Hezbollah’s war in Syria isn’t over yet

Salman Rafi March 22, 2017 10:30 PM (UTC+8)
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Hezbollah, the Party of God, has been fighting what has been termed a “necessary war” for Iran in Syria which – if it had failed to win it – could have meant its demise and ended its ability to project power beyond its borders.

Yet the war has brought Hezbollah to a point where, despite being successful in protecting Bashar al-Assad, it now faces crucial challenges that involve not only compromises with groups – both jihadi and non-jihadi – who have been resisting Assad, but also the prospect of a new military confrontation with Israel.

Yes, Hezbollah’s strings are strongly attached to Iran. It is its own war rhetoric, deeply coloured by sectarian discourse, that is pitting it against other groups, making it all the more difficult for its fighters to reconcile their position.

Deployment of sectarian discourse as a war tactic has been costly, as detailed by a new International Crisis Group report, Hizbollah’s Syria Conundrum.

Once protected, in Lebanon, by the regime of Syria’s Hafez Assad’s and later working hard to protect his son, Hizbollah’s war in Syria has become one in which the question of compromise means potentially empowering the jihadist groups it had once tried to vanquish, by giving them stakes in the Russian-led settlement now being put in place.

This situation puts the party in an awkward position. While it does want to end the war, it does not want to really negotiate a compromise. For a number of Hezbollah fighters and ideologues, compromise with rival Sunni groups might be a self-defeating way to end the war. (This, though, appears to be the only way, given that Iran’s prima ally, Russia, supports it).

For Hezbollah, the preferred way therefore continues to be beating its rival groups to a point where they are left with no other option but to compromise (how Russia and Syria see this is altogether a different matter and a problem for Hezbollah to resolve).  “The opposition is losing; it should expect very little [from negotiations]”,  a Hizbollah commander told the ICG. The fall of rebel-held eastern Aleppo in November 2016 and other areas thereafter will only have strengthened Hezbollah in this belief.

Hezbollah’s sectarian identity in Syria is, therefore, obviously taking precedence over other considerations, including the pulse of “Syrian national identity,” which continues to be elusive despite years of war and blood-shed.

Once known for “fighting the oppressed” against Israeli “oppression”, the party’s image has already regressed into that of a mere sectarian outfit fighting Sunni militancy and protecting its Shia counterparts. As the ICG report states:

Formerly, it served as a cross-communal rallying force, within Lebanon and beyond, particularly when confronting Israel, but as regional polarisation increased, Hizbollah has come to rely more on its own Shiite constituency, operating within an increasingly sectarian regional order and contributing to it. The merging of the two has proved awkward and forced the movement to juggle multiple contradictions. It stigmatises Sunnis, lumping all Syrian rebels together as takfiris and calling its Lebanese and Syrian political opponents Israeli or Western agents, while saying its fight is non-sectarian.

This is leaving a negative impact on the fighters who — at least some of them, if not all — continue to see this war as the one “dividing the Arab world” along sectarian lines. The real war, according to these fighters, continues to be against Israel.

An Iraqi cleric, with ties to Hizbollah, told the ICG about the impact deployment of sectarian discourse has had:

“What would push young [Lebanese] Shiites to fight in Syria? Very few would go for Bashar’s sake, or even Iran’s. It’s a single stone of the [Shiite] Sayyida Zeinab shrine [in Damascus] that mobilises them. Yet, this could be very dangerous in the long run. One day, leaders may sit around the negotiating table, but it will be very difficult to heal broken spirits from this sectarian rift.”

The strong sectarian identity the party is carrying in Syria will leave its survival and continuity in Syria fraught with difficulties of all sorts. Shias are only 1% of Syria’s population and Hezbollah’s own social activities have largely focused on areas where Shias have a presence, thus reinforcing its sectarian preferences.

If, therefore, a compromise is to be achieved – which will have to happen, ultimately – Hizbollah will have to re-transform itself (from a typical sectarian outfit) or it will end up fighting yet another war in Syria.

However, this transformation, which inevitably would mean a bigger role in Syria and a long-term military presence, also brings with itself the opening of new front against Israel in Syria.

(As a matter of fact, it is the fight against Israel that has kept Hezbollah alive for so many years and a return to fighting the same enemy would not only help it to revive its erstwhile identity but also allow it to expand its area of operation.)

This is clearly on the horizon. Israel is certainly watching Hezbollah’s military successes in Syria very closely and keeping a close eye on whatever weapons stockpiles it might have collected there.

For one thing, Hezbollah’s Syria war has potentially transformed it from being a guerrilla force into an invading force – something that Israel sees as a major development that poses direct threats to its own internal security. Hence, Israeli strikes against Hezbollah’s arms in Syria.

For its own sake, Hizbollah sees particular value in extending the “resistance front” east of Shebaa to the Jordanian border – both as a deterrent and as a platform for confronting Israel in the next “essential war.”

Iran, too, has a demonstrated interest in, at the very least, testing Israel’s opposition to the deployment of forces allied to Tehran along the border.

Within days of the Netanyahu-Moscow summit, Harakat al-Nujaba, an Iraqi Shia paramilitary with operational links to Hezbollah and Iran, announced the formation of its “Golan Liberation Brigade.” The explicit aim was picking a fight against Israel in Syria: Hezbollah and Iran both seem to perceive a golden opportunity to strike at their arch rival, which in turn alo sees in this scenario a chance to defeat both Hezbollah and its facilitator (Assad) and settle the score.

From an Iranian perspective, this seems to be the logical extension of the country’s struggle to protect itself against an enemy that will, in the absence of an Iranian response, soon consume Tehran too.

The new front against Israel is, therefore, not actually new in that it is part of “resistance” against a consistent enemy in the minds of Iran’s political and military elite. War, for Hezbollah, is therefore not over; it is only entering a new phase – an inevitable outcome of its own battlefield success and clear intention to remain militarily present in Syria.

Salman Rafi
Salman Rafi Sheikh is an independent journalist and a research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian Geo-politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at salmanrafisheikh@hotmail.com
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