The rebel forces in Syria have reported that in the recent bitter fighting in the strategic town of Qusair, they saw very few Syrian army troops, and that they were beaten back mainly by Hezbollah militiamen. But these victories — important as they may be in themselves — won’t save the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and no less significantly, they will have a largely detrimental effect on the future of Hezbollah and its leader.
One can imagine that Assad’s rule might end quickly, perhaps with a burst of automatic fire, a strike of the executioner’s sword or a town-square lynching. The political demise of Hezbollah’s secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, will be gradual, but it is already clear that his historic role has ended.
Even if the conniving Nasrallah, with Iran’s support, holds on as head of his extremist Shiite organization for a long time to come, his principal goal — to become a pan-Arab and Lebanese leader — is now unattainable. The man who for some time was seen as Israel’s main strategic enemy has, with his own hands, buried his accomplishments.
Nasrallah’s achievements have been considerable. He understood, even before the Israelis did, the strategic implications of their sensitivity to the loss of lives of civilians, the vulnerability of their home front and their willingness to allow the repatriation of many captured Hezbollah fighters in exchange for the return of far fewer of their own soldiers, sometimes only in return of the soldiers’ bodies.
Based on these insights, he adopted a military doctrine that allowed for a prolonged war of attrition, with help from a deterrent arsenal and abduction operations. His grasp of Israel’s weaknesses enabled him to expel the Israel Defense Forces from Lebanon in 2000 and to declare victory in the 2006 confrontation.
Keeping his promise that the muqawama (resistance) would face up to the Zionist enemy was only part of the image Nasrallah built for himself as a prominent figure in the new politics of the Middle East. The secret of his power lay in his commitment to speak the truth, openly, in language understandable by all; to tackle a wide range of topics without whitewashing or evasion; a readiness to admit errors, plus a dash of humor, a pinch of sarcasm and the exploitation of all the communications media of the Internet age.
Nasrallah inherited two roles from his predecessor, Sheikh Abbas Musawi: secretary-general of Hezbollah and representative in Lebanon of Iran’s supreme leader. Musawi, who was assassinated by Israel in 1992, focused mainly on the second role and tried to create an autonomous, insulated, all- encompassing Shiite society within Lebanon, embracing education and culture, health, welfare and the economy as well as building up a military force.
Nasrallah did the same, with Iran’s financial and military assistance, but he also aspired to become a powerful figure in Lebanese politics. Thus, for example, he ordered his men not to take revenge on members of the South Lebanon Army, an Israeli-backed militia, after the Israeli withdrawal and treated the Christians with respect and generosity.
As part of this approach, he went to great lengths to free the Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar from an Israeli prison, by kidnapping two Israeli soldiers in a daring operation, even though Kuntar was a Druze and had not been acting on Hezbollah’s behalf when the Israelis captured him. He also provided much help in the development and reconstruction of Lebanese government civilian agencies, even at the expense of Hezbollah’s own institutions.