Hezbollah has been deeply affected by the ongoing civil war in Syria.

The group’s unwavering political support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad and increasingly direct military involvement in the war has transformed the group into a de facto party to the Syrian conflict.

More profoundly, Hezbollah’s direct participation in the civil war poses challenges to the group’s political standing and role both in Lebanon and the region more generally.

While Hezbollah initially welcomed the Arab Spring’s early protests in January/February 2011, the group’s enthusiasm waned when political demonstrations arrived in Syria.

Hezbollah responded to the initial anti-Assad demonstrations by downplaying their magnitude and importance, while immediately expressing solidarity with the Syrian regime.

This approach seemed based more on political interest than ideology. The Assad regime had been a key political ally for the group since the end of the Lebanese civil war and since the beginning of Syria’s de fact control of Lebanon between 1989 and 2005. Since the end of Syria’s ‘tutelage’ in 2005, Hezbollah had become one of the major pro-Syria political forces in the country.

In siding with the Syrian regime, Hezbollah hoped the status quo in Syria and Lebanon would remain unchanged, and the alliance between the group, the Syrian regime, and Iran would continue.

During the early stages of the Syrian conflict, Hezbollah support for Assad mostly consisted of offering political support. While the organization was also likely involved in providing logistical advice and some level of military assistance, Hezbollah actively refused to become directly involved in the Syrian civil war.

Nonetheless, the group’s role in the Syrian conflict grew in magnitude as the initial low-intensity confrontation spiraled into a bloody and pervasive civil war. Gradually, Hezbollah stopped watching the conflict from the sidelines and decided to intervene directly to provide the Assad regime with military support.[1]

Since the start of the Syrian civil war, Nasrallah has also gone to great lengths to explain the group’s position on the ‘exceptional character’ of the conflict. Hezbollah has rejected accusations that it has applied ‘double-standards’ in its approach to the Arab Awakening and emphasized that the Syrian regime, unlike other regional actors, was ready and willing to reform.

The group has argued that the reason behind international pressure against Assad was neither its poor governance record, nor its authoritarian style, but rather its involvement in the ‘resistanceIn the past year, Hezbollah’s public discourse on Syria has emphasized the self-described ‘link’ between the struggle for Syria and the group’s regional ‘resistance’ against ‘foreign interests.’

Similarly, Hezbollah has also tied the conflict in Syria to the occupation of Palestine. It has described Syria as standing at the forefront of the regional struggle for Palestinian self-determination and warned that the fall of the Assad regime would weaken both the Palestinian cause and the ‘resistance movement.’

As Hezbollah became involved militarily, the group began bashing the anti-Assad opposition forces. It was in this context that the group openly admitted its military involvement in the civil war and stated that the ‘friends of Syria’ would not allow the country to fall into the hands of ‘takfiri groups” [2] [implicitly referring to parts of the anti-Assad forces as ‘radicals’, groups that are ideologically close to Al-Qaeda].

These statements are especially important in the context of rising sectarian overtones gripping the Syrian civil war.

Sectarian-based rhetoric about the conflict, point to Hezbollah’s involvement as an example of the allegedly religious backdrop to events inside Syria. These narratives also mark the very deep political (and increasingly sectarian) lines forming between the Lebanese-Shiite organization and anti-Assad forces, which include players inside Syria as well as regional actors, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Hezbollah’s support for the Assad regime has thus far cost the group its regional reputation and popularity. With its direct military involvement in the civil war, Hezbollah’s critics have become even more vocal in expressing their disapproval and accusing the group of supporting oppression and autocracy to defend its own (as well as Iranian) self-interests.

This circumstance is particularly damaging for Hezbollah, which built its reputation on ‘resisting’ external enemies, while emphasizing its role as a protector of both Lebanese and Arab rights.

Now, Hezbollah’s claimed unwillingness to turn its weapons ‘inwards’ has been seriously tarnished. What is more, within Lebanon, the deep tensions between the pro-Assad forces led by Hezbollah and the pro-opposition forces led by the March 14 coalition have created a paralyzed, toxic, and unstable domestic context.

Occasionally, and with increasing frequency, these political tensions have escalated into armed clashes. This situation has been aggravated by local Lebanese Salafists, who have become more visible thanks to the Syrian uprising. Their strong support for anti-Assad forces in Syria has been matched by vitriolic attacks against Hezbollah in Lebanon.

So far, Hezbollah’s strategy has been to invest itself in fighting in Syria, while deliberately avoiding involvement in armed clashes inside Lebanon. Yet, with the war in Syria increasingly assuming a sectarian tenor and with an increasing number of Lebanese Shiites and Sunnis directly involved in supporting pro- and anti-Assad military forces, there is no way of guaranteeing that violence will not be exported into the country.

In this context, the May 2013 rocket attack against the Dahiye neighborhood, a Hezbollah-stronghold in south Beirut, and the more recent car bombing in July 2013, again targeting the Dahiye, all point to rising internal tensions and domestic polarization.

Hezbollah has invested its political and military capital as well as its reputation in fighting for Assad’s survival. In the short term, as the civil war continues, the group will suffer not only because of military casualties in Syria, but also because of the negative effect on its regional reputation and sectarian relations in Lebanon.

In the long term, the downfall of the Syrian regime would spell even more trouble for Hezbollah, further weakening its domestic and regional standing (as well as those of the group’s strongest ally, Iran), while simultaneously empowering its political foes within Lebanon.

 



[1]The recent example of Hezbollah’s auxiliary role in helping the Syrian Army retake the area around al-Qusayr serves as a powerful example that the Lebanese, Shiite organization has gradually become a party to the conflict.

[2] Literally, ‘takfiris’ refers to the practice of declaring another Muslim as a “false believer”. In this context it refers to radical Salafist groups who have given themselves the right to declare other Muslim individuals or groups as ‘takfiris’ (going against both tradition and mainstream practice).

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