The Syrian Civil War continues to embroil the greater Middle East region, and Lebanon’s powerful Shi’a Hezbollah faction represents one of Assad’s strongest supporters after receiving support from Iran and the Assad dynasty for decades. Hezbollah fights in Syria in an attempt to secure the survival of the Assad regime, which continues to serve as a key political patron for the movement and its main conduit for Iranian weapons. Hezbollah’s strategy in Syria aims to fulfill three main goals: prolonging the Assad regime’s tenure, protecting Shi’a areas near the Lebanese border; and securing its long-term military hegemony in Lebanon itself.
As the Syrian conflict intensified and exacted ever-greater costs on Assad, Hezbollah became increasingly involved in the conflict both militarily and politically, a strategic choice that raised tensions within Lebanon. This involvement prompted threats of increased militancy across Lebanon and a destabilized security situation in the country.
During the Syrian conflict, Assad relied on two main counterinsurgency strategies, following in the footsteps of his father, who annihilated the Muslim Brotherhood movement in the 1980s. The Institute for the Study of War’s Joseph Holliday writes, “Assad relied on small core of most-loyal military units, a third of the Syrian army, which decreased his ability to commence an intensive counterinsurgency campaign. He also depended on Shi’a and Alawite militias to safeguard his prominent strongholds along the Syrian coast. However, defections and attrition have exacerbated the regime’s central challenge of generating combat power.” Subsequently, Assad started to lose ground in northern and eastern Syria after the battles of Aleppo and Raqqa.
Following Assad’s defeats in the northeast, Hezbollah considerably increased its involvement in the Syrian conflict, including the overt participation of fighting units in various combat zones throughout the country. French intelligence services estimate that Hezbollah diverted approximately one third of its current fighting force to the Syrian conflict, and continues to train thousands of other fighters for additional campaigns. Hezbollah commanders are actively involved in the establishment of a 50,000-member paramilitary force in Syria comprised of local shabiha and Popular Committees, both of which are meant to hold terrain in the country’s largely Alawite northwest.
Hezbollah and its affiliated Shi’a militias—both Syrian and Iraqi—managed to turn the tables for Assad’s regime by spearheading the successful operation to retake the western town of Qusayr, which serves as the connecting corridor between the coastal Alawite towns and the Syrian capital of Damascus. Most recently, pro-regime Syrian forces seized the rebel-held city of Yabrud, a significant strategic step forward in Assad’s attempt to secure the entire Syrian-Lebanese border. The Syrian regime also closed most of the Syrian-Lebanon border crossings that facilitated logistical from strongholds in Lebanon.
As the Syrian conflict drags on, Hezbollah has been forced to divert additional Special Forces and ground troops otherwise needed to maintain its deterrence against Israel in Southern Lebanon. Hezbollah already incurred hundreds of casualties in Syria and at least five high-level commanders have been killed during fighting. In November 2013 a double suicide bombing struck the Iranian embassy in Beirut, part of a series of attacks against Hezbollah and Iranian assets in the southern districts of the capital. Syrian rebel groups, including al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, continue to challenge the Lebanese security apparatus across the country in an attempt to expedite the withdrawal of Hezbollah’s forces from Syria.
Internal divisions have also worsened within Hezbollah and within Lebanon’s Shi’a community over the movement’s involvement in the Syrian conflict. Former Hezbollah Secretary General Subhi al-Tufayli, in fact, even publically criticized the group’s involvement in Syria. Although Tufayli is known for his critical views of Hezbollah’s current leadership, criticism of Hezbollah’s actions is growing in the Baalbek and Hermel areas, spurred on by concerns of retaliation by Syrian rebels against Shi’a villages in the border area. The Shi’a residents in Bekaa Valley have begun forming divergent political movements aimed at pressuring Hezbollah to disengage from Syria. One of the movements, named the Al-Jaafari Al-Imami Gathering, includes prominent clan figures from the Meqdad and Tlais families. The movement is openly critical of Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, but also advocates on behalf of the impoverished region, which remains on the verge of economic crisis.
While the bloc is led by prominent leaders from Hermel region, these movements are likely to remain marginal and will not compel Hezbollah to withdraw from Syria. However, Hezbollah’s political influence may decline ahead of possible parliament elections next year. Regionally, given Hezbollah’s support of Assad, the movement has already lost 10% of public support in Egypt and Jordan between the years 2010-2012. Furthermore, the European Union has blacklisted Hezbollah’s military wing and designated it as a terrorist group. As such, the movement is facing increasing local and international criticism that will likely continue to grow as the Shi’a militia continues to operate in the Syrian swamp.
In an attempt to secure the survival of its political and military patron, Hezbollah is not likely to withdraw most of its forces from Syria. Hezbollah will continue to fend off accusations of diverting its capabilities against rival Arab insurgents instead of maintaining its military capabilities to fight against its primary rival, the Israeli Defense Forces. In the long term, the potential loss of its major ally, the Assad regime, will force Hezbollah to consider new avenues of either cooperation or confrontation with which to maintain its military and political hegemony. The establishment of a Sunni-led government in Syria would jeopardize Hezbollah’s military supremacy and would have a dire impact on the movement’s regional political standing. Therefore, the movement is likely to continue fighting, both to ensure the survival of its ally and to secure its own existence.
Barak Gatenyo is a graduate student in the International Security program at Sciences Po-Paris. He has been awarded the 2014 Rosenthal Fellowship in International Relations. Barak worked as a political and security risk analyst in the Middle East.