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.
For a number of years, Nasrallah was considered, according to polls, the most popular of all Arab leaders: a man who says what he means, isn’t corrupt like the tyrants and oil sultans and who can defy Israel and defeat it.
In Israel, opinion was divided over whether he was merely an Iranian proxy on the Israeli northern border or an authentic Lebanese politician acting ultimately in his own best interests and not those of Tehran. This is a relevant question in the debate over how Hezbollah would react the day after an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear project.
The eruption of the war in Syria made things clearer — Nasrallah is, after all, more of an Iranian representative in Lebanon than a Lebanese statesman. Nasrallah would certainly be happy if the past two years in his career could be erased, a period in which he either came to the rescue of his ally in Damascus or was dragged into the conflict. If, initially, Nasrallah believed it was possible to save Assad’s regime, he hasn’t been convinced of this for a while, according to intelligence sources. Nevertheless, he followed Iran’s orders in full and sent thousands of his best fighters to assist Syria’s Alawite regime.
Israel couldn’t have hoped for a greater miracle. The fighting has not only weakened the Syrian army, the strongest that Israel faces, and significantly eroded Hezbollah’s operational power. It has also completely shattered Nasrallah’s image. He used to justify the Hezbollah militia’s existence, alongside the legitimate Lebanese army, by saying its role was to battle Israel. Now he is sending it to assist in the massacre of Sunnis by a bloodthirsty regime.
Nasrallah’s embarrassment at the death of his fighters in Syria is so great that he has ordered that they be buried at night, without customary ceremonies. From here the road is short to entanglement in lies, coverups, political murders, corruption of senior members and all the other familiar characteristics of the region’s old politics.
Nasrallah had his own Arab Spring dream — taking control of Lebanon without resorting to arms and turning it into an Islamic state that leaned on a Shiite majority but also guaranteed the welfare of all its citizens. It was to serve as a beacon of Islamic success in the Middle East. Instead, he will end up as a deceitful Iranian puppet who cares for the narrow interests of a small group and helps a dictator butcher his own people.
Ronen Bergman is a senior correspondent for military and intelligence affairs at Yedioth Ahronoth, an Israeli daily, and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.