In the fog of Syria’s war: Hezbollah in transition

Haythem Basson

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Hezbollah Flag. upyernoz via Flickr Creative Commons.

The conflict in Syria has been an embodiment of the notion that chaos in the region is empowering non-state actors. The Syrian conflict is also one in which the relevance of a conventional regional balance is being challenged and emphasis is being placed on state and non-state actors’ capacity for asymmetric warfare. The region has seen a sustained proliferation of patterns of irregular warfare and the empowerment of non-state actors and transregional organisations. This article explores the transformative effect the Syrian Civil War is having on Hezbollah and by extension – Lebanon.

Hezbollah (literally meaning, “The Party of Allah”) emerged as a Shia militia in the midst of the Lebanese Civil War (1975 – 1990), consolidating itself in 1982 in response to Israel’s invasion and partial occupation of Lebanon. In the 1990’s, the organisation re-framed its raison d’être from a revolutionary movement to a resistance movement. Dropping its thematic priority of initiating a Khomeini-esque Islamic revolution in Lebanon, it instead adopted a national stance, one of being a Lebanese resistance movement.

At its roots, Hezbollah is a transnational Islamist movement. But, it wields political power in Lebanon, holding an influential position in government and quasi-autonomy in strategic-operation points in Lebanon, namely its strongholds in South Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley.

A defining characteristic of Hezbollah is its adeptness and adaptive qualities. The organisation has emerged from the ashes of high-intensity sporadic conflicts, to be stronger and more sophisticated than ever before. After all, non-state actors must adapt to survive in such a volatile region. These transformations can range from organisational/structural to strategy. Thus, since its inception, Hezbollah has had a history of evolution and adaption. In addition, Hezbollah has had well over thirty years to develop an effective and coherent military command structure. This is embodied in its metamorphosis from a localised Shia militia into a powerful military and political group.

Dynamics driving Hezbollah’s intervention in the Syrian conflict

The dynamics and rationale driving Hezbollah’s intervention are varied and convoluted. It is interlinked with the fact that Hezbollah is inextricably entangled in the greater regional geopolitical dynamics. In terms of a geopolitical rationale, Hezbollah sees intervention as a strategic imperative. Syria, Iran and Hezbollah are a part of what is labelled “The Axis of Resistance”. The collapse of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime would foster the rise of a new Sunni dominated state, one that would depart from the axis. Ostensibly, this would cripple the geo-strategic alliance, weaken Hezbollah domestically (in Lebanon) and limit Iran’s projection of power in the Levant and region.[1]

Another motivation is rooted in the narrative of protecting the Shia communities and Shia holy sites located in Syria. This is largely grounded in transnational solidarity and is emblematic of a broader entrenchment of the sectarianisation process within the conflict. Attached to this narrative is a preemptive logic of stemming the rise of “Takfiris” (a term used to denote fringe extremist Sunni organisations) and their potential to move into Lebanon. Central to this concern is the fact that continuous expansion and success of Sunni Jihadist organisations in the Syrian armed opposition is interpreted as a potential “long-term threat to Hezbollah.”

One of the most important dynamics is that Hezbollah is deeply invested in maintaining access to material support, which derives from the communication lines running from Damascus. The collapse of their life lines from Iran and Syria poses a serious existential threat to the organisation and its domestic influence in Lebanon.

Hezbollah’s role and impact on the battlefield

Hezbollah has played a significant role on the Syrian battlefield. The organisation has played many different roles in the conflict, ranging from a combat advisory role, training missions, to direct combat operations (both offensive and defensive). Hezbollah has been making a difference. The organisation has been instrumental in reversing the course of the conflict and assisted the Assad regime in scoring important victories (Qusayr for example) and participating in counter-insurgency operations across the country. The organisation has in effect, complemented the deficiencies of the Syrian regime with its light-infantry and reconnaissance prowess. At the time of this article, Hezbollah is also engaged in a strategic battle over Al-Zabadani. The outcome of this battle will be of strategic importance for the security of the Lebanese border and for Hezbollah, as the town has been, in the past, both a strategic base of operations and a material life-line for the organisation.

Hezbollah’s transformation

The Syrian conflict has radically re-shaped the organisation. Hezbollah has grown tremendously in size, and rapidly expanded and developed its strategic and operational capabilities. For the first time in its history, Hezbollah has embarked on expeditionary warfare. From this, Hezbollah has gained valuable lessons and knowledge of irregular warfare. The organisation has also developed a new generation of battle-hardened fighters.

Syria has presented a significant military challenge for the organisation, primarily because the military environment in Syria is very different to that of South Lebanon. It is a foreign terrain that they do not have intimate knowledge of, nor does Hezbollah have access to anything familiar to their security architecture and the familiar fortifications they have in place in South Lebanon, which they can rely on. Thus, the challenges they face in Syria have resulted in a growth in their ability to operate in unknown/unfamiliar, larger and more complex environments.

In addition, having to both work and rely upon irregular and regular Syrian and Iraqi forces and militias, Hezbollah have become more capable and interoperable.[2]

Hezbollah’s transformation has not been without its negative consequences. Lowering the threshold for recruitment in their desperate bid to increase numbers for the battle in Syria, the organisation has been exposed to infiltration by espionage-networks, thugs and corruptive practices.

Hezbollah’s use of hard power has cost them their popular support in Syria and Lebanon. Their reputation in the past was both won and built upon its soft power approach to counter Israel’s hard power military strategy in Lebanon. The organisation’s image was one that represented the weak and led the fight against injustice. This was exemplified by their support for the Palestinians and sporadic conflict with Israel. As a result, Hezbollah won cross-confessional support and admiration. The involvement in Syria is effecting this cross-sectarian appeal. Primarily because of its support for the regime, but especially due to its labelling the Sunni opposition as takfiri. As a result, the sectarian divide has been exacerbated and Hezbollah has alienated a significant portion of the Syrian population, and that of the wider Middle East. The organisation is being increasingly seen as a Shia-centric paramilitary force with parochial self-directed interests. This loss in reputation is further epitomised by the organisation now being nicknamed “Hizb al-Shaytan” (“The Party of Satan”).

Implications of Hezbollah’s increasing involvement

Lebanon faces significant consequences for Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria: the intervention has induced a destabilising effect on Lebanon and threats to the nation’s security.

Lebanon is being directly punished and burdened for Hezbollah’s role in Syria on an unprecedented scale by Sunni extremists’ retaliatory attacks. The country has witnessed an escalation of attacks and clashes in Tripoli, Saida, Arsal and within Hezbollah strongholds. The timing of the proliferation of attacks and bombings is directly linked to Hezbollah’s overt involvement in Syria. In this sense, Hezbollah’s narrative of preventing Sunni extremism spilling over into Lebanon became a self-fulfilling prophecy – as a result of their own foreign policy.

Hezbollah’s unilateral intervention in Syria undermines Lebanese sovereignty. The organisation’s expeditionary operations in Syria are in direct contravention of the Baabda Declaration, an agreement that seeks to instil both neutrality and a distancing from regional conflicts. Consequently, Hezbollah’s unilateral intervention and the security challenges it brings for Lebanon means that both the fate of Hezbollah and Lebanon are inextricably linked to the fate of the Syrian regime.

Conclusion

Forged in the crucible of war, Hezbollah continues to evolve politically and militarily. Hezbollah’s protracted expeditionary warfare operation in Syria is testing its limits and changing its character. True to its nature, Hezbollah’s deepening involvement in Syria has spurred its becoming more resilient and cohesive on the battlefield and developing a more effective military strategy. Hezbollah is now at a critical juncture in the development of the organisation. Its unilateral intervention in Syria has cost the organisation its popular legitimacy and has raised significant questions over its raison d’être: namely, is it a Shia-centric organisation or a Lebanese nationalist one? The situation poses a profound ideological and identity crisis for Hezbollah, one that will define its future trajectory.

Hezbollah’s transition and rise in the region underlines some major regional trends. Firstly, Hezbollah’s empowerment has challenged the regions conventional military balance. Interlinked with this is that asymmetric forces are playing an increasingly more important role in regional competition. Critically, the empowerment and increasing influence of non-state actors to shape local and regional dynamics makes it difficult to analyse regional politics through a state-centric approach. Increasingly non-state actors are having a significant, if not major, role in determining regional relations.

Furthermore, the current political upheavals are having a transformative effect on actors, relations and identities. It’s important for the West to proceed with a more cautious foreign policy towards the region as its dynamics remain unpredictable and in flux. The West should look for opportunities to deescalate violence and pursue political resolutions wherever possible. Syria is increasingly becoming the epicentre of Shia and Sunni Jihadism and the risk of the Syrian conflict devolving into a fully consolidated ethno-sectarian war carries consequences for the region at large and the West’s vested interest in regional stability. One way of reducing tensions arising from Hezbollah’s foreign intervention is to prioritise a reduction of sectarian tensions and promote inter-confessional bridge-building initiatives in Lebanon.

 

References

[1] Heydemann, S. (2013) “Syria’s Uprising: sectarianism, regionalisation, and state order in the Levant”, Working Paper, p.3

[2] Sullivan, M. (2014) “Hezbollah in Syria”, Middle East Security Report, Institute for the Study viagra sans ordonnance of War, p.25

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