By Kitty Veress:
The Western world has been quick to label Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria and Iraq as nefarious and threatening while failing to consider the wider strategic implications. A more comprehensive perspective is needed to evaluate the risks and opportunities the extremist Shi’ite group faces in its support of the Syrian regime. The potential benefit of establishing itself as a regional power and battle-hardening its troops needs to be weighed against Hezbollah’s risk of physical and ideological overexpansion that might expose the group’s vulnerabilities and ultimately endanger Lebanon’s defence capabilities.
Created in 1982, Hezbollah was originally a resistance group against the Israeli occupation in Lebanon. Since then it has become a prolific global terrorist organisation that has proven its ability to attack anywhere in the world through a wide network of cells. Hezbollah has adapted to domestic and regional dynamics, asserted its position by strengthening its grip on Lebanese politics, and expanded its military influence in the region. The extremist group remains a strong political player with an ability to paralyze Lebanese political institutions and obstruct the appointment of key positions.
Thanks to its state-sponsor Iran, Hezbollah has grown into the strongest military force in Lebanon, with its own division of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and a breadth and variety of both short and long-range military-grade weapons, such as Syrian Scud-D missiles, that can reach deep into Israeli territory. The group’s involvement in regional crises in Syria, Iraq and Yemen marks an ideological and tactical shift towards regional power that renews the threat to American interests and to their allies in the Middle East.
The regional footprint
Hezbollah’s engagement in Syria is not based on rash decision-making but is rather a sign of the trademark methodical approach that has ensured the group’s survival over more than three decades. Openly operating in Syria since 2013, Hezbollah assists the Assad regime and wages what is essentially a counterinsurgency campaign against inferior enemy rebel factions. In response to ISIS’ territorial expansion, Hezbollah also sent troops to Iraq in early 2015 to back local Shi’ite militias leading the fight against the Sunni extremist group. Although the West publicly minimizes the role that foreign Shi’ite fighters play in the coalition’s battle against ISIS, Hezbollah’s formidable military posture and its ability to foster support against a common enemy beyond its Shi’ite constituency render it an essential part of the fight against Sunni extremism.
Recent open source footage chronicles Hezbollah’s pro-Assad battlefield actions and illustrates the commitment and fierceness of the group’s operations: Youtube videos show military battles against both al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, as well as against ISIS, after Hezbollah began an offensive within the Syrian Qalamoun Mountains along the Lebanese-Syrian border.
In addition to its advanced weapons cache, Hezbollah continues to tactically innovate, the prime example being its employment of commercial short-range UAVs. The drones assist in the planning of assaults, conduct reconnaissance and support real-time combat operations via live feeds.
A recently revealed UAV airstrip in the Lebanese Beka’a valley, close to the Syrian border, underlines the role of technological innovation in Hezbollah’s operations as well as the group’s longer-term commitment to defending the Assad regime. While Hezbollah has employed Iranian-made drones against Israel since 2004, its construction of an airstrip as well as its switch to commercial drones against other non-state actors proves how seriously the group takes its involvement in Syria.
Hezbollah’s engagement in Syria was undoubtedly requested by Iran, its main sponsor, who directed Hezbollah to support its prime regional Shi’ite ally by fighting the Syrian opposition and Sunni extremists alike. Yet Hezbollah’s involvement also reflects deep personal stakes because it could be immeasurably damaged were the Syrian regime to fall. By bolstering Assad’s forces, the Shi’ite group preserves its relationship to the state and ensures that important logistical and weapons supply routes are kept accessible. At the same time, it fends off an expansion of Sunni extremism that threatens to spillover into neighbouring countries.
Risks and opportunities
Hezbollah’s active regional presence comes with a plethora of consequences that will be decisive for the group’s future. Success on the battlefield will bolster Hezbollah’s reshaped identity as living proof that the group has evolved from merely a defender of Lebanese Shi’ites against Israel to a defender of the Shi’ite faith within the entire region. In an echo of the Arab World’s overwhelmingly supportive reaction to Hezbollah after the second Lebanon War in 2006, an effective Syria campaign would exponentially boost the group’s regional influence and elevate it into a key stakeholder in the Middle East. A successful extension of Assad’s grip on Syria would keep the Iranian-led Shi’ite Axis intact and continue to allow Hezbollah a logistical safe-haven to sustain smooth operations.
Military successes would further maintain Hezbollah’s position within Lebanon and promote continued, self-sustained domestic recruitment into the organisation. A worry, especially promulgated by Israel, is that Hezbollah’s engagement in Syria could battle-harden its troops who will gain valuable skills and combat experience that will give them an edge in potential future conflicts with its primary enemy Israel. This concern is not unwarranted, as the group is already bolstering its military capabilities by cleaning out Syria’s weapons depots and stockpiling them in southern Lebanon. However, due to its deep commitments in Syria and other regional crises, it would seem suicidal for Hezbollah to embark upon an offensive against Israel at this time.
At the same time, continued involvement in Syria without visible successes may lead to a rift between Hezbollah’s leadership and its followers. Since its involvement in domestic politics in 1992, the group has become more accountable to its constituency who – with unprecedented magnitude – have voiced concerns about the legitimacy of the Syrian intervention. The leadership is being forced to justify the sacrifice of Shi’ite lives in a conflict that at present does not pose any immediate threats to Lebanon, thereby straining the coherency of Hezbollah’s narrative. While imposing speeches by Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah continue to maintain widespread and fervent support among its members, rebellion within its own ranks may become a more pressing issue as the conflict moves on without resolution and battle-weariness sets in.
In addition to the risk of internal division, Hezbollah also faces potential over-exertion by waging a multi-front campaign that could overstretch its forces and limit its operational capacities. While this may at first seem beneficial to Western national security interests, a weakening of the Shi’ite group would expose Lebanon’s defence capabilities, which depend on Hezbollah as the first line of defence. A weakened Hezbollah might also tempt ISIS to direct some elements towards Lebanon, especially in the face of Hezbollah’s propagation of anti-Sunni sentiment. Extreme battlefield attrition could thus render the group unable to defend Lebanon and make its home base an attractive target for the high-flaming sectarian tensions fostered by ISIS.
Hezbollah has repeatedly proven its adaptability to changing domestic and regional dynamics, which demonstrates the group’s strength and unpredictability. Yet the intervention in Syria pushes the group into a somewhat reactive position, as Hezbollah’s fate now hinges on Assad’s perseverance and on ISIS’ success or failure. Should Hezbollah manage to push back the Sunni extremist factions, the prospective rewards are likely to elevate the group’s domestic and regional standing beyond anything it has ever experienced. However, the risks of failure are great, as an unsuccessful mission in Syria threatens to unravel the group’s reputation for strong ideological and organisational coherence. In a worst-case scenario, Hezbollah’s risky enterprise could daisy-chain Lebanon into the events in Syria and push the country into the black hole of sectarian violence.
Kitty Veress is a recent graduate from the M.A. Security Studies Program at the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University. Her research focuses on non-state violent actors and the nexus between psychology and terrorism. She currently lives in Washington, DC, and is about to take up her PhD studies at King’s College London’s War Studies Department on the topic of European foreign fighters and their decision-making processes. Follow her @Kitonia