Commentary

Hezbollah in Syria

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

After more than two years of civil war in Syria, few people dare to hope for a swift or peaceful end to the violence. Despite fresh arms and materiel flowing to the rebels from abroad, Bashar al-Assad and his supporters remain as intransigent as ever. If anything, recent moves to consolidate the strategic route between Damascus and Homs indicate that the regime has every intention of holding on to the very end, even if that means tearing Syria apart. Part of this new strategy is Hezbollah’s now-overt support of Syrian government forces. Their involvement, forced into the light due an ever growing number of killed Hezbollah fighters, has raised concerns about Lebanon’s precarious position in the neighborhood. Meanwhile, opposition forces have been pushing back against claims by U.S. officials and others that they have been hijacked by Islamists and al-Qaeda affiliates.

In fact, the situation of the rebel forces, according to some regional observers including the Peninsula’s editorial staff, has deteriorated sharply, with many expressing concerns about the lack of substantive support from the West: “Syrian rebels are wringing their hands in despair as the U.S. and its Western allies have failed to live up to their expectations and are refusing to provide more military help. For the first time since the start of the uprising, the rebels have spoken with rage and helplessness. It’s a stalemate that will cost the anti-Assad movement heavily at a time when it’s struggling to find both direction and financial and military help....A continuation of the status quo will result in undoing the gains made by the opposition so far. The West and Arab countries must weigh the consequences of their inaction and indifference and arrive at an agreeable solution. The opposition too must act seriously to assuage the concerns of the West and weed out terrorists from their ranks.”

Assad and his forces, on the other hand, have been busy plotting a new strategy with the support of Iran and Hezbollah.  The new strategy, according to Arab News’ Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed, is aimed at clearing a path between Damascus and Homs: “The massacres recently committed in Syria’s western suburbs of Homs, Qusayr and other towns are a result of several attacks from Lebanese and Syrian forces. The organized attacks are launched by regime forces, which use warplanes to shell territories in control of the fighters. Hezbollah and Syrian Nationalist Party militias as well as people from the towns, who support the regime on the sectarian basis, take part in these attacks....Heading toward the west reflects how the fighting is developing in Syria....in the event of [Damascus’s] fall into the hands of the fighters, Assad plans to flee to areas that support him — that is toward the west coast, as well as Homs. The second one is that he plans to stand his ground and control almost one third of Syria, particularly holding his grip on Damascus, Homs and the coast on the Mediterranean.”

Even though few expected Hezbollah to remain out of the conflict, its recent acknowledgement of its involvement is seen by many as quite an important development.  For Lebanon’s The Daily Star columnist Michael Young, Hezbollah’s involvement in Qusair is “a mad gamble… It’s still too early to tell whether Hezbollah will succeed in its bid to clear the area of Qusair of Syrian rebels, in that way assuring Syrian regime control over the passage between Damascus and the coast, via Homs, and between the coast and Lebanon’s Hermel region. Hezbollah is perfectly aware of the great risk it has taken by intervening in Syria. The fact that it has done so regardless suggests that the decision was an Iranian one.... [T]there is a price to pay for Hezbollah’s pushing the boundaries of Lebanon’s sectarian system to its limits. And this price may be the party’s gradual destruction, or worse, a Lebanese sectarian civil war.”

The National’s Hassan Hassan is equally pessimistic about Hezbollah’s involvement in the conflict, believing that “Hizbollah's strategy in Syria will accelerate sectarian war…. Fears that the Syrian conflict may spill over the country's borders are being realized, but in reverse: the Lebanese conflict is coming to Syria. Ahmed Al Aseer, an influential Lebanese Sunni cleric, declared on Monday that jihad in Syria is now mandatory for all capable Muslims. Sheikh Al Aseer said that the decision was taken after Hizbollah's involvement in Syria became clear....This escalation should not be played down as part of traditional Lebanese sectarian bickering.”

Hezbollah has also been drawing criticism for its support of the Syrian regime from prominent voices within the Shiite establishment. In an article for Asharq Alawsat, Hamad Al-Majid discusses comments made recently by Sheikh Subhi Al-Tufayli, the first secretary general of the organization: “‘Iran and Hezbollah bear responsibility for every Syrian killed, every tree felled, and every house destroyed.’ This is not a quote from a Shi’ite leader calling for a review of Shi’a doctrine: it comes from Sheikh Subhi Al-Tufayli, a pillar of Hezbollah, one of its founders and its first secretary-general. It is evidence of a deep intra-party dispute between Sheikh Subhi, Hezbollah and the Iranian regime. However, it was not an ideological dispute that urged Mr. Subhi to reconsider his religious doctrine, and consequently his political beliefs....The statements made by Sheikh Al-Tufayli are important because they come from an influential Shi’ite voice. Most of the ideas expressed by Tufayli have already been articulated by Arab politicians, intellectuals and writers, who have said that the support given by Iran and Hezbollah to Assad’s regime will take the region to the brink of a devastating sectarian conflict.”

Finally, Sammy Ketz acknowledges in a column in the Saudi daily Arab News that: “Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah’s decision to fight openly alongside the Syrian regime will increase Lebanon’s involvement in Syria’s conflict, despite a policy of neutrality, analysts say. But despite inflaming tensions, the country is unlikely to face serious instability as a result, because none of its political forces have an interest in such a scenario for now, they say. ‘Hezbollah’s public involvement is no longer the world’s worst-kept secret, and now we are in a crisis where the Lebanese are not only politically divided... but also militarily divided,’ Ghassan Al-Azzi, a professor of political science at the Lebanese University, said.... But Wadah Charara, a sociology professor at the Lebanese University, said there was little reason to think the inflamed rhetoric would produce serious domestic instability for Lebanon....Charara, an expert on Hezbollah, said it was forced to publicly acknowledge its role in the conflict by the rising number of deaths among its fighters in Syria.”


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