The Middle East Channel

Hezbollah’s most serious challenge

The popular uprisings in Syria represent the most serious challenge to Hezbollah since the 2006 war with Israel. A regime change in Syria would threaten a major arms supply route to Hezbollah; deny the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas axis its Arab linchpin; weaken Hezbollah’s deterrence capacities vis-à-vis Israel; and deny the Hezbollah leaders and their families a safe ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

The popular uprisings in Syria represent the most serious challenge to Hezbollah since the 2006 war with Israel. A regime change in Syria would threaten a major arms supply route to Hezbollah; deny the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas axis its Arab linchpin; weaken Hezbollah’s deterrence capacities vis-à-vis Israel; and deny the Hezbollah leaders and their families a safe haven when they feel threatened by Israel, as was the case in 2006. This poses a unique challenge to Hezbollah, which had comfortably sided with the revolts in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain. When Hezbollah’s Iranian mentor Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour was dismissed from his official post last April because of his sympathies with the Iranian opposition, Hezbollah was silent despite a heated debate inside the party ranks. The uprisings in Syria pose a challenge similar to the one they faced with the 2009 repression of the Green Movement in Iran. 

How does Hezbollah really view the prospect of regime change in Damascus? In a recent round of interviews I conducted with Hezbollah officials in Beirut, all those I spoke to agreed that a regime change in Syria would not occur easily or peacefully.  So far, Hezbollah officials believe that Bashar al Assad will survive. They believe that unlike Hosni Mubarak or Zein Ben Ali, Assad still enjoys a wide base of support especially in major cities like Damascus and Aleppo. As a senior Hezbollah official pointed out, "Alawites and Christians will not abandon Bashar." The Assad regime and its wide base of support, they said, will fight back. Should Bashar al Assad fail to rein in the protests quickly, they fear a protracted civil war that would engulf Syria, spill over into Lebanon, especially in the north, and destabilize other countries in the region, including Turkey.  Above all, even more than the loss of military and financial supply lines, these Hezbollah leaders fear a mortal blow to the "Resistance Axis" which has been central to their place in the Middle East.

While Syrian President Bashar al Assad was initially taken back by the protests, he and his close associates  quickly closed ranks and opted for brute force to deal with future protests. Hezbollah’s reading of the Assad speech made on April 16 is that while responding to the people’s demands by offering a series of reform measures mainly focused on the lifting of the emergency law, Assad also made it clear that further protests will be met with an iron fist. Hezbollah officials to whom I spoke viewed the internal opposition as old, disorganized and decimated by years spent in Syrian jails. If regime change were to happen soon, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is the only organized political force in the country and would likely emerge as the main power broker in the country.

Hezbollah officials now believe that negotiations between the regime and the protest movement can no longer be expected to occur.  They further argue that the critical factor in other Arab revolutions was the neutral role played by the army. In the case of Syria, they believe that the army still sides with the regime. It has yet to show signs of dissension, especially at the top levels. When questioned about the possibility of an internal coup d’etat led by an Alawite army official, these Hezbollah officials discounted this scenario – as one of them put it, chiefly for lack of an acceptable alternative to Bashar al Assad. They also pointed out that both Alawites and Christians fear the consequences to themselves of a Sunni take-over. A protracted civil war in Syria would eventually lead to a break-up of Syria into a number of mini-states divided among the country’s three major religious and ethnic groups: Alawites, Sunnis, and Kurds.

Why is Bashar al Assad’s survival so important to Hezbollah? Unlike his father, the late Hafez al Assad, who kept his distance from the "Lebanese file" and relied mostly on a coterie of associates to deal with the Lebanese political players, Bashar al Assad owned the Lebanese file and from the beginning of his reign, developed a personal relationship with Hezbollah’s secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. Hezbollah’s resistance movement was just one component in Hafez al Assad’s toolbox, used to strengthen Syria’s weak hand in Arab-Israeli negotiations; he often sought to limit Hezbollah’s role in Lebanese politics. Bashar al Assad, on the other hand, saw in Hezbollah his most important Lebanese ally and worked assiduously to protect and strengthen its military arsenal to the detriment of alliances his father’s regime cultivated with other Lebanese political players. So even if another Alawite were to replace Bashar al Assad, Hezbollah officials believe that the relationship between Hezbollah and the Syrian leadership would never be the same.

The end of the Syrian shipment route would not be the most important loss to the party. According to one of my interlocutors, the party has developed alternative routes — more important is the political dimension.  As a Hezbollah official told me last week, "Syria is the resistance camp’s gate to the Arab world." For Hezbollah, resistance to Israel and to U.S. hegemony in the region remains their raison d’etre and their principal claim to leadership in the Arab region. Being an indispensable player in the Arab-Israeli conflict without whom a regional peace process cannot be actualized, Syria is the Arab leader of the resistance camp and the guarantor of Hezbollah’s leading role in this camp.

Despite the facade of unconditional support for the Syrian regime which Hezbollah is offering, I sensed a level of discomfort among some Hezbollah cadres, especially in the second and third-tiers, with regard to this policy. I heard three lines of argument from Hezbollah officials about the issue of what Hezbollah’s policy should be vis-à-vis the Syrian uprisings. 

The first argument is that Hezbollah should not display a double standard in its approach to the uprisings in the Arab region. As a party founded on the principles of social justice, fairness, and respect for the people’s right to resist oppression, Hezbollah risks compromising its principles if it continues supporting the Syrian regime as it moves to forcibly suppress the yearnings of its people. Hezbollah could lose the respect of a large segment of its Arab constituency if it were to continue supporting a regime that is brutally repressing its own people. After all, it is these same constituencies that threw Mubarak and Ben Ali out of power, are now challenging Saleh in the streets of Yemen, fighting Qaddafi’s forces, and suffering in Bahraini jails for challenging the authority of a monarch. While respectful of Hezbollah’s military achievements in the struggle against Israel, these constituencies will not look kindly at Hezbollah’s support for another Arab regime that clings to power by killing its citizens.

A second argument suggests that it is in Hezbollah’s interest to support the emergence of democratic regimes in the region but not necessarily Islamist regimes. This voice inside Hezbollah argues that, of course, Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood must have a role in the emerging Arab governments along with other secular parties including leftists, liberals, and nationalists. But the rise of Sunni Islamist groups to power, if unchecked by equally prominent secular and liberal groups, would eventually lead these new regimes to espouse the same policy as the Saudi regime vis-a-vis Hezbollah, a policy that is fueled by the age-old Sunni-Shiite conflict in Islam. One of my interlocutors noted that even inside the leadership ranks of Hamas, a party long considered a close ally of Hezbollah, there are members who look at Hezbollah as a Shiite movement that cannot be trusted. And while Hezbollah must show loyalty to the Syrian leadership, Hezbollah should become more vocal in calling for reforms in Syria because democratization would be to the benefit of the Syrian regime and its allies in the region. In this view, democratic regimes, in which power is shared among a variety of political actors, Islamist and secular, serve Hezbollah’s interests better than Islamist regimes in which political power is controlled by a Sunni Islamist party.

A third argument in this debate holds that the Syrian people have historically had a deep commitment to the resistance strategy and that it behooves Hezbollah, in case of a regime change in Syria, to start building its relationships with the Syrian people who, in the end, will continue to share with Hezbollah an ideological agenda built around the principles of resistance to Israel and the struggle to liberate Arab lands from Israeli occupation in the Golan Heights, Palestine and Lebanon. Siding with the Syrian regime in the face of mounting popular opposition will undermine Hezbollah’s future chances of establishing a relationship with a new Syrian regime if or it takes place.

For now, similar to their stance during the last Iranian uprisings, Hezbollah leadership remains firmly in support of its ally, the Syrian president. It is unlikely that in the near future, we will see Sayyed Nasrallah address the crowds in the Lebanese southern suburbs in support of the Syrian popular uprisings as he did on March 19 when he declared that the Arab popular revolutions will succeed. Yet has Hezbollah begun making contingency plans for the possible overthrow of Assad? One Hezbollah official denied it because, as he put it, the topic is so sensitive and doing so might be perceived as an act of betrayal of a long-standing ally. However, if Hezbollah behaves true to form, contingency planning must be quietly underway.

Randa Slim, a Lebanese-American political analyst, is completing a book on Hezbollah’s political evolution. She tweets about developments in the Middle East @rmslim.

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