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Hezbollah’s Achilles Heel

By Hanin Ghaddar *

By definition, an Achilles heel is a weakness in spite of overall strength, which can actually or potentially lead to downfall. In the past few years, Hezbollah has acquired a number of weaknesses that contributed to its overall vulnerability in Syria, Lebanon, and within its Shiite support-base. This doesn’t mean that the Party of God is going down anytime soon. However, its role as the main player in Lebanon and the region has diminished drastically and there are major concerns and doubts about its future role. To begin with, the assassination of its top military commander Mustafa Badreddine in Syria earlier this month was considered a serious blow to Hezbollah’s military and security apparatus, and suggested that the party has grown more vulnerable to being targeted, and less capable of retaliating to a loss that significant. Badreddine’s assassination also brought to mind the killing of other Hezbollah’s top people. Imad Mughniyeh was also assassinated in Syria in 2008; Hassan Laqqis, a top Hezbollah military technician, was gunned down outside his home in southern Beirut in December 2013; in January 2015, Jihad Mughniyeh, Imad’s son, was killed along with an Iranian general in the Golan Heights in an Israeli drone strike. Also five months ago, Israeli jets bombed a building outside Damascus, killing Samir Kuntar.

Most of the top Hezbollah commanders who have plotted and implemented its “divine” victories and achievements in Lebanon are today dead. The crème de la crème of the Party of God have been eliminated and are probably irreplaceable. If anything, this means that Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria has cost it more than it is ready to acknowledge.

In the early days of Hezbollah, when they were only focused on resisting Israeli occupation of the South of Lebanon, the secrecy and the tight security around the party was invincible. Its army was smaller, more scrutinized, and certainly better trained. Syria has simply pushed Hezbollah to expand too quickly, and thereby compromising its security and military capabilities. Hezbollah also lost more fighters than it has lost in Lebanon during all its wars against Israel combined.

Although Hezbollah has gained new fighting techniques in its war in Syria, it has lost much more.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah has been suffering many damages caused by outside and inside pressures. The Party of God – known for the integrity and loyalty of its members – turned out to be full of spies working for Israel. Mohammad Shawraba, a former top official in Hezbollah’s external operations unit and Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah’s personal security chief, is probably the most serious infiltration yet of the party by Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency. Shawraba reportedly offered Israel information that allowed it to thwart a number of attacks that were intended to serve as revenge of the 2008 assassination of Imad Mughniyeh.

The revelations of the network of spies within Hezbollah’s ranks came around after serious allegations of corruption that has been rotting the party’s officials and political figures. Remember Salah Ezzeddine’s scandal [https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/commentary/ezzedine_shows_hezbollahs_moral_bankruptcy], which was called the Lebanese version of the Bernie Madoff scandal? This managed to tarnish Hezbollah’s image as a pious defender of the masses that is above the corruption endemic in many of Lebanon’s political parties.

But things did not end there. The Party of God is too corrupt to keep track. From the espionage rings within its ranks, to trafficking counterfeit medication [https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/reportsfeatures/564751-amidst-the-syrian-war-a-burgeoning-narcotic-trade] , and manufacture and sale of amphetamines – these are just examples of the corruption within Hezbollah’s ranks, not to mention the corruption of its allies.

Even within the Southern suburbs of Beirut, corruption is very obvious. Residents there always complain about the class differences among neighborhoods. For example, it has become clear that Hezbollah’s officials and their family members live in the posh neighborhoods of Dahiyeh, drive the latest cars, and go to the private schools and universities. Meanwhile, the rest of the people, including the low rank members and fighter of Hezbollah live in the poor and shabby areas of Dahiyeh, where unemployment is on the rise and drugs fill the streets.

But despite all the complaints you hear from these people, it seems Hezbollah has stopped fighting to preserve its image, and is too busy to pay attention to the internal discontent.

Hezbollah has proven to its community that that they are as corrupt as the rest of the political groups in the country. Like the rest of Lebanon, Dahiyeh suffers from a water crisis, electricity shortages, the chaotic spreading of illegal shops and stands, and streets filled with trash. Add to that the fact that it hosts many wanted criminals, thieves and drug dealers, whose presence cause unease within the community.

Also, Hezbollah has been engaged in a bloody war in Syria. Many Shiite militants fighting in Syria are coming back in coffins but without any “divine victory.” Shiites are more isolated than ever from other Lebanese communities and the majority Sunni Arab Middle East in general. Unemployment levels are on the rise and the only paid jobs that are available are combat jobs in Syria.

Residents are obviously fed up. Support for Hezbollah’s war in Syria is starting to cost more than they can afford. The Hezbollah fighters who I have interviewed recently all told me that for them, fighting in Syria is a job. It is no more a sacred duty or an act of resistance. Rather, it is about the salary that they will receive at the end of the month, in addition to the social and health benefits – that of course if they managed to come back alive.

Many Hezbollah members and supporters have realized in the past few years that they have become the mercenaries of Waliyat al-Faqih in Iran’s war in the region. They will have to go wherever they are required, be it Lebanon, Syria, Iraq or Yemen. The new rhetoric of sectarian regional war has cost Hezbollah its depth in the Arab world. But most importantly, Hezbollah lost its resistance narrative and pure image.

In addition to the thousands of fighters it has lost in Syria, Hezbollah lost the most significant pillar of its strength: its image. It has lost its popularity in the Arab and Sunni world, lost its credibility as winner of all wars, and lost its aura as an icon and leader of its own support base.

Iran risked sending Hezbollah to Syria because it has thought that the war will not last that long, that Hezbollah will – as usual – return victorious, and that it will be able to rule over the whole region by forcing its control on Syria. However, things did not go as estimated.

Hezbollah is still losing fighters and commanders, hasn’t really won anywhere or anything, and the facts on the ground are not promising. In fact, the Russian involvement messed thing up for Iran and Hezbollah in Syria.

The Iranian and Hezbollah leaderships know that Russia cannot be trusted: its priority is to save Assad’s regime, not to protect Iran’s interests. In fact, what Iran wants in Syria differs significantly from what Russia wants. The supporters of Hezbollah also started to realize this ugly truth when Samir Kuntar was assassinated in Syria, and understood the repercussions of Russia’s coordination with Israel on Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, Iran is not benefiting from the Russian intervention. Rather, it is jeopardizing its plans both on military and diplomatic levels, and this could jeopardize its ambitions in the region. Russia is now sitting at the negotiating table with Western powers, drafting [https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/NewsReports/567021-russia-finishes-draft-for-new-syria-constitution-report] Syria’s constitution, and deciding on Syria’s future, while Hezbollah is sending its fighters to die.

As Iran is moving forward after sanctions are lifted, and opening itself to the West and its investments, Hezbollah is now facing serious sanction, the implementation of the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act of 2015 came into effect on May 3. The American law, signed by President Barack Obama on December 18, 2015, mandates the strictest sanctions yet against the Party of God as well any individual or organization affiliated with it and any financial institution anywhere in the world that “knowingly facilitates a transaction” for it.

These sanctions are not only targeting the Party of God, but also anyone or ant institution that deals with it financially in any way. These sanctions are tailored to isolate the Party from its economic community, and will eventually hinder it from institutionalizing itself within the Lebanese community.

There are no doubts that Iran will always find a way to send arms and cash to Hezbollah, but the question is, what can they do with this money if they cannot spend it? Any person will think twice before selling or buying anything from Hezbollah now. This is certainly bad news for Hezbollah and it is clear from their many recent statements how concerned [https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/reportsfeatures/567004-sanctions-bite-hezbollah-hezbollah-bites-back] they are with these sanctions.

Hezbollah is not in a good place, but they are not too worried in Lebanon because they do not have serious opposition. Other Lebanese political factions made too many compromises and lost their credibility. And the Shiite community – despite its discontents, doubts and eagerness to change, still could not form a valid alternative to Hezbollah.

However, Hezbollah is worried on the regional level. Al the above challenges have cost the Party its credibility and depth in the Arab communities. But more importantly, Hezbollah has become a regional militia that works under Iran’s command. And they know that when the time comes, and a compromise is reached in Syria, Yemen and the region in general, Iran will also compromise Hezbollah’s role.

Iran has forced Hezbollah to change from a resistance force to an armed Lebanese political party. Then they were forced to go to Syria and become Iran’s regional militia. What next? It all depends on what Iran sees fit. Eventually, Iran wants the bigger picture: to be the region’s major power and it will do whatever it takes to guarantee that. There are major challenges to this objective, but if it requires compromising Hezbollah, Iran will make deals with this in mind, as it compromised the “Resistance” and the nuclear program. Hezbollah is certainly not more important than its nuclear program.

It could be put on hold, forced to surrender its weapons, or just go deeper in the region’s bloody war. It all depends on Iran’s objectives and games. Meanwhile, Hezbollah will just have to offer more blood and more broken promises.

 

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Hanin Ghaddar
Hanin Ghaddar is the managing editor of NOW and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council. She tweets @haningdr [https://twitter.com/haningdr]

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