international analysis and commentary

Hezbollah’s risky adventure in Syria

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One of the most enigmatic gray areas that defense and security analysts have to navigate is the assessment of Hezbollah’s strategic capabilities. Yet, military power only partially explains the standing of the “Party of God”, and excessive focus on its weapons could be misplaced. In order to understand the strengths and vulnerabilities of Hezbollah, one has to look at its political consensus, which underpins Hezbollah’s very capacity to play as a security actor in the Middle East. In fact, recent developments in both Lebanon and Syria suggest the party is going through an unprecedented crisis, which is eminently political.

When Hezbollah joined the conflict in Syria in 2013, it was enigmatic whether the party would have endured in an environment that is radically different from South Lebanon – (Hezbollah’s only and existential strategic battleground since its inception in the early 1980s), where the party had envisaged an exclusive rival: Israel. Nonetheless, the party has displayed extraordinary flexibility and adaptability to new warfare and enemies in Syria, by greatly expanding its reach. Three years on, Hezbollah is still crucial in preserving key areas under the control of the Syrian regime.  

Yet, a three-year exhausting entanglement into the conflict has tired fighters and diverted a massive amount of financial resources from civil investments towards buying weapons, maintaining an increasing number of fighters and new reserves on the payroll, providing and delivering food and medical assistance to militants on the battleground. All this goes to the detriment of Hezbollah’s social welfare – a major instrument for producing and maintaining its consensus amongst its electoral base. Firstly, pensions and salaries shrank. Some of the relatives of the martyrs openly complained that the money their loved ones killed in Syria used to make was double – or even triple – what the family now gets from the party. Secondly, several construction and infrastructural projects announced by Jihad al-Bina’, the party’s real estate company, have been frozen, postponed or canceled since 2013. Finally – and perhaps more cogently – some fighters are growing disappointed with the unending conflict in Syria.

However, the fatigue of the battleground is not the thorniest issue for Hezbollah. What is really challenging is the loss of moral allure in the eyes of many supporters.

Following its intervention in Syria, Hezbollah upgraded the notion of muqawama (resistance – designating both the act of resisting and the party’s military wing). Whereas the “resistance” referred only to the Israeli enemy up until the Syrian intervention – and was supported by the whole Arab and Muslim world – the concept is now attributed to the fight against the takfiriyyn [Muslims who claim to be the right interpreters of Islam and accuse others of apostasy – generally referred to Sunni jihadi groups currently fighting in Syria].

Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah carefully calibrated his new narrative to defending religious “pluralism” (att’adudiyya) in the Arab Levant, protecting the Lebanese state, and establishing “complementarity” (al-takamul) between Hezbollah and the Lebanese Army. At the same time, however, the  intervention in Syria has been characterized as a “sacred defense” (al-difa’ al-muqaddas) against Sunni Islamist groups, explicitly labeled as takfiriyyn. Such doctrinal transformation entailed abandoning the reference to “Muslim unity” (wahda islamiyya) and reduced Hezbollah to an inherently sectarian (Shia) actor – a development that alienated the support of a great part of the Muslim community, in turn mobilized against the expanding geopolitical power of Iran.

More convincingly, Hezbollah has defused its deterrence towards Israel, simply because it cannot afford to be active on two fronts, whilst the Syrian battleground is more urgent. Contradicting claims about the killing of Hezbollah commander Mustafa Badreddine in Syria on May 13, 2016 – firstly attributed to Israel and later to a generic “takfiri group” – may be, in fact, an indicator of Hezbollah’s choice for parsimony. Israel is a silent and yet active player in the Syrian war. In December 2015, Israel killed Samir al-Quntar (a Hezbollah senior official, long considered a target by Tel Aviv) and an Israeli orchestration of Badreddine’s assassination would not be implausible. If this is the case, it would be the very first time Hezbollah avoids retaliation against its historical enemy – and definitely a challenge towards the party’s ideological integrity.

Undoubtedly, amidst rising sectarian tensions, a great number of Shiites perceives Islamist groups, such as Daesh (ISIS) or Jabhat al-Nusra, as existential threats. Yet, many traditional supporters of Hezbollah are questioning the rationale behind the Syrian intervention. Not only the war does not seem to be approaching an end, but is dragging down the limited human and financial resources of the whole “society of the resistance” (mujtama al-muqawama), whilst jeopardizing Hezbollah’s deterrence towards Israel. When Russia intervened in Syria in September 2015, Hezbollah felt relieved, expecting a major shift in the balance of power in favor of the regime front. Relatedly, a partial withdrawal of Hezbollah fighters was envisaged, and also rumored. But Russian operations have only altered the situation on the ground to a limited extent. On May 24, 2016, two suicide attacks in the coastal cities of Jabla and Tartous, both strongholds of the Assad regime, left 148 people dead. This episode immensely frustrated the morale of the Syrian Army and its allies, including Hezbollah.

Against this backdrop, some major regional powers such as the Gulf States and Turkey seem more determined than ever to empower the Syrian military opposition, especially Islamist groups, in order to eat away at Iran, Russia, the Assad regime and Hezbollah itself. In this vein, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Arab League (largely dominated by Saudi Arabia) attempted in March 2016 to ostracize and increase pressure on Hezbollah, by labeling it a “terrorist group”. Finally, international sanctions approved by the Obama administration in December 2015 (“Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act”), and implemented by the Lebanese government on May 3, 2016, are liable to affect Hezbollah – and, unfortunately for Lebanon, the whole Lebanese financial sector. Hezbollah seems lacking a strategy to counteract such increasing pressure.

Efforts to contain the political consequences of its risky adventure in Syria – an obligation by and large imposed by Iran – have proven so far insufficient to build a new legitimacy for the party. Hezbollah’s overstretch in Syria may backfire, non only on itself but on the whole Lebanese state – a fragile structure under multiple forms of regional pressure.