The Lebanese Shiite armed movement Hizbollah has gone all-in for Syrian President Bashar Assad. It has shown it will back his regime by any means necessary, despite doubts about its capacity to win a decisive victory and regardless of the risks to the movement’s own moral standing and cross-sectarian appeal. As it is drawn ever-deeper into its neighbour’s civil war that seems poised to endure for years, it finds itself increasingly distracted from its original anti-Israel focus and risking a profound reshaping of its identity.
Hizbollah’s original military objectives in Syria were clear: to save a regime it sees as a vital ally and distance Sunni jihadis from its borders and neighbourhoods. Its contributions have been crucial. Its forces reversed the regime’s flagging momentum and enabled it to gain the relative advantage it enjoys today. Its fight against the Syrian opposition, which it has cast in harsh sectarian terms, has shored up its support base. But the long-term costs – for both Hizbollah and the region – of involvement in a sectarian, zero-sum war could be as steep as the short-term benefits are significant.
"Hizbollah forces reversed the regime’s flagging momentum"
The movement welcomed the initial “Arab Spring” uprisings directed at its foes. But it drew a line at Syria, and as Bashar Assad’s grip slipped, it came to see its own survival as a function of his. His fall would have deprived it of a vital ally and an important supply route for weapons from Iran; moreover, with the Syrian uprising having morphed into a regional proxy war, Assad’s fall would have recalibrated the regional balance of power to Hizbollah’s detriment. As al-Qaeda offshoots or affiliates emerged within rebel ranks, the Shiite movement, like its constituency, came to see the civil war as existential.
Allegations of Hizbollah’s military involvement in Syria surfaced in mid-2012, after armed opposition groups made notable gains in the south and east; surrounded Damascus, thus potentially endangering the regime; and took control of key border zones that connected the rebels with Sunni enclaves on the Lebanese side. After months of rumoured support, Hizbollah in May 2013 publicly took the lead in evicting rebels from the border town of Qusayr. Its fall in June boosted the regime and encouraged the Shiite group to extend its fight to the Qalamoun Mountains and beyond.
Its full-fledged military intervention steered Hizbollah into unchartered territory. From its perspective, it had little choice; subsequent events have confirmed to the movement that it took the right turn. Its military campaign has been successful, bolstering Assad’s position, and though dozens of Shiites in Lebanon have been killed in a wave of unprecedented al-Qaeda-inspired suicide bomb attacks since Qusayr, the movement is convinced that more would have died had it not distanced the Syrian rebels from Lebanon’s borders. These retaliatory attacks also benefited the movement by cementing its base, through seeming confirmation that Syrian rebels are Sunni extremists who all along have had Lebanon’s Shiites in their crosshairs.
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In the longer term however, Hizbollah’s involvement in Syria threatens the movement and is problematic for Lebanon and the Arab world more broadly. It has deepened the regional sectarian divide, fuelled the very extremism it purports to combat and eroded the movement’s legitimacy among constituencies that previously were supportive. By framing its fight as a preemptive attack on takfiris – those who declare other Muslims to be apostates – Hizbollah has tarred all shades of the opposition, and indeed sometimes all Sunnis, with the same radicalising brush. It has exaggerated, and thereby exacerbated, the sectarianism of the Syrian opposition as well as its own domestic opponents.
Once widely respected across the political and confessional spectrum, Hizbollah (literally “The Party of God”) now often is referred to as “The Party of Satan”. The warm popular embrace that for the movement was tantamount to strategic depth has diminished, along with its reputation for moral probity. Ironically, shoring up its eastern front has made Hizbollah more vulnerable.
"These developments bode poorly for Lebanon"
These developments bode poorly for Lebanon, the well-being of which is dependent on the relations between its political blocs and confessional groups. The sectarian clashes the country experienced in 2013 and early 2014 have been brought under control by what is known as “the security plan”, but the respite is likely temporary. With Lebanon’s Sunnis frustrated, Shiites eager not to lose the gains of the past decades and smaller confessional groups caught in the middle, the year’s escalation is only a foretaste of what could ensue if the security agreement breaks down. In a country that has long lamented its political paralysis, many are hoping for just such a standstill – as a best-case scenario.
Some among Hizbollah’s regional and wider international critics, allied with its rivals, might see a silver lining in these developments: Hizbollah is mired in what seems to be an endless war in Syria, fighting a determined and radical enemy, and is distracted from its traditional focus on Israel. But the same vortex is pulling in both Hizbollah and its enemies, with no prospect of escape for either. Nor will the critics relish the spread of the Shiite jihadism that the Syrian war is nurturing.
What is necessary for the sake of not only Lebanon but also the entire region – reducing sectarian rhetoric, withdrawing and expelling all foreign fighters from Syria – is highly unlikely to occur. Hizbollah believes in its current strategy, and its enemies are determined to fight what they perceive as a Shiite occupation force. So long as the Syrian conflict remains a black hole, the Shiite armed group will be caught in its gravity, itself transformed no less than its involvement transforms the conflict as a whole.