Hezbollah Hedges Its Bets on Assad

hezbollah-syria-lebanon-assad-nasrallahWhen the Arab Awakening began last year, Hezbollah’s leadership expressed solidarity with revolutionary movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain. However, this support was not extended to those demanding political reform in neighboring Syria.

This double standard must be understood in the context of Damascus’ relationship with Lebanon’s Shiite “Party of God.” As Bashar Al-Assad’s regime has been a vital strategic ally of Hezbollah that provides it with logistical, economic, and military support, the prospects of regime change in Damascus gravely alarm Hezbollah.

In a tone of jubilation, some of Hezbollah’s adversaries have asserted that the Arab Awakening will constitute the Shiite organization’s demise. These voices, however, underestimate Hezbollah’s legitimacy among Lebanon’s largest sect as a provider of social services and a force of resistance against Israel and the United States.

The Party of God will not disappear even if the Assad regime does. Nonetheless, if the Ba’athist order in Damascus falls, Hezbollah will be compelled to operate in a more challenging environment, both domestically and regionally.

However, a post-Assad order in Damascus will likely continue to maintain cooperative ties with Hezbollah to ensure Syria’s strategic posture vis-à-vis Israel. Randa Slim, a Lebanese scholar at the Middle East Institute, summarized this point: “Irrespective of the makeup of the new Syrian regime, absent a peace agreement between Syria and Israel, this new Syrian regime will have to rely on Hezbollah’s military arsenal as an important component of its deterrent strategy.”

Sectarian Spillover

Lebanon has long been susceptible to political turmoil in the broader Levant. Numerous events in recent years—including Saddam Hussein’s ouster in 2003, Rafik Al-Hariri’s assassination in 2005, the Hezbollah-Israel war of 2006, the Lebanese Army’s bloody confrontation with Fatah al-Islam militants in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in 2007, and Hezbollah’s incursion into West Beirut in 2008—inflamed Lebanon’s sectarian tensions. Nevertheless, the fragile peace in Lebanon survived each dramatic development. However, analysts have raised concerns about Lebanon returning to civil war if the spillover effect from Syria continues or intensifies.

Lebanese public opinion on the Syrian crisis is divided sharply along sectarian lines. A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in April and May of 2012 reported that 80 percent of Lebanese Sunnis supported Assad’s resignation, and 92 percent held an unfavorable view of the Syrian leader. However, 97 percent of Lebanese Shiites opposed his resignation, with almost as many holding a favorable view. The tension and distrust between the Hezbollah-led, pro-Assad March 8 Alliance and the Sunni-led, anti-Assad March 14 Alliance has been exacerbated as a consequence of the Syrian crisis.

Over 62,000 Syrians have sought refuge in Lebanon since the uprising began last year. This continuing influx of refugees may bear grave implications for Lebanon’s sensitive sectarian balance, which could shift in the Sunnis’ favor, as the overwhelming majority of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are Sunni. Lebanese ruptures over the Assad regime have already led to violent exchanges between armed Sunni and Alawite groups in Tripoli and Beirut. Scores of kidnappings as tit-for-tat responses to events in Syria have also occurred in recent months, reminiscent of the frequent disappearances during the Lebanese civil war.

The antipathy toward Bashar Al-Assad held by the Syrian refugees is shared by many Lebanese in Sunni-majority Tripoli, who were subjected to grave human rights violations during the 1980s when the Syrian military occupied portions of Lebanon. Salafi activists in Tripoli have sought to ride the wave of anti-Assad sentiment to advance their domestic agenda of disarming Hezbollah and ridding Lebanon of Iranian influence. These Salafis view the influx of international jihadists into Syria as an opportunity to counter Hezbollah’s powerful position in Lebanon.

Al-Qaeda maintains a visible presence in Lebanon today, as evidenced by the recent threats issued by al-Qaeda leaders against the Lebanese Shiites who have backed the Assad regime. Majd al-Majd, commander of the Abdullah Azzam Shaheed Brigade (an armed al-Qaeda affiliate in the Levant formed during the Soviet-Afghan war) communicated the following message to Lebanese sympathetic to Assad: “Sending your sons from Lebanon so that they fight on the side of the criminal regime in Syria, kill our sons and frighten our wives, is considered support for the oppressor against the oppressed, and fully participating in a crime … Hassan Nasrallah’s characterization of the members of the regime who were killed as martyrs is an insult to millions of Muslims.”

Nonetheless, even as the Syrian crisis has mobilized certain Salafi circles against the armed Shia organization, Hezbollah is Lebanon’s most militarized faction, and it’s unlikely that its adversaries will confront it militarily.

Long-Term Implications for Hezbollah

Syria provides Hezbollah a supply route to Iran and strategic depth vis-à-vis Israel, interests that would remain vital to the Lebanese group in a post-Assad era. Although Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has firmly supported Assad, Hezbollah’s demands that the Syrian regime enact reforms—in addition to its establishment of contacts with certain elements of the Syrian opposition—do indicate that the Party of God seeks to foster positive relations with any government that may replace Assad’s.

According to Augustus Norton, professor of International Relations at Boston University, “leading figures in Hezbollah have proven to be coolly analytic in their political calculations and it is doubtful that they intend to go down with Bashar’s ship.” As a shrewd and self-calculating actor, Hezbollah is “assessing how to preserve a semblance of their privileged relationship with Syria, particularly if the present Syrian regime is toppled. It is true that Nasrallah has enunciated firm support for the regime, but supportive comments have often punctuated long periods of studied silence.”

Hezbollah has long struck a populist chord among Middle Easterners sympathetic to the Lebanese Shiite community’s plight under Christian minority-rule, as well as for its resistance to the Israeli military’s 1982-2000 occupation of southern Lebanon, which killed tens of thousands of civilians. Paradoxically, today Hezbollah finds itself defending a minority-rule regime in Damascus that has resorted to brute force and wide-scale repression to crush a revolutionary movement.

As a consequence, Hezbollah has lost respect and sympathy from many Syrians and other Arabs throughout the region. With respect to hard-power politics, Hezbollah can only lose from Assad’s ouster. However, the party’s ability to form cooperative relations with a new regime in Damascus could reverse much of this damage. And regardless of the outcome in Syria, until a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and Lebanon is reached—and as long as the plight of Palestinian refugees remains unresolved—Hezbollah will remain an influential political and social actor in Lebanon, its legitimacy rooted in its capacity to deter an Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon.

Giorgio Cafiero is a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus.