Decade after ‘divine victory’, Hezbollah’s in trouble
BEIRUT - On the tenth anniversary of Hezbollah’s “divine victory” over Israel in their war, critics of the Party of God are complaining that the Shia movement is alive and kicking. The way things are going, however, the Syria war might achieve what 2006 failed to do — destroy Iran’s proxy in the Levant.
On July 12th, 2006, Hezbollah abducted two Israeli soldiers, triggering a war. Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert vowed to rescue the soldiers and destroy Hezbollah.
He failed on both accounts and Hezbollah fought Israel’s vaunted military to a standstill, something no non-state Arab group had achieved. Hezbollah emerged from the war stronger than ever, with a whole new arsenal of missiles thanks to non-stop supply from Iran and Syria.
That war lasted for 34 days and led to the killing of 250-500 Hezbollah fighters in addition to 121 Israeli troops and approximately 2,000 Lebanese civilians.
The Lebanese economy, particularly the civilian infrastructure, was virtually destroyed, yet Hezbollah insisted that the July war was a “divine victory” for the Axis of Resistance.
Olmert stepped down in disgrace. The two soldiers were eventually returned to Israel — in coffins — in a bodies-for-prisoners swap a few years later.
The 2006 war did wonders for Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, who won the hearts and minds of millions throughout the Arab world with inflammatory speeches during the conflict. He marked his Kodak moment by giving a blow-by-blow account on live television — from a secret hideout — as Hezbollah gunners sank an Israeli warship off Beirut.
It was Arab theatrics at its finest, reminiscent of the moment in 1956 when Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser announced the nationalisation of the Suez Canal. As he spoke, Egyptian officials seized the canal administration from British personnel, triggering the Suez war.
In 2006, many hailed Nasrallah as the next Nasser. Ten years later, Nasrallah’s popularity has largely eroded due to a cripplingly unpopular decision in 2012 to send his fighters into the Syrian maelstrom to protect Hezbollah’s all-important supply from Iran through Syria.
Nasrallah defended a position dictated to him by Iran’s mullahs, claiming the Syria war was an absolute necessity for Hezbollah because, if the Syrian regime collapsed, Saudi Arabia and Israel would “devour” the “Lebanese resistance”.
His mission was to secure the Syria-Lebanon border to prevent jihadists from infiltrating Lebanese territory and to safeguard Shia shrines in Damascus and northern Syria.
The international community has been trying, with little luck, to disarm Hezbollah through a series of UN resolutions starting in 2005. When that failed, Israel tried to do it by force, with the implicit backing of Saudi Arabia and several Lebanese politicians in the US-backed March 14 coalition of Lebanese political parties.
That never saw the light of day, prompting the United States to attempt disarmament through Lebanese authorities, starting with taking over Hezbollah’s telecommunications network at Beirut International Airport in May 2008.
That attempt backfired and led to a mini-civil war on the streets of mainly Muslim West Beirut, where Hezbollah fighters overwhelmed their opponents within hours and were on the verge of overrunning Beirut before a truce was struck.
The fourth attempt started in 2012, when Hezbollah’s enemies hoped that the Shia movement, by entangling itself in Syria, would be signing its death warrant: It would either be swallowed up in the savage war or provoke jihadis to come after it on Lebanese soil.
Those enemies hope a long war inflicts maximal losses on Hezbollah, crushes its power base and leads to its demise.
In the final analysis, Hezbollah’s adversaries say if the party does not bleed to death in Syria, it would certainly distract the group from the objective for which it was formed: fighting Israel.
In the meantime, the Israelis wait for one side to eliminate the other in Syria, knowing that both would emerge battered and weak — just as the United States stood by and watched Iran and Iraq savage each other in 1980-88, hoping the war would either rid the world of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini or Saddam Hussein.
US president Ronald Reagan reportedly observed at the time: “It’s a pity that one side has to win. It would be great if both were defeated.”
That logic applies today to Hezbollah in the Syrian bloodbath. Inasmuch as the Syrian opposition is furious about Hezbollah’s support for Damascus, the international community is doing nothing to stop it, hoping that the conflict will achieve what 2006 failed to do: consume Hezbollah, topple its leadership and eliminate its massive arsenal.