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As its war in Syria drags on, Hizbollah faces many crises

Mona Alami on the trajectory of Hizbollah from war with Israel to declining popularity and declaration as a terror group
Hizbollah’s brand image decline was triggered by the assassination of Lebanese Sunni prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, followed by a spate of killing targeting MPs, journalists and ministers opposing Syria and the Lebanese militia. Mahmoud Zayyat / AFP
Hizbollah’s brand image decline was triggered by the assassination of Lebanese Sunni prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, followed by a spate of killing targeting MPs, journalists and ministers opposing Syria and the Lebanese militia. Mahmoud Zayyat / AFP

A decade after the bloody 2006 war with Israel, Hizbollah may be deadlier than ever. Yet the organisation has lost popularity across the Middle East and its involvement in the Syria quagmire has narrowed its margin of manoeuvre in Lebanon.

“Hizbollah is stronger, its regional mission has expanded and it has become indispensable to Iran, yet any major failure will trigger a stronger backlash at the local level,” says Hizbollah expert Hazem Amine.

In the past 10 years, the organisation has increased its fighting capabilities, with about 45,000 fighters, 120,000 surface-to-surface rockets and missiles, long range projectiles and hundreds of drones.

Despite this, it has lost much in terms of regional credibility and support. According to Pew Research, in 2010, 30 per cent of Egyptians had favourable views of Hizbollah, as did 55 per cent of Jordanians and 52 per cent of Lebanese. These figure eroded in 2014, to only 15 per cent of Egyptians, 18 per cent of Jordanians and 41 per cent of Lebanese.

The organisation has gone from a pan-Arab movement enjoying wide support to a sectarian militia promoting Iran’s controversial agenda. In March this year, Hizbollah was labelled a terrorist organisation by the Arab League, following a similar decision by the European Union.

Hizbollah’s brand image decline was triggered by the assassination of Lebanese Sunni prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, followed by a spate of killing targeting MPs, journalists and ministers opposing Syria and the Lebanese militia. Four Hizbollah members are currently being prosecuted for allegedly masterminding Hariri’s assassination. Hizbollah’s takeover of Beirut and the Druze Mountain in 2008 further damaged its reputation. Its unilateral decision to fight in Syria alongside the regime of Bashar Al Assad further hindered its credibility.

The organisation has lost about 1,500 fighters in Syria with more than 5,000 injured. Israel prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has acknowledged that Israel conducted dozens of strikes on Hizbollah in Syria. Hizbollah has lost important figures both from a military and symbolic standpoint across the border.

One of those killed was Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of Hizbollah’s notorious operation chief, Imad Mughniyeh, who was assassinated in 2008 in Damascus. In January, Hizbollah commander Samir Kuntar, who was working on developing a new brigade in the Golan area, was killed in an air strike in Syria. Finally in May, Moustapha Badredine, a top Hizbollah commander, was killed in a mysterious explosion in Syria.

The war in Syria seems to be slowly eroding Hizbollah’s policy of “equilibrium”, which calls for retaliation against every perceived Israeli strike and which had provided the organisation with powerful deterrence capabilities.

When Mughnieh was killed, Hizbollah responded by firing guided missiles at Israeli troops in the occupied Shebaa Farms area, killing a soldier and commander. After Kantar’s killing the response was milder: Hizbollah targeted two armoured military vehicles in Israel. The death of Badredine, the nemesis of many an IDF general, was blamed on Syrian rebels, despite intelligence experts claiming otherwise.

“Nobody believes rebels had the capability to kill Badredine. If Israel is behind his assassination, this is extremely bad for us,” acknowledged a source close to the Hizbollah leadership. Such a possibility could mean the end of Hizbollah’s deterrence against Israel.

The organisation has also faced challenges in Lebanon. During recent municipal elections, the communist party and leftist independents managed to garner an unprecedented number of votes in Hizbollah’s southern fiefdom. Many did not abide by Hizbollah’s edict to vote for the party.

The general unease that dominated the Lebanese municipal elections is rooted in the growing number of scandals, combined with a paralysis of state institutions.

Within Lebanon, Hizbollah has become a political party controlling a third of the parliament and government. Paradoxically, its increased involvement within the Lebanese state makes it more accountable – and vulnerable to accusations of corruption, including a rubbish-collection scandal that led to wide protests.

Today, Hizbollah may be a major player in shaping Syria’s future and more capable of striking strategic facilities in Israel, yet is it facing more regional challenges than ever.

It has to preserve a semblance of stability in Lebanon, fight a costly sectarian war in Syria, and ensure it is still capable of fighting Israel, while maintaining its popular base. Unless the organisation is capable of achieving total victory on one of these fronts, its popular base will be placed under increasing strain and eventually reach a tipping point. The question remains when that will be.

Mona Alami is a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East

Updated: August 7, 2016 04:00 AM

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