All along the tree-lined avenues of Beirut’s southern suburbs, posters and placards depict Hezbollah’s fiery spiritual leader, Hassan Nasrallah, flanked by Syrian President Bashar Al Assad on one side and Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on the other, the Dome of the Rock often gleaming in the background. Such images can give the impression that these three avatars of Islamic power have formed some kind of “axis”, if you will, whose ultimate goal is to wrest control of the Holy Land from Israel.
It is no wonder, then, that the western powers automatically assume Damascus and Tehran are responsible for the machinations of Hezbollah. After all, Syria and Iran have enormous influence over the Lebanese militia, not least because they provide it with hundreds of millions of dollars in military and economic aid.
But it would be a grave exaggeration to claim, as the White House repeatedly has, that Hezbollah is merely a puppet of Syria and Iran. Nor is it necessarily the case that the current conflict between Israel and Lebanon bears the fingerprints of Assad and Ahmadinejad.
Over the past few years, Hezbollah has achieved enormous political success by transforming itself from an agent of foreign regimes to an agent of domestic reform. Hezbollah acquired its popular mandate in Lebanon through a political platform focused solely on nationalist politics. Its candidates advocate civic duty and responsible governance over theology or the imposition of Islamic law.
This is partly due to smart campaigning, as the Lebanese are among the most secularised population in the Arab world. But the truth is that Hezbollah has never advocated a pan-nationalist ideology. Though created by Shiite Iran and sustained by Arab Syria, it has assiduously eschewed any pan-Arabist, pan-Islamist or even pan-Shiite associations. (It is worth noting that Hezbollah has failed to provide any significant military, financial or, for that matter, spiritual assistance to its Shiite brethren in Iraq.)
When Syria was forced out of Lebanon after the assassination of prime minister Rafik Hariri, Hezbollah rallied in support of its erstwhile ally and patron.
Yet what was most remarkable about that rally was not its pro-Syrian sentiments but its brazen display of Lebanese nationalism. Indeed, the half million Hezbollah supporters who flooded into Beirut in March of 2005 were draped in the colours of Lebanon, not Syria. And since Syria’s withdrawal, Hezbollah has continued to advocate a platform dedicated to protecting Lebanese territory and even forming a political partnership with the Christian leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, Michel Aoun.
The point is that despite its terrorist tactics, Hezbollah has successfully recast itself as a legitimately sanctioned political party. It is unlikely that it would risk dissipating that popular support by seeming to favour its foreign benefactors to the detriment of its domestic constituents.
That is why the Bush administration’s suggestion that Hezbollah’s incursion into Northern Israel was carried out at the behest of either Syria, which sought to stir up trouble in the region, or Iran, which wanted to divert international attention away from its disputed nuclear programme, is so misguided.
All politics – even Islamist politics – is local; one need look no further than the internal dynamics of Lebanon to understand why Hezbollah would so recklessly cross the border and attack Israeli troops. Lebanon’s liberation from both Israeli occupation and Syrian meddling has made obsolete Hezbollah’s raison d’etre as an armed militia responsible for protecting the country’s borders.
Of course, one can argue that Hezbollah’s foolish mission was a tactical error that will only deteriorate its public support in both Lebanon and the wider Arab world. Indeed, the criticism of Hezbollah pouring out of Arab capitals may signal that the militia grossly overplayed its hand. But Hezbollah is likely to come out of this conflict with Israel even stronger than before.
If there is one constant in this unstable region, it is that Israel can usually be trusted to respond to threats to its sovereignty with exaggerated force.
The sustained bombing of Lebanon has wiped away the collective memory of the Lebanese people about who started this mess in the first place and once again focused the rage of the region on an aggressive Israel.
Nasrallah could not have scripted events any better.
Plenty to gain
All of this is not to suggest that Syria and Iran are not playing a significant role in the current conflict.
Both Assad and Ahmadinejad have plenty to gain from the escalation of violence in the region.
But it is the worst kind of negligence for the West to claim Syria and Iran started this war and thus the responsibility for stopping the bloodshed rests solely upon them.
This is not a proxy war, at least not yet. But without international intervention and the imposition of an immediate ceasefire, what began as a regional conflict between Israel and Lebanon could quickly become a bloody, uncontainable war with devastating consequences. And that would benefit extremists far beyond Syria and Iran.
Reza Aslan is the author of “No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam.”