Acting as the champion of the oppressed, with a record of defending Lebanon against foreign occupiers to boot, Hezbollah has spent years fortifying its “soft power,” a term originally coined by Harvard Professor Joseph Nye. The Syrian Civil War poses a serious challenge to Hezbollah’s reputation on the Arab street. Bucking the trend of the Arab Spring, Hezbollah has not supported the revolutionary forces in Syria, perceiving it more beneficial to back its longtime ally and benefactor, Bashar Al-Assad. This does not sit well with many in the region, where Al-Assad is predominantly disliked. The United States should capitalize on the group’s unpopular stance in order to weaken its influence in the Arab world. Given that Hezbollah serves as a key Iranian proxy and a destabilizing force within the Lebanese government, diminishing the group’s standing would be beneficial for the region and the international community as a whole.
Weakening Hezbollah’s influence in the Middle East will not be easy. The group has carefully crafted its image as the most sophisticated resistance movement in the region. Hezbollah’s politically-savvy Secretary-General, Hassan Nasrallah, purposely downplays the group’s sectarian Shiite background, claiming solidarity with all Arabs in well-publicized speeches to the Lebanese people. In the years after Hezbollah fought the Israeli Defense Forces to a stalemate during the 2006 Lebanon War, the group intensified its public relations efforts and expanded the coverage of its own satellite television network. Its efforts have seemingly paid off, with Zogby International public opinion polls identifying Secretary-General Nasrallah as the most admired leader in the Arab world.
Yet, throughout the Syrian war, Hezbollah has been uncharacteristically quiet. Despite the unpopularity of the Al-Assad regime’s brutal crackdowns throughout the Middle East, Hezbollah has chosen to protect the Syrian government, which supports the group financially and provides an essential link to weapons transfer from Iran.
Hezbollah has strategically refused to acknowledge any direct involvement in the Syrian civil war. According to the BBC, “obituaries for Hezbollah fighters have begun to appear in Lebanese newspapers, without the circumstances of the deaths being explained.” When reported worldwide that Hezbollah Commander Ali Hussein Nassif was killed in Syria, the group would only admit that he died while performing his “Jihadist duties.” In the face of accumulating evidence, Secretary-General Nasrallah has declared that Hezbollah operatives in Syria are fighting on their own accord, not at the behest of the group.
The United States has an opportunity to exploit Hezbollah’s controversial position and tarnish the group’s image on the Arab Street. For the majority of the Arab World, relations with Hezbollah are tenuous, and the group’s popularity has already begun to fissure along Sunni-Shiite lines. Associating Hezbollah with the atrocities in Syria could smear the group’s national resistance credentials even further and shed light on its sectarianism. Moreover, in the event that Syrian opposition forces assume power, exploiting Hezbollah’s support for the Al-Assad regime would ensure hostility from the new regime towards the group.
The Obama administration already publicized allegations that Hezbollah is actively supporting the Al-Assad regime. In a speech before the United Nations Security Council, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice unequivocally accused Hezbollah fighters of partaking in the Syrian “killing machine.” Moreover, in early August the U.S. Treasury Department imposed a new round of sanctions against Hezbollah’s leadership for their support of the Syrian government. While this action was largely symbolic (the United States has designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization for over a decade), the passage of the sanctions were broadcast globally, in an effort to elucidate Hezbollah’s link to the Al-Assad regime.
Notwithstanding, the United States can do more. Washington should increase its surveillance systems in Syria, working with the rebels if necessary to ascertain concrete examples of Hezbollah forces fighting in Syria. Additionally, Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa offer excellent mediums to expose Hezbollah’s actions in Syria. Developed in the legacy of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty during the Cold War, these Arabic broadcasting stations are funded by American tax dollars and provide news programming to audiences throughout the Middle East. A sustained media campaign against Hezbollah, highlighting the group’s duplicity, could significantly tarnish the group’s image.
However, the United States should be realistic in its aims. U.S. credibility and influence in the Middle East has waned in the wake of the Arab Spring, and U.S. reporting on Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria must be based on fact—not propaganda—if it is to be influential. Further, Hezbollah continues to run a well-oiled “soft power” machine in its loyal Shiite powerbase in southern Lebanon, and it is unlikely that this relationship will rupture anytime soon. Despite these challenges, weakening Hezbollah’s standing should remain a critical component of U.S. policy in the region.