By Hanin Ghaddar*
When Hezbollah established itself as the “Resistance” in Lebanon in 1982, its links to the Islamic Republic of Iran was still ambiguous. The Party of God acknowledged its ideological links to Wilayat al-Faqih, and was even clearer than today about its ambitions to establish an Islamic state in Lebanon. However, the strategic, financial and political links with Iran has only manifested them through time, and Hezbollah has only very recently acknowledged that it receives its money and arms from Tehran.
But since the beginning of the eighties, Iran has been pictured by Hezbollah to the Shiite community as the protector and guardian of all the Shiites worldwide, but mainly in Lebanon because of the resistance against Israeli occupation. The resistance operations against the Israeli Army in the south of Lebanon played a large role in lobbying the Shiites around Hezbollah, and eventually around Iran and Wilayat al-Faqih as a doctrine.
Lebanon’s Shiite community stared witnessing a fast shift from Najaf in Iraq as a religious and ideological reference to Qum and Wilayat al-Faqih as the new reference for everything: life, politics, religion, and war. This is how the Shiite new collective memory was shaped, and a new identity was built.
This narrative of Resistance tied to the Shiite collective memory of Karbala and Wilaat al-Faqih lasted for decades, and drew most of the Lebanese and Arab Shiites to Hezbollah as the invincible hero of all times. But recently, things have started to change, as Hezbollah was drawn more and more into Syria’s war. One of the many changes that is haunting Hezbollah-Iran relation is the way the Arab Shiites are starting to question Iran’s intent in the region and its disdain towards the Arab Shiites.
SYRIA CHANGED THE SHIITES
Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria has transformed the Party of God on many levels, but mostly on the community level. The Shiites are starting to question the reason why Iran has pushed them to fight in Syria. At the beginning, Hezbollah justified its involvement by saying that they are only fighting in Syria to defend Shiite shrines such as Sayyeda Zeinab. Then it was because they want to defend Lebanon’s borders against Islamists, or defend Shiites in border villages in Syria. Despite the deep sectarian rhetoric behind these justifications, it passed and the Shiites didn’t mind the feeling of protection.
However, when Hezbollah started to get involved in Aleppo, its support base was confused. There are no Shiite villages or Shiite shrines in Aleppo. Also, Aleppo is not on the Lebanese-Syria borders. What is going on? Why are we fighting in Syria? Even the fighters who were being sent to Aleppo started to ask themselves these questions. Of course there was no clear or convincing answer, and they kept going and dying because they were simply asked to.
And when Hezbollah started to take part in besieging Sunni villages and towns in the suburbs of Damascus, such as Madaya, leading to a systematic starvation strategy to empty these villages from Sunnis, more questions by the community were raised.
“We are invaders, and we are probably doing exactly what the Israelis had done in the South of Lebanon during their invasions,” one Hezbollah fighter told me during one interview. “But this is war and I need to support my family.”
This fighter did not go to Syria because he believes in the “cause” or even in resistance. He knows that the “road to Jerusalem” does not go through Aleppo or Zabadani or any other Syrian town. He is fighting in Syria because it is a job and he has signed a contract. “Syria is going to change us forever, but we have no choice,” he added.
Yes, Syria has changed Hezbollah in terms of popular support as the mask of the “resistance” has fallen in front of most Shiites in Lebanon. But the Shiites is also today more isolated than ever and Hezbollah is only group that is willing to recruit them and give them jobs. They undeniably do not have a choice.
Another element that Syria changed is that it has created deep divisions among the Shiite community. One between the fighters who seem to see things as they are, and the non-fighters community who have either distanced themselves from Hezbollah because they’re fed up, or are still big supporters and believer in Hezbollah as a resistance movement. This is leading to a diverse community, but one that is not on good terms with itself or with its surroundings. If the isolation is not broken, more and more desperate Shiites will go back to Hezbollah.
IRANIANS VS. ARAB SHIITES
However, the most significant change that the community is starting to undergo is its perception towards Iran. For the first time ever, Hezbollah fighters are fighting alongside the Iranians, mainly the Revolutionary Guards. They have realized that this is not and will never be a partnership, and that they have to obey Iranian orders and do what is asked from them without asking questions.
“They treat us like mercenaries and ask us to go fight extremely risky battles while they stay behind,” one of the fighters described the field operations in Aleppo. For the first time, Hezbollah fighters are seeing the gap between the Persians and Arab Shiites, mainly created by the Iranians’ superior and arrogant attitude towards Hezbollah and other Shiite fighters in Syria.
“Yes, they treat us the Lebanese better than they treat the others, especially the Shiite Afghanis and Pakistanis, but still, we are not equals,” he added. It was obvious for him and his fellow Lebanese fighter that according to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, they are not equals, and that they are there to fight their war.
Is this going to change anything? Is this realization going to open their eyes and make them desert the battle and go back to Lebanon? “Not likely,” the fighter said. “We are not fighting for any cause anymore. We are mercenaries and we are being paid to fight whether we believe or not. We do it because we do not have another alternative in terms of job or income. I fight for the money and most of the fighters are there for the same reason.”
But this is not translating well within Hezbollah’s popular base back in Lebanon. These fighters are going back – dead or alive – to poverty, isolation and disillusionment. They are returning to a country that has no prospects of prosperity or economic stability. Meanwhile, the Iranians are getting exposure to investments, opening up to the international community, looking up to their future, and expecting more power in the region as the war goes on. “I feel this jealousy towards the Iranian people. It’s like we are dying so they can have better lives,” one Shiite resident of Dahiyeh told me.
It is clear to them now that Iran will fight until the last Arab Shiite. With this attitude, combined with a sense of helplessness among the Lebanese and Arab Shiites, this relationship is doomed to fail.
*Hanin Ghaddar is a Friedmann Visiting Fellow at the Washington Institute for the Near East Policy. She tweets @haningdr