Hezbollah moved ahead after 1990 after the Maronites blew themselves apart in the last outburst of the war years, and Syria imposed its hegemony that lasted fifteen years, blessed by the United States. Syria and Islamist Iran backed Hezbollah, which gained an increasing de facto political advantage in the country because of its struggle with Israel. Its perpetuated militarization was justified by that struggle while others disarmed, and hegemony within its community was enabled by both leadership of the struggle and by Iranian financial infusions.
Nonetheless, Hezbollah’s advantage began to become more contested as the years passed after Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000. The Shia demographic surge has faded, the non-Shia two-thirds of Lebanon has become largely hostile, and association with the Syrian and Iranian regimes has vented an increasingly foul odor in the nostrils of other Lebanese.
BR: What are the relations of Hezbolloh and some of the leading Sunni politicians to Syria, and how are they being affected by events there?
WH: The Syrian regime of Bashar Assad has been Hezbollah’s strategic ally and physical connection to Iran. Hezbollah has chosen to commit itself to Bashar’s brutal repressive campaign against the Syrian opposition since early 2011, and it has thereby earned the deepening and now probably implacable hatred of the majority of the Syrian people. If we assume that the Syrian regime is doomed, Hezbollah’s options are to pull as much weaponry as it can across the border, even including chemical munitions, before supply lines are no longer viable, and perhaps to participate in trying to prolong regime elements in a rump of Syria’s territory. In other words, to contribute to Syria’s collapse as a state. Such a posture would of course mean conclusive divorce with the Sunnis of both Syria and Lebanon.
As for Lebanese Sunni politicians, most of course quietly hope for the political advantages that would come from a new Syrian regime. Prime Minister Najib Mikati, however, is in a special position of embarrassment having done his deal with Hezbollah and Syrian President Bashar Assad to head the present Lebanese government on the very eve of the Syrian uprising.
BR: How does Iran figure into Lebanon today?
WH: The Iranian regime is tied to Hezbollah and the present Hezbollah-guided Lebanese government. Shia Islamist Iran is feared and loathed by the great majority of Sunnis and Druze. Despite Hezbollah’s significant extension into the Christian sector through its ally Michel Aoun, the Iranian Islamist regime can have no serious lasting standing among Christians. Shia outside the Hezbollah camp also have no time for the current rulers in Tehran.