Hizbollah’s Syria Conundrum
When Hizbollah – the Lebanese “Party of God” – threw its fighters into Syria in 2013, it sought primarily to save itself. Had the Assad regime collapsed or been defeated by U.S.-backed regional powers, it could have faced a hostile Sunni successor in Damascus and lost its essential arms channel from Iran. Today, its core objective of preserving the regime has been met, but there is no end in sight to the war. If Iran and Hizbollah continue to provide unconditional military support to the regime without a realistic exit strategy, they will be dragged deeper into what can only become a quagmire, even as their armed strength grows in the wider region. At the same time, they will have to contend with a potentially more hostile U.S. administration that has said it wants to push back Iranian influence even as it also pursues a more aggressive approach against the Islamic State (IS), an enemy it has in common with Hizbollah and Iran.
Avoiding being sucked into a quagmire requires negotiating a settlement that has buy-in from key countries that back the opposition, as well as (with Russia) imposing the requisite compromises on Damascus. This report proposes preliminary steps Iran and Hizbollah could take in that direction, including recognising non-jihadist rebels; initiating talks with them on whatever common ground they can find; lowering sectarian rhetoric; and refraining from new offensives against opposition-held areas so as to preserve a non-jihadist foe capable of enforcing a deal, if and when one is reached.
Hizbollah cannot change course in Syria without Iran’s agreement, yet pays high and mounting costs for its intervention. Once dependent on the late President Hafez Assad’s regime to protect its military status in Lebanon, it has become instrumental to the survival of his son’s rule in Syria. Yet, alliance with the Assads has become a liability, draining resources, empowering the jihadist groups it has tried to vanquish and provoking hostility from much of the Syrian population and regional players such as Qatar and Hamas with which it once enjoyed good ties.
A more difficult to measure cost is the harm to its image and self-identity. From a “party of the oppressed” and a Lebanon-based and centred “resistance” movement standing up to Israel, it has projected itself across the border and morphed into a powerful regional force. Once acclaimed by Arabs for struggle against a common enemy, most recently in the 2006 Lebanon war, it is widely viewed as a sectarian Shiite militia and, in parts of Syria, a ruthless occupier.
Hizbollah has benefitted from its intervention beyond regime survival. Its fullthroated effort to keep the regime alive helped consolidate it as Iran’s most effective partner. The war has displayed and deepened mutual dependence. Hizbollah long has given Iran strategic depth vis-à-vis Israel. Escalating involvement in Syria has elevated it to an indispensable partner in a high-stakes, increasingly sectarian-tinged regional confrontation, whose principal exponents are Iran and Saudi Arabia. In turn, Iran gives arms and other support that allow Hizbollah to fight Israel and
leverage military strength into political dominance in a country that always denied it to Shiites.
Hizbollah has also gained from its relationship with Russia, which arose from the latter’s 2015 intervention. It has been a vital partner on the ground, an elite fighting force without which Russian airstrikes would have been much less effective. It has been able to enhance its military and tactical expertise by a combat alliance, for the first time, with a global power. Yet, the relationship is fraught, as Moscow, a secular power wary of Islamist radicalism and favouring a strong Syrian state and army, has its own agenda in Syria, which is starting to diverge from Iran’s and Hizbollah’s, now
that the regime’s immediate survival seems assured.
Hizbollah has its own agenda, so needs its own political strategy. Along with most other players, it continues to bank on hard power. This can only prolong the conflict and encourage radicalisation on all sides. Defeat of non-jihadist rebels would help swell jihadist ranks and remove a credible opponent that could negotiate a settlement and enforce a deal. Hizbollah may feel emboldened by Iranian and Russian support and their joint 2016 victory in Aleppo and favour efforts to gain more ground.Taking and holding territory in the face of a morphing insurgency and a hostile population will become increasingly costly in blood and treasure, however, and may prevent the party from extricating itself at all.
To loosen the trap and create the possibility of an eventual drawdown, Hizbollah, together with Iran, should urgently take steps to lower tensions. As part of the process Russia, Turkey and Iran launched in Astana in January 2017, they should help enforce the nationwide ceasefire. They should also open communication lines with non-jihadist foes in order to discuss mutually acceptable decentralisation to enable local governance in opposition-controlled areas without paving the way for Syria’s breakup; and to ease tit-for-tat restrictions on the besieged villages of Madaya, Zabadani, Fouaa and Kefraya. Likewise, they should press President Bashar Assad to negotiate a political settlement and should refrain from new offensives and collective punishment of civilians. In return, a negotiated settlement must take into account the party’s vital interests, over which it shows neither willingness nor need to compromise given its fighting prowess. These include its arms channel, protecting Shiite shrines in Syria and preventing attacks against both the Shiite community and its fighters in Lebanon. Though the party’s arsenal has long posed serious concerns inside and outside Lebanon, its disarmament cannot be linked to a negotiated Syria settlement if a deal is to have a chance. At the same time, Hizbollah should work to dispel domestic rivals’ fears by agreeing to resume dialogue on a defensive strategy – stalled by its Syria intervention – that would regulate its arsenal’s use, including its stated commitment not to use it against domestic foes or provoke war with Israel.
None of this will be easy, but the alternative would be worse, for Hizbollah and much of the region: a prolonged, ever costlier engagement in an unwinnable war of attrition. Beyond the human costs, Hizbollah would have to permanently mobilise a Shiite community whose patience and support may have limits, and recruit youths who lack the commitment and discipline that have made Hizbollah a formidable fighting force. It cannot relish that prospect.