Thursday, August 8, 2013

Hizbollah is losing on several fronts as it clings to its patrons

Last week, the Lebanese president, Michel Sleiman, showed the extent to which Hizbollah's intervention in the Syrian conflict, like its independent military arsenal, is provoking discontent in Lebanon. The political mechanisms the party employed to legitimise its weapons are weakening, which could have long-term repercussions.

Mr Sleiman took many by surprise on Army Day, last Thursday, when he bluntly criticised Hizbollah's decision to send combatants to Syria to fight alongside the Syrian regime. The president also defended Lebanon's army against the party.

"The task of the army becomes difficult if a faction or more of the Lebanese implicates itself in conflicts beyond our borders, which could lead to the importation of external crises, thus turning the nation into an open battlefield by proxy while such crises are draining the armies of much greater nations," Mr Sleiman said.

The president also, for the first time, implied that Hizbollah's arms were "illegitimate". He said: "The task of the army becomes difficult, indeed impossible, if this duality between legitimate and illegitimate weapons persists."

In the context of the national dialogue sessions, Mr Sleiman has sought to find a means of integrating Hizbollah's weapons into the state. But this was the first time he had spoken so forthrightly. Not surprisingly, he was criticised by Hizbollah's allies, and that night rockets were fired on the presidential palace - the second time this has occurred; the first was in June after Mr Sleiman filed a complaint with the United Nations about Syrian violations of Lebanese airspace.

On Sunday, Hizbollah's deputy secretary general, Naim Qassem, defended the party's weapons, saying they protected Lebanon and deterred Israel. However, Hizbollah must realise that Lebanon's political context is shifting. A central part of the party's strategy has been to anchor its independent military capacity in national institutions and a national consensus, but this is dissipating as unease with the party is being more openly expressed.

Hizbollah insisted the last three cabinets should endorse in their policy statements the formula of "the state, the army, and the resistance" as the basis of a Lebanese defence strategy, as such bestowing on the "resistance", or Hizbollah, a separate, recognised role. So when Mr Sleiman said that Hizbollah's behaviour complicated the army's task while carrying Lebanon into a foreign war that did nothing to enhance national security, he defied a fundamental tenet of the party. On Tuesday, he went further, stating that the formula was no longer valid.

Hizbollah's decision to fight in Syria, aside from alienating Lebanon's Sunni community, has disturbed some key allies. The party's main Christian partner, Michel Aoun, has not hidden his displeasure with its Syria campaign and condemned the rocket attack against the presidential palace while defending the president against his critics.

Mr Aoun's relations with Hizbollah have suffered because of differences over a number of domestic political issues. One Aoun-aligned parliamentarian, when asked to describe relations with Hizbollah, answered "cold". This does not mean that Mr Aoun intends to break with Hizbollah. But his political interests, like those of his electorate, are at odds today with the party's priorities.

To mark his change of direction, Mr Aoun has improved his relations with Saudi Arabia and has even been invited to visit the kingdom. Many in his electorate, whether businessmen or low-income voters, are suffering from the dire Lebanese economic situation, a direct consequence of the Syrian conflict and of Gulf Arab targeting of Hizbollah because of its involvement in Syria.

Hizbollah has lost the broad approval it once enjoyed in Lebanon, which helped shield it in times of volatility. And there is much volatility around as Hizbollah has taken a substantial risk in Syria, where Bashar Al Assad's fate is far from certain. The Syrian president may be solidly in place for now but the tide is constantly shifting on the ground, and Hizbollah, other than finding itself increasingly trapped in Syria's quagmire, knows that impatience is rising at home.

The party must also sense - along with its patron, Iran - that Syria poses a medium-term threat to both of them. The Syrian economy is slowly collapsing, which can only increase Mr Al Assad's dependence on Tehran. Unless his forces decisively gain the upper hand soon, the conflict could harm an Iranian economy already under considerable strain.

The new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, has made economic relief a priority, at a moment when the US House of Representatives has passed a new round of sanctions against Iranian oil exports. The bill still needs to be approved by the Senate and signed by President Barack Obama, who is reluctant to undermine Mr Rouhani as he seeks to start a dialogue with the west.

If Washington and Tehran begin such a dialogue, this may buy Hizbollah some breathing space. But not much. The party's "military wing" was recently placed on the European Union's terror list, worrying many Lebanese that this might have a negative impact on them and on the country's reputation. Without a clear exit strategy from Syria, Hizbollah could find that even its Shia supporters are growing unhappy with its open-ended commitment.

Nor will the aftermath in Syria necessarily benefit the party. A messy outcome there will hardly ensure a stable Lebanon, while Hizbollah is keen to avoid domestic instability. If Mr Al Assad triumphs, the party will have to manage Sunni discontent; if he loses, Hizbollah will have to absorb the downfall of a major backer, a strategic defeat for both the party and Iran.

When all its props in society go, Hizbollah will still have its weapons to silence its adversaries. But intimidation can only make matters worse at a time when many Lebanese are doubting Hizbollah's choices. The party cannot long survive in an unreceptive environment, which could turn hostile before long.

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