In Lebanon, What Happens to Hezbollah if Syria’s Assad Falls?

BY Paige Kollock  August 30, 2012 at 11:40 AM EDT


Ali, a Lebanese resident, who worries about sectarian violence in his home country if the Syrian regime falls.

BEIRUT, Lebanon | The turmoil in Syria is impacting neighboring Lebanon in more ways than one.

Besides terrifying some Lebanese residents about spillover violence and what the future holds for their small strip of a country, the future is uncertain for Hezbollah, one of the most powerful political and religious organizations in the region.

The Shiite group, known in some quarters as the Party of God dominates large swaths of Lebanon, especially in the south, and currently controls the Lebanese government. Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has long been a key ally of the group, allowing Iran to ship arms and other supplies into Lebanon overland through his country and across the border.

The possibility of Assad falling from power — as fighting with anti-government forces enters its 18th month — means Hezbollah would lose a powerful ally. Still, in a country where Hezbollah in some ways has more influence than the elected government, some on the streets of Beirut are skeptical that anything can loosen the party’s grip on power.

“The only thing that would affect Hezbollah is the … smuggling of weapons, because weapons come from Iran to Syria to Hezbollah,” said Wissam Ibrahim, 26, manager of a family bakery, who says he supports Hezbollah. “But” he added, Hezbollah “will always find a way, underground maybe, or any other way, to keep smuggling these weapons.”

Some see Hezbollah’s ability to stand up to Israel in the war of 2006 that left more than 1,000 Lebanese dead and severely damaged infrastructure in southern Lebanon as proof that the party’s position is unshakable.

“Hezbollah, who was able to defeat Israel in 2006, is not going to be weakened,” said Ali a 25-year-old resident of Nabaa, a Shiite neighborhood (Hezbollah and Israel have both claimed victory in the 2006 conflict). He didn’t want to share his last name with the NewsHour.

While the chaos in Syria might weaken Hezbollah’s hand in Lebanon, the party’s de-facto leadership role means it’s key to keeping stability.

Hanin Ghaddar, managing editor of NOWLebanon.com, an English language news site dedicated to an independent Lebanon, says it’s in Hezbollah’s interest to maintain stability, even if it appears Syria is threatening it.

“The Syrian regime would have loved to see Lebanon explode, whether internally, between the Shia and the Sunni, or they would have loved to start another war with Israel in order to divert the attention,” she said. “But the only thing that is stopping Lebanon from exploding to that extent … is that Hezbollah … they do not want chaos in Lebanon … because we have the upcoming elections in 2013.”

Recent political dynamics have only reinforced this preference for stability, said Ghaddar. In January 2011, Hezbollah was able to oust its rival March 14th Coalition and install its own prime minister. Any tipping of the apple cart could result in a reversal of these fortunes, a risk that the politically cunning party is not likely to take.

“More chaos in Lebanon, and more clashes, and a real explosion in Lebanon, it means Hezbollah will really have to compromise a lot of its power, its control over Lebanon and of its popular support,” she said.

For many Lebanese, Hezbollah isn’t so much good or bad, as it is just a known political quantity that provides social services for Shiites and military protection from their Israeli neighbor to the south. While opinions of the party vary as widely as the sectarian makeup of the country — there are 18 official sects — there is a sense of fear about what may come next, if and when the long-ruling Assad dynasty no longer has Hezbollah’s back.

“If Syria falls, Sunnis may once again contest power,” said Ali Bazzi, a Shiite from Beirut. “Hezbollah might try to seek a compromise with the other parties to maintain their situation. Otherwise, they will be isolated, and if anyone crosses the line, and tries to challenge their power, there might be a civil war.”

Watch a report from Monday about the impacts of the fighting in Syria on Lebanon:


Paige Kollock is a freelance journalist working for the NewsHour in Lebanon. View all of the NewsHour’s Syria coverage.