by Aurélie Daher
As the Syrian uprising against the Baathist regime enters its fourth year, it is clear, given the changing balance of power on the ground, that predictions about the imminent collapse of the Assad dynasty, which constituted conventional wisdom from 2011-12, are far from the mark. Once derided by its neighbors for the obsolescence of its equipment and what was perceived as the cluelessness of its soldiers, the Syrian army has retaken from opposition fighters several strategic positions, including the latest, Yabroud, which, according to all major actors, is of pre-eminent importance. The same observers also agreed that recent victories by the regime are in reality less those of the Syrian security forces than of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon, both in terms of the manpower they provided and the strategic advice they offered their Syrian counterparts.
Hezbollah’s open intervention in its neighbor’s civil war has from the outset posed many questions and provoked not a little anxiety. What exactly are Hezbollah’s aims in Syria? In light of the reprisals that have been conducted by its Syrian foes and their sympathizers in areas sympathetic to the group or under its control, doesn’t it have more to lose than to gain? Finally, and in particular, does Hezbollah risk losing its popular base and its pre-eminence on the national level in Lebanon?
Flashback to an intervention outside national borders
If Hezbollah’s leaders have supported — and from the beginning — the Lebanese government’s policy of non-intervention in the Syrian crisis, that has not prevented them from taking a clear position in favor of Assad’s regime, even while calling for a negotiated settlement between the belligerents. It must not be forgotten that cooperation between the Baathist regime in Damascus and Hezbollah began in the early 1990s and their strategic alliance has consisted essentially of Syria’s facilitating the transfer of arms from Iran to Hezbollah. In its various defeats of the Israeli army, the group became to a certain extent indebted to the Assad dynasty, which explains why, despite Damascus’s decades-long abandonment of any armed challenge to Tel Aviv, Hezbollah still considers the Syrian leadership to be a “regime of resistance against Israel.”
This arrangement would probably not survive in the event that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) or the Sunni jihadi groups actually took power. The Syrian opposition factions didn’t wait for Hezbollah fighters to actually cross the border before declaring their hostility for — and issuing threats against — the party. In December 2011, for example, Burhan Ghalioun, who then headed the Syrian National Council (SNC), declared that if indeed the Assad regime was defeated, “the new authorities would drastically review their relations with Iran and Hezbollah” (Al-Arabiya, 12/2/11). The following month, FSA spokesman, Col. Ammar al-Wawi, warned that Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, will be “held accountable for his actions before revolutionary courts after the victory of the Syrian revolution” (L’Orient-Le Jour, 2/1/12). Then, in the fall of 2012, the head of al-Qaeda in Syria (as it was then known), Majid al-Majid, issued a specific threat against Hezbollah, announcing his plans to conduct attacks against tourist sites in Lebanon if the government in Beirut continued to support the party (Al-Joumhouriya, 9/3/12). Similarly, the FSA’s leadership promised to bring the war into the heart of southern Beirut (a Hezbollah stronghold) if the party “didn’t end its support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad” (L’Orient-Le Jour, 10/9/12). The rhetoric became if anything more virulent and increasingly characterized by a sectarian, anti-Shiite hostility as the Sunni jihadi groups, which made clear that the conflict went far beyond any ideological or economic differences, gained ascendance among the opposition forces.
It bears repeating that all of this preceded Hezbollah’s intervention, which in fact took place in two stages. The first real appearance of the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon (IRL), Hezbollah’s paramilitary, mother organization, dates in all likelihood to the latter half of 2012 (the IRL is normally presented as the military wing of Hezbollah. In reality, it preceded Hezbollah and originally helped create it. The relationship is thus the opposite: Hezbollah is the civil extension of the IRL). It didn’t involve sending combatants to fight alongside regime forces. Rather, the first units were members of local self-defense forces that formed spontaneously in the increasingly conflicted zone along the border. Having never been precisely demarcated, the border between northeast Lebanon and Syria constitutes a large area that is home to some 30 villages actually inhabited by Lebanese — mainly Shiite — citizens, all of whom, however, are subject to Syrian sovereignty. Given their sectarian character, these villages were targeted early on by Sunni jihadi groups linked to the opposition. Small groups of local youth — all Lebanese — thus took up arms to defend their families and homes against those attacks. Some among them were members of Hezbollah and the IRL whose initial purpose was thus simple self-defense.
The second stage of Hezbollah’s intervention on Syrian territory came with the battle of Quseir in the spring of 2013, when IRL combatants fought side by side with regular Syrian army forces. This more extended intervention resulted from the confluence of the interests of both the regime and Hezbollah, a confluence that is readily apparent from a glance at Syrian geography. The IRL hasn’t fought in the central, southern or eastern part of the country and does not (yet) appear to be committed to helping Assad re-conquer his country. Rather, its zone of intervention has been confined to the swath of territory around the Aleppo-Homs-Damascus axis, stretching roughly from the northwest coast of Syria (immediately north of Lebanon) along the border down to the Lebanese Shiite region of Baalbeck al-Hermel. The northwest coast is largely Alawite (Shiite) and Christian; that is, the two sectarian constituencies most closely allied with the regime. The regime, with IRL’s help, has been focused on clearing the major transportation routes that link the capital, Damascus, to the northwest, and making it more difficult for Syrian rebels to gain access to Sunni sympathizers in the Bekaa who have provided them with safe haven and, above all, a base for resupply.
But IRL’s intervention in Syria is motivated primarily by the defense of its own interests, reflecting less an attempt to save the Syrian regime than a proactive effort to anticipate the potential impact of Assad’s fall on its ability to act in Syria. Hezbollah and IRL don’t need to be welcome throughout Syria; if Syria breaks up into various zones of influence as has already more or less taken place, a stable and protected sanctuary is sufficient for their purposes; that is, to ensure that key supply routes remain intact. It is thus not by chance that IRL fighters have focused their intervention in this area.
Bad for Assad, good for March 14?
Lebanon’s political scene has been split since 2005 between the March 14 Alliance — an essentially Sunni and Christian coalition of parties and individuals opposed to the Syrian regime and consisting mainly of the Sunni “Future Current” (FC) of Saad Hariri and the Lebanese Forces of Samir Geagea — and the March 8 Coalition, which has favoured maintaining close ties with Damascus and is led by Hezbollah with the support of the “Free Patriotic Current” of Michel Aoun.
It has been assumed by the March 14 movement — and some of its western supporters — that Assad’s ouster and the advent of real democracy in Syria would result almost automatically in Lebanon in a decisive victory for its forces over March 8, and thus the marginalization of Hezbollah. In this view, the changing balance of power between the Syrian regime in Damascus and its opposition would logically and necessarily replicate itself in Lebanon between the two coalitions there. In reality, however, the belief in such a direct relationship between the politics of the two countries ignores the nature of the leverage exerted by Hezbollah on the political stage in Lebanon, just as it wrongfully assumes that any successor to the Assad dynasty will necessarily act in favor of anti-Syrian Lebanese forces. Contrary to the popular adage, the ramifications in Lebanon of what happens in Syria demonstrates that the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.
Indeed, the major role played by the radical Islamic groups in the Syrian opposition hardly strengthens the March 14 movement; on the contrary, it simultaneously weakens both of the major sectarian factions within it: Christian and Sunni.
Lebanese Christians of all political persuasions are not happy with the growing role played by the Sunni jihadists at the heart of the anti-Assad networks. Shocked by what their Iraqi co-religionists have suffered in recent years and what has begun to happen to their counterparts in Syria — the treatment of the nuns in Maaloula offers one recent example — Lebanese Christians see their worst nightmare as the arrival in Lebanon of a similar regime of repression, abuse and ultimately forced exile.
Within the Lebanese Christian community, two main political factions have vied for popular support. While Geagea, the leader of the Christian faction within the March 14 movement, depends on the moderate and Western-allied Sunni (FC), Aoun, who heads the opposing camp, is wary of Hariri’s close links with Saudi Arabia and pushes for an alliance with a Hezbollah whose behavior regarding Islamo-Christian relations has for years been seen as exemplary. Thus, its media, which diligently covers all abuses committed against Christians by Sunni jihadi groups throughout the region, takes every opportunity to highlight Hezbollah’s strong ties with Christians.
They recall, for example, the joint project announced by the Maronite Patriarch and Hezbollah to promote the concept of a “civil State of believers,” in January 2011; Hezbollah’s reception of Pope Benedict’s September 2012 visit to Lebanon (on his arrival at the Beirut airport, it sent a welcome escort consisting of hundreds of the party’s Scouts sporting berets adorned with the Vatican’s coat of arms); the construction work of Jihad al-Binaa, a Hezbollah organ which, after the 2006 war with Israel, repaired at its own expense churches damaged by Israeli bombs and artillery shells during the month-long conflict; Hezbollah’s support for the so-called “orthodox” electoral law that had long been a pet project of Christian conservatives, the majority of whom belong to the March 14 movement; and the November 2012 invitation to Hezbollah’s leadership by the Maronite Patriarch, Monsignor Bechara al-Rahi, to send its own delegation to accompany him for his formal installation as cardinal at the Vatican.
Thus, Christians who are already favorable to Hezbollah have no reason to change their position. All the more so in light of the embarrassing position in which their March 14 co-religionists find themselves in given the rise of jihadi groups in the Syrian opposition. Indeed, Geagea, who had argued for months after the outbreak of the insurrection in Syria that an Islamist regime in Syria would not prove harmful to Christians, abruptly abandoned that claim by the end of 2012. At the same time, the Gemayel family, the second political grouping within March 14’s Christian constituency, never endorsed Geagea’s initially enthusiastic embrace of the rebellion and has preferred instead to support the government’s position of not taking sides.
The destabilization of the anti-Assad line resulting from the disarray among the March 14 Christians is enhanced by the weakening of the Sunnis’ position in Lebanon. Syria’s turmoil has effectively accelerated the shattering of Sunni unity, which was already under stress in recent years due to a series of setbacks suffered by the FC and its leader, Saad Hariri, as well as by the emergence of pockets of radical Islamists, particularly in the northern part of the country around Tripoli.
Faced with the militarization of the conflict next door, the temptation to provide reinforcements and logistical support to the insurgents there became too strong for the FC to resist. Despite some initial official denials, Hariri himself opted for silence in November 2012 when pressed about the mounting evidence implicating his associates regarding the supply of arms and funding for the rebels. This direct involvement in the Syrian conflict, which occurred before Hezbollah’s intervention, as well as the clear support for the rebels provided by the FC’s external sponsor, Saudi Arabia — not to mention the overt support voiced by several FC members of parliament in 2012 and 2013 for the radical Sunni cleric Ahmad al-Assir — fatally undermined the efforts by Hariri’s faction to present itself as an effective firewall against extremist groups.
All the more since, when the radical Sunni groups challenged the state’s authority and even, at times, confronted it with violence, FC MPs from Tripoli defended their actions without any public rebuke from the leadership. Thus, Hariri’s pledges of moderation have consistently proved difficult to uphold, as he showed himself either unwilling or unable to rein in these groups.
Indeed, this fragmentation among the Sunnis poses a serious threat to Hezbollah because of the risk that their actions could spark a sectarian civil war in Lebanon. On the other hand, while Sunnis across the political spectrum have long been hostile toward Hezbollah — including well before its intervention in Syria — it appears that the majority of the community still values the civil peace — however tenuous — that has reigned in Lebanon for the past two decades sufficiently to avoid letting themselves be dragged into war against the party.
The community that would logically appear most susceptible to change its political allegiance in light of the Syrian crisis remains the Shia themselves. Indeed, IRL’s intervention on the side of the loyalist forces across the border has reverberated strongly in Lebanon, especially with respect to security. Reprisals by the Syrian opposition have already taken the form of several car or suicide bombings in two Shiite strongholds — Beirut’s southern suburbs and the northeastern Bekaa. While it is undeniable that these incidents have spread unease and fear among the Shiites, any thought that they could trigger a massive desertion by the community would seem deluded.
Why Lebanese Shia don’t support Assad’s fall
The Shiites of Lebanon have three reasons for not supporting the fall of Assad’s regime. The first relates to the bipolarity of the political scene. The two camps and their followers hold highly defined views regarding their political, factional, regional, and international allegiances. On the one hand, March 8 is allied to Syria and Iran and looks positively at Russia. On the other, March 14 followers have no problem dealing with Israel, are friendly to Saudi Arabia, and, at the international level, consider France and the US their natural protectors. Thus, without necessarily retaining any admiration for the Damascus regime — let alone any endorsement of its policies and behavior — the strong majority of the Shia “naturally” prefer it as the lesser evil compared to one which would upset the regional equilibrium.
It is for the same reason that the Shiite community disapproved of March 14’s adherence in 2005 to an American neoconservative policy aimed at upending the existing regional balance of power. Asked to choose between the devil and the deep blue sea, Lebanon’s Shiites feel more at home and comfortable — and secure — under the Syrian-Iranian umbrella than being subject to US-European (and Saudi) adventures in the Middle East — particularly in the wake of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Over the past 20 years, the community has also developed a very special, very strong and very sophisticated relationship with Hezbollah. The party’s successive victories over the Israeli occupation and its social and political achievements on the domestic front have built a solid confidence in its strategic acuity. Those accomplishments have also sparked a revival of communal identity, based on a new “Shiite pride,” the promotion of a collective self-image. In so doing, the party has permitted the community to rid itself of inferiority complexes that it has suffered for decades, if not centuries, thus inspiring a strong, durable feeling of gratitude towards Hezbollah and, accordingly, cementing an enduring political bond between the party and the community.
The last reason why the majority of Shiites are unlikely to desert Hezbollah is their strong hostility towards the Sunni jihadist groups in the Syrian opposition. Christians are not the only religious group anxious about their growing importance. Shiites feel much the same fear because they know that the hatred directed by these groups at them is based more on religious than on political differences; that is, they are hated for what they are, rather than for what they think. In a country whose state lacks the resources to assure its citizens’ security, Hezbollah appears — as paradoxical as it may seem — as the only group capable of defending the nation — and its community.
In other words, the Syrian crisis has not changed the basic political configuration of Lebanon. Hezbollah’s critics still criticise it; those who support it also continue to do so. Those feelings have perhaps become more polarized as a result of Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria, but no consequential political defection is in view — from one side or the other.
Photo: The Syrian flag is seen as people watch Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah speaking to supporters via live broadcast during a May 25 2013 event in Bekaa Valley, Resistance and Liberation Day, which marks the anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon. Credit: Sharif Karim