The regional status of Hezbollah has markedly improved since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011. What does their bolstered footing mean for Lebanon and the region?
The reality of Hezbollah's position within the Lebanese system and the regional political order is a result of a number of sectarian and political factors. The group owes much if its success to its Twelver Shi'i supporters and allies domestically and internationally, but its secular politics are essential to its survival within the multiethnic and religiously pluralistic Lebanese society. Hezbollah's alliances with Syria's Assad and the Iranian regime have provided it with the arms it requires to maintain its status, but Hezbollah's domestic political strategy has earned it a prominent position in the Lebanese political system.
Although it's part of a coalition government with seats in Lebanese parliament, its real power comes from the status of its paramilitary wing. Almost overshadowing the Lebanese military, Hezbollah's armed forces provide the group an appeal among many facets of society. Anti-Israeli sentiment is ubiquitous since the 2006 war, and Hezbollah's role in combating the Israeli military earned it a seat that is unlikely to be given up any time soon. Now, with the most brutal phase of the Syrian war winding down, Hezbollah's status as a regional bulwark against Sunni terrorist groups is further legitimizing the Shi'ite Islamist group's position as a powerful actor within Lebanese politics.
The civil war in Syria, which initially appeared to be a popular revolution, was overwhelmingly influenced by foreign actors. The regime's strategic and natural allies changed the tide of the war with their military support, including Russian, Iranian, and Lebanese Hezbollah troops. The regime's opposition was also highly influenced by outside forces. Obviously, foreign fighters joining ISIS in both Syria and Iraq had an effect on the war, but Sunni Lebanese fighters flocked to Syria in order to join more moderate rebel groups, too. At the outset of the conflict, there were several rebel factions seeking to bring democracy to Syria to improve life for the masses, who were Sunni. Before and after the radicalization of the Syrian opposition, Lebanese Sunnis saw it necessary to join and fight for the rights of their Sunni "brothers." The radicalization of Sunni rebel groups was partly a natural process in the war of attrition, but it was aided and encouraged by the Assad regime in order to detract from any democratic ambitions in the opposition. Assad's regime released influential jihadists from its prisons, while Salafi groups in Lebanon were recruiting Sunnis to kill the "apostate" Shi'ites across the border. The sectarian divide will not subside in post-war Syria, nor will it soften in Lebanon while Hezbollah continues to gain power.
The ongoing spat with Israel over offshore oil and gas exploration has allowed Hezbollah to take the front seat in any conflict or negotiations, sidestepping the legitimate Lebanese government officials in the conduct of that country's foreign policy. Hezbollah's role in the current diplomatic crisis will help to generate public support among non-Shia Lebanese, particularly as the Sunni-Shia rift deepens. The group's role in support of Assad's regime is a break from its traditional role as an anti-Israeli organization. Its formation and its past operations have been in support of destroying the Israeli state in order to establish an Islamic Palestine. However, Hezbollah's active role in killing Sunni rebels in Syria have galvanized Lebanese Sunnis against the group. Tension have been running high in Lebanon, particularly in cities like Tripoli, where firefights have become commonplace once again since the start of the Syrian war.
The growing power of Hezbollah's Shia militancy, in combination with extremist Sunni elements within Lebanon, threatens to reignite internal sectarian conflict. In the context of worsening Sunni-Shia relations, the dispute between Lebanon and Israel over hydrocarbon exploration rights is a perfect opportunity for Hezbollah to take a bold stance. It sends a message to the Lebanese people that Hezbollah acts on their behalf against the common enemy, Israel, while also showing the Lebanese and Israeli governments that it is a heavyweight that must be respected. Hezbollah's growing arsenal from its foreign allies, Iran and Syria, is of great concern to Israel, which is responding with the construction of a wall on its Northern border with Lebanon.
Hezbollah's status in Lebanon will continue to be a thorn in the side of Western, Israeli, and Sunni interests in Lebanon and the region as long as sectarian conditions allow for it to grow. Shi'ite hegemony is on its way in, and the apparent newfound relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia's crown prince may serve to bolster Hezbollah's status as the legitimate Islamic representative in the region. I don't suggest that Sunnis will convert to Twelver Shi'ism, but they may support the opposition to what they see as a corrupt Saudi regime working with Israel against Arab and Islamic interests. The more likely outcome, however, is that Sunnis will continue to radicalize and join extremist groups in order to counter the corruption and lack of legitimacy among the supposed Sunni representatives in the region.