Last week, Hasan Nasrullah openly declared Hizbullah’s support for the Asad regime in Syria, referring to its fight as Hizbullah’s fight and explicitly calling out the “takfiri” (radical Salafist) influence as a threat to both Lebanon and Syria. In some ways, this is nothing new – it’s been clear since the onset of the Syrian uprising that Hizbullah is committed to backing the Asad regime. There are a number of reasons for this:
- Most obviously, Hizbullah badly needs both the arms Syria provides directly and the corridor for Iranian arms it provides indirectly. The former means it doesn’t want the regime to fall in general, and the latter that it doesn’t want it to lose control of territory in the border region in specific, which is why the battle for Qusayr is so critical.
- Syria has historically exercised a great deal of influence in Lebanese politics, and its backing has benefited Hizbullah, in some ways, some of the time, though not in all ways and not all of the time.
- More broadly, being embedded in the “axis of resistance” is far better for Hizbullah than going it alone, for both practical and symbolic reasons. Until recently, the major members of this alliance were Hamas, Hizbullah, Iran and Syria. But Hamas jumped ship last year, leaving the coalition without a significant Palestinian member. (Reports this week of Palestinian refugees burning Hizbullah aid packages are probably a little exaggerated but are still lousy press for Hizbullah.) The fall of the Syrian government would leave Iran and Hizbullah isolated and deepen the sense of both as Shi’ite outsiders in the Arab world.
- In some ways, this is simply politics as usual in Lebanon. There is a long tradition of Lebanese factions seeking military and political support from outside parties, be it the PLO, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United States, France, or whoever else seems sympathetic. Hizbullah is not the only party in Lebanon taking sides in Syria. Driving around the Sunni neighborhood of Bab al Tabbaneh in Tripoli last summer, I saw FSA flags on every available surface, often paired with a poster of a local sheikh. Some Sunni politicians are clearly attempting to link their political fortunes to the popularity of the FSA as a way of improving their own position vis a vis their rivals within the Sunni community.
But until last week, Hizbullah hadn’t openly declared that it was militarily committed in Syria, I think in large part because Hizbullah wanted to avoid aggravating tensions between the Sunni and Alawite communities in Tripoli, and between Sunnis and Shi’ites more generally. The official line of the Lebanese government has been to disengage itself from what’s going on in Syria (although there was never much of a chance that it would be able to do so, especially given that Syrian refugees now make up something like 20% of the population) and Hizbullah seemed content not to openly challenge that policy, especially since it’s part of the current ruling coalition. In any case, they haven’t seemed interested in importing the Syrian conflict into Lebanon.
So, why the sudden open declaration of support? This is, after all, tricky territory for Hizbullah. As with most militant organizations with powerful external sponsors, it has had to carefully balance the preferences of its sponsors, Iran and Syria, both against one another and against its domestic agenda. The question for Hizbullah (which its domestic adversaries raise at every conceivable opportunity, occasionally while setting fire to piles of tires at strategic intersections) is what happens when those imperatives come into conflict? Since the end of the civil war in 1990, Hizbullah has worked hard to re-brand itself as a primarily Lebanese political party engaged in resistance activities for Lebanon’s benefit, rather than as an Iranian client with a transnational Shi’ite agenda – in the late 1990s, for instance, it changed the slogan on its flags from “the Islamic Revolution in Lebanon” (a clear reference to Iran’s Islamic Revolution) to “the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon”, which has a more nationalist tone. By openly involving itself in Syria, Hizbullah risks providing ammunition to its opponents who accuse it of prioritizing Syrian and Iranian interests over Lebanese interests.
So, why now the very public commitment to military involvement in Syria? I can think of several reasons:
- Managing the story. Hizbullah has an exceptionally well run media relations apparatus and the organization is extremely savvy about PR. Hizbullah’s leadership may well have determined that the degree of engagement necessary to help secure Qusayr would make plausible deniability impossible and continued denials more than a little silly looking, and that it made more sense to make a public commitment instead and try to control the narrative for domestic political reasons.
- To demonstrate resolve, to the FSA and to the United States. Hizbullah poses a very real threat to Asad’s opponents. After all, Syrian troops can perhaps be tempted to defect to the opposition, but Hizbullah fighters? Not so much. By publicly committing to backing Asad, Hizbullah has signaled to both the Syrian opposition and the US that it can and will make both escalation within Syria and further foreign involvement both painful and costly.
- To demonstrate its commitment to Asad himself. By publicly framing the fight in Syria as part of its own vital interests, Hizbullah has signaled that it’s willing to take some serious domestic risks for the sake of its relationship with Syria.
Still, there are bound to be costs to this decision. Hizbullah has already been criticized for risking Lebanon’s stability by involving itself in Syria. Lebanon’s domestic politics are increasingly fragile, particularly given parliament’s (unconstitutional) decision to renew its own term and delay this summer’s scheduled elections. And Hizbullah’s own position in the Shi’ite community probably isn’t as rock solid as it once was. For now, Hizbullah appears to have calculated that the risks of not supporting Asad are greater than the risks of supporting him, but I would imagine that there are people in the party who are more than a little worried about where all this is heading.