Since the Arab uprisings in 2011, followed by authoritarian backlashes and the eruption of civil wars, one can say that the Middle East has been shaken greatly. At the same time, non-state actors as the Islamic State and Hezbollah have come to prominence for they have been shaping up the regional events. (BYMAN; SAAB, 2014; SULLIVAN, 2014). Hezbollah is nowadays Lebanon’s most powerful actor. (AZANI, 2013; BYMAN; SAAB, 2014; DEVORE; STAHLI, 2014). It has come to this position based on some strong pillars: its opposition to Israel, its proven military skills, its close ties to foreign supporters Iran and Syria, and its solid political/social position within Lebanon. (AZANI, 2013; DEVORE; STAHLI, 2014).
Hezbollah has long benefitted from the continuous support of Syria and Iran. (HOFFMANN, 2009; WIEGAND, 2009; BYMAN; SAAB, 2014; HUGHES, 2014; SULLIVAN, 2014; DEVORE; STAHLI, 2014; GUPTA, 2016). Without these two sponsors, Hezbollah would have probably not been able to build a state within a state and become a strong political actor within Lebanon and also grow into a daunting regional force. Apparently, Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria was not an option. The group could not just be a by-stander. If Assad loses, Hezbollah’s future might become grim, since Syria has not only been a key sponsor, but it has also for a long time played an important part in Lebanese politics. (BYMAN; SAAB, 2014; HUGHES, 2014; SULLIVAN, 2014; GUPTA, 2016; POLLAK, 2016). In case Assad is overthrown, Hezbollah would most likely lose its long established route for receiving weapons from Iran and also its weapons depots within Syria along with its training camps. In case Hezbollah loses its logistic hub and supply lines in Syria, it would be impaired in a possible future military conflict with Israel. (HOFFMANN, 2009; BYMAN; SAAB, 2014; SULLIVAN, 2014; CHOUCAIR, 2016; POLLAK, 2016). Furthermore, Hezbollah also fears the rise of a Sunni regime in Syria in case Assad falls. (BYMAN; SAAB, 2014; BYMAN, 2015; SULLIVAN, 2014).
Summing up, Hezbollah’s support for Assad regime aims at three objectives: first, preserving the ‘axis of resistance’ by aiding the regime’s military capacities; second, Hezbollah seeks to maintain its logistic hubs and supply lines in Syria; third, it seeks to prevent the appearance of a Sunni dominated regime in the country.
Since 2012, Hezbollah has been across the border fighting along side its Syrian and Iraqi counterparts. Hezbollah has entered the conflict as a key player, once Assad and Iraqi forces were very inefficient due to poor combat skills, ill discipline and weak leadership. On the other hand, Hezbollah’s soldiers were better trained, experienced and disciplined, which made them a far better military force. Hezbollah’s combatants have been effective in enhancing the regime’s military capabilities, especially in light infantry tactics, reconnaissance and sniper expertise. Consequently, it helped the regime to regain control of rebel-held areas. (BYMAN; SAAB, 2014; BYMAN, 2015; HUGHES, 2014; SULLIVAN, 2014; GUPTA, 2016; CHOUCAIR, 2016; POLLAK, 2016).
In the beginning of the conflict, the role of Hezbollah was primarily as a military advisor to Assad’s forces. But in 2013 its involvement shifted greatly once Hezbollah decided to lead a ground assault on Al-Qusayr, which is a majority Sunni town in Homs, near the border with Lebanon. At that time, Hezbollah amassed massive forces, not seen before in the Syrian conflict, and eventually it came out victorious. (BYMAN; SAAB, 2014; HUGHES, 2014; SULLIVAN, 2014; POLLAK, 2016). The victory in Al-Qusayr was a milestone in the conflict because it was a major defeat and a psychological blow to the rebel forces. Also, it was the first overt participation of Hezbollah in the conflict as a fighting force. After that battle, Assad’s forces gained a new momentum and moved on aiming to regain more territory in Homs, Aleppo and Damascus. Hezbollah kept fighting alongside them boosting Syrian forces on the battlefield. (BYMAN; SAAB, 2014; HUGHES, 2014; SULLIVAN, 2014; CHOUCAIR, 2016).
However, Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria has its impacts and consequences. Now it has to deal with Sunni extremism since its victories over Sunni enclaves within Syria made the sectarian tensions grow inside Lebanon, impacting directly in the country’s stability and security. (BYMAN; SAAB, 2014; HUGHES, 2014; CHOUCAIR, 2016). Additionally, there is also the problem posed by the 1,2 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, most of which are Sunni Muslims who see Hezbollah as an ally to their enemy. That might trigger their radicalization and their camps might also become a safe haven for Sunni fighters. Moreover, Sunni radicals that live in Syria could aspire to breach into Lebanon to chase Hezbollah and its supporters. (BYMAN; SAAB, 2014; HUGHES, 2014).
Another aspect that comes with Hezbollah’s participation in the Syrian civil war is that Hezbollah’s forces are now battle hardened and battle weary. After a few years in combat its forces got a valuable experience. The group has been deploying preferably its young recruits who are less experienced, so they can become seasoned fighters. It has been also a great chance to test its field commanders and make them more skilled. (BYMAN; SAAB, 2014; SULLIVAN, 2014; GUPTA, 2016; CHOUCAIR, 2016; POLLAK, 2016). Besides, some authors say that the war in Syria has enabled the creation of a sizeable experienced and interoperable force comprising Hezbollah, Iranian, Iraqi and Syrian forces. This level of cooperation and joint operations among them is said to be something new, not previously seen. This has given them important tools for future advance of their interests in the region, putting their rivals in alert. (SULLIVAN, 2014; BYMAN; SAAB, 2014).
On the other hand, fighting in Syria has bled on Hezbollah’s manpower along with its resources. The drain of keeping thousands of fighters in Syria as well as training them for battle also diverts Hezbollah from other organizational projects and priorities. Hence, this fact might help raise the perception of Hezbollah as a sectarian actor within Lebanon. (BYMAN; SAAB, 2014; GUPTA, 2016; CHOUCAIR, 2016).
For now that Assad’s forces have the upper hand and the Syrian-Lebanon border is stable and safe, the situation for Hezbollah is favorable and the costs of siding with Syria are manageable. Nevertheless, if the circumstances change for worse and Syria starts to lose, then the costs of supporting Assad’s regime will be much higher. (BYMAN; SAAB, 2014; SULLIVAN, 2014; POLLAK, 2016).
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Christian Vianna de Azevedo é Doutorando em Relações Internacionais pela PUC Minas. Mestre em Relações Internacionais pela PUC Minas.