Like a pebble thrown into a pond, ripples of violence extend out from Syria into the surrounding region. On October 21, fighting broke out between residents of a Sunni neighborhood and an Alawite neighborhood in Lebanon. The street fighting erupted in response to a TV interview with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The political climate in Lebanon has been taut since the Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah announced it was sending fighters to support Assad. Many analysts are now seeing the influence of Hezbollah and Hamas waning as the Arab Spring continues to reshape the Middle East.
Syria’s civil war brings back old memories of Lebanon’s war — a war that raged across the country from 1975 to the early-1990s that was used by Syria and others as a proxy war — and the Syrian occupation that only ended in 2005. Hezbollah was born out of that conflict and rose to political power with its five-week shooting war with neighboring Israel in 2006.
Hezbollah was founded under the principle of muqawama, a doctrine of “’constant combat,’ or ‘persistent warfare’” says the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The paramilitary group and Hamas in the Gaza Strip used the principle of constant violence without seeing the acquisition of territory or peace negotiations as a goal to dramatic effect. Both Hezbollah and Hamas, which fight for the dissolution of the state of Israel and the establishment of a Palestinian nation, consolidated considerable political power over the last decade.
All of that changed when the Arab Spring swept across the Middle East starting in 2011. Several governments were toppled by popular protests and rebellions. Hezbollah and Hamas survived the turning of the tables when many regimes did not. Both groups backed increasingly unpopular regimes (Hamas has ties to the ousted Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hezbollah has supported Assad militarily). With the tides of popular opinion turning against them, their influence in the region is fading away.
“The violent resistance (muqawama) against Israel by Hizbollah and Hamas has lost much of its legitimacy in Lebanese civil society and Palestinian society, respectively,” writes Orit Perlov in a report for the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). “Civil society in Lebanon in large, including parts of the Shiite population, now reflects overwhelming opposition to Hezbollah’s policy in Syria and Lebanon.”
The INSS report cites the Arab Spring’s impact on civil discourse in the Middle East as a catalyst for stronger opposition to militant groups. Some Lebanese even tweeted that “Hezbollah is more dangerous to Lebanon than Israel.” In July, the European Union unanimously voted to add Hezbollah’s military wing to the EU’s list of terrorist organizations, adds Al-Monitor.
Even as critics become more vocal, Hezbollah is far from collapse and still maintains plenty of support. Despite the EU classification, a few European nations, including France, have maintained diplomatic ties to Hezbollah. It also maintains strong networks across the Middle East, where it exerts considerable influence. Still, Hezbollah wants to remain popular. Hostility toward its guiding principle of violent resistance could force it to change its tactics. Hezbollah’s fate is also tied to the outcome of Syria’s conflict. The remaining question is: How much will the change in Lebanese public opinion toward the group affect it?
By Jonny Eberle -Grey Cell Staff Writer