Hezbollah, the Lebanese political party-cum-militia, has doubled down on its support for the regime of Syrian President Bashir al-Assad. Based on reports of fighting in Qusair in western Syria, Hezbollah has launched a fierce campaign alongside Syrian government forces. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, formally confirmed his group’s involvement in the Syrian civil war in late May, pledging continued support for the Assad regime against rebel fighters. Curiously linking Assad’s survival with the future of Palestine, Nasrallah reiterated dubious accusations that the Syrian resistance, despite including al Qaeda-affiliated groups, was somehow an American and Israeli creation.
Media reports presented Hezbollah’s support for Assad as a logical outcome of Syrian (and Iranian) support for the Lebanese Shia movement. However, further analysis demonstrates that backing Assad may in fact be the quickest route to the destruction and marginalization of Hezbollah. Such an outcome would not only be lamentable for Nasrallah and his compatriots but also for Lebanon and the broader region. Hezbollah’s decline, a likely outcome of the group’s support for the Assad regime, will disrupt Lebanon’s delicate sectarian calculus and risk a renewed descent into a calamitous civil (or regional) war in one of the region’s most entrepreneurial, democratic, and religiously diverse societies.
Let’s review a small number of plausible scenarios. Consider if Assad falls or departs. At best he will negotiate a belated departure – which he would have been wise to accept 80,000 fatalities ago – and seek guarantees that he will not face prosecution while living out his remaining days in, most likely, Iran. In such a scenario, a relatively conservative and Sunni-led regime in Damascus, bolstered militarily and financially by Saudi Arabia and others, will be perpetually fearful of Hezbollah across the border in Lebanon. It will seek to thwart the predominantly Shia movement, thus increasing the likelihood that Hezbollah and a Sunni-led Syrian regime will come to blows.
At worst, tens of thousands more people will die in Syria and the region as Assad continues his violent attempts to maintain power. Tired of the carnage, the west will intervene militarily, probably relying on airpower to level the playing field. Hezbollah’s support to the Assad regime in such a scenario, will become increasingly important, and Nasrallah will pour increasingly scarce resources – materiel and fighters – into the Syrian quagmire. When the Assad regime is ultimately defeated, Hezbollah will have lost the majority of its military hardware, a significant portion of its forces, and its political clout in Lebanon. Its ability to deliver services across southern Lebanon, Beirut’s southern suburbs, and elsewhere will atrophy, cutting into the group’s popular support and ability to claim to be more than a militant group. Conversely, if Assad wins, he will be too weak to provide much in the way of gratitude to Hezbollah for decades to come. He will need to focus all resources on fighting the domestic insurgency which will surely ensue. Indeed, a long war will further stretch Iran’s resources, already declining thanks to economic mismanagement and sanctions, further reducing Hezbollah’s financial wellbeing.
Internationally, Hezbollah’s involvement in Lebanon will further isolate the group. Those countries and analysts who admire Hezbollah’s organizational and military capabilities, its humanitarian activities, and its political acumen will no longer be able to provide the group with even moral support once it is implicated in large-scale killings of Syrian civilians. If Israel decides to attack Hezbollah while it is overstretched and bogged down in Syria, few in the international community would balk to the extent they would have had Nasrallah not allowed his group to get sucked so fully into Syria.
Within Lebanon, Hezbollah’s active military engagement in Syria has weakened the most recent and current prime ministers – formally backed by Hezbollah – who have proven largely unable to moderate or influence the group’s behavior. This situation draws greater attention to Hezbollah’s double-hatted role as both a powerful political faction and as a well-armed militia that has never fully bought into the state it helps to govern. It also raises the prospect of conflict spilling over from Syria into Lebanon, a possibility which was well demonstrated in the recent rocket attack – yet unclaimed by any group – against Hezbollah strongholds in Beirut’s southern suburbs.
Should Hezbollah ultimately deteriorate in stature as a result of its ill-advised Syrian foray, the Lebanese political landscape would be affected in ways which we cannot yet predict. Would Shia factions compete for power in the absence of the sect’s hegemon? Would other, particularly Sunni, parties seek to capture a greater share of political power – emboldened by the network of regional Islamist movements loosely shepherded by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood? Would politico-sectarian reconfiguration feed into broader ethnic or sectarian violence? There are numerous possibilities – all of which would need to be carefully monitored.
While questions remain, it is hard to imagine a scenario in which Hezbollah’s support for the Assad regime helps the group, the Syrian people, Lebanon, or regional peace and stability. Nasrallah would be well advised to provide little more than rhetorical support to the Assad regime and to focus upon solidifying its domestic position and sending a clear and unambiguous message to Israel and the United States that it has no interest in obtaining Syrian weapons, chemical or otherwise, now or in the future.