Hezbollah: From national heroes to regional villains
The killing of Mustafa Badreddine, the top Hezbollah military commander in Syria, adds greater pressure on the Lebanese Shia movement and its secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, at a time when both friends and foes are questioning its policies and procedures.
Over the past several years the movement went from being regarded by the majority of Lebanese citizens as national heroes to being frowned upon as a misused regional military force and international villains.
The group first rose to heroic status in the eyes of the Lebanese and other Arabs because of its staunch and at times fierce resistance to the Israeli military occupation of southern Lebanon. Hezbollah’s relentless attacks against the Israeli military eventually forced the Jewish state to withdraw all its forces from Lebanon.
Following the forced departure of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and dozens of splinter groups from Lebanon after Israel invaded the country in June 1982, Hezbollah quickly rose to prominence. It became, in the absence of the Lebanese state authority, and thus the Lebanese Army, the de facto military force in the south and eventually expanded its reach over much of the country.
The Lebanese Shia group became known as “the resistance” and rose in prestige in the eyes of a great majority of Lebanese, including Christians, who not too long before that were engaged in fighting fellow Arabs during the Lebanese civil war.
Hezbollah succeeded in pushing the Israeli military war machine out of occupied Arab territory, something that no other Arab force had been able to accomplish since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.
For a brief period, Hezbollah basked in the limelight across the Arab world and was cheered as liberators from Aden to Casablanca.
Egged on by its success, the group made two monumental mistakes. The first came when various Lebanese militias convened in Saudi Arabia and agreed to give up their weapons. Hezbollah, arguing that it was a resistance group and that Israel still occupied tracts of lands in southern Lebanon, convinced the others that it should retain its weapons.
That alienated many Lebanese, who resented giving up their weapons while the Shia movement continued to acquire heavier and more sophisticated weapons, mostly supplied by Iran.
Then came the Syrian war and Hezbollah’s second and potentially fatal mistake. Had the group chosen to give up its arms when the other Lebanese factions gave up theirs, the history of Lebanon’s modern-day politics could have been very different.
Without its weapons, Hezbollah would have had to pursue dialogue and that would have encouraged Lebanese political parties to seek a just solution to their political differences through peaceful negotiations and not through strong-arm tactics, threats of violence and the like.
By allowing itself to be manipulated by Syria and particularly by Iran, Hezbollah transited from a position of heroism to one of regional hitman to that of an international villain. In looking back, could it be that the organisation might have taken on a greater role than it could manage? Or should it have not become involved in the Syrian conflict?
The number of casualties the group suffered in defending Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime has made many of the group’s supporters question the logic behind a move that has turned Hezbollah into a regional terrorist group implicated in conflict beyond its borders.
According to sources familiar with the Shia community in Lebanon, there is now open criticism of Nasrallah’s decision to support Assad in Syria and fear among some that this will drive a wedge between the Lebanese Shia community and the Syrian people, who are not about to forget Hezbollah’s position during the war.
With the killing of Badreddine in Syria, Nasrallah lost a major asset who carried enormous prestige and clout within the military high command. His death is a big blow to Hezbollah in general and to Nasrallah in particular. It strengthens the Iranians’ position in Syria and weakens Hezbollah’s autonomy, if it ever had any.