Today's date:
Fall 2006

Hezbollah Is Not a Puppet of Syria or Iran

Reza Aslan is the Iranian-American author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam.

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 secularized 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 colors of Lebanon, not Syria. And since Syria’s withdrawal, Hezbollah has continued to advocate a platform dedicated to protecting Lebanese territory, preserving Lebanese identity and working across religious and sectarian lines to promote Lebanese unity, 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 favor 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 program, is so misguided.

All politics—even Islamist politics—are 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.

With calls to disarm the group in accordance with United Nations Resolution 1559 increasing both inside Lebanon and within the international community, Hezbollah’s military wing felt compelled to demonstrate its continuing relevance as a bulwark against Israeli aggression. Israel’s renewed incursion into Gaza provided Hezbollah with the perfect opportunity to do so.

One could argue that Hezbollah’s foolish mission was a tactical error. But Hezbollah has 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’s airport, bridges, homes, ports, broadcast towers, electrical plants, lighthouses and even a milk factory 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.