Hezbollah’s grip on power in Lebanon has largely derived from its ability to deliver social services and material goods to the local population on one hand, and wreak occasional bits of armed havoc on Israel and its allies on the other. The Islamist group’s military power is said by some to rival that of the official national armed forces, and its dominance in Beirut has long been a fact of life for visitors and residents alike.
But now a series of deadly bombings by Sunni insurgents in retaliation for Hezbollah’s military support for the Assad regime, which have provoked fiery vows of revenge from the group’s leadership, threaten to damage it in the court of public opinion. Which raises the explosive question of whether the regional Sunni-Shiite conflict that is being stoked by the Syrian civil war could topple Hezbollah. Or perhaps more plausibly, whether the group may have bitten off more than it can chew.
New security measures in response to the bombings in what had long been safe Beirut neighborhoods have slowed down traffic and business activity but do not seem to be inspiring tremendous amounts of grumbling so far. There is a substantial reservoir of goodwill to be leaned on here, and the population was never going to immediately turn its back on Hezbollah after decades of fealty. And yet the nature of the conflict — the brutality of the attacks and graphic images, the recent trend toward chemical warfare, the regional sectarian conflagration — represents a fresh, if not altogether novel, challenge to the militants’ hegemony. Does it change the calculus for Hassan Nasrallah and the rest of the leadership? Their bellicose rhetorical responses to the attacks thus far suggest not. But surely Moscow and Damascus must be privately taking note of the changed climate in Lebanon. Losing the source of thousands of seasoned fighters and supplies to bolster its ranks could sink the Assad regime. And to the extent that Putin has thrown his lot in with the Syrian leadership as part of his broader approach to the Middle East and the world, he has a stake in Hezbollah getting a grip on the security situation, and fast. Just as the Obama administration’s actions betray a blatant anxiety about public opinion polls showing broad majorities of Americans oppose military intervention on behalf of the rebels, Hezbollah — inasmuch as it is a political entity in addition to a paramilitary one — will be mindful of sentiment on the street. A few more spectacular bombings in once-secure areas will seriously shake confidence — and Hezbollah.