Sources in the Free Syrian Army, the main armed group fighting to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad, are announcing that its soldiers have bombed two Hezbollah compounds, one in Syria and another in the Lebanese town of Hermel. If confirmed, the development may mark a critical turn in Syria’s two-year war, bearing out fears that the increasingly sectarian conflict would spill over across Syria’s borders.
Yesterday, FSA Chief of Staff Gen. Salim Idris gave Hezbollah an unprecedented ultimatum: withdraw its forces from Syria within 48 hours or face attack.
Turkey’s Anadolu news agency reported that Hezbollah put its forces on high alert in eight villages near the Syrian-Lebanese border, while opposition sources told the Al-Arabiya satellite station that fighting between the FSA and Hezbollah continued today.
The Political War In Lebanon
Hezbollah is also also scrambling politically. On Tuesday, tensions in Lebanon boiled over following a parliamentary decision to allow a vote on the so-called “Orthodox Gathering” bill that would fundamentally change the country’s voting system. Hundreds of people filled the streets of Beirut in protest, while a considerable number of others rallied in favor.
The existing electoral framework is grounded in agreements hammered out in 1961, and in large part it maintains the power of the old elites – both Christian and Sunni – while marginalizing Shiites. The new law would have every Lebanese religious sect vote only for members of its same confession, based on a new geographic delineation of regions and districts. The new system would vastly increase the power of Hezbollah’s March 8 Alliance and of Lebanon’s Shiite camp in general.
It remains unclear whether the bill will pass in parliament, and of course Hezbollah’s rival March 14 Alliance is vehemently against it. Hezbollah’s push for the legislation highlights the dimensions along which it is working to retain control of Lebanon.
The Proxy War In Syria
It bears emphasis that in recent weeks the group’s activities in both Lebanon and Syria have heightened and become more open. Opposition forces claim at least 12 of the group’s members have thus far been killed in gun battles, while Hezbollah has admitted to suffering only a single casualty among its ranks.
Hezbollah, of course, is not the only foreign actor active in Syria. The war is a regional proxy conflict, with Hezbollah and its Iranian patrons on one side, Qatar and Saudi Arabia leading the Arab states in supporting the anti-Assad camp on another, and regional Kurdish groups on a third. Speculation that Saudi intelligence is operating in Lebanon and Syria is rife. This week, a Lebanese newspaper reported that the assassination in Syria of the Iranian general Hassan Shateri – believed to be the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard in Lebanon – was the work of Saudi intelligence agents.
Many of the battles reportedly involving Hezbollah forces have been waged near Homs, not far from the Lebanese-Syrian border. The Syrian rebels say Hezbollah is fighting to take control of several villages on the Syrian side. Assad’s camp insists the villagers are Shiites with Lebanese citizenship who for some unclear reason have ended up in Syria, and that Hezbollah is gallantly protecting them from the wrath of Salafist rebels, including those of Jabhat al-Nusra.
But irrespective of the battles’ final outcome, it seems Hezbollah is making military preparations for the “day after” Assad’s fall. The group apparently no longer has faith in the Syrian army’s ability to withstand the rebels or to maintain Hezbollah’s weapons caches in Syria. Hezbollah forces are now working to transfer as much military material as possible into Lebanese safe-havens, and to establish zones of control to facilitate freedom of movement from Syria into Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Hezbollah is sending its own fighters into Syria to accomplish those tasks, and is also setting up militias among Syrian Shiites – some of which may have already received Hezbollah training in Iraq.
The Gambler Who Can’t Quit
It is nonetheless still unclear why Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah decided to invest so much energy and so many resources into saving Assad.
“Nasrallah appears to me to be a gambler who just can’t quit,” said Prof. Eyal Zisser, the dean of Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Humanities and an expert on Syria and Lebanon. “It’s clear to him that he’s falling behind, but he just keeps losing and losing.”
“Just a few years ago, after the Second Lebanon War, Nasrallah was considered the hero of the Arab world and the Lebanese nation,” Zisser said. “Now he’s viewed as the only ally, apart from Iran, of Bashar Al-Assad [and] is denigrated by Lebanese politicians… the European Union is even considering adding Hezbollah to its list of terror organizations, a step that would cause it significant financial harm. Hezbollah may not be dealing with a popular Shiite uprising against it, but it could still turn into an occupying army within Syria.”
Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, an expert on Hezbollah and Lebanon, ascribes Nasrallah’s support for Assad to Iranian influence. Levitt has quoted a number of recent reports by the U.S. State and Treasury Departments – which recently renewed its designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization – indicating that Nasrallah personally supervises all Hezbollah activity in Syria.
Levitt writes that since the 2008 assassination of Hezbollah terror mastermind Imad Mugniyah in Damascus, Iran’s control over the group has dramatically increased. According to Levitt, Tehran had complete trust in Mugniyah, and allowed him a certain flexibility. The Iranians have shown far less trust in the abilities of his cousin and successor Mustafa Badr Al Din.
Levitt contends that Hezbollah has made a number of moves in recent months that have harmed Lebanese interests and even those of the group itself. The most ready explanation for those decisions is that the organization remains an Iranian proxy. Launching a drone into Israeli airspace represents a particularly stark example, as do the terror attempts against Israelis in Europe and Africa, as does Hezbollah’s involvement in the assassination of Lebanese political figures, as does Hezbollah’s assistance in smuggling weapons to Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen.
At the moment it doesn’t seem Hezbollah will change its strategy any time soon, though it may be forced to adjust should battles against the Syrian opposition escalate.
The overall conflict itself, however, seems to be dragging on. Prof. Kais Firro, an expert on Lebanon and Syria at the University of Haifa, explained why this week: “the Syrian army is too weak to destroy the rebels, and they’re too weak to topple it.”