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Hezbollah Enters the Syrian Fray

On Monday Arab governments in the Persian Gulf pledged to put sanctions on the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah. The militia-cum-political party’s foray into neighboring Syria, in an attempt to protect the regime of Bashar al-Assad, has elicited widespread condemnation across the Middle East. Its estimated 1,700 fighters inside Syria bolstered Alawite militias and the Syrian army units in their capture of the border town of Qusayr. This important node for rebel supplies from Lebanon and a key town on the route between Damascus and the coast will not be the last to fall at the hands of these outside invaders.

The group, whose political wing had previously insisted that it represented Lebanese across the sectarian spectrum, has now been forced to show its true colors.  At stake, are crucial supply routes from Iran and, the overlooked fact that whomever sits in Damascus heavily influences Lebanese politics. Hezbollah’s leaders, including Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, have framed the intervention into Syria as part of the wider struggle against Western and Israeli domination of the region. They have even gone as far to say that Sunni fundamentalists, a catch-all term used to describe Syrian rebels by their detractors, are in cahoots with these powers to overthrow the “Resistance Block”; Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. In doing so, they have put themselves in direct confrontation with rebel backers, including Saudi Arabia, which with the help of the United States and Jordan has sought to become the premier supplier of the Free Syrian Army and other rebel factions.

Given the historical and mutual disdain between Hezbollah and the Arab Gulf, it is clear that key rebel backers including Saudi Arabia and Qatar will now see to it that the Shiite militia’s first foreign intervention is one marred with difficulties. Two directly related shifts in the conflict will become increasingly visible in reaction to Hezbollah’s commitment to keep Bashar in power. The first and overarching of which is a common sense calculation by the House of Saud to increase their monetary and logistical support to rebels on the ground. With the recent expansion of Saudi intelligence operations, from the Jordanian front to the town of Qusayr, further to the North-West, it is clear that the Kingdom believes that it can sufficiently bolster rebel capacities vis-à-vis Hezbollah. By opening a front between the groups it supports and Hezbollah, it is clear that an attempted quagmire is in the making.

Furthering support for this claim, is the fact that many Hezbollah commanders, according to press reports, complained about the sophistication of rebel weapons. Having limitedly supported Bashar from the start—with the use of special operations teams—the group believed that they were to face poorly armed and trained rebel fighters. In Qusayr, particularly with the intervention of Free Syrian Army brigades from the north of the country, the group found itself fighting a pitched battle against well-trained and armed rebel units, which lasted 17 days. This from a fighting force that in 2006 showed the world how it could bring Israel to a hurting stalemate utilizing a combination of conventional and guerilla tactics. Weapons were key to the slowing down of the Hezbollah-led offensive, supplied by, yes, Saudi Arabia. They were also important in the primary area of Saudi support, pestering regime forces in the southern city of Der’a and the southern suburbs of Damascus. The second area of which has since be partially taken back by the regime. Weapons may also bring Hezbollah to recalculate what may become its biggest misadventure.

While this may be cause for applause in the palaces of the desert kingdom and hawkish circles in Washington, there is a complementary cause for concern. Increased Hezbollah involvement and acts of revenge by rebel groups receiving Saudi Arabian support threatened to further destabilize the Lebanese-Syrian border. Rockets have landed in the Hezbollah supportive town of Hermal in the Bekaa Valley, recently killing one resident. Acts such as this one are likely to increase as Hezbollah is called upon to deepen its intervention in Syria further than the governorate of Homs. Tensions will also be fed by Saudi Arabian, Gulf and private donor funding of these groups. The northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, home to supports of both sides of the Syrian revolution has also witnessed increased shootouts that leaked into the middle of the city for the first time.

While funding for rebel groups, particularly in the face of increased involvement by Hezbollah, is required for the revolution to continue, many proactive steps must be taken to ensure a limited spillover into Lebanon. Major steps by the West would be needed to ensure a revamped dialogue between Lebanese political leaders; support the Lebanese military in securing Tripoli; call on the Lebanese government to utilize the military in a policing role along the border, stop resupplies to both sides; and continue to work on obtaining the attendance of all parties to any Geneva 2 summit. Without these steps, increased Hezbollah participation in Syria has the potential to destabilize the government in Beirut and allow Lebanon to become part of a proxy conflict to the revolution. With Aleppo in its sights, the regime and by extension, Hezbollah, are quickly turning this fear into a reality.

 

Author

Alexander Corbeil
Alexander Corbeil

Alexander Corbeil is a Substantive Analyst with The SecDev Group focusing on conflict and instability in the developing world. He has written on the topics of radicalization, sectarianism and terrorism in the Levant and Iraq for a number of publications and is also a contributor to Sada: Middle East Analysis. You can follow Alexander @alex_corbeil

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