When Yabroud fell, Hezbollah celebrated its victory over Syria’s “takfiris,” reassuring its constituency that its success will stop Al-Qaeda from sending suicide bombers to Lebanon’s Shiite-inhabited areas. Celebratory gunfire rang through Lebanese streets, and a widespread propaganda campaign in Party-affiliated media tried to convince Lebanese that Yabroud’s fall was to their benefit. Hezbollah invested much in this victory, but the cost will ultimately fall heavily on both Sunnis and Shiites.
The intimidation of the Sunnis
Mere news of victory was not enough: Hezbollah needed to prove that its conquest of Yabroud would bear fruit on the ground in Lebanon. The Lebanese people, mainly the Shiite community, had stopped buying into theatrical propaganda after the bodies of their friends, brothers, and children started returning from Syria. So the Party of God used its allies and gangs – the Resistance Brigades – to terrorize several Sunni-inhabited neighborhoods and towns that are described by Hezbollah’s propaganda machine as operational centers for the terrorists threatening Lebanon’s security.
As soon as Yabroud fell, Arsal was immediately besieged, later to be submitted to a scrutinizing security campaign. Tripoli simultaneously descended into yet another round of clashes that took more than 25 lives. And last but not least, Beirut’s Tariq al-Jadideh neighborhood witnessed an outbreak of violence between local residents and Hezbollah allies.
Whether intentionally or not, these recent incidents indicate two things: first, the victory in Yabroud – and any subsequent Hezbollah victories in Syria – will eventually lead to a sectarian war in Lebanon; and second, Hezbollah has transformed in the past two years from a Lebanese resistance group into a Shiite sectarian militia that could be deployed anywhere in the region to serve Iranian interests.
Hezbollah’s new mission
The moment it entered Syria to fight beside Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah effectively accepted a new position as a regional force. It seems that the Party of God’s role in “resisting Israel” has become passé. Evidence of this are leaked reassurances sent by Hassan Nasrallah to Israel last year saying that Lebanon's southern border is "the safest in the world," according to a Syrian document obtained by Asharq Al-Awsat.
That’s why Hezbollah did not retaliate when Israel hit one of its bases on the Lebanese-Syrian border last month, instead issuing a statement that the Resistance “will choose the time and place and the proper way to respond to it." Having repeatedly heard this exact line from the Syrian regime whenever an Israeli air strike hit Syrian targets, we all know what this means: an attempt to artfully avoid responding. Hezbollah did not and will not retaliate, and not only because it is too busy in Syria or because it cannot afford to open a front with Israel. Hezbollah did not retaliate because it does not want to. Regional dynamics have changed, and with them Hezbollah’s mission.
Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria is not a temporary campaign, and success will not result in the Party’s return to its old role in Lebanon. Instead, this is a new mission that places the Party at a crossroads as much as Syria is at a crossroads, as is Iran itself in light of its nuclear program and negotiations with the West.
Iran needs Syria as a bargaining chip in these negotiations, and insists on using it to gain regional power in return for any concessions on its nuclear program. The Islamic Republic is investing in Syria now to gain a better bargaining position, but it will not hesitate to involve itself anywhere else in the Middle East in pursuit of regional dominance. Hezbollah will serve this purpose whenever needed, whether in Lebanon, Syria, or anywhere else in the region.
Risks and repercussions
When Iran created Hezbollah shortly following the Islamic Revolution in 1979, its goal was to spread political Shiism in the region. It was never “resistance;” rather, resistance was a tool to achieve that goal. Hezbollah’s new mission is simply the next means to achieve the same ends.
But for Hezbollah to fulfill its new role, it needs an enemy to fight in order to maintain the support of the Shiite community, as it has lost the aura of heroic resistance it had gained in 2000 and 2006. By fighting this new enemy with such violence and ferocity, Hezbollah became the leading Shiite sectarian militia, working with other regional Shiite groups to kill and terrorize Sunnis, whether Islamists or non-Islamists, militants or civilians.
Today, the only way Hezbollah can claim ultimate victory is if it wins against “the Sunnis,” not only in Syria but in the region as a whole. But in the long run, this is an impossible mission. The Party can live on temporary triumphs by winning battles in Qusayr and Yabroud, but it will ultimately lose the war. The longer their campaign in Syria continues, Hezbollah will find itself dragged steadily further into the sectarian mud. More minor victories will only lead to greater hostility, anger, and radicalism among the Sunnis in Syria and Lebanon, setting in motion a regional sectarian war that was foreshadowed in Beirut last week.
Hanin Ghaddar is the managing editor of NOW. She tweets @haningdr