The sharpest criticism has come in the wake of the Oct. 19 car-bomb assassination of Maj. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, a Lebanese intelligence chief aligned with the Sunni-led bloc that is opposed to the government of President Bashar al-Assad. While Hezbollah has denied allegations that it played any role in the attack, the incident brought shrill calls from its rivals for the toppling of the current Lebanese government in which Hezbollah and its allies hold a majority stake.
Some of the group’s closest political allies, including Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, have appeared to be wavering in their support. And some Shiite Lebanese clerics have spoken out in recent weeks in favor of supporting the Syrian opposition, a position at odds with Hezbollah and its close ties to the Syrian government.
Hezbollah not only commands a well-trained and armed militia, which is widely seen as the best fighting force in the country, but the group also runs a strong political party with members in parliament. In the days following the assassination, however, Hezbollah kept a particularly low profile, even when enraged Sunni gunmen hit the streets of Beirut after Hassan’s funeral.
It was a particularly muted response from a bombastic group.
“You know how we find out that Hezbollah is under pressure?” asked Hilal Khashan, a professor in the political science department at the American University of Beirut. “They remain quiet. They are keeping a very low profile during these days. There is already pressure on Hezbollah and the pressure is mounting.”
‘An existential threat’
Since the beginning of the crisis in Syria last year, Hezbollah has been in a bind. The group presents itself as the champion of the downtrodden, but as the conflict next door got bloodier and bloodier, with thousands dying, the group could not back down from its support for Assad. “Hezbollah right now is facing an existential threat in Syria,” Khashan said.
Syria has not only given Hezbollah steadfast political support, but Syrian territory has also been used to send rockets and conventional arms overland to Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon. If the Assad regime goes, Hezbollah would lose its primary logistical chain for arms, leaving it isolated in the event of any conflict with Israel.
Not everyone within the organization agrees with the diehard support for Assad or the bloody crackdown against Syrian civilians.
“Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis there have been some negative voices in Hezbollah that don’t want to be so much identified with the regime” in Syria, said Timur Goksel, a political science lecturer at the American University of Beirut who was a member of the United Nations monitoring team in Lebanon for many years.