Assessing the Consequences of Hezbollah’s Necessary War of Choice in Syria

While supportive of popular protesters and regime change in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, at no point has the Shi’a militant group Hezbollah signaled any intention of scaling back its support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. To the contrary, its support has steadily escalated from threats in 2011 to shift attention away from Syria to potential escalation along the UN Blue Line separating Israel and Lebanon to an increasing military role in Syria starting in 2012. It was at least in part thanks to Hezbollah that the Syrian military was able to retake the strategic rebel-held town of Qusayr on June 5, 2013.

To many observers, Hezbollah’s decision to commit to offensive military operations inside Syria in concert with Assad’s forces borders on the irrational. The move has heightened precarious Sunni-Shi’a tensions in Lebanon exponentially and has further undermined the country’s efforts to disassociate itself from the Syria conflict under the auspices of the so-called June 2012 “Baabda Declaration,” a pledge that includes noninterference in Syria’s conflict and was signed by all leading factions in Lebanon, including Hezbollah. To many Lebanese, such a projection of military force outside of Lebanon by Hezbollah or any other group is without precedent.

Although such concerns may be justified, Hezbollah’s choices reflect its own narrow set of overlapping priorities in Syria: the primacy of preserving the “Resistance Axis with Iran,” Hezbollah’s sense that it can neither appease increasingly militant Lebanese Sunni political forces nor reverse deepening regional Sunni-Shi’a tension, and that Shi’a communal fears as a regional minority group increasingly inform a need to create strategic depth in Syria. Taken together, these factors have led Hezbollah to a bitter conclusion: it can choose to fight Sunni forces in Syria today or fight Sunni forces in Lebanon tomorrow, should Assad fall.

Hezbollah is now engaged in what it considers to be a preemptive war of choice in Syria, albeit one that many within the group and the broader Shi’a community view as both necessary & inevitable. However, such a war also presents the group with very real long term risks and challenges. It endangers Shi’a communities in the Gulf, further alienates regional Arab public opinion, and pushes the United States to provide anti-Assad rebels with weapons in order to “rebalance” the conventional and asymmetric military balances in Syria. It also may be a prelude to a much deeper change for Hezbollah, whereby it becomes less of a “resistance” organization against Israel and more of a sectarian tool in the service of increasingly narrow Lebanese Shi’a interests.

Hezbollah’s Military Role in Syria

While Hezbollah initially avoided a direct military role in the Syria crisis, this changed starting in early 2012. The group prioritized its preliminary military efforts as follows: to defend the Sayyidah Zaynab Shrine, one of Shi’a Islam’s holiest sites on the outskirts of Damascus, to protect Lebanese Shi’a villages east of the Bekaa Valley, to offer counterinsurgency training to pro-Assad forces, to protect key thoroughfares linking Lebanon to Syria, and to play a minor combat support role in Zabadani between Damascus and the Lebanese border. By early 2013, Hezbollah’s priorities had significantly shifted to its combat and combat support roles with Assad’s forces east of the Bekaa Valley.

Reports from Lebanon and Europe place the estimated number of Hezbollah fighters within Syria at up to 4,000 in support of Assad’s forces. It is worth noting that other estimates on Hezbollah fighters in Syria vary from as little as 2,000 to as much as 10,000. The disparities reflect the challenges of getting an accurate picture of Hezbollah’s force commitment level, never mind the current disposition of its overall fighting strength. However, it is important to remember that many of these estimates of Hezbollah’s manpower levels in Syria are “guesstimates.”

As of mid-June 2013, Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria appears to have helped shape regime victories in areas opposite the Lebanese Bekaa Valley, especially in and around the town of Qusayr. Strategically significant as an opposition lifeline for aid, weapons, and fighters from Lebanon, the retaking of Qusayr secures the regime’s western flank as it pushes to consolidate its hold on Homs and access to the mainly Alawite coast, cuts off rebel supply lines, and signals to the international community that the Assad regime is far from beaten. However, Qusayr may be even more important to Hezbollah. Qusayr sits on a direct road link to the mainly Shi’a Lebanese town of Hermel, a north-eastern stronghold of the Shi’a militant group and a key pipeline for overland weapons transfers from Iran via Syria. Qusayr is also ringed by Shi’a Lebanese villages inside Syria which Hezbollah feels both obligated and under pressure to protect.

From a military standpoint, Hezbollah’s engagements east of the Lebanese Bekaa Valley have not been without cost. According to Syrian opposition and anti-Hezbollah Shi’a sources, the number of Hezbollah fighters killed in the first week of the main offensive to retake Qusayr was between 70 and 110. This reflects in part the reality that although well trained, many of Hezbollah’s fighters in Qusayr were largely untested in combat. The high initial death toll may also point to the Syrian rebels’ use of some of Hezbollah’s own sniping and booby-trapping techniques; techniques that the Shi’a group shared in joint training exercises with Hamas and that the Palestinian militant group may have passed on to the rebels in turn.

While these initial losses are significant, Hezbollah can continue to absorb more combat deaths, largely thanks to the dramatic expansion of the group’s armed wing in the wake of the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war. Compared to some 3,000 fighters in 2006, Hezbollah’s current fighting strength may be estimated at around 20,000-30,000, of which some 25 percent may be full-time active duty personnel. Meanwhile, preliminary reports indicate that Hezbollah’s forces in Qusayr were far more disciplined and employed superior tactics, communication, and were better coordinated than their Syrian rebel opponents. Difficult battles like the one in Qusayr against similarly committed and ideological opposition fighters ensure that tomorrow’s veterans from the war in Syria will form a combat-tested Hezbollah fighting core that may complicate future engagements against the IDF, to say nothing of Lebanese or Syrian Sunni militants.

“Preserving the Resistance,” “Protecting the Shi’a”

Beyond questions about the scale and depth of its military role in Syria, Hezbollah’s policy choices reflect five key shifts in the group’s assessment of the trajectory and the risks posed by the Syria conflict and regional Sunni-Shi’a competition in the year since the Baabda Declaration was signed. While many are tied to Hezbollah’s strategic relationship with Iran, previously less significant factors (including internal Lebanese Shi’a pressures) have taken on far greater importance.

First, the “Resistance Axis” linking Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah is under unprecedented threat, and Hezbollah is bandwagoning with Tehran and the Assad regime to prevent a negative outcome for the alliance. While Iran and Hezbollah initially assessed that the Assad regime could defeat its opponents on its own, that assumption came under intense internal scrutiny starting in mid-2012, prompting a more direct Hezbollah role in Syria. Assad’s Syria has been a key lifeline of support to Hezbollah from its patron Iran, and its loss could prove critical to Tehran’s ability to influence the Levant and the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the group’s long term local and regional posture. While other ways exist for Iran to deliver weapons to Hezbollah, most are subject to interdiction. Though Israeli air strikes are a growing threat, overland routes are still the most effective means of resupply.
Second, there is little that Hezbollah can or wants to do to address socioeconomic shifts in Lebanon’s Sunni community or to appease increasing Sunni militancy in Lebanon. This is especially true in the rural north of the country. Lebanon’s predominantly Sunni north has the country’s highest extreme and overall poverty rates with more than 50 percent of the population living under the poverty line in 2005, a pattern that has persisted and expanded through 2013. Illiteracy rates, unemployment, and the presence of the Lebanese state are also at or among the lowest levels in Lebanon. Lebanon’s northern rural Sunnis also suffered greatly in terms of loss of income and infrastructure as a result of both the Israeli-Hezbollah war in 2006 and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) counter-terrorism operation in the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp in 2007 against the Fatah al-Islam jihadist group.

The absence of state aid and support, an increasing sense of collective marginalization, and the perceived weaknesses of mainstream Sunni Lebanese political forces in the face of Hezbollah and the Assad regime have only facilitated Syrian opposition recruitment efforts in northern Lebanon. As a result, this Sunni rural demographic is likely to continue providing fighters in Syria against Assad and Hezbollah forces, and there is very little that the Shi’a militant group can do to either address or reverse these trends on its own. Accordingly, Hezbollah has increasingly come to expect that tension, if not outright confrontation and violence, between its members and Lebanon’s northern Sunnis is only a matter of time. Over time, this may spread to key urban centers as well.

Third, Lebanese public sentiments reflect ever-deepening regional Sunni resentment against Iran and its mainly Shi’a allies in the region. According to a 2012 Pew Global Attitudes poll conducted in Lebanon, 97 percent of Shi’a respondents felt that Assad should not step down from power, whereas 80 percent of Sunnis polled felt he should. In addition, while 96 percent of Shi’as sampled had favorable views of Assad, 92 percent of Sunnis had unfavorable views. A similar poll in May 2011 showed that 87 percent of Shi’a had favorable views of Hezbollah. By contrast, 90 percent of Sunnis had unfavorable views. Meanwhile, an older Pew poll in 2009 showed that 97 percent of Shi’a and only 2 percent of Sunnis had a favorable view of Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, while 94 percent of Sunnis and only 8 percent of Shi’a had favorable views of Saudi King Abdullah, the leader of a key patron state of Lebanon’s Sunni community.

Over time, differences in Lebanese Sunni and Shi’a public opinion on key political and national security issues have diverged to the point that they are essentially mirror images of each other. Hezbollah’s actions in Syria will only further deteriorate Sunni public sentiment. However, the Shi’a group has already internalized and accepted that it can do little to reverse or win back Lebanese Sunni public sentiment in the short term. Unlike tribal and rural northern Sunni communities, Hezbollah does not expect urban Sunnis in Beirut, Saida, and other urban centers to break with a pattern of militant rhetoric that has generated only sporadic and ineffectual Sunni armed militancy since Lebanese independence in 1943. At best, it hopes to leverage links to other factions with ties to the Sunnis,  including the Druze led by Walid Jumblatt and Nabih Berri’s Shi’a Amal, and its organizational and military clout to contain if not confront growing Sunni anger and resentment.

Fourth, should Assad fall and be replaced by a more militant Sunni-led government, Hezbollah believes it is only a matter of time before it will have to face off against emboldened Lebanese Sunnis at home. Were Hezbollah to avoid getting entangled in Syria’s civil war, it may have avoided a clash with Lebanon’s Sunnis in the short term. However, both Hezbollah’s consistent support for Assad throughout the crisis and the fact that losing Assad all but ensures diminished access to Iranian aid and weapons have complicated such a response. Hezbollah’s choices also all but ensure that should Assad fall, it is only a matter of time before emboldened Lebanese Sunnis—part of a perceived wave of regional Sunni activism and ascendancy—turn their attention to Hezbollah in a bid to curtail its autonomy and military capabilities. These dynamics also partially inform Hezbollah’s preference for what it views as a role in a war against Sunni forces in Syria today, rather than a war against Sunni forces in Lebanon tomorrow.

Lastly, given the growing scale of regional and local Sunni-Shi’a pressures, regime change in Damascus is increasingly viewed by Lebanon’s Shi’as community through the lens of a regional minority engaging in preemptive offensive operations to create strategic depth—a pattern with clear parallels within both pre- and post-independence Israeli national security politics. At the start of the Syria crisis, many questioned whether Hezbollah should support Assad rather than accept the prospect of his ouster. However, the rise of Jihadi and more hardline Islamist Sunni forces both in Syria and in Lebanon in 2012 and 2013 have helped Hezbollah galvanize Shi’a public opinion.

Lebanon’s Shi’as now expect Hezbollah to play a role in the defense of narrow communal interests, which facilitates the Shi’a militant group’s decision to commit further resources in Syria. It also explains why Hezbollah and other segments of Lebanon’s Shi’a political establishment have banded together with the Alawites, a sect that many Shi’a (and most Sunnis) continue to consider a non-Muslim heretical sect. The Shi’a, the region’s “Muslim minority,” are increasingly pushing Hezbollah to bandwagon with other Lebanese communities that more or less feel similar concerns about a “regional Sunni wave,” such as the country’s Maronite and Orthodox Christians, and to a lesser extent the Druze.

The Promises & Pitfalls of Hezbollah Escalation in Syria

In electing to pursue decisive military action in Syria, Hezbollah is gambling that its policy choices will provide it, its constituents, and external allies with greater security and other windfalls from any hypothetical victory in Syria.
By committing its forces in Syria, Hezbollah expects to provide the Assad regime with some much needed breathing room in order the reorganize his forces, integrate new lessons learned, and carry on to a string of victories against the armed opposition. The preferred outcome here is total victory, or at least enough gains so as to preserve Syria as the linchpin of the “Resistance Axis” linking Iran to Hezbollah.

Assad and Hezbollah successes on the battlefield could also thwart the aspirations of the mainly Sunni Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Not unlike its ally Hezbollah, keeping Assad in power appears to be only the first option for Iran. Tehran’s secondary strategy centers on regime failure and a recalibration of Iranian strategy in Syria geared towards preventing the emergence of a stable Sunni-dominated government in Damascus. Should the Assad regime truly destabilize, Syria will likely supplement if not outright replace Iraq as a key arena for regional competition between Iran on the one hand and the United States and its Arab Gulf allies on the other.
Success in Syria by the so-called “Resistance Axis” would also allow Hezbollah to expand both its reputation in the region, and cement at least some ability to deter local and regional opponents. It could also allow Hezbollah, and by definition the Shi’a of Lebanon, to shape and influence Lebanese domestic politics from a position of strength. Playing a preponderant military role in northeastern Lebanon and east of the Bekaa Valley could also serve to both preserve the security and autonomy of Shi’a communities there, all while preempting Sunni escalation against the militant group and its constituents.

However, Hezbollah will also have to contend with some very real risks as a result of escalating its military role in Syria. The conflict has already exposed Hezbollah to the deepening sectarian nature of local and regional competition. The group is increasingly engaged in the kinds of operations that have very little to do with “resisting” Israel. This exposure both reflects the sheer scale of regional Sunni-Shi’a tension and the very real prospect that the war in Syria may prompt fundamental—and potentially irreversible—changes within Hezbollah itself. Lebanon’s Shi’a increasingly view Hezbollah as a praetorian Shi’a defense force, engaged in “preemptive self-defense.” This in turn detracts from the preferences of many of the group’s more ideological leaders: maintaining Hezbollah’s role as a launchpad for Iranian efforts to shape the Arab-Israeli conflict. Over time, the Shi’a militant group may have more in common with a narrowly defined sectarian militia than with  an ideological effort to contain or confront Israel.

An expanding military role in Syria also opens up Lebanon’s Shi’a to other threats. While most of the Shi’a community remains firmly behind Hezbollah, the group’s role in the Syria conflict has spurned a tense debate both within the Shi’a and the group itself. Many are not happy with Hezbollah’s loss of legitimacy in the Arab world and are concerned about preserving their interests in the broader Middle East. Shi’a Lebanese expatriate communities in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have come under increasing scrutiny and pressure for perceived ties to the Shi’a militant group. This pattern is only likely to get worse as the battle for Syria and Saudi-Iranian regional competition escalates, and Hezbollah’s choices in Syria could prompt the mass expulsion of Lebanese Shi’a, and those associated with them, from mainly Sunni Gulf states.

Should the group suffer losses or significant reversals in Syria or mismanage an already precarious dynamic with GCC states, there could be an embarrassing opportunity for new or competing political forces within the community to assert themselves. This emergence is also a risk if there is a wave of Sunni retaliation against Hezbollah in the form of civil violence or terror attacks against or in mainly Shi’a areas in Lebanon. There is no immediate political challenger to Hezbollah within the Shi’a community, as both the group and, ironically, its opponents have successfully painted anti-Hezbollah Shi’a forces as being too close to U.S. and Western interests. However, as the recent death of a young anti-Hezbollah Shi’a protester in front of the Iranian embassy in Beirut shows, the group, or at least its supporters, is sensitive to even hints of internal Shi’a dissention. It also shows that they can react in ways that only hurt Hezbollah in the longer term. Either way, all of these pressures on the Shi’a home front are risks that Hezbollah can scarcely afford to ignore.

There is also the danger of Hezbollah actions dramatically accelerating major shifts currently under way within the Sunni community. Hezbollah has calculated that moderate and urban Sunni factions will not escalate with direct attacks against the group or the Shi’a community. However, the rural Sunnis in the north and the Bekaa have always been a separate demographic, and the failure of moderate Sunni leaders to champion their interests has left them feeling unrepresented. Regional Sunni-Shi’a tension, the perceived power of Hezbollah, the emergence of new and more sectarian Sunni political figures, and the emergence of a mainly Sunni opposition in Syria are all serving to mobilize the poorer rural Sunnis. This is not without precedent; similar patterns decades earlier led to the founding of the Shi’a Amal movement in 1974. Ultimately, Hezbollah’s actions could lead to escalating levels of hostility and a willingness to engage in armed violence that it would not otherwise expect to see from Lebanon’s Sunni community.

Hezbollah also faces military threats at both the tactical and strategic levels from its commitments in Syria. So far there has been no meaningful response or negative side effects from Hezbollah operations in Damascus, Zabadani or Qusayr. However, should the group commit major forces as far afield as Aleppo—as many suspect it might—this could expose the group to overstretch in terms of its forces and supply lines. In addition, given the stakes involved, Aleppo could be the Syrian opposition’s Stalingrad: a battle that could imperil the entire armed revolt against Assad, and that the opposition cannot afford to lose.

The recent successes of Assad’s forces backed by Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’a factions has also put pressure on the US and its allies to “rebalance’ the conventional and asymmetric military balance in Syria. On June 13, the U.S. administration announced that it will move to arm “vetted” moderate or nationalist rebel factions in Syria. While humanitarian considerations tied to the scale of suffering in Syria and both the regional refugee crisis are on the minds of many in the United States, Hezbollah could not have expected that the United States would simply ignore a dramatic shift in the battle for Syria in ways that only benefit Assad and its allies. Many in Lebanon, including Hezbollah, do not expect more direct U.S. military intervention or the establishment of a “no fly” or a “no move” zone in Syria. However, should Hezbollah decide to back Assad’s forces more directly in other theaters in Syria—including Aleppo—that may alter the calculus of the United States and its allies and prompt another round of escalation and counter-escalation in the Levant.

Expanding further west in Syria presents other strategic threats to Hezbollah; while the group claims to have tens of thousands of volunteers it can commit to the fight, doing so risks undermining the group’s ability to cope with any resumption of large scale hostilities with Israel in either southern Lebanon or on Hezbollah’s eastern flank on the Golan Heights. Even without a hypothetical deployment to Aleppo, Hezbollah is more exposed than ever to Israeli military action in Lebanon and Syria. The group worked hard in 2012 and 2013 to minimize tensions along the UN Blue Line and potential escalation with Israel. However, recent Israeli raids against suspected weapons transfers to Hezbollah put the group under even greater pressure as it battles pressures to retaliate on the one hand and to avoid a multivector conflict on three fronts on other.

What Next for Hezbollah and the Shi’a of Lebanon?

Despite all of these patterns, risks, and opportunities, the underlying problem facing Lebanon remains fundamentally unchanged since at least 2006: the Ta’if Accord that ended the country’s 15-year civil war and redistributed political power along sectarian lines has been fundamentally unable to regulate intercommunal tensions or stabilize Lebanon. Unless Sunni and Shi’a competing interests are taken into account in a future efforts to share power in Beirut, these two communities are liable to come to blows sooner rather than later.
In many ways, Hezbollah and its allies have become increasingly guilty of the same charges of political largess, corruption, and political mismanagement that they have often levied against their Sunni and Christian opponents. This complicates a realistic deescalation of Sunni-Shi’a tensions in the country. In addition, the kind of sweeping renegotiation of power politics in Lebanon that the country may need is unlikely to be possible prior to a settlement of the Syria conflict. There is also the real problem that the United States and its allies are unlikely to accommodate Russian, Chinese, or Iranian interests or policy preferences in ways that allow Hezbollah to remain a preeminent military force in the Levant.

In the interim, Hezbollah will continue to work to undermine U.S., Western and Arab Gulf states’ interests in the Levant, even if the United States and its allies move to arm the rebels or to create “no fly” or “no move” zones in Syria. However, whether it can do that effectively without undermining Hezbollah’s own raison d’etre, triggering unchecked Sunni-Shi’a violence at home, or without undermining the stability of Lebanon and the security of the country’s Shi’a community remains questionable at best.

Aram Nerguizian is a senior fellow with the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.