As the world around Hassan Nasrallah spirals into chaos, he’s surely beginning to appreciate the logic of Baltasar Gracian, the 16th century Spanish poet who once wrote: “Better mad with the rest of the world than wise alone.” On July 18, while the rest of the Middle East was savoring its first taste of the demise of the Assad regime, the head of Hezbollah reiterated his organization’s unwavering support for the embattled dictator, and his readiness to plunge the whole of Lebanon into conflict in order to survive.
Addressing thousands of diehard Shiite supporters in south Beirut on the anniversary of the 2006 war with Israel, Nasrallah drew a clear line in the sand. “Our missiles are Syrian,” he declared, referring to the massive military assistance afforded his militia by the Assad regime.
“We are sad over the killing of the three [generals] because they were comrades-in-arms to the resistance (Hezbollah) and comrades in the struggle against the [Israeli] enemy,” Nasrallah said, mere hours after key members of Assad’s inner circle were killed in a deadly bombing attack in Damascus.
Decision-makers from Riyadh to Jerusalem to Washington should have little doubt that Nasrallah’s speech was both a carefully-timed and carefully-worded warning: Hezbollah will not go down without a fight.
With the help of the Assad dynasty, Hezbollah became the dominant force in Lebanon, with a militia far superior to those of rival Christian, Sunni, and Druze sects. Today, few in Lebanon would disagree that only fears of a civil war involving Hezbollah’s militia are keeping the country’s practically defunct government intact.
Indeed, the eventual fall of the Assad regime will deal a crippling blow to Hezbollah’s position at the top of Lebanon’s political food chain. Hezbollah’s vast arsenal is already in the crosshairs of an increasingly emboldened Sunni opposition that has demanded its incorporation into the national army. Furthermore, Syria has always played an influential role in Lebanese politics, and Nasrallah can only imagine how his political landscape would shift with an unsympathetic Sunni-dominated regime in Assad’s stead.
Hezbollah’s only hope for securing long-term influence in Lebanon lies in the bunkers of Syria’s rapidly unraveling military. Across Syria lie stockpiles of advanced anti-aircraft missiles, anti-ship missiles, and chemical weapons that, if acquired, would provide Hezbollah with unprecedented deterrence against any foe, foreign or domestic.
These weapons have been on the radar screen of the Israeli security establishment ever since Assad’s troops fired their first shots in Deraa more than 16 months ago. There has rarely been a speech about Syria made by an Israeli official that did not express concern over the possibility that this arsenal would fall into Hezbollah’s hands. Following the rebel offensive in Damascus, Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, issued his sternest warning to date, threatening military intervention to thwart Hezbollah from plundering Syrian caches, while Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman cited the transfer of unconventional weapons to Hezbollah as a casus belli — a justification for war.
If his recent speech was any indication, Nasrallah will not allow Israel to deprive his faction of their continued hegemony in Lebanon. In mentioning in a single breath the Syrian origin of Hezbollah’s missiles and his resolute support for the Assad regime, Nasrallah has threatened the Israelis, basically declaring that any attack on Syria is an attack on Hezbollah.
The Israelis are privy to this notion, and have begun making preparations for a new round of hostilities on their northern border in anticipation of a Hezbollah attack. Ongoing emergency drills near strategic locations have been coupled with military maneuvers and threatening rhetoric from Israeli generals. “Lebanon will sustain greater damage than that done during the second Lebanon War,” stated a top Israeli officer in July, referring to Israel’s future retaliation for any Hezbollah rocket attacks on Israeli population centers. “The response will need to be sharper, harder, and in some ways very violent.”
The stage has been set for a major escalation in the eastern Mediterranean, and Nasrallah’s predicament could not be greater. To preserve Hezbollah’s dominance over Lebanon is to invoke a major conflict with the Israeli military, one which promises to bring widespread destruction across the country. Nasrallah’s other option? To sit back and watch in anguish as the hard-won prominence of Lebanon’s Shiites gradually sinks into the swamp of the Arab Spring.