Hussain Abdul-Hussain

Hezbollah is bruised

Despite the victories it celebrated, Hezbollah continued fighting in Syria with the elusive promise of finishing off the rebels "soon."

Hezbollah funeral. (AFP/Anwar Amro)

Just as any war of attrition taxes a military force, large or small, Syria's war has taken a toll on Hezbollah. Unlike Bashar al-Assad or Iran's Ali Khamenei, who can mute dissent, Hezbollah's ability to project power relies on the support of Lebanon's Shiites.

No public surveys are available that capture the sentiment of these Shiites. Hezbollah keeps a lid on the numbers of its fighters and casualties. Yet, anecdotal evidence suggests that Lebanon's Shiite population is thinning out. Families are searching for better lives away from the "society of resistance" and its perpetual war. In the extended Shiite family I hail from, only one of 11 men and five of 16 women, between the ages of 18 and 50, live in Lebanon today.

Hezbollah is a formidable military force. Its social, media and financial institutions are impressive. Yet the party realizes that, to maintain its edge, it has to nurture its supporters and their needs. After the 2006 July War against Israel, the party's leadership was so embarrassed by the destruction that had befallen the areas of its supporters that it had to deflect Shiite anger toward Lebanon's Sunnis and Druze, accusing them of conspiring against the Shiites to "force them to go back to the days when they worked as shoeshine boys."

The party's trick worked. In 2008, it led the military takeover of western Beirut, creating a fait accompli that overturned decisions taken by Sunni Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s cabinet that threatened the party while also forcing an end to a political deadlock that saw the creation of a unity government. Around the same time, US President George Bush and his French counterpart Jacques Chirac, both sworn enemies of Hezbollah and Assad, left office. That same year, Ankara sponsored indirect peace talks between Damascus and Tel Aviv, opening the door for Assad escape his international isolation.

The "Axis of Resistance" of Hezbollah and Assad ran out of luck, however, with the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in 2011. During the early months of the conflict, Hezbollah was happy with its role of propagating Assad's narrative, that there was no war in Syria, and that if there was one; Syrian militants were sponsored by former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, an improbability that Hezbollah and the Shiites conveniently believed.

Like other minorities in the Levant, Syria's Alawites try to avoid long wars. Minorities employ brutal force early on in conflicts in the hope of instilling fear in the hearts of the enemy and ending the fight fast before demographics can decide the winner.

The Assad regime was expected to behave accordingly and not engage Syria's Sunnis, who outnumber the Alawites by 6 to 1, in a protracted war.

Iran, however, had a different idea. If we believe the literature from that period, like the profile on Qassem Suleimani in the New Yorker and the account of defecting Syrian diplomat in Washington Bassam Barabandi, it was Tehran that told Assad that, with its support, he could win this battle.

Iran then instructed Hezbollah to enter Syria and save Assad. The party did an impressive job, conquering areas that Assad's mechanized elite forces had repeatedly failed in taking.

But before winning in Syria, the party had to present its supporters with a narrative. It said its Syria campaign was going to be short and would defeat Sunni extremists. Then, there was a blowback and the extremists took the war to Beirut, which the party successfully stopped. Yet despite the victories it celebrated, Hezbollah continued fighting in Syria with the elusive promise of finishing off the rebels "soon."

In the meantime, Hezbollah's resources, both military and civilian, have been strained. The party thus enlisted the American-armed Lebanese Army to fight Sunnis around Lebanon. The army and its presidential hopeful commander happily obliged, but was no match to the border militias, therefore forcing the party to remain engaged.

Today, there is hardly a Shiite village that has not lost a dozen or more of its men. Sooner or later, Hezobllah will run out of men to recruit, which will pose a serious problem for the party.

Perhaps in Iran, where almost every one of the 70 million is Shiite, numbers do not matter. But they do in Lebanon, where at one million, the Shiites form a quarter of the population. In Syria, the Alawites, who are not Shiites, number two million out of 16 million Syrians. The number of Shiites in Syria is statistically insignificant.

Iran can send advisers to Syria and Iraq to supplement the Shiite-Alawite ranks, but cannot send troops. Because of language and cultural differences, Iranians in combat would be easily identified and targeted. They would barely be able to communicate with host villages that they would supposedly be defending.

The disparity in numbers that clearly favors the Sunnis in the Levant is beginning to catch up with Hezbollah, despite its superior military capabilities. Hezbollah finds itself exhausted and bruised, and there seems to be no end in sight.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington Bureau Chief of Kuwaiti newspaper Alrai. He tweets @hahussain

Friends and family mourn Hezbollah fighter Jad Al Bizri. (AFP/Anwar Amro)

Today, there is hardly a Shiite village that has not lost a dozen or more of its men. Sooner or later, Hezobllah will run out of men to recruit, which will pose a serious problem for the party.

  • maryamz.hz

    Israel isnt even involved in this. Too many of our Muslims insist to blame others because they cannot admit there are radical, political , evil Islamists in Islam. It is Iran that has its dirty hands in things around the world. It is also Iran who smartly fools Muslims into focusing on Israel and blaming Israel, so that Iran can do their dirty deeds while everyone is focused on Israel. Iran Shia use Palestinian Sunni as "pawns"..in a chess game...make the world hate Israel so they will focus on Israel and Palestine instead of what Iran is doing while youre focused on blaming Israel. We must see through their foggy weather they make. Look in these articles, Iran is recruiting Afghans to do their dirty work so they dont have to use so many of their own people in this fight. Iran fooled Shia and even Hezbollah into believing things. They believed there was no war in Syria and blamed it on Hariri. Iran plants the seed, and makes other water that seed by doing their dirty work. I think we need to start looking at things in a different way. Why is there no terrorism in Iran? Why isnt ISIS taking their fight to Iran? Iran is a double dealer no one can trust. Even people of the Iran revolution REGRET helping the Ayatollah return to Iran, who is far worse than the Shah they ousted. That Ayatollah told Irans people lies, so he could come there and take over. All terrorists are a problem, but I think Islamic terrorists are the problem for all of we Muslims in the world. Israel isnt after all of us, but ISIS and their ridiculous vision for a controlling evil caliphate is after all Muslims. Radical Islamists are or worst enemy, from small to big groups, or even individuals, it doesnt matter. They are destroying Islam and only good Muslims can stop them by uniting our voices against them and by not joining with them or giving support to them. WE good Muslims ARE the majority. SHARE

    November 10, 2014

  • Vlad Tepes

    I don't think so. As long as there is a Zionists Entity within the midst, there will also be a resistance. Be it Hezbollah or another Shiitte group. As much as you love Zionists you'll have to face that fact and deal with it. Still, I believe that when it's all said and done, Hezbollah will be remembered for their sacrifice. Lebanese not Iranian.

    October 28, 2014

  • ZizouZeGreat

    Zionists? What Zionists? You think el7izb still knows where Isrsel is? And even if it did, you think it would want to throw even a rose across the border? :)

    October 29, 2014

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Why then is there no visible dissent within Lebanon's Shiite community? We rarely hear of dissenters who were "silenced" in mysterious ways. What is, in your opinion, the breaking point? What will it take before some Shiites speak up?

    October 27, 2014

  • ZizouZeGreat

    There is probably little, but I agree it's not significant or visible. I tend to think it's more of a self-silencing that's going on, due to concerns of being the ones who "betrayed the community in this time of need". Self-silencing (or silencing in general) can work for only so long, before sh*t hits the fan..

    October 29, 2014