Implications of the Syrian crisis on the future of Hizbullah

Published in Syria

By Ghassan Izzi

The Syrian uprising has placed Hizbullah in a predicament in terms of its ability to maintain its alliance with the Syrian regime and also enjoy the sympathy of the Arab people, especially that of the Syrians These issues may be understood through a number of indicators. There have been suggestions that Hizbullah is attempting to support the perpetuation of the Syrian regime but is, at the same time, preparing for a post-Asad Syria.


The alliance between Syria and Hizbullah has, until now, been characterised as an extremely mutually beneficial period in which each party has been useful to the other. But the dangerous juncture at which the Syrian regime currently finds itself exposes this relationship and even the best outcome threatens the 'axis of resistance' to which Syria and Hizbullah are central. What are the possible future scenarios for Hizbullah and which is the most likely scenario for Hizbullah's future?

An existential need

Resistance or guerilla warfare is a phenomenon that is difficult to generalise about due to the diverse circumstances that characterise each case. Studying the history of these phenomena, however, reveals certain rules or conditions that determine their level of success, particularly when referring to movements of liberation from foreign occupation. The following are the three most noteworthy rules or conditions:

  1. The legitimacy of resistance: This is the first condition without which the resistance becomes merely illegal, according to Che Guevara. The resistance must be based on international charters and agreements that grant it legal and legitimate justification to resist foreign occupation – including cases where religion and beliefs are used to justify the occupation. All occupiers label whoever resists them as terrorists. That Israel and some of its allies consider Hizbullah to be a terrorist organisation is not new. But the April 1996 Israeli-Lebanese ceasefire agreement (at the end of the April War or Israel's Operation Grapes of Wrath) secured for Hizbullah both Israeli and international recognition, even if indirectly, when it gave Hizbullah the right to retaliate to any Israeli aggression on Lebanon.

  2. Public support for resistance: Every resistance group requires the support of the inhabitants among whom it is based. This idea was expressed by Mao Zedong when he compared the guerilla to fish and the general populace to water. Without the support of the population, or the majority thereof, the resistance becomes like a fish out of water, floundering before finally being suffocated. Generally, acts of resistance contribute towards attracting popular support. This is true especially when the occupation is detestable by its nature and its beneficiaries and clients are few. Hizbullah clearly enjoys popular support among Lebanese Shi'a. Its instrumental role in causing the withdrawal of Israeli forces from south Lebanon in May 2000, its routing thereafter of the Israeli-supported South Lebanon Army (SLA) and its conduct towards the population thereafter succeeded in it also winning the sympathy of non-Shi'a entities. This support continues to grow widely. Its influence in Christian circles increased after it signed a memorandum of understanding with the influential Christian politician, General Michel Aoun.

  3. A rear base and advantageous geographical positioning: This element is possibly the most important because a resistance movement without a rear base and a corridor for its supply of weapons, equipment and provisions will not be able survive for long – regardless of its legality, legitimacy and popularity. Every successful resistance campaign throughout history has been blessed with external support from neighbouring countries. Without Algeria, the Polisario Front in Western Sahara would not survive; without Pakistan, the Afghan resistance would not have been able to resist the Soviet army; without the support of neighbouring Arab countries, the Algerian revolution would not have triumphed and without China the Vietnamese resistance would not have been victorious. The Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap considered the support of a neighbouring country as the lung of any resistance. External support contributed to the victory in Algeria, Afghanistan, Vietnam and Lebanon, for example. Thus, the border between Lebanon and Syria make it impossible for any resistance in Lebanon to flourish without Syrian support or, at the very least, unless Syria allows for the smuggling of weapons and equipment into Lebanon.

If Lebanon's geographical position resulted in a vital artery for Hizbullah, then Damascus also contributed to securing other elements for the success of the movement through Syria's influence on Lebanese politicians. Today, in spite of all the changes that have taken place in Lebanon, Syria remains the critical artery which supplies Hizbullah with arms and equipment and guarantees it a strategic backyard in its confrontation with Israel. But Hizbullah paid a high price for this alliance and these prices have become very prohibitive – especially since 15 March 2011 when the uprisings broke out in Syria and Syrians began demanding the downfall of the Bashar al-Asad regime.

The peak of the Syria-Hizbullah alliance

Hizbullah was born on Lebanese soil in Baalbek, has survived under the auspices of Iran and is in close alliance with Syria. The relationship between Syria and Hizbullah (which became public in March 1985) was confined to the question of security and did not develop into political coordination. But, in parallel with the development of the Syrian-Iranian alliance and the launching of Arab-Israeli negotiations – from the Madrid Conference in October 1991 to the Oslo Agreement in September 1993 – the relationship evolved towards greater coordination and a stronger alliance. On one hand, the Baker-Asad agreement on the eve of the Second Gulf War granted Damascus a green light to eliminate Aoun's rebellion by force and granted it a relatively free hand in Lebanese affairs. Hizbullah was not disarmed by Damascus after the Taif Agreement of 1989 – which signalled an end to the Lebanese civil war – as had happened to other militias. Instead, Hizbullah was persuaded to submit to Syrian guardianship, thus providing it with a level of international and regional cover. On the other hand, the Islamic resistance in southern Lebanon became one of the most valuable assets for Syria.

By this time Hizbullah was becoming more of a Lebanese nationalist organisation through its involvement in the Lebanese political system which the party's 1985 manifesto described as 'corrupt and rotten'. Hizbullah courageously contested parliamentary elections in 1992 and won a slim share of representation. Its share of state-allocated benefits – such as functions and roles, patronage and so forth – remained virtually non-existent in comparison to others such as the Amal Movement, whose leader Nabih Berri was the speaker of parliament and claimed a monopoly over the Shi'a in government and in other positions of influence. It seemed as if the Lebanese state had entrusted the resistance against Israel to Hizbullah until the justification for this resistance had ended with Israel's withdrawal from the south. After that withdrawal, it was expected by many that Hizbullah would cease its operations, at least militarily.

For many years, Syria remained the custodian of all the playing cards in Lebanon and it ensured that Iranian support was largely restricted to Hizbullah. The Hizb, in turn, supported Syrian policies in Lebanon, knowing that Syria held a unique position in the Middle East and, through the resistance, sent particular messages to its enemies. It agitated Israel's northern front through a combination of confusing negotiations and mounting pressure.

In May 2000, the Israeli army withdrew from occupied southern Lebanon and the resistance achieved a resounding victory which it presented to the people of Lebanon and the Syrian leadership. The resistance movement's magnanimity towards the local population after liberation proved to be commensurate with its political awareness and sense of responsibility. Its star shone brightly and its popularity spread. A month later, in June 2000, President Hafez al-Asad of Syria died and was succeeded by his son Bashar, who lacked experience in government and politics.

Hizbullah's position as well as that of its Iranian ally strengthened with the new Syrian leadership. The parity, which was missing between the three allies in the era of Hafez al-Asad, increased and there developed a more direct relationship between Tehran and Hizbullah. One indication of this was in the transport sector as direct flights began between Tehran and Beirut. However, arguments began to emerge that the previous reason for supplying weapons to Hizbullah was no longer valid. Hizbullah reacted, at the behest of Damascus, by quickly announcing the continuation of its resistance to liberate the Shab'a Farms and the Lebanese Kfar Shuba Heights which Israel regarded as Syrian territory that it occupied in the 1967 war. There was widespread belief in Lebanon that Syria was holding on to the southern Lebanese front to strengthen its regional position. It applied pressure on the Lebanese state to officially acknowledge Lebanese sovereignty over the Shab'a Farms and this provided legitimacy for continued resistance against Israel.

Hariri's assassination: a critical juncture

In 2003, the USA launched a war in Iraq that ended with the American occupation of that country. This took place against the background of America's neo-conservative project that aspired to re-engineer the strategic landscape of the Middle East. Pressure mounted on Syria to withdraw from Lebanon and led up to the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1559 in September 2004, which called on Syria to withdraw from Lebanon and for the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon – particularly Hizbullah. The tension reached a climax with the assassination of Lebanese President Rafiq Hariri on 14 February 2005. This was like an earthquake in the region and, in the aftermath, the country was divided into a pro-Syrian and pro-Iranian camp within the March 8 coalition and groups hostile to this camp uniting as the March 14 coalition. Under international and popular Lebanese pressure, the Syrian army was forced to withdraw from Lebanon in humiliation. A year later, on 12 July 2006, Israel launched a blistering attack on Lebanon which lasted for thirty-three days but did not end in success for Israel. Despite the dominant pro-Israeli international position – supported by the UN – the war was a victory for the resistance. In 2004 and 2008, Hizbullah engaged in prisoner exchanges with Israel, resulting in the release of hundreds of Lebanese and other Arab prisoners from Israeli prisons. This further increased Hizbullah's popularity and prestige within the Lebanese and general Arab populations.

Syria's influence in Lebanon after the withdrawal of its army was through Hizbullah, especially after the speech of Hizb leader Hasan Nasrallah at the 'million-man demonstration' on 8 March in Riad Solh Square wherein he defended Syria against those who accused it of Hariri's assassination. He disagreed with the plan of the Fouad Siniora government to sign agreements with the United Nations to establish a special international tribunal for Lebanon, which he considered to be an Israeli-American tool to divide the opposition alliance. Hizbullah gave much to Syria during this difficult stage, resulting in tense relations for it in Lebanon and regionally. The movement was exposed to violent political attacks from its opponents, ultimately exploding in May 2008 when Hizbullah and its allies took control of west Beirut, resulting in regional intervention that ended with the Doha Agreement, which paved the way for presidential and parliamentary elections and led to the formation of a government of national unity headed by Saad Hariri, son of Rafiq. Following Syria's disagreement with these developments, eleven pro-Hizbullah ministers (one third plus one minister) resigned, causing the government to fall. Hizbullah became the head of a new parliamentary majority and formed a government, excluding members of the March 14 alliance, headed by Najib Mikati. The government had just taken power when Syria found itself in a dangerous position that threatened the 'resistance alliance' and Hizbullah.

Scary scenarios

Hizbullah supported, as did Tehran, the Arab uprisings which began in early 2011, and which overthrew their respective authoritarian regimes, all of which had declared Hizbullah an enemy. Opinion polls in the mid-2000s indicated that Hizbullah's Nasrallah, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Syria's Asad were the most popular leaders in some Arab countries because of their position against Israel. But on 15 March 2011, the Syrian uprising erupted and surprised them, especially since Asad had only a few days earlier expressed his confidence that the revolution would not extend to his regime because it was anti-Israeli. It seemed the Arab uprisings had revealed the attachment of the masses to civil rights and democratic reforms more than to foreign policies and conflict with Israel, an aspect which some regimes had exploited as justification for a continuous state of emergency and the repression of their opponents.

For ethical, political, geographical and other reasons, Hizbullah could not abandon its ally as soon as the latter was exposed to an internal crisis. It continued to support the Arab uprisings but expressed the view that Syria was exceptional and that the uprising in Syria was not a popular uprising but a conspiracy aimed at breaking the ' resistance alliance' and sowing divisions within the Arab nation. It thus fully embraced the argument advanced by the Syrian regime. This prompted some people to accuse Hizbullah of participating in the suppression of the popular Syrian protests and of being complicit in its perpetration of massacres. Of course, the Syrian regime and army has no need for Hizbullah fighters, but the latter did not distance itself – even in the slightest – from its ally. Syria was using military force and repression to deal with peaceful protests. Once these protests became militarist in character, Syria resorted to armed confrontation resembling a civil war.

For its support of Syria, Hizbullah lost much of its popularity. After pictures of Nasrallah and Hizbullah banners had initially been raised in some Arab protests as part of the resistance, many were subsequently burnt. As many people saw it, Hizbullah could not reconcile its support for the Syrian regime and its support for other uprisings. It was difficult for Hizbullah, then, to retain people's sympathy, especially that of Syrians who were being subjected to the brutality of the regime. Moreover, the Arab uprisings sparked the rise of political Islam, especially of the Muslim Brotherhood variety. This became inconsistent with the then-existing alliance between the Syrian regime and Hamas. After many months, Hamas quietly withdrew from that alliance – before expressing its support for the demands of the Syrian people. Hamas has been an important ally of Hizbullah – which the latter has long defended and for whose sake it has made many sacrifices. However, Hamas sided with Egypt and the Gulf countries, which were hostile to the Syrian regime. At his inaugural speech as president of Egypt on 30 June 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood's Muhammad Mursi expressed support for the Syrian people and promised to work for an end to the bloodshed of his 'brotherly people'. It might be said that the Arab transformations did not completely benefit the 'resistance alliance' which had welcomed and praised these transformations as something good.

Hizbullah's loss in this situation is two-fold: politically, and in terms of popularity. Considering how long the conflict in Syria has lasted, Hizbullah is no longer able – as it is no longer viable – to change its position on the Syrian crisis in spite of the moderate tone that has characterised Nasrallah's recent speeches. It is now too late.

The Syrian website Al-Haqiqa published an email from a British diplomat who claimed he had received a highly credible and accurate report circulating within the Hizbullah leadership and saying that Nasrallah had secretly visited Syria several times since the protests began. The first visit, the report said, was in June 2011 to advise Asad to engage in emergency reforms such as arresting leaders of the security apparatuses responsible for massacres; restructuring important security and administrative structures; forming a government of national unity in which the majority of the opposition would be included in plans for extensive reforms; preparing a new constitution and holding parliamentary and presidential elections. The document also said Nasrallah had advised Asad to be prepared to step down in favour of his vice-president, Farouq al-Sharaa. The Syrian president had apparently refused. It was the contents of this report that convinced Hizbullah that it must prepare for a post-Asad phase and work to preserve the unity of threatened Syrian territory.

Hizbullah felt that if the security problems remained within Syrian borders then it would be relatively aloof from the crisis. But, a few months ago, the situation spread across the border to Tripoli in northern Lebanon and saw repeated clashes between Alawis from the Jabal Mohsen neighbourhood and Sunnis from the Bab al-Tabbaneh neighbourhood, as well as violence in Beirut, Sidon and western Bekaa. Moreover, the Sunni Salafi phenomenon which condemns Hizbullah for standing with Syrian 'tyranny' and demands that it hands over its weapons is growing. However, Hizbullah is determined not to fall into the trap of internal Lebanese confrontations that could lead to sectarian strife. Hizbullah believes that its enemies, especially Israel, would see such strife as a huge step towards achieving Israeli goals in Lebanon without Israel having to involve itself.

If the Asad regime collapses, Syria, which guarantees the flow of arms and equipment to Hizbullah, may be lost to the movement, especially if new Syrian rulers despise Hizbullah for its position on the uprising. Such a scenario will constitute a victory for the forces of March 14, increasing their pressure on Hizbullah and forcing it to defend itself to the point that it could become just another sectarian (Shi'a) militia. The fact is that Hizbullah neither wishes to risk its existence nor its future for the sake of Asad; but it is not likely that it will find a substitute among its other neighbours that will guarantee – secretly or openly – continued support for it in the region. Further, in the current context it will likely be coerced to comply with its Iranian patron which remains an ally of Damascus and continues to defend the Syrian regime.

Hizbullah's opponents are concerned about its potential to cause problems in Lebanon – at the request of the Syrian regime – in a desperate attempt to divert international attention away from Syria and to Lebanon. From within this framework, some of Hizbullah's rivals speculate about an Iranian-Syrian plan to be implemented by Hizbullah and its allies to gain military control over all Lebanese territory. Some think that the movement might spark a conflict with Israel on the Lebanese southern border, causing Israel to respond with force and thereby starting a regional war. Conversely, there are those who believe that Israel will wage a war against Iran using the latter's nuclear programme as an excuse, deliberately taking advantage of the international isolation of the 'resistance axis' and, thereby, settle its score with Hizbullah. But the most disastrous and dangerous scenario is a sectarian civil war that began in Syria and has already spread to Lebanon and the rest of the region and could divide the region like a scalpel. This was, perhaps, the earthquake that Asad had threatened would strike the region if and when his regime neared its end?

Prospects for the future

Although the above-mentioned scenarios are not impossible, they currently remain improbable. Hizbullah is not merely a servant of the Syrian regime that will rush to commit suicide if it receives a command to that effect from Damascus. Even though it is a movement resisting Israel and prepared to confront it at any time, it will not spark a war that does not enjoy the support of the Shi'a in southern Lebanon, first and foremost, and of Lebanon in general. Lebanon's present circumstances are different to what they were in 2006 when Hizbullah captured two Israeli soldiers to later be exchanged for Lebanese prisoners of war. Such action today would be interpreted as Hizbullah sacrificing Lebanon and the Lebanese people in favour of Bashar al-Asad. This will not happen, especially as the next potential war is likely to be the most violent in the history of the region and Hizbullah will be severely attacked before anyone else is. The next war will not end as its predecessors did and Nasrallah fully realises this. He acknowledged that if he had anticipated the Israeli reaction in July 2006 he would not have engaged in 'Operation Truthful Promise', the raid that resulted in the capture of the Israeli soldiers.

The scenario of Hizbullah taking military control over Lebanon is unlikely because such control will be to no avail. It will disperse Hizbullah forces across the country and make them vulnerable to the Israelis. For Hizbullah, it would be more advantageous to control Lebanon through a legitimate government – this is what is happening today – without changing the balance of power in a country where one party cannot control the other, let alone a whole country. An attempt to do so will lead to a civil war and Hizbullah is clearly doing everything within its power to prevent such an eventuality. Furthermore, the probability of Israel exploiting Hizbullah's situation and launching an attack is low, because Israel prefers to watch Hizbullah mired in internal and regional crises rather than engaging in an intervention that might rescue Hizbullah politically, will result in a high human cost and will be difficult for Israeli society to bear.

The probability of these gloomy scenarios remains low. Hizbullah will have enough time after regime change in Syria – if that indeed does happen – to rearrange its domestic and regional positioning. The fall of the Syrian regime will not imply the automatic and immediate fall of Hizbullah, which will still possess an arsenal of weapons capable of confronting major armies in major wars. This is especially the case if Israeli reports are to be believed that Damascus has allowed the transfer to Hizbullah of sophisticated heavy weapons which were stored in Syria, for fear of them falling into the hands of the rebels. Hizbullah controls the Beirut airport and a number of seaports which could offset, even for a short period, the drying up of its Syrian artery. Hizbullah will not feel the harsh effects of this scenario for many years. Its ally, Iran, is ready to try compensate Hizbullah for the disappearance of its Syrian ally, except in the event that Iran is attacked by the West or Israel. This will turn the situation in the region on its head.

At the political level, it is quite probable that Hizbullah has begun to prepare for a post-Asad Syria with a degree of caution and pragmatism. It is seeking to build new alliances, perhaps with the parties involved in the Syrian opposition, either directly or through Iran. Unconfirmed reports indicate that Iran has opened secret discussions with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in Turkey. Hizbullah congratulated Egypt's new president, Muhammad Mursi, on his 'historic' election victory with much enthusiasm, as did Tehran. And, in his interview with Fars News Agency, Mursi spoke about re-instating the relationship between Egypt and Iran, severed in 1980, with the aim of creating a 'strategic balance' in the region. For reasons that are difficult to understand, Mursi later denied making this comment, but the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) insisted on its authenticity. It is also possible that Hamas will play a role in the rapprochement between Hizbullah and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Some reports suggest that Hamas has been discussing with Syrian opposition members efforts to normalise relations with Hizbullah. Egypt is well-placed to play a role bringing together Iran and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood within the agenda of confrontation with Israel and support for the Palestinian people. Mursi repeated, in his inaugural speech at the University of Cairo on 30 June 2012, his support for the Palestinian people. Israel is the common enemy of all. The convergence between Iran and Hizbullah, on the one hand, and the Syrian and Egyptian Muslim Brotherhoods, on the other, could prevent large-scale Sunni-Shi'a strife and bring stability to the region.

Such processes will represent the smarter choice because they will prevent the regional isolation of Hizbullah and protect it from a disaster that could transform its geographical position into a curse at the hands of a hostile regime. This choice could also protect Hizbullah from the changing balance of power in Lebanon as a result of changes in Syria. We should remember that Lebanese parliamentary elections will be held late in 2013 – unless they get delayed because of events in Syria – and Hizbullah may lose its current majority, in which case it will be forced to lead the opposition without political and military support from Syria. That is why, in an attempt to pre-empt such developments, Nasrallah suggested the formation of a constituent assembly to review the Lebanese political system and to develop a path to a new social contract. Although his call was rejected, he agreed to join a dialogue called for by Lebanese President Michel Suleiman. He was encouraged by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to enter such a dialogue which, as everyone knows, will not lead to anything substantial.

In conclusion, all indications from Syria are that a military solution to the crisis is impossible. It is imperative that international and influential regional forces involve themselves to find a political solution. It is for the Lebanese and Hizbullah, in particular, to seize the opportunity so that the future of Hizbullah, Lebanon's political system and intra-Lebanese relations all form part of a comprehensive solution leading to two democratic, adjacent sister states where neither is under the guardianship of the other.

* Ghassan Izzi is a professor of international relations at the University of Lebanon

** This article was originally published in Arabic by the AlJazeera Center for Studies and was translated into English by AMEC. It is published here in terms of a partnership agreement between the two centres

Last modified on Thursday, 19 February 2015 15:12

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