The ongoing crisis in Syria has already resulted in at least 15,000 fatalities with tens of thousands more displaced. Tragically, it is not the desperate humanitarian situation which puts Syria at the top of the global diplomatic agenda these days—if it were then the fifteen months of government sponsored violence (and rebel-led acts of retribution) may barely have registered in the non-Arabic media. It is only when the opportunity to make global political capital is at hand that foreign ministers, prime ministers and presidents from around the world are drawn to comment. For evidence simply compare the silence that greeted the scores of deaths in Dera’a (to the south of Damascus) during the early stages of the uprising in April last year, with the clamor to condemn the equally abominable massacre perpetrated in Houla in May.
The UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague, went from “extremely concerned” in April 2011, when he urged “restraint” on the part of the Syrian government to “sickened” by the Houla massacre in May 2012. The much more vocal reaction has to do with a developing unease over how instability within Syria is likely to have broad ramifications for its neighbors, and the Middle East as a whole. Ultimately Europe, the United States, Russia and China all have a vested interest in navigating the current crisis while enhancing their influence.
Syria’s strategic importance to the overall balance of power in the Middle East cannot be underestimated, not least because geographically it is the center of a nexus of competing interests and rivalries. In the space of a year diplomatic relations with Turkey have suffered a complete turnaround, Israel is monitoring the deteriorating situation with mounting anxiety, Iraq’s continuing battle against lawless insurgencies may well be set back, Iran fears the demise of its last ally of note in the region, and Lebanon—so familiar with the horrors of civil war—is now living next door to a powder keg that has the potential to devastate the country.
Within Lebanon, Hezbollah—who have sometimes acted as a Syrian/Iranian proxy for three decades—are now faced with a moment that could define their future as a political organization or potentially consign the group to political oblivion.
Currently, Hezbollah hold two of the 30 positions in Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s, cabinet while its close allies hold a further 14, which is a level of legitimate (and democratic) political influence that would have been considered staggering only 10 years ago, particularly for a party still listed as a terrorist organization by the US government. As a political party Hezbollah has worked hard to gain credibility and shown willingness to adopt new tactics to work within the vagaries of Lebanon’s political framework. The party has shown itself capable of putting a healthy amount of popular goodwill—that came with the qualified success of facing up to Israeli military actions in 2006—to good use. Indeed, it is a testament to Hezbollah’s canny political maneuvering that they were able to effectively bring down the former coalition government with the walkout of 10 allied ministers in January 2011.
Political influence in the corridors of power is one thing, but Hezbollah’s real muscle (cynics might suggest its true source of power) is its military capacity. Despite frequent calls for Hezbollah to disarm—especially from its political opponents who protest that the group’s ability to intimidate delegitimizes their authority, and also in the form of UN resolutions—the 2006 war with Israel demonstrated that the movement maintains a substantial stockpile of weapons. Hassan Nasrullah has claimed that Hezbollah have an arsenal of tens of thousands of rockets, and common estimates of a standing paramilitary force of more than a thousand well-trained men are widely considered accurate—not to mention a sizeable auxiliary force of volunteers. Given the size and organization of Hezbollah’s fighting wing, they form as a substantial proportion of Lebanon’s military capability and a de facto part of national defense strategy.
In June, during the second round of Lebanon’s so-called National Dialogue, attempts to convince Hezbollah to place its arms under state control were stepped up. Before 2000, Hezbollah’s justified their arms strength by the presence of Israeli forces in south Lebanon. The 2006 war lent further credence to this reasoning. Today the Israeli resistance argument is less convincing to Hezbollah’s political rivals in Lebanon, and the parliamentary Future bloc (affiliated to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri) has accused Hezbollah of offering meager pretexts for withholding their weapons.
Given the current potential for more instability to spread to Lebanon from Syria, it is understandable that Hezbollah’s opponents would fear the party’s military power. Hezbollah are thus faced with a choice of two paths to follow.
The first path is a radical departure from their history, but one which could transform Hezbollah from a feared guerrilla resistance group into a (potentially) admired political force for stability. It would entail embracing a new era for Lebanon, handing over control of their military resources to the Lebanese Army and follow the Amal Movement’s example to become a solely political organization. The clear obstacle in this path is that it would entail forsaking ties with their benefactors in Syria. But such a volte face is not without recent precedent; witness the example of Hamas abandoning their headquarters in Damascus as soon as it became clear that Bashar Al-Assad’s regime was under real pressure. There is also considerable reason to believe that Hezbollah would thrive by concentrating purely on the Lebanese political arena. The group’s success at providing health care, social services and infrastructure development—effectively compensating for the role of the inefficient state—in times of war and peace is well documented and a source of credibility across sectarian divides.
Hezbollah’s leadership might look at the developing Syrian crisis and decide (like Hamas) that the writing is on the wall for the Assad regime. Furthermore, it would be dangerous for Hezbollah to aggressively support a potentially doomed Assad given the likelihood that a ‘new Syria’ would resent such actions, and make it impossible for a Hezbollah-led Lebanese government to work with their close neighbors. Notwithstanding this hypothetical submission, the very tight cultural, historical and familial connections between Syria and Lebanon ensure that any participation by Hezbollah in a potential Syrian civil war would alienate vast swathes of a Lebanese population currently willing to forgive Hezbollah their other sins.
Regrettably, it seems more likely that Hezbollah will choose a second path; indeed they may have already taken their first steps down this road. Hezbollah could place all their political achievements (past and future) on the line to support Assad’s Syria and ensure its survival. This would mean committing to engage in further violence to prop up the ailing Syrian regime, something which, if the commander of the Free Syrian Army, Rial Al-Asaad, is to be believed, has already happened. Asaad said in June that “[Hezbollah] is involved in events inside Syria, especially in Talkalakh and Homs. We have seen heavily armed [Hezbollah] convoys and several buses.”
Given Hassan Nasrullah’s heavily pro-Syrian rhetoric, this would not come as much of a surprise. If Hezbollah is intent on keeping their arms (as it seems they are), they will need to continue to rely on support from Syria to provide passage for arms traffic from their chief sponsor Iran, especially heavy rockets that would be more difficult to transfer via sea or air. Any new regime in Syria would be highly unlikely to maintain cordial relations with Iran, given its backing of the Syrian government’s crackdown in the past year, thus cutting off Hezbollah from its Iranian patron.
Of course, Hezbollah’s political gains will not be the only thing derailed should they offer military support for Syria. It is possible that the sectarian aspects of the Syrian conflict could spill over into Lebanon to a greater extent than the flare-ups that occurred in Tripoli in June. Moreover, should the Assad regime come under even more pressure, it could conceivably encourage its Lebanese partners to sow chaos—possibly provoking skirmishes with Israel as a diversionary tactic and spreading the humanitarian catastrophe as far as possible though this would require Hezbollah to acquiesce in this course of action.
In due course, Hezbollah will need to come to some definitive conclusions as to their raison d'être. If their primary objective is to aid the economic, social and political development of Lebanon then it is perhaps time for the party to yield to political pressures, relinquish their weapons and help to take the country in to the twenty-first century. If not, Hezbollah may yet play an influential role in causing irreparable damage to the Middle East as we know it. Whatever happens, Hezbollah has proven itself to be a ruthless and pragmatic organization, capable of adapting to the shifting sands of the political arena. Should the time come when it serves their best interests to give up their weapons, they will not hesitate.