Recent news of an American-Russian-brokered ceasefire has rekindled hopes for a desperately-needed de-escalation in the bloody and prolonged civil war raging in Syria. Unfortunately, there are plenty of reasons to curb our collective enthusiasm when it comes to gauging the chances that this ceasefire will not only stick in the long term, but also lead to a credible political process and to the resolution of the conflict. At the same time, with the civil war well into its fifth year, it is necessary to reflect on the termination of hostilities as well as the enduring legacy of the conflict on some of the main parties on the ground.
Much has been said about how Hezbollah’s direct participation in the war alongside Bashar al-Assad has impacted its relationships, strategies, and capabilities in the short term. A combination of self-interest, personal ties, and regional and geopolitical considerations led Hezbollah to identify the survival of Bashar al-Assad as one of its own key strategic interests—fearing that regime change would weaken its standing in Lebanon, undermine its regional influence and power projection, and cause significant trouble for its strategic partners in Tehran.
Over the past five years, Hezbollah’s military involvement in the Syrian conflict increased gradually and then exponentially leading the group to play a key role in supporting the Syrian forces in both defensive and offensive operations. Hezbollah has, with time, become indispensable to the Syrian regime further deepening the links between the state and its non-state ally — all while entangling the latter in the Syrian crucible.
Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama at the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, China (Source: Kremlin.ru)
When we look at the convergence between the Lebanese-Shiite organization’s continued strategic interest in the Syrian regime’s survival; the extensive military, financial, and political investments it has made so far to keep Assad afloat; as well as the importance of such efforts for the regime itself, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Hezbollah is deeply bogged down in Syria. While the group’s inability to disengage from Syria as long as the war rages on is somewhat obvious, less discussed is the question of the “day after.” Under what conditions would the group fully withdraw back to Lebanon, and what would constitute an acceptable outcome from Hezbollah’s point of view?
Make no mistake: Hezbollah is an interest-driven, strategic actor, and it understands the changing reality in Syria. As such, it is very unlikely that Hezbollah still hopes to achieve a comprehensive, undisputed, and crushing victory that would ensure the complete restoration of the status quo ante. If that were the group’s actual goal, then it would be preparing for a future characterized by unending conflict and perpetual intervention. Conversely, and leaving aside the feasibility of this outcome, it is equally unlikely that Hezbollah would peacefully back a political transition plan that aimed to remove the Syrian regime and replace it in its entirety with opposition forces. There is no doubt that the continuation of the war would be, at least for Hezbollah, a preferable outcome.
Between the delusional and the suicidal, Hezbollah might look favorably upon a range of less-than-perfect scenarios. A negotiated political transition would not necessarily be rejected, provided it ensured de facto power-sharing between pro- and anti-regime forces accompanied by decentralization and assurances that non-hostile forces would be deployed along the Syrian-Lebanese border. Still, in this scenario, the process of Hezbollah’s withdrawal from Syria would be long and complex with a combination of distrust and instability preventing the group from leaving the country overnight. Also, the eventual end of the Assad regime in this scenario would spell trouble for Hezbollah politically, not just by encouraging its domestic foes to increase pressure on the organization in Lebanon, but also by cracking its apparent invincibility. Similarly, a perceived draw in Syria could lead to more internal criticism within the Lebanese Shiite community, the backbone of Hezbollah’s support.
An alternative scenario that could be an acceptable outcome to Hezbollah would entail a situation that combined regime survival and its control of a relatively stable area of influence—whether brokered through a political agreement or crystalized de facto on the ground. Broadly speaking, the geographic boundaries of that area would ideally stretch from the coastal Latakia governorate in the north all the way south along the entire Lebanese-Syrian border and would include key centers like Damascus. A “friendly” area along the border would be important to Hezbollah for several reasons: it would create strategic depth against external foes—such as the so-called Salafi-jihadist camp; it would keep the group’s political opponents in Lebanon at bay; and it would allow the group to save face and prestige within its own constituency and to brand its Syrian campaign as a success. This outcome could be technically envisioned without Assad remaining in power. However, it is likely that both Hezbollah and Iran, deeply aware of the internal politics within the Syrian regime, would worry about the Syrian regime falling to pieces and succumbing to infighting in the event of the death or forceful removal of Assad.
Embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (Source: Abr/ Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom)
Even if Hezbollah could come to look positively upon this “frozen conflict” scenario, it still does not mean that the group would be able to disengage quickly from Syria. Indeed, with the capabilities of the Syrian forces severely hampered by years of conflict, Hezbollah may have to remain in Syria to play an auxiliary role and to keep the regime’s area of influence stable. In addition, the group must remain along the Lebanese side of the border to fulfill both defensive and deterrence roles and in the process consolidating its increased military presence within the Beqaa governorate.
In turn, this outcome reveals that Hezbollah’s fateful decision to become one of the warring parties goes well beyond the short-term or the tactical dimension. By crossing the Syrian “Rubicon,” Hezbollah changed its long-term future.
What Does the “Day After” Look Like for Hezbollah?
A brief consideration of Hezbollah’s withdrawal options reveals that the way out of Syria will be long and arduous for all parties. As such, the group’s area of operations and presence has expanded beyond Lebanon, and its regional involvement is here to stay at least in the short and medium term. The “day after” Hezbollah remains firmly rooted in Lebanon, but when it comes to its military presence and areas of influence and interest, the group is projected more strongly in Syria and along the entire Lebanese-Syrian border region. A bigger footprint in terms of military presence and areas of operations and a more robust regional role go hand-in-hand with the notion that the Syrian civil war has sped up the group’s evolution in military terms. Post-2006 Hezbollah was already a remarkable non-state armed group—growing in size, sophistication, and adopting a hybrid military doctrine that combined more traditional guerrilla warfare tactics with semi-conventional and conventional skills. However, its direct involvement in Syria has further enhanced this process with the organization acquiring unprecedented training and experience in conducting both offensive and defensive operations.
Unsurprisingly, these developments have direct consequences for Hezbollah’s main enemy: Israel. A more regional and more sophisticated Hezbollah means that chances of another war erupting are smaller yet more frightening: smaller because the de facto mutual deterrence between the two parties is, if anything, enhanced by Hezbollah’s evolution and because its active involvement in Syria means the group has no real strategic interest in beginning an armed confrontation; more frightening because a more sophisticated Hezbollah could inflict considerable damage upon its enemy extending the battlefield from Lebanon to the Syrian Golan resulting in a more intense confrontation for both sides.
While a bigger military machine could be seen as a positive development for the group, it is not without challenges. Sustaining its military efforts in Syria is complicated, especially as the group finds itself under growing international financial pressure. With complete withdrawal not likely to occur in the short term, Hezbollah finds itself in need of balancing its extensive military expenses with its considerable political and social activities. Beyond the financial aspect, the broader challenges derived from managing this expanded organization are not insignificant, especially while coping with losses of manpower.
There are substantial long-term political challenges resulting from the group’s Syrian involvement. Over the past decades, Hezbollah invested significant political capital in branding itself a strongly Arab, Lebanese, non-sectarian actor, both within Lebanon and across the region. This description was already contested by the group’s political foes well before 2011 both in Lebanon and in the broader Middle East. Still, the Syrian civil war has worsened sectarian cleavages, and in the day after, moving beyond sectarian politics will represent an incredibly difficult challenge. Both regionally and in Lebanon, the highly polarized and sectarian political climate will probably mean Hezbollah will continue to be seen as a divisive actor — a perception that will be further entrenched the longer the group stays in Syria. This view is likely to deepen the cleavages between the group and its enemies while encouraging even more strategic cooperation with its friends and allies, including Iran.
A second significant political dilemma that the group may very well face over time will be keeping internal criticism of the group’s Syria policy at bay, both within Hezbollah and within the Lebanese Shiite community at large. Again, while no substantial debate is likely to erupt as long as the civil war is fully raging and as long as the perception of being under takfiri attack persists, the combination of more time passing, more human losses, and more financial pressure will likely spur the development of more mainstream criticism.
The military, financial, and political implications of Hezbollah’s decision to participate in the Syrian civil war will necessarily extend well beyond the still elusive end of hostilities. In the past few years, analysts have often warned that Assad’s victory or downfall could very well spell, respectively, Hezbollah’s triumph or decline. This prediction could be true (albeit a bit too simplified), but it is important to remember that the impact of the Syrian conflict on the group is broader than that. After five years, Hezbollah is a more regional, more sophisticated, broader, more sectarian, and more divisive organization. The legacy and long-term impact of these trends will be lasting and pervasive for Hezbollah no matter what.
Takfir means excommunication in Arabic. Takfiris are those who excommunicate other Muslims for supporting interpretations of Islam that differ from their own, and thus consider them legitimate targets for attack.