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With Syria In Shambles, The Uncertain Future Of Hezbollah

Syria is one of the most important backers of the powerful Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. If the Assad regime falls, Hezbollah will face an uncertain future. New Yorker staff writer Dexter Filkins discusses what shifts in Syria could mean for the future of the Middle East.

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Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. So far, the fighting in Syria's bloody civil war has almost entirely been contained inside Syria. But plenty of outsiders are involved there, including al-Qaida in Iraq, Iran's al-Quds Force, and the Israel Air Force. No country is more deeply involved than Syria's smallest and most vulnerable neighbor, Lebanon.

Lebanese factions are fighting on both sides in Syria, and in a piece in the February 25th issue of the New York magazine, staff writer Dexter Filkins lays out the high stakes for everyone involved but in particular for Hezbollah, the powerful militia that fought Israel to a standstill in 2006 and fights now to support its ally in Damascus, Bashar al-Assad, and its patrons in Iran.

If you've traveled to Lebanon in recent years, what can you tell us about the extent of Hezbollah's influence there. Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, some Republicans break with the party line to support gay marriage at the Supreme Court. But first the future of Hezbollah. New Yorker staff writer Dexter Filkins joins us now on the phone from his home in New York, and good to have you on the program again.

DEXTER FILKINS: Hi.

CONAN: And your piece is titled "After Syria," but I have to ask you: Are we on the brink of a new war in Lebanon?

FILKINS: Well, maybe. I mean, you know, when you're there, I mean Lebanon's such an extraordinary country. It's absolutely beautiful and an amazing place. But it's - you know, it's a very small country and kind of - it has Syria on one side and Israel on the other and then the Mediterranean. And so they've kind of always been - fallen prey to the machinations of their more powerful neighbors, and that's kind of what's happening here.

You know, they - my piece was largely about Hezbollah, the militia that is supposed to be an anti-Israeli militia, that's how they style themselves, but they've been fighting with the Syrian regime (technical difficulties) and so the real concern is, is that the Syrian war is going to basically blow across the border either in a sectarian war in Lebanon or something even kind of nastier.

And that's the concern. It's kind of holding at the moment, but really when you're there, it feels very, very fragile.

CONAN: And one of the problems, of course, is Lebanon, a small country, as you note, is swollen with Syrian refugees.

FILKINS: Yeah, and that's - again that's the thing, because if you take Syria and the war there, what's happened is it's become a sectarian war, basically. The regime in Damascus is Alawite, which is more or less Shiite. It's a Sunni majority country. Lebanon has the same, you know, Sunni, Shia, Christians. And so as the war in Syria has become essentially a sectarian war, that's the fear, that Lebanon - in Lebanon the war - that in Lebanon a war will break out that will be basically sectarian, the Shia with the Christians involved as well.

CONAN: You spoke with one Lebanese Sunni who fights in Syria for the Syrian Free Army. And at least according to your reporting, the claims by Hezbollah that it's not fighting in Syria are ridiculous.

FILKINS: I think that's - I think that's true. I think that's true. It's ridiculous. I mean, I was on the border there and I talked to these Free Syrian Army guys who'd been fighting on the other side and they said, you know, they'd ambushed Hezbollah convoys, they'd interrogated Hezbollah prisoners. The really - and in fact I went to a funeral when I was there, or a memorial service for these two Hezbollah fighters, and at the memorial service itself - and it was extraordinary, I mean it kind of reminded me of, I don't know, it's kind of a big, large, scary kind of event.

But they were very fuzzy about where these people were killed, these two 19-year-old Hezbollah fighters. And somebody told us later on that in fact they had been killed in Syria. So we have it from Hezbollah themselves that they're fighting in Syria.

CONAN: And those are - well, it only makes sense. Syria is absolutely critical to the future of Hezbollah.

FILKINS: Yes. I mean that's the - you have to kind of stand back to look at the map to get a sense of kind of why, why all this is important. You could draw almost a straight line from Tehran through Iraq, through Syria, into Lebanon. And then of course to the south you have Israel.

But Syria for years has been Hezbollah's supply line, literally. All the money comes from Iran, all their military hardware, all their missiles. They now have 50,000, an estimated 50,000 rockets and missiles. And all of that, you know, billions of dollars, and that's billion with a B, has come overland from Syria. So it's basically flown in from Iran to Syria, and then it goes overland into Lebanon.

And so it's kind of - you know, it's the big link. And without Syria they're in trouble. It may not be fatal for them, but life is changing for Hezbollah in very unpleasant ways, and they kind of know that, and you can sense it when you're there.

CONAN: Yet life has not changed quite yet, and they're doing their best to hang to the life as it was.

FILKINS: Yes, they are. Yes, they are, and I should say, you know, they're preparing - I mean they're deeply involved in the Syrian conflict, trying to prop up the regime there. But at the same time, you know, they're getting ready for the next war with Israel, which, you know, no one really doubts there's going to be another war. It's a question of when, not if.

And so again, the estimates are they've got something around the range of 50,000 rockets and missiles. They're an incredibly sophisticated - I mean it's not really right to call them a guerrilla army. They're much better than that. I mean they have drones - they flew a drone over Israel when I was there. They have these really sophisticated bunkers. They have very, very sophisticated weaponry.

There were Hebrew language schools for their intelligence officers. This is a really almost first-rate army. So they're - yeah, they're getting ready for the fight with Israel while at the same time they're fighting in Syria. So it's pretty complicated, but it's all so volatile right now. It's kind of barely holding, and the question is really when is it going to go.

CONAN: And to describe it as a state within a state is not inaccurate either.

FILKINS: Not at all. I mean Hezbollah is more powerful than the Lebanese state. No one can challenge them. So it would be like, you know, you're living - I don't know, you're living in America, and there was an army out there that was kind of operating independently of the U.S. government and the government cannot disarm this army. They can't.

So Hezbollah essentially does whatever it wants. And again, it's been able to do that over the years. It's about 30 years old, Hezbollah. It's been able to do that essentially with Iranian money and support. And that - it's basically Iranian money and support that built Hezbollah. And the key link has been Syria.

So the big question that they're facing now is what happens, what happens if and when the Assad regime falls in Syria, what happens then.

CONAN: And this is not something they are publicly willing to contemplate, but it's clearly something that a lot of Lebanese are asking themselves.

FILKINS: Oh, yeah. I mean it's one of these strange - it's one of the - and this is, you know, it's the Middle East, and this is kind of the way the Middle East is a lot. You know, publicly people hew to these lines that in private everybody knows is ridiculous. So, you know, Hassan Nasrallah, who's the head of Hezbollah, he gets on television and says we're not fighting in Syria, everybody says we are, but we're not. But everybody knows they are.

So there's a lot of cognitive dissonance going on right now, but times are changing for Hezbollah.

CONAN: One of the most interesting parts of your piece was a conversation you had with Walid Jumblatt, who's the head of a small but very interesting group called the Druze. They are - they live in what's now Lebanon. They live in Syria as well, and in parts of Israel as well. But he came to be the Druze chieftain in Lebanon after his father was assassinated by the then-Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current Syrian president. And a month later Walid Jumblatt is sitting down to a meeting with the killer of his father.

FILKINS: Extraordinary, but really in a way, in the person of Walid Jumblatt, who's this fascinating character, I mean I had a long dinner with him and I could have sat with him for 12 more hours, and he's this very colorful guy. As I said in my piece, he looks like a spitting image for Edgar Allan Poe.

But in the person of Walid Jumblatt you have almost the whole sort of tortured history of Lebanon and of their relationship with Syria. And as he said to me, you know, the Syrians - the Syrians came into this country, you know, 30 years ago on the blood of my father, and they left, you know, eight years ago on the blood of Rafic Hariri, who is the prime minister who was blown up by the Syrians.

And I should - I'm throwing in a lot of history there, but basically the history of Lebanon, the recent history of Lebanon, you have basically two main elements. I mean you kind of have the growth of Hezbollah and the total domination of Lebanon by Syria, economic domination, political, everything. And Hezbollah has been Syria's agent inside Lebanon.

So - and again, all that now appears to be kind of cracking because the Assad regime looks like - you know, it's still in power, and it may yet hang on for quite a long time, but it's been gravely weakened.

CONAN: And it's interesting, Rafic Hariri, said his assassination was meant to cow the anti-Syrians. It did the opposite. They rose up, and that's why the Syrians eventually were forced to leave Lebanon on the blood of Rafic Hariri. His son is now the leader of that group and the leader of the anti-Syrian group, which is going to be running for elections, what, this summer.

FILKINS: Yes, yes. I mean Lebanon is a deeply divided society, basically. I mean, again, it's very small. I think the population is four million. But you have kind of - every road in the Middle East seems to lead there. But it's a very small country, and it's very divided, and that kind of opens the door, you know, for foreign powers to come in and play their games like the Syrians - or like the Israelis have invaded there several times.

But that's kind of at the heart of it. You have this tiny country that can't really - its' never been sort of strong enough to hold its own in this very nasty part of the world, and so it's become a playground for everybody else.

CONAN: If you've traveled in Lebanon recently, call, tell us, what did you see that told you something about Hezbollah's influence there? 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Send us an email, talk@npr.org. Our guest is Dexter Filkins, staff writer for the New Yorker magazine who spent about a month in Lebanon at the end of last year. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. On the front page of today's New York Times, news of a possible shift in how Arab and Western governments are helping the armed opposition in Syria. Sources tell the paper that Saudi Arabia bought weapons from Croatia and sent multiple planeloads of them into Syria via Jordan.

The weapons began to reach fighters there in December, and they include assault rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers, mortars and shoulder-fired rockets. The influx of weapons is cited as one factor in the rebels' recent gains. At this point European and American officials decline comment. A spokeswoman for Croatia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs denies that the state supplied arms.

Dexter Filkins is our guest. His piece "After Syria" appears in the February 25th issue of The New Yorker and focuses especially on what will happen in Lebanon, specifically to Hezbollah, if Damascus falls. If you've traveled to Lebanon recently, what can you tell us about the extent of Hezbollah's influence there? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. And Dexter, you've described a military organization. It's also a political organization and a social organization.

FILKINS: Yes, it's amazing. I mean, there's nothing quite like it. I should say that the only comparison to Hezbollah is probably Hamas, and basically Hezbollah, you know, which is Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah is an army that kid of dabbles in politics and is kind of a government now, I mean, it's own government for its own people, the Shiites of Lebanon.

So it's an amazing thing to see. Like so in the 2006 war with Israel, you know, the Israeli air force just flattened, you know, much of South Lebanon, including South Beirut. They just leveled building after building after building. The entire landscape was rebuilt in the space of a couple of years by Hezbollah, not by the Lebanese government. It was rebuilt by Hezbollah with Iranian money.

And, you know, you go to the neighborhoods now, like in South Beirut, the big Hezbollah strongholds, all the buildings have been rebuilt, and the people will tell you, they'll say, you know, a missile hit my apartment building and it disintegrated, and, you know, two days after that there was a Hezbollah guy that came up, and he gave me money to pay rent for the next year in another apartment, and they rebuilt the house for free.

And this is like really the source of their strength. They have so much money that they are - they're essentially more powerful than the Lebanese state. And so the people who are otherwise pretty poor, I mean historically the Shiites in Lebanon were the sort of downtrodden class, they love Hezbollah. You know, they - you know, they say look, if we wait on the Lebanese government to, you know, rebuild our apartments and pave our roads, we'll be waiting forever. And so it's really, it's a remarkable phenomenon. I mean, you can see how insidious it is. You have this armed group that's being funded by Iran, which essentially is, like, you know, taking over the - taking over the country. Just a remarkable thing to see.

CONAN: That guy you were talking about whose apartment was rebuilt is named Tsha(ph) in your story, everyone supports Hezbollah here, you quote him as saying: It's the only government we have. We don't mind the Iranians are paying for everything. I asked Tsha if his allegiance to Hezbollah wasn't costing him his neighborhood. Hezbollah started the war, after all.

He shrugged. It happened in 1982, 1985, 1994, 1996, 2000 and 2006, he said. Every few years this neighborhood is destroyed, usually by Israel. His friends nodded again. It's about that time again.

FILKINS: Yeah, yeah. That's really what everyone says, including if you talk to the Israelis. I mean everybody's ready, everybody's getting ready for the next war. And I think what's terrifying is if you look, if you look back to 2006 for the war there, you know, I think it lasted, you know, 34 days or something, and it was incredibly destructive.

I mean, much of South Lebanon was leveled. You had, you know, a lot of Israeli casualties. They were - I wouldn't say they were defeated, but they were essentially stymied by an Arab army for really the first time. And so everybody's, like, getting ready for the next round, and it's going to be, you know, much more violent, I think, probably, and much more destructive than the war in 2006.

If you just take Hezbollah in 2006 probably fired 5,000 missiles into Israel. They now have 50,000. So they have 10 times the number. And the Israelis know this is coming, and they've essentially announced we will destroy the Lebanese state if the next war comes. We are going to hold all of Lebanon accountable for what Hezbollah does.

And - which is really problematic because there isn't that much that the Lebanese state can do with Hezbollah. But that's just it. So if, you know, if the balloon goes up, and there's another war, it's going to be probably very short but really, really destructive. But everybody's getting ready.

CONAN: Yet if Syria falls, those 50,000 rockets could be Hezbollah's last 50,000 rockets.

FILKINS: Well that's really - that's the really interesting question, you know, what happens if Assad falls. And it seems inevitable that Assad will fall. I mean, you know it's - we're now two years into that civil war and probably 70,000 dead. But I don't - I mean, I don't want to predict the future, but it seems hard to imagine he can carry on forever.

So suddenly Hezbollah's best friend and their next-door neighbor is gone, what happens? They're - you know, Hezbollah's, they're a pretty smart bunch, and they've very savvy, and they'll probably hang on. But it's not going to be the same. And it - I mean nothing will be the same. I mean, but if you suddenly in Syria have a regime which is dominated, as it almost certainly will be, by Sunni Muslims, as opposed to the Alawites now, that's a really different game for everybody but particularly for Hezbollah, which is Shiite. And they know that. And so this is why they're so worried. You know, suddenly instead of having a really good friend on the border, they have an enemy. And that's going to change everything for...

CONAN: Somebody they're fighting against now to ensure their enmity. Let's get some callers in on the conversation. If you've been to Lebanon recently, what can you tell us about Hezbollah's influence there, and what did you see? John's on the line calling from Columbia, South Carolina.

JOHN: Yes, hello, thank you for taking my call. And I really enjoy your program.

CONAN: Thank you.

JOHN: I traveled to Lebanon about a year and a half ago before everything started to get really dicey with Syria. But we went all over, from the Kadisha Valley to Tripoli to Baalbek and even down an area where not many tourists go, Tyre and Sour. And you could just - it was very apparently, you know, with flags on the streets and even entire - there were military surplus stores that, you know, it was very apparent they were openly supporting Hezbollah.

And we stayed in Beirut, where, you know, a very modern city, you can't really tell of Hezbollah's influence, but you'd still see advertisements for the Hezbollah museum. And so everyone there - it was just - in Beirut it was kind of quiet as far as Hezbollah's influence. But it was still apparent. You know, you only had to look just a little bit to see that it wasn't just the Libyan army or the Libyan government. Hezbollah was always there.

CONAN: Lebanese government is what you meant to say.

JOHN: Yes, yes, sorry.

CONAN: And I have to ask you, John, what an odd vacation.

JOHN: Well, I was in Jordan studying Arabic at the time. And we actually went to Egypt right after Mubarak was overthrown. So that was fun, as well; chilled out in the Sinai, and they were absolutely desperate for tourists there and for income, so we were treated like royalty. It was amazing.

FILKINS: My kind of guy.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHN: Yeah, I mean, it was a lot of fun. And we never felt unsafe, but it was still, you know, a little tense, especially down in Tyre with all of the U.N. vehicles running around and everything, but...

CONAN: Yeah, we forget the U.N. is a player down there, too. All right, John, thanks very much for the call, we appreciate the travelogue.

JOHN: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: It's interesting, one of the places you reported on was down there, as well, Dexter Filkins. You describe it as sort of the Hezbollah Gettysburg.

FILKINS: Yeah. Oh, my gosh. Yeah, so, you know, you drive around south Lebanon, and I should say, you know, Lebanon is so beautiful. It's this kind of gorgeous Mediterranean coastline, and there's kind of olive trees and limestone hills. And, you know, the old Crusader castles are there along the shore and up in the hills. It's just amazing.

And suddenly, really, it's completely surreal. There is a - there's a Hezbollah museum, and it's like - it is, it's like Gettysburg or like Normandy. And it was - it's a - it's called a Melita. And it's a place where basically the Israelis and Hezbollah kind of fought it out for years. I mean, you know, the Israelis invaded in 1982, and they basically stayed for 18 years. They finally left, totally withdrew from Lebanon in 2000.

And then of course there was a war in 2006. So this Melita is this, like, bizarre museum which kind of memorializes all the great kind of heroic, you know, exploits of Hezbollah fighters. And so the bunkers are there intact. There's plaques everywhere kind of celebrating their heroism. There's actually a - there's a gift shop where you can get, you know, Hezbollah coffee mugs and T-shirts and bumper stickers. There were European tourists there taking photos when I was there. So it was - really, I felt like I was in Oz.

CONAN: Let's go to Matthew. Matthew with us from Madison, Connecticut.

MATTHEW: Hi. How are you? Thanks for having me on the air.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

MATTHEW: Yeah. I visited Lebanon actually three times over the past five years. My ex-girlfriend a long time ago and I spent a good amount of time in Lebanon. And we're talking a lot about Hezbollah and their influence in Lebanon. And when I first visited, I didn't understand the conflict, and they're Christian, a very wealthy Christian family live in Sin el Fil in the center of Lebanon and also in the hills along the Syrian border, Mish Mish. And I came to understand that the Christians, their allies are Hezbollah.

And without that ally, they really don't have any way of getting any political pull. And from what I know Hezbollah is a terrorist organization before I went over there. That's what we called them, but they're actually an ally to the Christian people. And that is a very interesting ally in a conflict, and I kind of find that quite surprising to acknowledge.

CONAN: Dexter Filkins, it is a complicated place, as you say, and some Christians, some of the time, yes.

FILKINS: Yes. I mean it is complicated, and it's like Lebanon politically is like - I mean, boy, I've been to a lot of countries, but there's no place that complicated. It's like this kaleidoscope, and you can stare at it, and then it starts to spin. And so you think you know, you know, what's up, and then it's completely different, you know, like an hour later. But at the moment that you have basically the Christian community is sort of split. And the caller was right. There's a good chunk of the Christian community is allied with Hezbollah in the Lebanese parliament.

And so there's kind of that, but I think by and large, you know, I think sort of temperamentally, philosophically, the Christian community in Lebanon, they haven't taken a census there since 1920, I think. So - and everybody always argues about how big the populations are. But maybe it's a third of the population. By and large, I think that it's safe to say that even though their leaders, some of their leaders are allied with Hezbollah, they're pretty uncomfortable with them, at least that was my impression when I drove around the country talking to people.

They don't know what to do with Hezbollah. You know, it's this giant army that's like sitting in the middle of their country that wants to fight a war with Israel. And nobody really knows what to do with them. So some people want to oppose them, and some people think, well, maybe it would be better if we just kind of made nice. And they'll kind of, you know, go away, or they won't cause any more problems for us. So again, it's a really, really tricky situation.

CONAN: Matthew, thank you.

MATTHEW: Thank you very much.

CONAN: We're talking with Dexter Filkins, staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, about his piece on Lebanon and Hezbollah in the February 25th issue. It's called "After Syria." Full disclosure, I was born in Beirut, left in 1953, have not been back. I was always afraid I would get drafted. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Johnny is on the line, calling us from Phoenix.

JOHNNY: Hey. How are you doing?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

JOHNNY: Good. I'm a performer, and I've been doing shows in Lebanon at a ranch for the last four years. And it's been quite an interesting experience. And Dexter is right. The country is beautiful and amazing, and the people are incredible, just incredibly welcoming and wonderful people.

CONAN: What kind of show do you do?

JOHNNY: I'm a Wild West showman. I do a one-man Wild West show - gun spinning, trick shooting, whip cracking, rope twirling, crazy Wild West. And I've been working at a ranch there called El Rancho. You can see that elrancholebanon.com. It's an amazing Western ranch with horseback riding. I produce the only rodeo in the Middle East. And it' been a blast.

CONAN: That's a word you should use carefully.

JOHNNY: What's that?

CONAN: A blast, you should use that word carefully.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNNY: Yes. Well, there's been some blasts while I've been there, but nothing up in the mountains where I am, where I've been. It's just absolutely gorgeous up in a little town of Dbayeh above Jounieh, just north of Beirut.

CONAN: So that's in the, again, in the Christian area, yeah.

JOHNNY: Yes, yeah. Although I've traveled all around the country. I mean, never really felt, you know, in any major hostility or anything. The people have been nothing but welcoming and wonderful. I guess, my one experience with Hezbollah is that during my trick shooting, I use blanks and, of course, can't get them in that country. I use blanks filled with a wax bullet for audience safety. So I get real bullets on the black market and take the bullets out and make them into the blanks that I need for my show. So basically...

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNNY: ...people always ask me what I'm doing, you know, with these, and I tell them I'm disarming Hezbollah one bullet at a time.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Johnny, thank you very much. Be careful.

JOHNNY: I will. Thanks a lot.

CONAN: I appreciate that. I take it you didn't go to the Wild West show, Dexter?

FILKINS: I missed it...

CONAN: Yeah.

FILKINS: ...unfortunately.

CONAN: As we look ahead, there are a couple of obvious tripwires. One is that election. If the anti-Syrian faction wins that election, you speculate they will try to take Hezbollah's arms away from them.

FILKINS: Well, maybe. I mean, I'm - boy, I'm spec - I'm really speculating on that one. I think I don't know that that will actually happen in a few months. I think the trouble - Hezbollah - no one is - no one can challenge Hezbollah inside Lebanon right now. They're just too strong. So, I mean, if the government tries to take their guns away, Hezbollah just, you know, hits back way harder than the Lebanese government ever could.

And so - but I think what will change is, you know, the climate will change for them, or could change and then, particularly if Assad falls, you know, or gets weaker and weaker to the point where you can't have the supplies and the money and the arms coming in from Iran. Then things are really going to start to change for them. And I think you'll start to see that. I mean, you've already start - it's already beginning to happen, but I think this year is going to be really interesting.

CONAN: And then there's the unknown. If Israel and Iran go at it, maybe the United States, and what role Hezbollah plays in all of that, which we simply don't know. A lot of threats on all sides, but we don't know.

FILKINS: We don't. We do know a couple of things. We know that because Iran has said - and when I was in Lebanon, the Lebanese confirmed this - but we know that there are members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in Lebanon with Hezbollah. We also know that there's members of the revolutionary guard with the Assad regime as well.

So that's kind of a tripwire, in a way. But, you know, I think the speculation - and again, that's all it is at this point. But if...

CONAN: And...

FILKINS: ...the Israelis attack Iran, Hezbollah gets into the fight too.

CONAN: Dexter Filkins of The New Yorker. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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