Once upon a time, there was a man who enjoyed great admiration in much of the Middle East. Hassan Nasrallah was said to be the most popular man in the region.
Just as admired was the organization he led. The Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah was viewed with respect, fear and, at times, something approaching awe.
All of that is now coming to an end. Their big lie has been revealed.
The admiration had stemmed from Hezbollah’s exploits against Israel. The group claimed it existed for the sole purpose of “resistance,” to fight Israel and protect Lebanon from the hated Zionists. The impressive performance of its fighters built their fame while Hezbollah’s social and political maneuvers inside Lebanon help them dominate the country.
The pretext of defending Lebanon from Israel made it possible for Hezbollah to keep its own army, much more powerful than Lebanon’s own, much to the dismay of Lebanon’s non-Shiites — the country’s Christians and Sunni Muslims who have seen Hezbollah gain preeminence in the fragile Lebanese state.
Hezbollah’s claim that its only interest was protecting Lebanon and its only real enemy was Israel has now come crashing down.
In a speech on May 25, Nasrallah at last admitted what was an open secret: That Hezbollah is fighting in Syria to defend the brutal dictatorship of President Bashar Assad. Before the speech, scores of Hezbollah fighters had already died in Syria, but the group had denied its involvement. The scale of the losses, however, made it impossible to keep trying to hide it.
So now Nasrallah has a new story, and it’s quite the tale.
Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria’s civil war, he explained, is part of its fight against Israel.
Nasrallah came up with a perplexing version of the conflict in Syria in order to justify his involvement and his support for the tyrant of Damascus, whose name has become synonymous with brutality throughout the Middle East — with the possible exception of Iran, where the regime still supports him with all its might; and its might, incidentally, includes Hezbollah.
In Nasrallah’s telling, reality undertakes a series of contortions. If Syria falls, Nasrallah warned, “the Lebanese resistance will be beleaguered, and Israel will enter Lebanon.” That would mean that “Palestine will be lost, and a bleak future awaits the peoples of the region.”
For many, the explanation is much too dismissive of the facts of the civil war. Nasrallah is a master of public opinion. But the Middle East is changing. No longer can demagogues and charismatic revolutionaries ensure support by uttering the words “Israel” in a condemning sentence, followed by “Palestine” in a favorable one.
Hezbollah’s real reason for fighting in Syria has nothing to do with Israel, and the vast majority of Arabs know that well.
If Assad falls, Hezbollah will have a hard time surviving. At the very least it will be greatly weakened. The Iran-Assad-Hezbollah chain will be broken.
Nasrallah is not fighting for Lebanon and he is not fighting for Palestine. He is fighting for himself, for Hezbollah, for Assad and for Iran.
Hezbollah’s reputation is going up in flames in Syria. Scores of Hezbollah fighters have already died there, and the group’s involvement courts disaster for all of Lebanon, a country that endured an awful 15-year-long sectarian civil war of its own, whose people dread the start of another.
Inside Lebanon, fighting related to the Syria war has claimed 30 deaths in the last few weeks. The Lebanese will not soon forgive Nasrallah if he throws their country into the cauldron of civil war.
Hezbollah was created inside Lebanon by Iranian agents, who built a powerful and well-trained militia, supported by a strong and disciplined political and social organization. Their reputation grew as they took on Israel, fighting against Israeli forces that had control of Southern Lebanon and taking credit for Israel’s decision to evacuate the area 22 years after moving in to deter attacks against Israel from Palestinian militias based in southern Lebanon. When Israeli forces left under fire, Hezbollah took all the credit.
Nasrallah became the most admired man in the region. Today, people are reminiscing about those days. It seems like a lifetime ago.
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.