x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Syrian revolution leaves the Party of God in search of a Plan B

Resistance is about dignity and freedom. So why does Hizbollah insist on building walls between the Shia in Lebanon and the Arab people who are calling for the same rights?

Pep Montserrat for The National
Pep Montserrat for The National

Six years after Hizbollah's "divine victory", Lebanese Shia are revisiting this occasion with bitterness and fear. Some feel that Hizbollah's support for the Syrian regime has created a conflict between the community and the Syrian people. While others, who still buy into the Party of God's rhetoric that Syrian president Bashar Al Assad is significant for the resistance, are also worried that Hizbollah is shooting itself in the foot, or leading the Shia in Lebanon to a new catastrophe. Meanwhile, Hizbollah seems to be getting ready to fight on more than one front, none of which will lead to a happy ending.

The sixth anniversary of the 2006 July war with Israel coincided with a serious escalation of events in Syria. An explosion that targeted the National Security headquarters and killed four top Syrian officials took the Syrian uprising to a different level.

This week witnessed more high-rank military defections but the armed crackdown intensified in major cities, including Aleppo and Damascus. The regime's killing of civilians and children increased and led to an influx of Syrian refugees to Lebanon.

Some of these refugees settled in the Bekaa Valley and Beirut, while others went to the south to stay with relatives. The Lebanese Shia found themselves in direct contact with Syrian families fleeing from death and terror; the same families who had welcomed them in their homes in Syria when the Lebanese fled as refugees in 2006.

While Hizbollah as an organisation did not welcome these refugees, Shia in Lebanon saw petrified children and listened to people telling stories of horror.

The Syrians' stories carried the same fears, grief, and suffering the Shia experienced in the 2006 war. Turning a blind eye to the pain of the Syrian people caused by their own regime is no longer an easy practice.

Hizbollah has been using the same "resistance" rhetoric to address its supporters, without attending to the human component and the evident right of the Syrian people to say no to a corrupt dictator.

In his recent speech, Hizbollah's Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah defended Syria's role as a "resistance" state, saying that Damascus provided the rockets used by the group during the 2006 July War and by Hamas during the 2008-2009 Gaza war.

"The Syrian leadership was risking its interests and existence in order for the resistance in Lebanon and Palestine to be strong. Show me one other Arab regime that does the same," he said.

Nasrallah said the US and Israel viewed Syria as a problem and decided to "use the rightful demands of the Syrian people to engage Syria in a war".

While this rhetoric has worked for decades, many Shia are now facing a dilemma. Resistance is about dignity and freedom; that's what the Shia have been hearing for years. So why does Hizbollah insist on building walls between the Shia in Lebanon and the Arab people who are calling for the same rights? And why wouldn't Hizbollah try to tone down the sectarian tension between Sunnis and Shia caused by its support to Mr Al Assad?

"I have never felt I am a Shia as much as I feel today," says Mounir, from the southern suburbs of Beirut. "I honour Hizbollah's bravery and sacrifices and will always support them, but I don't like to be placed in such a box where everyone sees me as a Shia."

Another concern among the Shia is based on a more pragmatic outlook. Assuming that Hizbollah is right about the significance of Mr Al Assad's regime to the resistance, what will happen to the Shia when he goes? Does Hizbollah have a plan B?

So far, Hizbollah hasn't addressed these concerns. Its leaders and politicians seem to have nothing to say besides reciting references to "glorious" accounts of its victory in 2006. However, that "divine victory" is nothing but a ghost that carries bitter thoughts.

In the aftermath of the 2006 war, those who were affiliated with Hizbollah started to show signs of wealth and affluence, driving expensive cars and living a comfortable lifestyle, while others struggled to rebuild their damaged houses and properties. Corruption within Hezbollah's ranks revealed for the first time that the Party of God is not as sacred or honourable as it claims.

Add to that the fact that the current government, which was formed by Hizbollah and its allies, is not doing well. State services are lacking, there's never been less electricity, unemployment is on the rise, and Syrian forces have been violating the Lebanese borders weekly while the government sticks to its "disassociation policy".

For the first time, Hizbollah is reacting to events instead of leading the political scene. Hizbollah and Iran will do whatever it takes to protect the Syrian regime, because without this regime, they will be weak and lonely. However, Iran will not sacrifice Hizbollah for the sake of Mr Al Assad.

So far, the Assad regime is still holding on to power, and the scenario of a long conflict is possible. Hizbollah will probably maintain its support for the regime until there is a serious turn of events, without interfering directly.

Although this will cause the party a considerable loss in its support base, the absence of a serious alternative for the Shia will keep them in power at least until the upcoming parliamentary elections in 2013. The problem is how to maintain the power of their allies, specifically the Christian Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun.

Here's where the Sunni fear comes in. With the power of Sunni Islamists rising in Lebanon, Hizbollah has found the perfect excuse: to scare both the Christians and the Shia with the "Islamist threat". General Aoun, despite his systematic failure in the government, could still use these sectarian fears to lobby Christians and maintain a minimum degree of popularity.

But this is all temporary. Things could change anytime, and Hizbollah will have to change its strategy too. Its preoccupation with domestic politics will increase and a repositioning could be reached.

But still, the arms issue would remain a hindrance to any settlement. Hizbollah will never give up its weapons with or without Al Assad's support. At the same time, March 14 politicians and their regional allies will not stop pushing, especially if they win the next parliament.

In this case, Hizbollah could resort to another May 7, 2008 scenario, when political factions in Lebanon fought each other, which will not end as quickly as the previous one. Meanwhile, the Israelis have made it very clear that they will not allow Syrian chemical weapons to get to Hizbollah. Things could blow up before 2013 if this happens.

However, one should not disregard Hizbollah's pragmatism, which, if used wisely, could lead to only one good solution: Hizbollah making peace with the Syrian people before it is too late. Simple gestures like welcoming the refugees can be a first step.

Hizbollah could save itself and Lebanon if it recognises that the reality of the Arab world is changing and a new language is being invented. The Lebanese Shia could be part of the Arab protest against corruption and dictatorship. The Arab scene is no longer attentive to an armed resistance fighting Israel. The people decided to break their immediate chains first and take to the street as citizens.

Dignity, honour and freedom are now adjectives that characterise the Syrian uprising. Resisting the tyranny and struggling against injustice are today concepts that attract more people in the region to the Syrians dying in the streets than Hizbollah fighting for Iran.

Resistance is no longer exclusive to the Shia, and dignity has become a value claimed by those calling for their freedom, peacefully, in the streets of Syria and the whole region. Hizbollah still has time to reconsider.

Hanin Ghaddar is the managing editor of the NOW Lebanon news service. On Twitter: @haningdr