By Özlem TÜR
In conjuncture with recent developments in Syria, Hezbollah is stepping forth as a prominent regional actor with increased emphasis placed on its Shia identity. Even though it was formerly believed to be confined within the borders of Lebanon and have consolidated a genuinely ‘Lebanese’ identity from 2008 on, the group was eventually compelled to assume a much more ‘regional’ character in its role as a staunch ally of the Iran-Syria axis prioritizing active participation in the Syrian conflict on the Iranian side. Considering its organic ties with Iran and Syria, the Lebanese-based group’s decision in favor of active involvement in Syria with the aim of aiding the regime in Damascus at a critical stage in the conflict when the latter’s chances of survival was in limbo should have come as no surprise. Nevertheless, when Lebanese actors signed the Baadba Declaration in 2012 proclaiming their shared determination to keep Lebanon out of regional conflicts, Hezbollah found itself torn between two choices: it could either hold tight to its exclusively Lebanese credentials or opt to act in tandem with its allies, an act which would inevitably lead to the group’s rapid transformation into an actor with a regional orientation.
As highlighted by Randa Slim, Hezbollah members correctly predicted the breakout of widespread insurgency in Syria, foreseeing that successive incidents in the country would snowball into a prolonged process of armed conflict, during the latter stages of which it would still be a formidable task to convince President Bashar Al-Assad of the necessity of stepping aside. Remarking that “Alawites and Christians would not abandon Assad”, they claimed that the rebellion would descend into a civil war in the case that Damascus couldn’t take the situation under control within a relatively short span of time. Furthermore, they believed that the conflict would spill over into Lebanon, and lead to the destabilization of the entire region. This idea was in line with Assad’s remarks published in a Wall Street Journal interview in January 2011. In that interview, Assad was quoted as saying that the whole region would be covered by fire should Syria burn. In the succeeding stages of the conflict, Hezbollah justified its involvement in the conflict as being a well-intentioned attempt to rescue the greater region, and Lebanon in particular, from the contagious spiral of chaos which has already wholly consumed Syria.
The Hezbollah leadership had consistently refused to admit its active interference in the Syrian Civil War between March 2011, when violent incidents have initially begun to occur, and the al-Qusayr offensive in April 2013. Hezbollah’s practical support to Syria was largely confined to intelligence-sharing and consultancy, and not in the form of providing combatant troops, until July 2012, when high-level officials – including two cabinet ministers’ brothers-in-law – were killed in an attack directed at President Assad’s close associates. Indeed, the process was marked by Hezbollah’s vocal calls for the Syrian regime to embark on substantial reforms. In contrast to the situation in the preceding era, Bashar Al-Assad has managed to develop a close personal relationship with the Hezbollah leadership. While expressly in favor of the continuation of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, Hezbollah was nevertheless against turning a deaf ear to the public outcry in the country. The group took a strong stance in pushing for the punishment of Atef Najib, who was known to have incited the events in Daraa, and for speeding up the reform process.
Hezbollah forces have been fighting side by side with the Syrian military since July 2012, when opposition groups were seen to be capable of inflicting a heavy blow on the Assad regime’s heart in Damascus. However, having recently put its signature on the Baadba Declaration, Hezbollah felt obliged to avoid any overt display of its military presence in the Syrian battlefields. When news of ‘martyred’ Hezbollah militants in Syria began to be broadcasted in quick succession, Nasrallah tried to draw attention to the extremely limited scope of Hezbollah’s presence in Syria by referring to these people as “those fighting to protect their native villages”. But the group’s active participation in the defense of Qusayr in April 2013 meant an official declaration of substantial Hezbollah presence in Syria, in marked contrast to the group’s role during the previous stage in the conflict. Hezbollah claimed that it had been dragged into the conflict against its own will. Nasrallah explained the situation with his following remarks: “We did not want the war. Our essential war is with Israel; but we were obliged to take sides in this one as well, whether we liked it or not.”
What is Hezbollah doing in Syria?
Hezbollah attributes its presence in Syria to three essential motives: (i) to avoid the war’s potential spillover into Lebanon, (ii) to protect places deemed sacred by the Shia faith, (iii) to defend the region against the rising threat of Sunni extremism. According to Nasrallah, the group’s involvement in Syria should be regarded as a preemptive war in defense of the whole of Lebanon against persistent encroachments by Sunni extremists backed by Israel, the U.S., and Gulf states. As he expressed in a speech on December 20, 2013, Hezbollah was fighting in Syria “for what is at stake there is the fate of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and indeed the rest of the region as well.” Lebanon was particularly threatened by Sunni extremism and “the country would certainly become a primary target should Americans and Israelis also infiltrate [the enemy ranks], because Lebanon constituted the largest stumbling block against the project that Israel sees fit for the region through its sustained resistance.” Hezbollah was thereby extending the targets of its ‘resistance’ to include a variety of hostile actors and their overlapping schemes, from an American conspiracy to reshape the region to radical Islamist groups and ‘the main enemy’, Israel. In his speech on May 25, 2014, Nasrallah claimed that the U.S. was making a second attempt at carrying into effect a region-wide strategy, though “this time through a renewed version of the plan with Syria as its main battleground”, after the U.S.’s initial attempt to redraw the regional map was crushed in Lebanon thanks to Hezbollah’s successful resistance against Israeli intrusions in the 2006 Lebanon War. He further reassured his audience of Hezbollah’s willingness and capacity to knock the bottom out of America’s new plan, thus achieving a victory for the ‘Axis of Resistance’.
Beyond the feverish rhetoric, Hezbollah is embroiled in an existential struggle in Syria, for the collapse of the regime in Damascus would mean the disruption of its link to Iran – and hence to its lifeblood. The armed group is well aware that its chances of survival would be near null in the case that the Assad regime falls; even if it fervently argues to be fighting not for its own interest, but for Lebanon and the larger resistance movement across the region in the face of a joint American-Israeli conspiracy “[insisting] on overthrowing Assad by all means necessary despite the Syrian administration’s vocal pledge for far-reaching reform,” it would appear that Hezbollah’s actions are not absolutely altruistic.
Opportunities and challenges for Hezbollah in Syria
Taking an armed role in Syria offers Hezbollah some significant opportunities, along with the various challenges mentioned below. First of all, Hezbollah has been able to demonstrate its importance as an influential actor on a regional scale. In Syria it was offered a matchless opportunity to test and boost its power-projection capacity, develop new tactics, and gain field experience. After carrying out decades of proxy wars on behalf of Iran and Syria, Hezbollah has seen the emergence of new groups like Quwat Al-Ridha which are formed after its image and claim to fight in its name, thus consolidating its regional power. Moreover, the group’s lasting presence in Syria can potentially enable a new round of struggle over the Golan Heights in the forthcoming period.
Apart from these benefits to the group, its role in Syria could also drag Hezbollah into an eventual deadlock due to various long-term problems such an active presence entails. Firstly, as the group’s Shia identity grows in prominence to the extent that it overshadows all other alternatives, Hezbollah is gradually being stripped of its long-held claim to represent a Pan-Arab resistance movement against Israel. In this respect, whether it will manage to earn the same degree of sympathy it used to hold throughout the region is an important – and unanswered – question. Having recently added radical Islamists to the long list of enemies confronting the “Axis of Resistence”, Hezbollah’s lack of familiarity with these groups stands in stark contrast to its extensive experience fighting against its traditional enemy, i.e. Israel. The Lebanese-based group has only recently turned its attention to improvement of its methods in the fight against radical Islamists. In that regard, Hezbollah’s struggle against this new enemy is plagued by several difficulties in terms of its resources, tactics, and combat forces. Being on the same page with the U.S. and the Western world in terms of opposing ISIS and the radical Sunni threat furthermore puts an ideological strain on the group. Despite its justification of the inclusion of extremist groups among the enemies of the “Axis of Resistance” through claiming that these groups are manipulated by the U.S. as tools to redraw the regional map, Hezbollah’s position in prevailing discourse on the subject is weaker than before.
Hezbollah’s position in Syria may also lead to major dilemmas in the future. Difficult questions such as whether an organization entangled in the Syrian quagmire to such a great extent can manage to revert to its Lebanese identity, what kind of a role it will play in Lebanon’s future, or whether any actor will give credence to its claim of representing the entire Lebanese nation at a time when its Shia character is so prominent all remain to be answered. Apart from this, the group also faces questions concerning the sort of role it will play and position will it assume in the eyes of the resistance within Syria: Will it be able to secure a future place in Syria as “part of the resistance front?”
Entering into a conflict with Israel seems the most viable option for Hezbollah if it is to rejuvenate its influence and regain its former prestige both in Lebanon and across the greater region in the long run. Such is by far the best trump card that can be used for the purpose of rebuilding Hezbollah’s reputation as the legitimate vanguard of the shared Arab cause, instead of growing a reputation as an exclusively pro-Shia group pursuing narrow sectarian interests. It looks like Hezbollah is faced with the arduous task of proving its credentials as a legitimate Lebanese actor regardless of how Syria’s future unfolds. And the key to achieving this objective lies in a direct confrontation with Israel!