Foreign Policy Blogs

The Ides of March 8

Hezbollah Fighters March Through Beirut


The imminent fall of the Assad regime in Syria is an event that will not only shape that country, but also its neighbor, Lebanon. A deeply divided society whose cleavages have been widened with the events in Syria, the country has been set on a very disastrous path. On both sides of the political divide there are worrying new dynamics. The March 14 coalition, headed by the Future Movement of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, has lost the ability to control key components of its Sunni base. The protests resulting from Wissam al-Hassan’s funeral, which highlighted just how disgruntled the Sunni populace feels, represented only the tip of the iceberg. Even more worrying has been the creation of Salafist enclaves in the north and south of the country, as detailed here. While the author has already highlighted the precarious situation presented by a lack of clear leadership in the pro-Western camp, the issues facing the March 8 coalition and Hezbollah have yet to be discussed.

Complementing and largely mirroring the worries of March 14 is that of Lebanon’s Shiite population. The country’s poorest sectarian grouping, Shiites have seen immense socio-economic gains under Hezbollah’s stewardship. Social welfare services, ranging from education to healthcare, have helped alleviate the burden of poverty in the Beqaa Valley and the southern Beirut “suburbs” of Dahieh. These Shiite bastions, having benefitted from the Party of God’s charity and newly found political prominence, have further coalesced around the party in this time of uncertainty. The constituency’s reliance on the group has also led many Shiites to fear repercussions on Lebanon caused by the fall of Assad.

As Damascus is key to Hezbollah’s military superiority, as a transit route from Tehran to Beirut, the overwhelming advantage that the Shiite group has in terms of arms is threatened. For Shiites, this is not solely or most importantly about the acquisition of weapons per se; or the fact that the group is better armed than the Lebanese army. Rather, it is the deterrence and political capabilities that these weapons provide. Since Hezbollah took over the streets of West Beirut in March 2008 it has shown a willingness to resort to violence if strongly challenged in the domestic arena. Couple this with its impressive capability to repeal Israel in 2006 and the emasculation of the Sunni polity is complete. While this hasn’t produced the desired situation for Hezbollah, which would like to avoid Sunni-Shiite conflict, it has served the organization’s political purposes. The party’s weapons limit the channels through which its opponents can attempt to pressure it, keeping them restricted within the spheres of political and civil disobedience actions. Furthermore, it is evident that Hezbollah’s arms have also ensured that its adversaries tread very carefully in both of these arenas, least they evoke a violent response. With Hezbollah’s military standing now threatened, its Shiite constituency is more than worried that they will lose the privileges bestowed upon them over the last twenty years and that Sunni revenge may come in both economic and violent forms.

Many among the Shiite population believe that with the fall of Assad, Lebanon’s Sunni actors will seize the opportunity to strike back at Hezbollah and its supporters. This is a view shared by Sunni Islamists in Tripoli, who see a victory by their coreligionists in Syria as heralding the coming of their political fortunes. though largely an overstatement given their lack of institutionalized political power. While a Sunni majority regime in the neighboring country would be unequivocally anti-Iran and anti-Hezbollah, the Shiite group’s cache of weapons would not disappear overnight. Any disarming of the group would be instead the product of a long and drawn out political process. Thus, the Shiite rational short term calculation has been sidelined in favor of a deepening sense of fear of imminent demise. This is partially due to Hezbollah’s own actions. In its move to delegitimize both the Syrian opposition and the Future Movement, it has increasingly framed them as sympathetic to the Salafist cause. This message was directed at Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, a Christian party and the largest member of the March 8 camp, a kingmaker in the governing coalition. The strategy was simple; to stoke fears of religious violence and persecution to keep their Christian allies, an identity group divided along both March 8 and 14, from switching sides.

The unintended effect has been to exacerbate fears among an already shaken constituency of Shiite Muslims. Provocative acts by emerging Sunni leaders, such as Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir who led a sit-in demanding Hezbollah disarm in July and whose bodyguards clashed with Hezbollah this month, have added to Shiite anxiety as well. How has Hezbollah dealt with these issues? While discipline among its constituency is markedly better than that of the March 14 coalition, cracks in its ability to control the Shiite street have begun to show. In May 2012, after the abduction of eleven Lebanese Shiites in Syria by rebels, both kin and members of the communities attacked Syrian nationals in the country, defying their leader, Hassan Nasrallah’s call for calm. Nasrallah even went as far as to admit that the Shiite street was getting out of control in an interview with Hezbollah’s Al Manar television station. Furthermore, the Shiite group was unable to secure the release of Syrians and a Turkish citizen kidnapped by their coreligionists in the al-Meqdad clan in August. The group’s inability to stand up to an influential group within its community highlights the re-emergence of a militia culture, rife with tit-for-tat kidnappings and Hezbollah’s reliance on Shiite cohesion during this time of impending crisis.

Hezbollah’s strong stance in favor of the Assad regime and its unwavering goal to keep the current March 8 government in power has brought this precarious situation on its support base. With Assad’s fall imminent, given huge rebel gains around Damascus, Hezbollah needs to be ready to negotiate with the opposition, not only for the sake of reconciliation but also for its own constituency. Further disassociation from the Syria conflict, a policy that has worked to an extent under the March 8 government, should be a key goal by both sides. Working upon this foundation, as not to upset the shaky understanding between the parties, the March 8 and March 14 coalitions should go beyond their impromptu national dialogue talks and develop a robust plan for reconciliation. Sunni disenfranchisement and Shiite fears need to be voiced through a forum in which political maturity takes precedent and in which a concrete Lebanese initiative can be developed.

This road map should, given Hezbollah’s future disadvantageous position, first lead to a renegotiation of political representation, away from patronage politics, and a willingness to bolster the capacities of the Lebanese Army — while protecting the interests of all of the country’s sectarian groups. After which, and hopefully in the near future, can concrete talks on Hezbollah’s disarmament be held — a development that would end the proliferation of arms in the country and make the region safer as a whole. The alternative, from the Shiite perspective, is a growing sense of insecurity which will lead to increased kidnappings, protests and violent actions beyond Hezbollah’s control. This development would threaten the ability of actors on both sides of the sectarian line to restrain their communities and in turn derail the possibility of a new and peaceful post-Assad order.