Hizbullah's Syrian adventure

For months, the bodies of Hizbullah fighters killed in Syria have been returning to Lebanon for burial. At first the Lebanese Shia movement drew a veil over the circumstances – and country – of their deaths. Then, as the casualties became more difficult to conceal it changed tack and the men were said to have been in Syria defending Shia shrines against "terrorists". But finally the wraps are off. Hizbullah is now openly and officially engaged in Syria, fighting on behalf of the Assad regime.

One reason for this change, perhaps, is that Hizbullah's hand has been "forced by the sheer volume of dead and wounded" coming back from the battle in Qusair, as Martin Chulov suggests in the Guardian. But it's also likely that this is a deliberate ploy ahead of the planned international conference on Syria: Hizbullah's public intervention complicates the picture for Assad's opponents and gives the regime an extra bargaining chip.

Whatever the precise motivation, though, it's a move that has far-reaching implications and brings considerable risks – not least for Hizbullah itself.

Hizbullah's principal raison d'être has always been resistance to Israel, and Israeli occupation of Lebanon in particular. On those grounds it has succeeded in retaining its military wing, arguing that the Lebanese army is incapable of defending the country alone. 

Until now, that has been a persuasive argument for many Lebanese, even beyond Hizbullah's own Shia community. But many of them will surely balk at the idea of Hizbullah's militia being used to support a beleaguered dictator next door – especially when the dictator in question had been forced to withdraw his troops from Lebanon in 2005 as a result of popular demonstrations in the wake of Rafiq Hariri's assassination.

Hizbullah justifies its new position on the grounds that resisting Israel and supporting Assad are in effect two sides of the same coin. ''If Syria falls into the hands of the US, Israel and the takfiris," Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in his speech last week, "the Lebanese resistance will be beleaguered and Israel will enter Lebanon … If Syria falls, this means that Palestine will be lost, and a bleak future awaits the peoples of the region."

That may be enough to convince Nasrallah's own supporters but, as arguments go, it's pretty thin. For years, Syria's direct "resistance" to Israel has been little more than rhetorical and Israel's military interest in Lebanon, meanwhile, is inversely proportional to the strength of Hizbullah. The weaker Hizbullah becomes, the less the Lebanese people need to worry about Israel.

The reality, though, is that Hizbullah's intervention in Syria is more a matter of practicality than principle. Without Assad in power Hizbullah (or its military wing at least) would be in serious trouble. It needs the Assad regime, partly for the support that Syria itself provides but also because Syria acts a conduit for Iranian support. 

Given such dependence on Assad, Hizbullah was probably in no position to distance itself from his regime in the way that Hamas did earlier, even if it wanted to. Although some measure of support for Assad might be taken for granted in these circumstances, the unanswered question at present is how far Hizbullah will be prepared to go. What limits – if any – has it set on this support? How large are the sacrifices in lives and resources that Hizbullah is willing to make?

Viewed from the opposite direction, Assad has always been judicious in his support for Hizbullah. As an ally, Hizbullah is useful to him but he certainly wouldn't risk martyrdom for its cause. In 2006, when Lebanon faced a month-long onslaught from Israel (and Israeli leaders talked of obliterating Hizbullah once and for all), Syria generously opened its doors to thousands fleeing the conflict but made every effort to stay out of the fight. Rhetoric aside, the Syrian military adopted an obviously non-aggressive posture – one that was intended to be seen, and noted as defensive, by Israeli surveillance.

Meanwhile, Hizbullah is already paying a price for its stance, as Ghassan al-Azzi, professor of political sciences at the Lebanese University, observed in remarks to AFP:

"Hezbollah's reputation has suffered not only in the Arab world but also in Lebanon. Gone are the days when polls named Nasrallah as the most popular political leader in the Arab world for his resistance against Israel." 

The firing of two rockets into Hizbullah's Beirut stronghold at the weekend has also raised new fears of the Syrian conflict spilling over into Lebanon – and few will thank Hizbullah for that if it happens.

While piecemeal clashes inside Lebanon look set to continue, memories of the 1975-1990 civil war are probably still strong enough to avoid a full-scale escalation and Nasrallah himself seems anxious to prevent it. "If you want to fight, go and do it in Syria" seems to be his message.

But even if the fighting can be confined mainly to Syria, does Hizbullah really appreciate what it is getting into? Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group suspects not. The war in Syria may prove more challenging for Hizbullah than anything it faced in three decades fighting Israeli troops, he told Reuters:

"Hezbollah will soon realise that this conflict is far bloodier than anything it has seen before. This is a very deadly conflict. If they go all in, they will have huge losses."

Whether or not Harling is right about that, fighting "takfiris" in Syria on behalf of a dictator is not, and never has been, Hizbullah's core business. It's a diversion that smacks of adventurism – and one that Lebanon's Shia community will probably come to regret.

In the meantime, Israel can sit back and watch as "the resistance" exhausts itself.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Monday, 27 May 2013