MESOP DOCU NEWS “REPORT 153” OF CRISIS GROUP (BRUSSELS) ABOUT FORWARD MARCHING HEZBOLLAH : – FULL DETEAILED REPORT !
14 March 2017 –Brussels – Hizbollah’s intervention in Syria strengthens the Assad regime but transforms the Shiite movement as it redefines the enemy and itself within the confines of an increasingly sectarian struggle.
Executive Summary – 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 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.
Hizbollah has benefitted from its intervention beyond regime survival. Its full-throated 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.
Beirut/Brussels, 14 March 2017
Hizbollah, a product of Israel’s 1982 Lebanon invasion and occupation, owes its popularity and growth to its championing of Lebanese Shiites’ cause without presenting itself as a sectarian actor.
Since the 1990 end of the civil war, it has played a dual role of political party within the Lebanese system and Islam-based armed resistance movement confronting Israel. However, the 2011 Syrian uprising and subsequent civil war there compelled it to shed its predominantly Lebanese profile for an unabashedly Shiite one by projecting its power across the border and thrusting itself into a sectarian-coloured regional power struggle.
Though Hizbollah had been active outside Lebanon previously, it appears to have extended its reach to include Syria, Iraq and Yemen, though the depth of its involvement in those countries remains a matter of speculation.
As a Lebanese observer said, “it is the regional arena, countries like Syria and Yemen, that has really become important to many of my Hizbollah interlocutors. Lebanon seems to be secondary in their discussions”.
Of paramount importance is Syria, where the party has crossed swords with an Arab foe for the first time. From the uprising’s early stages, it and its Iranian backer demonstrated that they would not accept a fundamental change in the regime, especially its security and intelligence apparatus. As Hizbollah’s military investment grew, so did its strategic interests, to the extent that today its fate and that of the Assad regime are intertwined: an important part of its weaponry transits through Syria from Iran, rendering it dependent on Damascus’s goodwill, while the military support this makes possible is in turn vital for Assad.
In the uprising’s early days, Hizbollah officials said they tried to convince the regime to avoid violence and address what they considered the demonstrators’ legitimate demands.
Yet when its advice went unheeded, it supported the regime’s repressive tactics through logistical and military assistance.
Hizbollah’s fear of a sectarian war became a self-fulfilling prophecy, fomenting the very radicalisation it professed to be pre-empting.
By early 2012, the initially peaceful uprising had become – thanks in no small part to the regime’s brutal crackdown on protesters – an externally-supported violent revolt on its way to an all-out proxy war. Hizbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) military advisers poured in, seeking to protect the regime from what they asserted was a growing Sunni jihadist threat. Hizbollah’s fear of a sectarian war became a self-fulfilling prophecy, fomenting the very radicalisation it professed to be pre-empting. Moreover, the party’s role became indispensable in sustaining a regime that increasingly faced manpower shortages. This set the stage for full-fledged military intervention in 2013, when it concluded that the regime’s grip on especially the parts of the country essential to survival was weakening and that defeat would threaten the party’s own survival.
Hizbollah leaders recognised that the intervention would be costly to the party’s image and credibility in Syria and the Arab region more broadly, as well as to its fighters.
Casualties began to climb; in May 2016, a member said Hizbollah had lost 1,700 to 1,800 fighters in Syria. It also began losing friends. It alienated significant segments of the population, which accused it of double standards for having supported popular uprisings elsewhere, notably in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen, but treating the Syrian uprising as part of an external conspiracy. Hostility with the Syrian opposition became more explicit, the party leader accusing the protesters of serving Israeli, Western, Turkish and Gulf interests. The relationship with Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood suffered, not only because it was active in the opposition, but also because Hamas – the Brotherhood’s Palestinian branch headquartered in Damascus since its 1999 expulsion from Jordan – severed ties with the Iran-led “resistance axis”.
II. The Syria Gambit: A Double-edged Sword
Measured by military victories, Hizbollah’s intervention has been successful. With Iran and Russia, it has saved a crumbling regime and the axis it sustained. By securing most of Syria’s central and western regions, it has created in effect a buffer zone on both sides of the border, significantly reducing attacks in Lebanon from rebel-held areas in Syria.
It has also gained important operational expertise under Iranian and Russian military tutelage. It may yet parlay its vital military assistance into a political role in any future negotiations, either directly or through Iran. In blocking a regime change backed by the U.S., Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia that would have shifted the regional power balance, it has cemented its own position and reinforced that of its patron, Iran, but it has also triggered daunting long-run challenges.
A. An Eroding Image and a Need to Rebrand
Since intervening in Syria, Hizbollah’s strategy and image have been profoundly altered. Fighting Israel and protecting the oppressed – the traditional pillars of its identity – have eroded, and it has redefined its primary purpose to fighting Sunni extremists.
Formerly, it served as a cross-communal rallying force, within Lebanon and beyond, particularly when confronting Israel, but as regional polarisation increased, Hizbollah has come to rely more on its own Shiite constituency, operating within an increasingly sectarian regional order and contributing to it.
The merging of the two has proved awkward and forced the movement to juggle multiple contradictions. It stigmatises Sunnis, lumping all Syrian rebels together as takfiris and calling its Lebanese and Syrian political opponents Israeli or Western agents, while saying its fight is non-sectarian.
It projects force while retaining its traditional rhetoric about resisting oppression; denounces the Saudi-led and Western-backed coalition’s killing of civilians in Yemen, while ignoring its own and those of other regime allies in Syria; and engages in ruthless tactics such as sieges leading to starvation, while extolling its combatants’ morality.
The party has expanded across Syria, striking jihadist and non-jihadist groups alike […] in a bid to give its ally the upper hand in potential negotiations.
By presenting the fight as against takfiris, Hizbollah hopes to convince many initially sceptical supporters that its involvement is both appropriate and imperative.
It presents Assad as an indispensable partner in the war against Sunni jihadists and seeks to draw a broader international coalition into the fight, Russia in particular. However, in practice, its agenda has been much broader. The party has expanded across Syria, striking jihadist and non-jihadist groups alike (lumping them together as takfiris or part of a pro-Israeli West-backed axis) in a bid to give its ally the upper hand in potential negotiations. Though Hizbollah has repeatedly said it favours a political solution, its and its allies’ actions have helped the regime unabashedly pursue a maximalist military strategy, hoping that defeated rebels would be compelled to settle for a compromise on regime terms.
That is a risky bet, because if they do not, the remainder of the internationally-accepted opposition might join the jihadists. It also raises the question with whom the regime might compromise if potential partners are so thoroughly defeated they lose credibility and capacity to enforce a deal, while much of the population continues to reject the regime. How would it be able to govern?
The bet is risky also because of possible consequences inside Hizbollah. The war has severely strained it. It is compensating for the regime’s manpower shortages and war-fighting incompetence by supplying thousands of fighters. Though party leaders downplay the significance of this, it has been one of Hizbollah’s main challenges, with an estimated 1,700 to 1,800 killed so far. By comparison, in its eighteen-year fight against Israeli occupation, it has lost around 1,200.
The leadership has argued that if the party does not fight Sunni extremism in Syria, it will have to do so at home.
The party has tried to overcome its manpower concerns by stepping up recruitment in Lebanon’s Shiite community, including with training and financial incentives. The leadership has argued that if the party does not fight Sunni extremism in Syria, it will have to do so at home.
Before Hizbollah’s May 2013 military intervention, Lebanon was largely spared the type of violence that occurred across the border. However, the point of its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, was driven home shortly after, when, in apparent retaliation for Hizbollah’s intervention, suicide bombers from Syria attacked Shiites in Lebanon. Particularly notable were a July 2013 car bombing in Beirut’s predominantly Shiite Bir al-Abed neighbourhood that injured at least 53 and a suicide attack in Ruweis the next month that killed at least 25 and injured over 200.
These events prompted Hizbollah to overhaul its profile. While at first it had not even publicly acknowledged its fighters were in Syria, using only the vague term “jihadist duty” as the circumstance of death when announcing casualties, it began to glorify its fighters’ role as popular support for its war effort increased, and it needed to foster yet greater backing to cope with its pressing manpower problem. It has gone outside its normal pool of party cadres to find recruits, employing them on a contract and submitting them to shorter training, a departure from long practice.
This has allowed many young Shiite males to continue a seemingly normal life in Lebanon while fighting in Syria on a rotating basis.
They have multiple reasons for agreeing to fight. Some have a financial motive, but growing sectarianism and fear of Sunni extremism are the greatest draw. Moreover, in a country whose state has failed to provide basic needs, viable prospects or, more importantly, a sense of dignity, fighting jihadists in Syria gives many meaning and purpose. A fighter who joined the party’s ranks in 2013 said:
Before joining Hizbollah my life was meaningless. Since I became a party member, I have a cause to fight for, and I have gained respect and status in my community. And in addition to my social and military duties, I am also fulfilling the religious duty to serve my people.
Hizbollah has capitalised on this, giving new recruits a sense of belonging and a network and rewarding them monetarily, or their families if they die in battle. Under the party’s guidance, the Shiite community pays tribute to a martyr’s memory, envelops his family with emotional and material support and especially honours his mother (oum al-shahid) for her sacrifice. Such social and religious rituals tie fighters’ families more intimately into a cohesive, albeit increasingly sectarianised community and encourage others to show the same readiness to sacrifice children.
While the majority of Lebanon’s Shiites appear to remain solidly behind the party, at least for now, there are sceptical voices, fuelled by Syria’s escalating violence, which calls into question the party’s military prowess and the prospect of its fighters returning home victorious and soon. Dubious of Hizbollah’s triumphant narrative during May 2016 battles in the Qalamoun area, a university professor with party ties said, “in recent days, they have made so many strategic gains that one has to wonder how they lost these strategic places in the first place”.
The effort to close ranks can barely disguise a certain malaise among supporters nostalgic for the contest with Israel, an abiding source of pride and consensus across the region. A fighter said, “of course, I wish we were fighting Israel and not in a conflict that is dividing the Arab world”. Military mobilisation also compels the party to accept relaxed social practices, triggering suspicions among some hard-core cadres. A former fighter against Israel said, “our generation used to pray the entire night before going to battle. Now, you see some of these guys spending their days in cafés, smoking the shisha [waterpipe], before they go off to Syria”.
Arguably the greatest harm to Hizbollah’s reputation derives from having to play the sectarian card. This could ultimately jeopardise its and the wider Shiite community’s relationship with their environment. An Iraqi cleric with ties to Hizbollah said:
What would push young [Lebanese] Shiites to fight in Syria? Very few would go for Bashar’s sake, or even Iran’s. It’s a single stone of the [Shiite] Sayyida Zeinab shrine [in Damascus] that mobilises them. Yet, this could be very dangerous in the long run. One day, leaders may sit around the negotiating table, but it will be very difficult to heal broken spirits from this sectarian rift.
Hizbollah’s starvation-inducing siege of two majority-Sunni villages in Syria (since 2015), Zabadani and Madaya, has followed the same sectarian logic of Sunni rebels who have blockaded two Shiite villages north of Idlib, Fouaa and Kefraya.
Both Hizbollah and rebels have subjected residents of these villages to constant rocket and sniper attacks to force concessions. In September 2015, Hizbollah and regime forces reached a deal with opponents, the “Four Towns Agreement”, that enabled aid delivery and evacuation of the wounded in all four villages, but both sides have repeatedly hampered implementation.
While accounts about conversion to Shiism promoted by Iran, Hizbollah and other Shiite militias abound in opposition milieus, it is difficult to verify its extent. There are reasons to be sceptical; Shiites are less than 1 per cent of the population in Syria, a slim basis to build on.
Yet, particularly Shiite religious practices, such as Ashoura celebrations, have become more visible, some accompanied with sectarian provocations.
A Syrian relief worker in Damascus explained:
It is difficult to give a definitive answer on the question of tashayu (Shiite conversion). It is certain that Shiites are being encouraged to display their religious identity more clearly. We never saw large commemorations of Shiite events like Ashoura in Syria before …. Also, if you go to Bab Touma [an old Christian neighbourhood of Damascus], you will see a lot of Shiite religious symbols. Even Christians are complaining about the heavy Shiite presence.
Many regime opponents are convinced that Hizbollah’s long-term strategy is to empty the border region adjacent to Lebanon’s majority-Shiite Beqaa Valley of its Sunni population.
For now, Hizbollah seems to have deferred thinking about how to limit or mend damage from its role in Syria. It is digging in psychologically for a long fight. A senior party official said, “we will keep fighting for as long as necessary; if that means ten years or twenty years, so be it. We are ready and our young men are motivated. Anyway, what alternative do we have?” Tellingly, Hizbollah chose “Patience and Victory” as its slogan for Ashoura in October 2016.
Nor has thinking begun about what it should do once the conflict ends. A senior official said its fighters would return to Lebanon, because the party assumes that a political settlement would keep the regime in power, thus securing Hizbollah’s and Iran’s, interests.
Yet, a settlement appears far off.
At a popular level inside Syria, Hizbollah seems to bet on those who despite their discontent continue to support the pro-regime axis for self-preservation.
In its relations with Syrian (mostly Sunni) refugees in Lebanon, Hizbollah has displayed restraint, welcoming them to areas under its influence (while watching them closely for political activities) and ensuring that its supporters do not clash with them. Party officials working in local municipalities or with Hizbollah’s social organisations have provided services to Syrians in predominantly Shiite areas, fostering goodwill. The party believes it can, in future, build on their support. If and when the war ends, however, Hizbollah and its allies will still face the threat of Sunni jihadist violence in Syria and Lebanon, reflecting the region’s open sectarian wound and the ongoing rivalries between Saudi Arabia and Iran and between Turkey and Iran that prevent it from healing.
B. Saudi Sanctions
The Syria intervention has also changed the way other regional actors see Hizbollah. Its relations with Riyadh in particular have taken a nosedive. From nuisance – a competitor with Saudi proxies in Lebanon such as Saad Hariri’s Future Current – it has grown into a significant regional player in its own right and ever-more potent leverage for Tehran. This evolution has galvanised its foes.
Between the end of the civil war and the assassination of ex-Prime Minister Rafic Hariri (Saad’s father), Lebanon was under Syria’s hegemony. Saudi Arabia, a main broker of the Taef agreement that ended the war, had major influence through Hariri and acquiesced to Hizbollah’s role as long as it was focused on confronting Israel. The assassination changed that, because Riyadh, Western states and others pointed at the Syrian regime as the culprit and at Hizbollah by association. Yet a relationship continued, even during the 2006 war, which Riyadh accused Hizbollah of triggering.
Between 2006 and 2008, the party avoided clashing with Saudi interests in Lebanon, conscious of the widely shared perception of Saudi leadership in the Sunni world.
In May 2008 fighting in Beirut, Hizbollah dealt a humiliating defeat to the Future Current and other Sunni militias, compelling the Saudi ambassador and dozens of others to flee by boat.
Acknowledging the lopsided power balance on the ground, Saudi Arabia called for calm and urged Hariri to make concessions, the Doha Agreement.
The Arab Spring and Syria war completed the transformation. Jumping to the defence of Shiites throughout the region, Hizbollah condemned the March 2011 Saudi military intervention in Bahrain and its treatment of its own Shiite population in the Eastern Province.
In December 2013, it accused Riyadh of masterminding suicide attacks in predominantly Shiite areas in Lebanon, and in April 2015, it charged Saudi Arabia with “genocide and crimes” in Yemen. A month earlier, Nasrallah had directly insulted members of the Saudi royal family. For its part, Saudi Arabia condemned Hizbollah’s Syria intervention, which one official termed an “invasion”. In 2016, a Saudi military official accused Hizbollah of sending “mercenaries” to Yemen to support the Huthis. Most frequently, however, Saudi-backed Lebanese officials and media took the lead in criticising Hizbollah and defending the kingdom.
Only in Lebanon was Saudi Arabia constrained – by Hizbollah’s dominance. It therefore set out to curtail the party’s influence politically and financially.
Not only Hizbollah but also Saudi Arabia changed its posture in the region. The latter responded to the 2011 uprisings with an assertive new foreign policy. Its intervention in Bahrain, military support of Syrian rebels, increased funding to oil-poor Jordan and Morocco, invitation to those two monarchies to join the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to inoculate them against popular upheaval and March 2015 war in Yemen were all sharp departures. Only in Lebanon was Saudi Arabia constrained – by Hizbollah’s dominance. It therefore set out to curtail the party’s influence politically and financially.
In February 2016, it withdrew a $3 billion pledge of military aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), along with another $1 billion in planned funding to the Internal Security Forces (ISF), reportedly in response to Lebanon’s failure to condemn the January attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran, or what official Saudi media described as “hostile Lebanese positions resulting from the stranglehold of Hizbollah on the State”.
The Saudi move deprived the military of equipment and weapons needed to face spillover threats from the Syrian war, for which many Lebanese blamed Hizbollah. However, it also reduced the kingdom’s already shrinking influence in Lebanon. A fierce Hizbollah opponent with close ties to the kingdom lamented: “This Saudi retreat will only empower Hizbollah and reinforce Iran’s stranglehold over Lebanon”.
Antagonism toward Hizbollah reached fever pitch in March 2016, when the Gulf Cooperation Council labeled the party a terrorist group (a similar attempt in 2013 had dissolved in disunity). Shortly afterward, the Arab League and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) followed suit. The decision had little direct impact on the party, which has few interests in the Gulf, except for the expulsion of a few Lebanese with alleged Hizbollah links.
But it had great symbolic impact, as it revealed how the once historically acclaimed party of heroic resistance against Israel had become ostracised in an important part of the Arab world.
The Syria war has turned the Saudi-Iranian rivalry into a zero-sum proxy conflict, not just over their respective interests, which may be reconcilable, but over identity. This has sharpened sectarian rhetoric and heightened reciprocal Sunni-Shiite denigration. Hizbollah and Iranian officials have cited examples of bigotry against Shiites in Saudi political and religious discourse as a cause of the political impasse in Syria and elsewhere.
Saudi Arabia went on the offensive against what it perceived as combined Iranian and Shiite expansionism, and Hizbollah and Iran now see it as the source of the region’s turmoil and one of the principal threats to survival of the “resistance axis”. A Hizbollah official said:
Just look at what the Saudis are doing in the region. They are inflaming every conflict, and it is they who created Daesh [IS]. This is Saudi warmongering. Even in Lebanon, the country whose stability and calm all regional and [wider] international players want to preserve, the Saudis went on the offensive [by cutting off aid and labelling Hizbollah terrorist], sending a message that even Beirut won’t be safe from their aggressive policy.
Saudi Arabia and its allies read the situation differently, interpreting Hizbollah’s actions as a drive for hegemony. A Lebanese official with close ties to the kingdom contended: “Saudi Arabia has tried dialogue and offering concessions to Iran and Hizbollah [following the 2008 Doha Agreement on Lebanon]. Where did this get us? Only to further hegemony and control by Tehran and its proxy. Compromise did not work; it will only allow Hizbollah’s hegemony to grow”.
The party has come under increasing international pressure following adoption in the U.S. in December 2015 of the “Hizballah International Financing Prevention Act” (HIFPA). It imposes, inter alia, sanctions on any non-U.S. financial institution that “knowingly facilitates a significant transaction or transactions for Hizballah … [and] of a person identified on the list of specially designated nationals and blocked persons maintained by the Office of Foreign Assets Control of the Department of the Treasury”. Fearing retribution, Lebanese banks overreacted, not only closing hundreds of the party’s accounts, but also freezing those of party backers not expressly covered by the act.
This ignited a heated dispute between Hizbollah and Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh, who asserted that the U.S. law had to be applied to avoid the banking sector’s international isolation. The party verbally attacked the Central Bank, which convinced many politicians, analysts and citizens that it was the culprit in the June 2016 bombing of the headquarters of Blom Bank in central Beirut after the bank froze several Hizbollah-linked accounts.
The banking sanctions touched a raw nerve: by putting in jeopardy Hizbollah’s social network, they threatened its position as a main service provider to the Shiite community and compounded the financial strain caused by its involvement in Syria. The new U.S. administration’s vow to take a more aggressive approach toward Iran and its regional influence may further increase pressure on the party.
C. All Quiet on the Southern Front?
While Hizbollah’s primary objective in Syria is preserving the regime, it has also cast its role there as a continuation of its 2006 war against Israel. According to this narrative, the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia, working in concert, are using the Syria crisis to finish off the “resistance axis” by severing the bond holding it together, the Assad regime. A senior Hizbollah official said:
Syria is the link between Iran and the Resistance [Hizbollah]. If that connection is lost, Lebanon will be stuck between a rock and a hard place, between Israel and an Israeli Syria. This is why we went into Syria and have been fighting there.
Ten years have passed since the 2006 war. The post-war equation – mutual deterrence based on each side’s fear that the next round could be broader and more devastating – has dissuaded both from escalating. Hassan Nasrallah declared in an interview shortly after the fighting ended: “You ask me, if I had known … there was 1 per cent chance that the kidnapping [of two Israeli soldiers by Hizbollah] would lead to such a war, would I have done it? I say ‘no, absolutely not’, for humanitarian, moral, social, security, military and political reasons”.
The Syria war may have introduced new and dangerous variables, but Hizbollah’s preoccupation with fighting Syrian insurgents has kept it from even attempting to confront Israel anew in southern Lebanon. In 2012, it said the Syrian conflict was not affecting its fighting capacity against Israel, but today the situation has changed, as it has had to dedicate the bulk of its financial, military and human resources to that war. Its involvement also has antagonised important segments of Lebanese and Syrian society, leaving it vulnerable on the Israeli front – a point not lost on Israeli strategists.
It is difficult to predict how most Lebanese would respond to a new round of conflict; as in 2006, many might support Hizbollah.
It would not be surprising, however, if many others, especially in the Lebanese Sunni community, would see it as an opportunity for revenge, as would anti-regime Syrians. A Lebanese analyst explained: “In 2006, many Lebanese blamed Hizbollah for the war. At the time, you could hear people wishing for Israel’s victory to get rid of the party. In many Sunni milieus, this sentiment has risen exponentially after Syria”.
Echoing this, a Syrian journalist said:
A war with Israel might be a rallying force behind the party for some, especially if we see the usual collective punishment by the Israeli army. But many Syrians [who massively welcomed displaced Lebanese Shiites in 2006] bear a deep hatred toward Hizbollah that now surpasses their hatred of Israel.
Israel has kept a close eye on the party as it became mired in Syria. While concerned about its acquisition of new weaponry and expertise from exposure to the Russian military, it has avoided intervening directly, for fear of redirecting the fight toward itself, preferring for the party to succumb in a war of attrition.
Yet, it has laid down strategic red lines: Iran’s transfer of sophisticated long-range, high-precision weaponry to Hizbollah; an attempt by Hizbollah fighters, supported by Iran, to gain a foothold on the Golan Heights and extend the party’s front line with Israel from Lebanon deep into Syria; and rocket attacks, intended or inadvertent, from Syrian territory into Israel, regardless of the perpetrator. As a warning and deterrent, it has attacked alleged Iranian arms shipments to Hizbollah inside Syria on several occasions, and systematically responded to rocket fire from Syria by targeting regime positions.
Israeli officials seem particularly concerned that Hizbollah might try, with Iranian help, to exploit a vacuum in southern Syria to establish an underground military network around Quneitra, near the Israeli border, and mass forces there.
In January 2015, an Israeli helicopter attack killed six, including a Hizbollah commander, an IRGC officer and Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of Hizbollah’s late military chief, Imad Mughniyeh. An Israeli newspaper quoted Western intelligence sources as claiming that a unit headed by Jihad Mughniyeh had been plotting “to attack Israel with rockets, anti-tank missiles and bombs, and planned to send terror operatives into Israeli territory”. Several sources assert that Hizbollah has been training Syrian government forces in the area.
In the Golan, it is hardly plausible that Hizbollah would pursue its military activities without Iran’s support and supervision. The deaths of Mughniyeh and an Iranian officer suggest these efforts are closely coordinated. In a commemoration speech for the “Quneitra martyrs” following the attack, Nasrallah declared:
We in the Islamic resistance in Lebanon no longer recognise the [old] rules of engagement [that kept the Lebanese front separate from Israel’s Syria relationship] …. There are no rules of engagement when one confronts aggression and assassinations. We no longer accept the separation of the battlefronts.
Almost a year later, an Israeli airstrike on the outskirts of Damascus killed Samir Kantar, allegedly the head of the Syrian Resistance for the Liberation of the Golan, a little-known regime-backed group advised and equipped by the IRGC and Hizbollah.
In apparent response, a Hizbollah unit named after Kantar detonated an explosive device targeting an Israeli army patrol in the disputed Shebaa Farms area in southern Lebanon two weeks later. In turn, Israel shelled areas in southern Lebanon.
No casualties were reported in either attack, and both sides appeared to abide by the rules tacitly agreed after the 2006 war: Hizbollah confined its response to the Shebaa Farms area it claims is still occupied by Israel, and Israel avoided a disproportionate response.
Overall, the fear of unpredictable and unmanageable consequences has prompted the two players to exercise restraint. Yet, both say they are preparing for another war, one that would presumably be fought in both Lebanon and Syria. A Hizbollah official said, “sooner or later, a conflict between us and Israel is going to happen, and we are getting ready for that day”. An Israeli official noted that Hizbollah currently has “100,000 rockets aimed at us” in southern Lebanon. As Crisis Group wrote about Lebanon in 2010, “the world should cross its fingers that fear of a catastrophic conflict will continue to be reason enough for the parties not to provoke one”.
III. Hizbollah and Its Allies
A. Iran: A Tightening Bond
Since its creation in the cauldron of the 1982 Israeli invasion, Hizbollah has steadily developed its ties with Iran, its ideological mentor and military patron, but according to Iranian and Hizbollah officials, the party has remained autonomous in Lebanese politics.
Militarily, however, it has become an instrument of Tehran’s foreign policy, especially its need for a “forward operating base” or “strategic depth” in Lebanon to deter an Israeli attack on Iran itself. As early as 1982, the IRGC sent hundreds of commanders to Lebanon to advise and train fighters of the fledgling “Party of God”, then little more than an amalgam of armed Shiite groups, as it confronted the Israeli onslaught. This was when Iran’s three-year old Islamic Revolution was keen to precipitate similar political change throughout the Muslim world.
By adopting Ayatollah Khomeini’s wilayat al-faqih (guardianship of the Islamic jurist) doctrine, Hizbollah introduced an ideology that previously had enjoyed little traction in Lebanon’s Shiite community, setting the path for a new set of religious, cultural and social beliefs and practices.
Many Hizbollah critics cite this doctrine as evidence of the party’s subordination to Iran, but the reality is more complex. Over the years, the patron-client relationship has evolved into one of mutual, albeit lopsided dependence. Several factors have helped in recalibrating it: Hizbollah’s resistance against the Israeli occupation of parts of Lebanon, which eventually persuaded Israel to withdraw; the party’s growing influence among Lebanese Shiites; and its widespread legitimacy and popular support in the Arab world.
A major shift in the relationship occurred in 2006, when the party demonstrated that Iran’s long military and financial investment had borne fruit. Hizbollah stood its ground against Israel, foiling its war objectives: the two captured soldiers’ release and destruction of the party’s military wing.
Despite more than 1,000 civilian deaths and widespread destruction in Lebanon, Hizbollah celebrated a “divine victory”. Survival against the Middle East’s most powerful army turned it into an indispensable component of the emerging axis of which Syria and Gaza-based Hamas also were a part and a powerful force in Lebanon with regional standing.
The second watershed was the war in Syria. While the conflict deepened Hizbollah’s reliance on Iran, it also established the party as the axis’s most effective military partner, instrumental in saving the regime.
Iran has been the party’s unwavering supporter, main weapons supplier and provider of all other aspects of its warfighting capability, especially logistics and training. Hizbollah fighters have gained their skills primarily from Iranian advisers (themselves hardened in the 1980-1988 war with Iraq) in training camps in Lebanon, Syria and Iran. No reliable information exists about the extent of Iran’s financial support for Hizbollah’s political and social service activities; estimates vary from $100 million to $400 million a year. Following the 2006 war, it reportedly provided up to $1.2 billion for reconstruction and compensation of war victims (especially Hizbollah supporters).
Nor is there hard data on Iranian expenditures for Hizbollah’s Syrian war effort, but it is reasonable to assume Tehran has largely covered its financial and military needs. Reacting to U.S. sanctions in June 2016, Nasrallah declared: “Hizbollah’s budget, its income, its expenses, everything it eats and drinks, its weapons and rockets, come from the Islamic Republic of Iran …. As long as Iran has money, we have money”. This shows the party’s enduring dependence on Iran and its unlikely ability to pursue, even if it wished, a Syria strategy autonomous from that of its backer.
However, it also reveals Hizbollah’s critical role in preserving an axis that is of paramount importance to Tehran.
Domestically, Hizbollah’s enemies accuse it of sacrificing Lebanon’s interest for Iran’s by entering the Syria war.
Iranian officials have stressed the relationship’s reciprocal nature. One said, “cooperation and coordination between us have become much stronger. Because of this conflict, we now share a common path and destiny”. Another compared losing Hizbollah to an amputation: “Our enemies are seeking to weaken us by striking at our right arm, represented by Hizbollah”.
Domestically, Hizbollah’s enemies accuse it of sacrificing Lebanon’s interest for Iran’s by entering the Syria war. A Future Current official relayed a conviction shared by many of its foes: “By intervening in Syria, Hizbollah is jeopardising Lebanon’s security and economy to serve its Iranian patron’s agenda”.
Yet, this elides a complex reality. Its presence in Syria is equally motivated by self-preservation.
By contrast, Hizbollah’s involvement elsewhere in the region, in Yemen in particular, has no direct connection with its interests or positions in Lebanon or Syria; nor has it affected its conflict with Israel. By providing training and logistical support to Huthi rebels and taking the rhetorical lead within the axis against the Saudi role in Yemen, Hizbollah may be signalling to the kingdom the cost of supporting Syrian rebels. In doing so, it directly represents Iran’s interests– having no direct geostrategic stakes of its own at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula – and stands accused by its opponents of undermining Lebanon’s relations with Riyadh.
B. Syria: Assad or Nothing
Hizbollah’s relationship with the regime has evolved from tenuous during the first years of its existence, to client-patron after the 1990 end of the Lebanese civil war, to strategic and friendly since Bashar Assad’s 2000 rise to power.
The alliance deepened after 2005, when Hizbollah supported Assad after Saudi Arabia, France, the U.S. and others accused him of having killed Rafic Hariri; Damascus returned the favour in the 2006 Lebanon war. Once dependent on Hafez Assad’s dominance in Lebanon to preserve its military status, Hizbollah has become instrumental in preserving his son’s rule in Syria. Today, the alliance is organic: the prospect of the regime’s demise, especially if replaced by a hostile Sunni one, poses an existential threat to the party. Hizbollah believes that it would be next on the list.
In Syria, Hizbollah has pursued a dual agenda, sparing no advisory, logistical or military efforts in support of its ally. In line with the Iranian strategy, it has fought to save the regime: helping it to quell the armed opposition, preserve its hold on Damascus and retake key territory essential to survival. From the beginning, however, it has also sought to safeguard its own direct interests: fighting in the Qusayr and Qalamoun areas along the border to create a buffer zone against attacks by Syrian jihadists inside Lebanon, preserving its vital Iranian supply line and protecting two Shiite shrines in Syria.
In doing so, Hizbollah has rarely distanced itself from the regime, often acting in unison with its political and military objectives. Though Hizbollah may not share Assad’s goal to regain control over all Syria, party officials have seen a partition, including via autonomy arrangements or other forms of decentralisation, as a threat.
However, in the wake of the January 2017 Russia-Turkey-brokered Astana peace talks, Hizbollah distinguished between temporary arrangements allowing local governance and ones that would pave the way for federalism:
The opposition wants [any ceasefire or extended agreement] to allow them local self-governance. The Russians may be open to this and have suggested that areas under regime and opposition control should be open to trade and movement between them. … The regime … rejects these ideas, but perhaps it will not always do so. Perhaps such an arrangement – local administration – could be acceptable on a temporary basis, as long as it doesn’t ultimately end up with federalism.
For now, Iran, Hizbollah and the regime continue to believe that local governance could form the basis for enemy safe havens and set off an uncontrollable domino effect throughout the region that would give birth to new enemies of the “resistance axis”.
The party has thus participated in the regime’s battles throughout much of the country. More importantly, despite repeatedly claiming that it favours a political solution, party officials have never gone beyond offering options that are strictly on Assad’s terms: the security apparatus is untouchable, with only minor concessions on non-security matters, such as ministerial posts;
and Assad must remain president as guarantor of the unity of both regime and its armed forces. A senior Hizbollah official said:
The other side [the opposition and its backers] believe that without Bashar the regime will split into competing factions and they could take politically what they could not achieve militarily [shifting Syria into a rival regional camp]. This is why they are so insistent on Assad going. It is what they believe but not what we think. If we, the Iranians and Russia coordinated our support [in the event of Assad’s departure], the regime would remain cohesive.
Hizbollah appears to subscribe to the notion that Assad’s presence has kept the Syrian army and associated security forces and militias united behind the regime, preventing its collapse.
Yet, it recognises that as Syria has changed irreversibly since 2011, so has Assad. A party official explained: “The Assad we used to know has gone and won’t come back. There is now a new Assad, a guarantor of minorities, representative of some segments of the population, and protector of [Iran’s] regional interests”.
This “new” Assad remains a linchpin for Hizbollah’s fortunes.
Finally, Hizbollah believes it can achieve its objectives by military means, obviating need for painful negotiated compromises. A senior official said, “there is no morality in politics; it is about influence and power. Over … five years, and particularly in the two stages that followed first Iran’s and Hizbollah’s and later Russia’s intervention, the regime has regained key territory”. A few months later, he went further: “The opposition is losing; it should expect very little [from negotiations]”. The fall of rebel-held eastern Aleppo in November 2016 will only have strengthened Hizbollah in this belief.
Hizbollah has played various battlefield roles: it has trained and organised army troops, (paramilitary) National Defence Forces fighters and non-Syrian militias; led major battles, especially in areas directly related to its own security and supply lines; helped recapture and hold territory; and mediated between Syrian troops and Iranian fighters and advisers. In exchange, the army has given the party light-infantry support and reconnaissance data.
A fighter explained: “Whether Hezbollah leads operations depends on the nature of the battle and the terrain. In a recent battle in a Damascus suburb we fought alongside the [Iraqi] Abu-Fadel Abbas brigade and took the lead. In other operations, we handle the entire process from reconnaissance to clean-up”.
Hizbollah and regime fighters have occasionally experienced tensions, perhaps resulting from cultural differences between the army’s secularism (and secular lifestyles predominant among many Alawites) on one side and Iran’s and Hizbollah’s strong religious inclination on the other. A journalist with ties to the party said, “there are indeed cultural differences. Some party fighters are not familiar with their allies’ habits, such as alcohol consumption or cursing religious symbols, while regime forces are frustrated with Hizbollah’s rigorous religious practices”.
Accounts of army corruption and incompetence also may have triggered dissension, while some army officers have voiced frustration over Hizbollah’s leading battlefield role. Local tensions notwithstanding, Hizbollah and the regime are solidly united in what both perceive as an existential fight. A Syrian analyst in Beirut said, “at the political level, we can hardly see any sign of divergence, let alone tensions. For now, the three allies [regime, Iran, Hizbollah] remain closely bound together”.
C. Russia to the Rescue?
Russia’s September 2015 military intervention was as crucial in preventing the regime’s collapse as was Iran’s and Hizbollah’s in 2013.
Since then, the four have become linked in a strategic partnership – agreed on the need to preserve the regime, but possibly diverging, even widely, on what should come after. Russian airstrikes, often focused primarily on non-jihadist rebels, paved the way for major regime advances. Moscow thus reclaimed a prominent international role, one of its primary objectives, in addition to preventing Western-backed regime change in Damascus.
Militarily, Russia has proved a powerful complement to Iran’s and Hizbollah’s contributions. Where Shiite militiamen compensate for the regime’s manpower shortages by providing fighters for ground battles, Russia has carried out air bombardments and surveillance in support of ground forces, avoiding so far getting sucked into an Afghanistan-like quagmire. Its involvement started a relationship with Hizbollah whose dimensions and inner dynamics remain unclear. It is certain that it has helped the party improve its fighting capabilities.
Several reports refer to joint operations rooms in Latakia and Damascus. In addition, six Hizbollah fighters reportedly participated in the rescue of one of two Russian pilots whose jet was downed by Turkey in November 2015.
Iran and Hizbollah have been grateful for the lifeline Russia has thrown the regime but do not trust its motives and cannot control its actions. Twice, in February and September 2016, Moscow compelled the regime to abide, if briefly, by a U.S.-Russian-brokered cessation of hostilities that suspended Russian airstrikes against rebels in Aleppo. Hizbollah and Iran were not included in the talks that produced the first lull and reportedly were not even informed in advance.
Moscow’s March 2016 announced partial air force withdrawal further fuelled Iran’s and Hizbollah’s suspicions, which were then exacerbated by belated support of the regime’s Aleppo offensive when fighting resumed a month later.
Russia’s long ties with the regime also concern Assad’s other backers. They see its secularism, past support and deep knowledge of the Syrian army as a potential threat. Russia’s secular worldview makes it more attractive to the Alawite community – and certainly to Syria’s Sunnis and to non-Shiite minorities – than Iran’s wilayat al-faqih ideology. Its strong support of the army and state institutions clashes with Iran’s and Hizbollah’s preference for militias to protect the regime.
Iran and Hizbollah are also at a disadvantage in that Russia represents the pro-regime camp internationally, including as a permanent member of the UN Security Council with veto power. They see this as deeply problematic, as Russia’s agenda diverges from the regime’s and theirs in fundamental respects, beyond the need to secure its survival. Unlike its allies, Russia has backed the YPG, the PKK’s affiliate in northern Syria, and appears to accept the idea of a federal Syria, an arrangement that would benefit the Kurds.
Moreover, it is widely rumoured that President Vladimir Putin does not care personally for Assad, sees him ultimately as a liability and might be prepared to consider removing him if this would serve Russia’s interests better.
An Iranian analyst said in response:
Russia has the upper hand in negotiations; it has leverage over the U.S., veto power at the UN and more international and regional negotiation channels. But they shouldn’t think they can impose their decisions against our interests. Russia may have influence over the Syrian bureaucracy and elites, but with Hizbollah we hold the ground.
Hizbollah’s relationship with Russia has other limits, given Moscow’s ties with Israel, which Putin has been careful to nurture.
Since its Syria intervention, Moscow has engaged in a delicate balancing act between itself, Israel and the regime and its backers. “We are conducting dialogue with organisations in Syria, but we will not allow the transfer of weapons to an organisation that brings about destruction and death”, said the Russian Federation Council’s chairperson during a visit to Israel – in a statement that did not explicitly name Hizbollah but was pregnant with irony given the nature of the Syrian war and Russia’s military role. Furthermore, while Moscow views the Golan Heights as Israeli-occupied under international law, it favours a negotiated solution. Hizbollah and Iran see armed struggle as the means to liberate occupied territory and have attempted to establish a military foothold around Quneitra to operate against Israel and thus increase the cost of its occupation.
In sum, Russia and Iran/Hizbollah are uneasy but necessary allies in Syria.
A Hizbollah official said, “we have what you could call a partnership with Russia, one that leaves room for differences in which each side respects the other’s interests because we need each other”.
IV. A Way out of the Conundrum?
The regime’s victory in eastern Aleppo notwithstanding, the war is far from over. While Nasrallah endorsed the Astana peace talks, the party has yet to match his words with action.
Even defeat of the armed non-jihadist opposition would likely not end violence but only fuel more hatred of the regime and support for jihadist groups, such as IS and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, especially among a generation of Sunni youth.
The election of Donald Trump in the U.S. potentially opens a new chapter of the war, one laden with uncertainty. Regime supporters have welcomed the development, believing it augurs a further U.S. withdrawal from the conflict politically and militarily and thus a Moscow-imposed favourable settlement. Their perception appeared plausible. Washington’s participation during the Astana peace talks was limited to a single observer.
Assad declared that if Trump “is going to fight the terrorists, of course we are going to be [an] ally, [a] natural ally in that regard with the Russians, with the Iranians, with many other countries”.
For now, though, the Trump administration appears to support an offensive led by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces against IS’s Raqqa stronghold in northern Syria.
Trump is yet to develop a more comprehensive Syria policy, however. He has expressed approval of Russia’s role, which he said was aimed at defeating IS, and criticism of the Obama administration’s support of non-jihadist rebels, whose political affiliations he questioned. However, he has equally voiced opposition to Iran and determination to counter its influence in the region. Though it remains unclear what Washington intends to do in Syria, the pro-regime camp faces a U.S. administration more hostile than its predecessor. It should be equally concerned about jihadist groups’ welcoming of Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and the intended U.S. ban on immigrants from some Muslim countries, which feed their narrative.
The longer Syria remains wracked by violence, the longer Hizbollah will need to compensate for the regime’s depleting manpower. Yet, it is unlikely the party will change course. It has invested so deeply in the war that it would find it nearly impossible to extricate itself. As a senior official of the Lebanese 14 March bloc put it, “Hizbollah has taken a one-way ticket to Syria, win or lose”.
Even if it wanted to, Hizbollah can no longer disentangle its interests from Iran’s in Syria.
Hizbollah and Iran, which time and again have favoured pragmatism over ideology, should follow suit and refrain from referring to armed movements indiscriminately as extremists or takfiri – Muslims who accuse other Muslims of apostasy.
The peace talks kicked off by Russia, Turkey and Iran in Astana offer a slim opportunity for de-escalation in Syria. Fighting jihadists – IS and Fatah al-Sham (now reconstituted as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham) – provides only a narrow ground for consensus between the regime’s backers and Turkey. To keep Ankara and the groups it supports on board, Assad’s allies need to refrain from new offensives against non-jihadists and terror tactics against the civilian population. Russia and Turkey have drawn a clear line between jihadist and non-jihadist groups. Hizbollah and Iran, which time and again have favoured pragmatism over ideology, should follow suit and refrain from referring to armed movements indiscriminately as extremists or takfiri – Muslims who accuse other Muslims of apostasy.
More generally, Hizbollah should reconsider its use of sectarian rhetoric that mobilises Sunni communities no less efficiently than the Shiite constituencies at which it is aimed. While the party will never win a popularity contest in Syria, a public shift toward an explicit non-sectarian stance might help it win back some of the high ground it once enjoyed. Iran and Hizbollah should also initiate talks with non-jihadist rebels on issues on which agreement might be possible, including local governance in rebel-controlled areas and a mutual easing of sieges on Madaya, Zabadani, Fouaa and Kefraya.
In turn, the U.S. should maintain its support to Syrian insurgents while raising its profile in negotiations aimed at ending the conflict. The Trump administration’s future Syria strategy will also need, however, to address a number of inconsistencies: teaming up with Russia while confronting Moscow’s Iranian ally in Syria, and fighting IS while freezing aid to U.S.-backed groups that combat it.
Hizbollah’s intervention in Syria has had a contradictory effect on the party. While it has helped increase its fighting capacity, allowed it to consolidate ties with allies and raised its regional profile as a military force, it has also drained its resources, exposed it to new enemies, left it more thinly spread on its front with Israel and transformed it in ways that may yet come back to haunt it.
Its leaders appear to believe they have no option but to pursue a decisive military victory. To celebrate its annual “Martyrs’ Day” in November 2016, Hizbollah staged a military parade in Qusayr, the town that marked its May 2013 full-fledged entry into the war and first victory.
By showcasing its heavy weapons, including tanks, anti-aircraft missiles and armoured vehicles, it sent an unambiguous reminder to its enemies of its military strength. A Lebanese newspaper quoted Nasrallah’s deputy as saying, “we now have a trained army”.
Hizbollah’s leaders need a reality check. More than five years of war have shown that military power does not automatically translate into military victory, and demonstrations of strength, instead of impressing enemies, may merely harden their resolve. For all its prowess, Hizbollah remains an external actor in Syria – in a region where history has shown that those seen as liberators and protectors one day can quickly be perceived as invaders and occupiers the next. In addition, Iran now faces an unpredictable U.S. administration determined to curtail its role in the region. Rather than feeding extremism, Hizbollah and Iran would be better served by lowering the sectarian flames, opening dialogue with non-jihadist rebel groups and paving the way for a negotiated settlement that would guarantee their vital interests and encourage Hizbollah, at last, to return to Lebanon.
Beirut/Brussels, 14 March 2017