Hezbollah’s deep involvement in Syria has been one of the most important factors that contributed to shape the conflict during the years 2013-14. The beginning of 2013 witnessed a shift from what was primarily an advisory mission to one where Hezbollah forces took on a direct combat role, with the decision to lead the ground assault on al-Qusayr, a primarily Sunni town in the Homs province.

The impact of Hezbollah’s involvement has been felt not just on the battlefield, where the regime had gained significant momentum, but also in Lebanon where growing sectarian tensions have undermined the country’s overall stability. Since its intervention in Syria, Hezbollah has steered its strategy on three main lines: training and support to Shiite militias and the Syrian army, creating military hotspots in the south to close the border between Syria and Lebanon in terms of anti-Israeli positioning and increasing its weight in the region by ensuring the Assad regime’s survival, vital to the arrival of supplies from Iran. The presence of Lebanon’s militias on the battlefield proved decisive for Assad. In fact, Hezbollah applied the techniques of guerrilla warfare they had already employed in 2006, during the war against Israel. Such techniques include the construction of underground tunnels between the Qalamoun area and the area behind the Bekaa Valley, as to counter Al Nusra guerrillas and other Salafi forces.

The legitimacy sought by the Lebanese group through such actions has a double matrix, internal and external. On the one hand, Hezbollah repeatedly justified its support to Assad as an attempt to defend Lebanon’s sovereignty and political independence against jihadists[1]. The movement underlined on several occasions that their interference in Syria’s internal conflict aims at fighting the jihadists, defined as takfiryin, who were involved in the conflict for religious purposes. These extremist groups, such as Al-Nusra, fight in the name of Sunni Islam and stigmatize other religions, as well as the Sunnis who do not share the same radical conception of Islam they preach. This discourse has reinforced the idea that Hezbollah’s engagement is mostly pragmatic. Internationally, the group continued to prove their ideological proximity to Iran, who is in fact evidently influenced, all while being careful not to exacerbate potential ideological conflicts between Shiites and Sunnis within Lebanese tensions. Finally, Hezbollah’s intervention was also driven by the internal Lebanese situation. Lebanon has in fact been one of the most affected countries by the Syrian war. The country hosts approximately 1 of the 5 million refugees that fled Syria because of the conflict, the majority of whom are Sunnis[2]. Such an influx raises several difficulties since the Lebanese state does not possess the resources nor the capacity to manage such a drastic increase of residents. In addition to the substantial incoming flux of refugees, the presence of Syrian fighters and the fact that the Syrian/Lebanese border has become a zone of intense arm trafficking have increased Hezbollah’s insecurity.

The war has undoubtedly transformed Hezbollah, altering its domestic political priorities and alliances.It had never happened before entering Syrian land, that fighters in the movement were involved in a conflict alongside a regular army, participated in a war outside the borders of Lebanon or launched offensive to conquer territories. To fight in Syria Hezbollah has recruited a large number of new militiamen and accelerated training programs. According to Kassem Kassir, author of the book “Hezbollah between 1982 and 2016,” the organization will now be prompted to balance its Lebanese presence with its newly found role outside the country[3]. The war in Syria has definitely enabled Hezbollah to expand its regional foothold, moving from being a guerrilla organization to a hybrid regional actor, and thus allowing Iran to project its power across the Arab world. As Ben Hubbard of the New York Times recently observed, “Hezbollah is involved in nearly every fight that matters to Iran and, more significantly, has helped recruit, train and arm an array of new militant groups that are also advancing Iran’s agenda.”[4]

The nature of the clash between Hezbollah and the jihadists in Syria is also very different from that of Israel, which is a state inserted in an international context and must take into account relations with the United States. The Military intervention in Syria was instead decided when Hezbollah perceived the consistency of the threat posed by jihadists and takfirists to their existence through the establishment of bases in Lebanon and the execution of bloody attacks against Shiite groups.

As a consequence of the ideological war against jihadists and other religious enemies, Hezbollah has extended its involvement in Iraq, partly in Yemen and in other contexts, albeit with different modes, not always intervening on the ground. Over time, it has become a protagonist in the ongoing crisis, with a weight in regional affairs that can be compared to that of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Its way of acting is close to that of a state that protects its interests, intervenes politically or using force.

One of the most obvious consequences on the ground is the displacement of the population;many areas, just because of the conflict, have become overwhelmed. Tehran will certainly try to take advantage of the disasters caused by the war, the displacement of the population and the lack of control by the Assad regime on parts of the region in order to replace Sunni majority villages with Shiite majority ones. I is undoubtedly how this plan would help much on Hezbollah’s strategic plan, which has already benefited from further training and experience, as well as an impressive arsenal of weapons. Since the 2006 war with Israel, Hezbollah has built up its store of advanced weaponry with the help of the Syrian regime. Already in 2016, the group was comparable to a medium-sized army[5]. The group has also improved its system of underground tunnels in the south, some of which it claims to be leading into Israeli territory. Considered together, all these elements contribute to raising the level of threat that Hezbollah represents to Israel. Yet, it should be emphasized that the capacitive growth of the Party of God is not necessarily the premise of an attack on the Israeli border. Several analysts agree that Hezbollah’s goal is not moving war on Israel nor to conquer its territory; rather, to maintain constant or even increase pressure.

During the Syrian civil war, Israel has intervened more than once with air raids targeting Hezbollah’s weapons depots. A strategy that had the objective of damaging the Shiite militant arsenal in view of a possible future war. The stabilization of the Syrian conflict and the failure of the Saudi allies have reinforced Israel’s need for security. To put an end to the threat, Israel began a diplomatic offense, which among others saw the involvement of Russia. Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu went on an official visit to Israel last October for the first time since assuming office in 2012. Netanyahu wanted to express Israel’s concern on the threat Iran poses to their country and the Middle East in general, through Hezbollah and other Shiite militias. Netanyahu is carrying forward diplomatic efforts bilaterally: maintaining good relations with Russia without further alienating the US.

Russia itself takes pride in its openness to different players in the Middle East. While Israel will never have with Russia the special relationship it has with the United States, they do have objectives in common, such as preventing the spread of extremist Islamist groups, and -at least at this moment, supporting Assad’s grip on power. It would be in both countries’ long-term interests to coordinate and align to their common geo-strategic necessities in view of the new balance of power that will be determined in the aftermath of the Syrian conflict.

 


Notes and references

[1] Hashem, A. (2013, April 21). Why Hezbollah is fighting in Syria. Al-Monitor. Retrieved from: https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/04/reasons-hezbollah-fighting-syria.html

[2] International Crisis Group (2013, May 13). Too Close for Comfort: Syrians in Lebanon. Middle East Report 141. Retrieved from:

https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/eastern-mediterranean/lebanon/too-close-comfort-syrians-lebanon

[3] Harb, A. (2017, October 12), ‘A regional power’: How fighting Assad’s war transformed Hezbollah. Middle East Eye. Retrieved from:

http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/regional-power-how-syria-civil-war-changed-hezbollah-lebanon-israel-1187885930

[4] Hubbard, B (2017, August 27). Iran out to remake Mideast with Arab enforcer: Hezbollah. The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/27/world/middleeast/hezbollah-iran-syria-israel-lebanon.html

[5] Anderson, S. (2017, March 7). The Next Middle East War? Hezbollah May Risk Everything in All-Out Fight With Israel. Newsweek. Retrieved from: http://www.newsweek.com/2017/07/14/middle-east-war-hezbollah-israel-syria-630990.html