Shi’ite community. The growing debate about a new strategy for Lebanese Shi’ites must be welcomed. But, without leadership change, no new strategy is possible.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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