If Syria’s Assad falls, Hezbollah’s next

The Lebanese group Hezbollah has always tried to paint itself as the champion of the downtrodden, a protector of Lebanon, rejecting claims that its main goal is to protect the interests of its foreign sponsors. That cover has now cracked badly and has started peeling away as Hezbollah’s involvement in the civil war across the border in Syria becomes increasingly difficult to deny, posing grave risks to the people of Lebanon.

The evidence is becoming overwhelming that Hezbollah is playing an active role on behalf of its long-time ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, the dictator in Damascus, whose brutal crackdown of what began as a peaceful, pro-democracy uprising has turned Syria into a killing field.

One of the top generals of the Free Syrian Army, the military command of the anti-Assad opposition, told the Al-Arabiyah network that if Hezbollah does not immediately withdraw its forces from Syria, the FSA will begin attacking Hezbollah positions in Lebanon. Before long, reports started coming in of shooting from Syria into targets inside Lebanon.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has always denied the organization’s involvement in Syria. But nobody believes him; not even his own supporters.

In a fascinating article in the latest New Yorker magazine, the writer Dexter Filkins speaks to a Hezbollah commander nicknamed Dani in the wake of Hezbollah funerals for a number of “martyrs,” whose deaths Hezbollah explains with complicated evasion. “Dani” dismisses the contrived explanations for the growing number of funerals for fallen Hezbollah fighters, admitting they have all been killed in Syria. His take is simple, “If Bashar goes down,” he predicts, “we’re next.”

Hezbollah, a group armed, trained and funded by Iran, operates in Lebanon as an armed militia, a powerful political party, and a social services organization. It has refused to disarm despite demands from the opposition, from other Arab countries and from international organizations. The group’s strength derives from its muscular stance against Israel, its iconic position as the muscular representative of Lebanon’s large Shiite population, and from the enormous weapons arsenal it receives from Iran — which it has used mostly against Israel, but occasionally also against fellow Lebanese who dared challenge its state-within-a-state status. Now Hezbollah’s arms are being used against the Syrian people.

It has an arsenal of tens of thousands of rockers and it receives hundreds of millions of dollars from Iran, according to the State Department. But its mostly Iranian-made arsenal has always been replenished via Syria, with Assad’s help. Assad, a crucial Iranian ally, is key to Hezbollah’s long-term strength. If Assad falls, a new Syrian government is likely to reject that role. That’s why Hezbollah is joining forces with Assad, who is butchering his own people, and with Iran, whose operatives are also now dying in Syria.

And that’s why Hezbollah is ignoring the pleas of the Lebanese people. The Lebanese are deeply divided about who they support in the war next door. Still, a vast majority believes they should do whatever it takes to avoid yet another war on Lebanon’s soil.

Inside Lebanon, political leaders are furious at Hezbollah, not just for its involvement in Syria, but for a string of terrorist plots against civilians in more than half a dozen countries, which are creating growing tensions with the rest of the world.

Hezbollah is once again betraying its own country. Opponents in Lebanon have long accused Hezbollah’s leaders of acting at the behest of its masters in Iran and its allies in Syria, regardless of the repercussion for the Lebanese people, whose interests they claim to defend.

Hezbollah would never deny it has close ties to Assad. From the start of the brutal war next door, Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah openly spoke out in Assad’s favor, even as the body count climbed into the tens of thousands. But when reports started trickling out of Syria that Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon had joined the government side, Nasrallah claimed it was not true, occasionally saying individual fighters had gone in without organizational coordination.

Now Hezbollah is dragging Lebanon into the awful war destroying Syria, taking sides with the man most people in the Arab world now view as a butcher with no legitimacy. Hezbollah’s actions remove the patriotic mask, showing whose interests the group deems most important, and how threatened it feels for its survival.

Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television.

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