The war in Syria is spreading to Lebanon and this is a major problem for Hezbollah, the armed militia that has become the dominant political and military power in Lebanon since the 1980s. The problem here is that most Lebanese, including lots of Hezbollah supporters, are hostile towards Syria. That is because most Syrians consider Lebanon part of historic “Greater Syria” and want to incorporate Lebanon back into Syria. Hezbollah has played down this angle for three decades by depicting itself as the defender of Lebanese independence against Israel. But Israel has no historic, or current, claims on Lebanon while Syria does and more Lebanese are realizing that these days. Worse yet, the well-publicized activities of Hezbollah gunmen in Syria are making these Syrian claims more visible in Lebanese politics. Despite orders from their leaders to stay out of the media Hezbollah fighters in Syria are sending back cell phone photos and videos that end up on the Internet for all Lebanese to see. Threats to seize cell phones from Hezbollah gunmen sent to Syria is not a good option because it is so unpopular with the young men doing the fighting.
The Hezbollah gunmen are fighting in support of the Assad government, which has long interfered in Lebanese affairs and is a known supporter of Greater Syria. Many of the Syrian rebels are more interested in merging Syria with Iraq under the control of a religious dictatorship. Then again, many of the Syrian rebels also support Greater Syria, especially since that unification would make it easier to punish those damn Lebanese Shia for supporting the Assads.
This situation got worse over the last year as Sunni Lebanese joined the fight via local militias in Lebanon or by joining anti-Assad Islamic terrorist groups in Syria. In Lebanon the fight is often between Sunnis and Shia. This is further complicated by the Iranian connection. Hezbollah is a Shia militia financed and organized by Iran in the 1980s to protect Shia interests in Lebanon (where Shia are the largest minority in a nation of religious minorities). The biggest loser in Lebanon was the Sunni minority, who had long dominated the less educated and affluent Shia. By embracing Islamic radicalism (especially al Qaeda), the Lebanese Sunni found themselves with a suitable weapon to use against the better organized and more numerous Hezbollah gunmen. The Sunni terrorist attacks occur all over the country now, wherever there are Hezbollah facilities or Shia populations (mostly in the south). In the northern city of Tripoli, with its many Shia and Sunni neighborhoods right next to each other, local militias have been battling each other for years now. So far in 2014 there have been hundreds of casualties even though the army and police struggle to maintain the peace.
The situation gets more complicated because the Christian Arabs of Lebanon are the largest Christian minority in the Arab world. These Christians were the majority (nearly 60 percent of the population) in Lebanon after World War II but lost that through migration and a higher Shia and Sunni birthrate. The Christians are still the best educated and wealthiest minority and largely anti-Hezbollah but are decidedly on the defensive and hostile to all forms of Islamic radicalism as well as Greater Syria zealots. Today Christians are only 35 percent of the population, which is about equal to the Shia and larger than the Sunni (20 percent) and other minorities (Druze and so on). Without all that Iranian cash and weapons shipments the Lebanese Shia would be militarily and politically weaker than the Christians and Sunni. The non-Shia majority has been waiting for an opportunity to take the Shia down a peg or two and the Hezbollah involvement with the Syria civil war is looking like an opportunity, especially because of all those videos the Hezbollah gunmen are posting on the Internet.
While Syria is the most visible and direct threat to Lebanese unity and independence, it’s no secret that Iran is the facilitator of all this grief. Iran has spent tens of billions to help found and sustain Hezbollah. While Iran presents itself as a “friend of Lebanon” non-Shia Lebanese see through that bit of propaganda. Not only are the Iranians Shia but are not even Semite (as are nearly all Lebanese) but rather Indo-European and long a tormenter of the Arabs (the largest Semitic group in the region).
In Syria Iran has contributed billions of dollars a year since 2011 and sent in several thousand advisors and specialists to organize a force of fanatic foreign mercenaries (largely from the Lebanese Hezbollah militia and from Iraqi Shia militias) who match the ferocity of the Sunni Islamic terror groups that are the fiercest fighters on the rebel side. Iran also helped organize militias among pro-Assad civilians and these defensive forces tie down nearby rebels. This has strained Iranian finances which are particularly precarious since 2013 when a worldwide embargo cut Iranian oil exports by more than half. The Iranian people are not happy with that and even less pleased with all the money going to Syria and Hezbollah. So Iran has had to cut back and Hezbollah is now suffering a cash-flow crises as international efforts to curb Hezbollah fund raising become more effective and Iran cuts back on cash aid because of the cash shortage at home. What makes this worse is that Hezbollah has been spending a lot more cash on the Syrian war than it expected to. The problem is that Hezbollah had to use cash to maintain morale among the Hezbollah men who “volunteered” to fight in Syria. Hezbollah does not have many full time fighters and most of those sent to Syria are “reservists” who have received military training but are basically full time civilians. Over 2,000 of those “volunteers” have been killed or wounded so far. To keep the families of these casualties happy Hezbollah has paid large sums in death benefits as well as disability payments for the wounded in addition to all their medical expenses. While Hezbollah only sends its fighters to Syria for a few months at a time, the high casualty rate and having to fight fellow Arabs is demoralizing for many of them. There is growing resistance when these men are asked to go back to Syria for another combat tour. Over the last year Hezbollah has found itself running out of money and popular support among Lebanese Shia.
Hezbollah leaders have painted themselves into a corner. They pretend they are doing something good for Lebanon by supporting the Assads. While that pleases Iran and Hezbollah hardliners it angers most Lebanese. Cash won’t placate the non-Shia who now see Hezbollah as traitors. But the Hezbollah leadership has to continue proclaiming their willingness to keep fighters in Syria to support the Assads or admit that Hezbollah has been the spineless lackey of Iran all along. Then there is Israel, which has always been enemy number one to Hezbollah. Israeli aircraft have been attacking Hezbollah trucks trying to move Syrian missiles into Lebanon. There have been five of these attacks since early 2013 and Israel promises more. Hezbollah has been threatening another massive rocket attack on Israel, since the last one in 2006. But the need to send men to fight in Syria has made Hezbollah vulnerable in southern Lebanon. There over 40,000 rockets have been hidden in basements of homes and public buildings (schools, hospitals and the like) and the threat of an Israeli military advance into southern Lebanon to find and destroy those rockets is giving Hezbollah nightmares. That would have fighting a three-front war and, in effect, fighting for survival.