With Syria and Iraq currently at the heart of the Middle Eastern debate, this article looks at the role of Hezbollah in the Syrian conflict and the potentially destabilising effects it is having on Lebanon. Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria has helped both prolong the fighting and preserve Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian President’s position. In a deeply rooted and ever-evolving sectarian conflict, Hezbollah has had a lot to gain from the alliance but the benefits have also come at a price, especially as victory for the Assad regime continues to be uncertain.
Origins: A battleground of proxies
Much to the relief and surprise of many in Lebanon, the contagious nature of the so-called Arab Spring spared a country that has been dragged through civil war, terrorist plots and numerous foreign occupations since the 1970s. Yet the dizzyingly complex web of alliances in place today have been woven inside Lebanon over many decades as Hezbollah, the Iranian backed Shi’ite movement, has grown in strength and consolidated its power. Home to 4.4 million people and 18 recognized religions and sects, Lebanon has become a crossroad for proxies created by the diverse interests of Iran, Israel and Syria, which have all met and clashed violently over the years.
No stranger to conflict, the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990 saw the entry of Israeli troops into the country in 1982 to protect its citizens from the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) operating within Southern Lebanon. Born out of a resistance movement, the ensuing war provided the impetus for the Iranian backed Shia movement Hezbollah to take form; united in its hatred of Israel, it would not rest until its enemy was “obliterated”. Hezbollah leaders were backed by Iran and supported by the Syrian state that provided easy access to arms. In return Syria had free access to continue its long history of meddling within Lebanon, unashamedly extracting money through bribes and drug trafficking. Following two decades of occupation, “victory” came when all Israeli troops finally withdrew from the Southern part of the country at the turn of the 21st century. As a result, Hezbollah was able to portray itself as the leader in freeing Lebanon of foreign armies and won fame and unquestioned support across Lebanese society. In return, the organisation was given sole use of weapons as the rightful defender of the country.
The decision to keep the Hezbollah militia armed has continued to define and secure the militia’s place within Lebanon by means of creating “a state within a state” that protects its prized position fiercely, seemingly stopping at little to outmanoeuvre and intimidate its rivals. In 2005, Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri, along with 22 others, became victims of terrorism following a collision with an explosive-packed suicide car. The Prime minister’s vision to reconstruct Lebanon was at odds with Syrian interests and unsurprisingly fingers were quickly pointing to Assad, whose army had been occupying Lebanon since 1976. The incident culminated in the “Cedar Revolution” where anti-Syria protests swept through Lebanon, causing, with added International pressure, Syrian troops to withdraw from the country and supposedly ending an era of political meddling and 29 years of occupation.
Turning Point – Hezbollah today
Although altered by the developments in Syria, the Assad-Hezbollah-Iranian alliance has returned to haunt the streets of Lebanon. Early on in the Syrian conflict, Hezbollah had tried to hide its involvement in the war by keeping funerals of Shia fighters low key and forbidding mention of the war. But by 2013 fighting needed to intensify to push back the Sunni rebels in Syria. Hezbollah’s Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah finally gave a televised speech in 2013 where he welcomed “a completely new phase” in the Middle Eastern conflict. The result was a public declaration of Hezbollah’s commitment to fighting with Assad’s government troops inside Syria. The unexpected strength of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS) was proving too strong for Assad’s troops to defeat alone, so to preserve its neighbours’ position, Iran sent Hezbollah to fight. Yet since 2013, despite the extra troops, no clear winner has emerged and the Syrian war continues unabated. With Iran’s Shi’ite forces now committed, there is no turning back for Hezbollah.
From its inception, Hezbollah was careful to define itself as a Lebanese group first and foremost; in a country with an equal amount of Christians, Shia and Sunni this was the best tactic to galvanise widespread support. Hezbollah’s role in Syria now goes against the earlier pragmatism of the image it portrayed and according to some, risks alienating non-Shia sectarian groups through its support of Assad, responsible for killing fellow Sunni neighbours.
Opinion is polarised further with increasing sectarian clashes breaking out at the Lebanese border after Hezbollah stepped up its involvement in Syria. Sunni terrorists quickly retaliated inside Lebanon, masterminding numerous suicide missions. The most brutal was the attack on the Iranian embassy in Beirut, designed to send a clear message to Iran and its local proxy, killing 23 and injuring 146 people.
Having contributed as much as $35 billion per year to help keep Assad in power, Iran has a lot at stake. If Assad should fall, Hezbollah will suffer, as will Iran who will find itself increasingly isolated.
The massive influx of refugees into Lebanon since the conflict is a concern for the fragile mix of people inside Lebanon. In 2013, the World Bank was already warning of the grave consequences the Syrian conflict was having on the country. To date there are now 1,174,690 registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon, which is about one quarter of the country’s total population representing a financial burden of three billion dollars. This is an overwhelming population growth for a country that has not fully recovered following the protracted period of civil war. Reports have also warned of resentment by locals who now compete for jobs and straining infrastructure.
The tensions that ignited in Arsal, a Sunni majority town in Lebanon in August 2014 is testimony to the problems caused by the growing refugee crisis and the dangers of extremism spilling over into the country. The Lebanese army was mobilised against the Nusra front and ISIS fighters who had taken over the town following the arrest by the Lebanese army of the commander of a syrian rebel group. In retaliation, members of the group took 25 Lebanese soldiers hostage. The army fought for 5 days in an attempt to release the hostages and liberate the town from militants. This has caused further resentment within the country as locals see the camps as breading grounds for organised terrorist activity.
The problems Lebanon faces with the Syrian crisis have raised numerous questions. The developing theme in recent Middle Eastern conflict rings true also within Lebanon and this is where the difficulty lies; the rich diversity housed within its borders can only be negotiated with the skill of a tightrope walker. Positioned in Syria’s back yard, Lebanon stands on the edges of a conflict engulfing its Sunni and Shia neighbours, where extremist elements relentlessly attempt to destroy the opposing side. Hezbollah has complicated the matter further and with its destiny now tied to the Assad regime, the group’s existence will now depend on its ability to adapt to the changing Middle Eastern climate.
Marie Mulville is currently studying for a Master’s in Diplomacy and Foreign Policy at City University in London. Marie’s interests include the Middle East, European Politics and Security.
You can find her on Twitter: @Marie_Mulville