Lebanese publisher and lawmaker Gebran Tueni, assassinated seven years ago this week, was famous for his description of Lebanon’s fifteen-year civil strife as the “war of others on our land.” But now that these “others” have taken their fight to neighboring Syria, a similar conflict in Lebanon seems increasingly unlikely—unless the flames of Syria’s war engulf the always battle-ready Lebanese.
Lebanon’s irony is that the same factors that promise the country relative stability might also lead to the outbreak of an all-out war. Due to its unparalleled military strength, Hezbollah is widely feared and has often coerced its opponents, including those known for their fighting prowess like the Druze and their leader Walid Jumblatt, into accepting its diktats.
Hezbollah (the Party of God) and its patrons in Tehran never intended for the group to play this role, but since the exit of Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2005, Hezbollah has emerged as the country’s undisputed leader—and with tyranny comes stability, even if it is a tenuous one.
The 2005 scenario that saw the eclipse of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s power in Lebanon is now being replayed in Syria. The weaker Assad gets, the higher Tehran’s hopes are of sending in Hezbollah fighters to rescue the embattled Syrian dictator. At the very least, Tehran thinks that when an all-out civil war breaks out after Assad, Hezbollah can play a crucial role in determining its outcome in favor of Iran’s rulers, just like the Iranian mullahs emerged victorious after a similar bloody war in Iraq.
As such, Hezbollah’s power has turned into Lebanon’s curse. On the one hand, their power helps coerce the contending factions, giving Hezbollah a tight and stable grip on Lebanon. On the other hand, the party’s power drags it—and with it Lebanon’s other factions—into the Syrian quagmire. The longer Hezbollah’s involvement in Assad’s war lasts, the more hatred it garners amongst its fellow Lebanese, especially those amongst them who had been subjected to Assad’s cruelty during his dynasty’s long rule of Lebanon.
So can Hezbollah maintain its tight grip on Lebanon, or will its fighting on behalf of Assad bring the Syrian war closer to home? The answer to the question of Lebanon’s fate lies in Syria. Assad’s regime is viewed as Iran’s ally and as a warrior on behalf of the world’s Shi’ites, and his opponents are seen as proponents of Sunni Islam. The longer the conflict between Assad and his opponents lasts, the more agitated Lebanon’s Shi’ites and Sunnis will become, and the higher the risk of Syria’s conflict expanding into Lebanon.
While it is true that Hezbollah’s military and intelligence competence is second to none, such assets will certainly be eroded and eventually challenged. After all, Assad was also believed to sit on top of an unmatched intelligence and war machine which is now being defied and defeated by the sheer will of his under-armed opponents.
The Hezbollah leadership, hardened by wars with Israel and shaped by Lebanon’s world of political intrigue, looks more savvy and realistic than Assad. The Hezbollah leaders seem aware of their shortcomings, and realize that they cannot defy all the Lebanese, all the time.
So while fighting on behalf of Assad, Hezbollah has made sure that the Lebanese government, which is formed mainly of its protégés, promises neutrality—even if such a stance can be easily disputed. Iran, for its part, believes that Hezbollah is its most valuable asset. While Tehran tries to save Assad by extending him a lifeline through Hezbollah, Iran also realizes that it is counter-intuitive to throw Hezbollah after Assad and risk losing both.
It is possible that Iran will let go of Assad when it realizes that he is doomed. Reports from Washington have suggested that Tehran is now reaching out to ask for a deal that safeguards “its interests” in Syria after Assad’s demise.
If the world and Tehran strike a deal over Assad’s body, Hezbollah will remain on top of Lebanon, which will remain quiet and relatively stable. If no deal emerges between Iran and the powers, Hezbollah might keep trying to shape the outcome of Syria’s war in Tehran’s favor, which would in turn keep the risk of civil war in Lebanon elevated, much to the distress of the Lebanese.