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Lebanon’s Hizbollah Turns Eastward to Syria
Lebanon’s Hizbollah Turns Eastward to Syria
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Investing Diplomatically in Syria's Idlib
Investing Diplomatically in Syria's Idlib

Lebanon’s Hizbollah Turns Eastward to Syria

Hizbollah’s intervention in Syria strengthens the Assad regime but transforms the Shiite movement as it redefines the enemy and itself within the confines of an increasingly sectarian struggle.

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Executive Summary

The Lebanese Shiite armed movement Hizbollah has gone all-in for Syrian President Bashar Assad. It has shown it will back his regime by any means necessary, despite doubts about its capacity to win a decisive victory and regardless of the risks to the movement’s own moral standing and cross-sectarian appeal. As it is drawn ever-deeper into its neighbour’s civil war that seems poised to endure for years, it finds itself increasingly distracted from its original anti-Israel focus and risking a profound reshaping of its identity.

Hizbollah’s original military objectives in Syria were clear: to save a regime it sees as a vital ally and distance Sunni jihadis from its borders and neighbourhoods. Its contributions have been crucial. Its forces reversed the regime’s flagging momentum and enabled it to gain the relative advantage it enjoys today. Its fight against the Syrian opposition, which it has cast in harsh sectarian terms, has shored up its support base. But the long-term costs – for both Hizbollah and the region – of involvement in a sectarian, zero-sum war could be as steep as the short-term benefits are significant.

The movement welcomed the initial “Arab Spring” uprisings directed at its foes. But it drew a line at Syria, and as Bashar Assad’s grip slipped, it came to see its own survival as a function of his. His fall would have deprived it of a vital ally and an important supply route for weapons from Iran; moreover, with the Syrian uprising having morphed into a regional proxy war, Assad’s fall would have recalibrated the regional balance of power to Hizbollah’s detriment. As al-Qaeda offshoots or affiliates emerged within rebel ranks, the Shiite movement, like its constituency, came to see the civil war as existential.

Allegations of Hizbollah’s military involvement in Syria surfaced in mid-2012, after armed opposition groups made notable gains in the south and east; surrounded Damascus, thus potentially endangering the regime; and took control of key border zones that connected the rebels with Sunni enclaves on the Lebanese side. After months of rumoured support, Hizbollah in May 2013 publicly took the lead in evicting rebels from the border town of Qusayr. Its fall in June boosted the regime and encouraged the Shiite group to extend its fight to the Qalamoun Mountains and beyond.

Its full-fledged military intervention steered Hizbollah into unchartered territory. From its perspective, it had little choice; subsequent events have confirmed to the movement that it took the right turn. Its military campaign has been successful, bolstering Assad’s position, and though dozens of Shiites in Lebanon have been killed in a wave of unprecedented al-Qaeda-inspired suicide bomb attacks since Qusayr, the movement is convinced that more would have died had it not distanced the Syrian rebels from Lebanon’s borders. These retaliatory attacks also benefited the movement by cementing its base, through seeming confirmation that Syrian rebels are Sunni extremists who all along have had Lebanon’s Shiites in their crosshairs.

In the longer term however, Hizbollah’s involvement in Syria threatens the movement and is problematic for Lebanon and the Arab world more broadly. It has deepened the regional sectarian divide, fuelled the very extremism it purports to combat and eroded the movement’s legitimacy among constituencies that previously were supportive. By framing its fight as a preemptive attack on takfiris – those who declare other Muslims to be apostates – Hizbollah has tarred all shades of the opposition, and indeed sometimes all Sunnis, with the same radicalising brush. It has exaggerated, and thereby exacerbated, the sectarianism of the Syrian opposition as well as its own domestic opponents. Once widely respected across the political and confessional spectrum, Hizbollah (literally “The Party of God”) now often is referred to as “The Party of Satan”. The warm popular embrace that for the movement was tantamount to strategic depth has diminished, along with its reputation for moral probity. Ironically, shoring up its eastern front has made Hizbollah more vulnerable.

These developments bode poorly for Lebanon, the well-being of which is dependent on the relations between its political blocs and confessional groups. The sectarian clashes the country experienced in 2013 and early 2014 have been brought under control by what is known as “the security plan”, but the respite is likely temporary. With Lebanon’s Sunnis frustrated, Shiites eager not to lose the gains of the past decades and smaller confessional groups caught in the middle, the year’s escalation is only a foretaste of what could ensue if the security agreement breaks down. In a country that has long lamented its political paralysis, many are hoping for just such a standstill – as a best-case scenario.

Some among Hizbollah’s regional and wider international critics, allied with its rivals, might see a silver lining in these developments: Hizbollah is mired in what seems to be an endless war in Syria, fighting a determined and radical enemy, and is distracted from its traditional focus on Israel. But the same vortex is pulling in both Hizbollah and its enemies, with no prospect of escape for either. Nor will the critics relish the spread of the Shiite jihadism that the Syrian war is nurturing.

What is necessary for the sake of not only Lebanon but also the entire region – reducing sectarian rhetoric, withdrawing and expelling all foreign fighters from Syria – is highly unlikely to occur. Hizbollah believes in its current strategy, and its enemies are determined to fight what they perceive as a Shiite occupation force. So long as the Syrian conflict remains a black hole, the Shiite armed group will be caught in its gravity, itself transformed no less than its involvement transforms the conflict as a whole.

Beirut/Brussels, 27 May 2014

Investing Diplomatically in Syria's Idlib

The Sochi agreement between Russia and Turkey succeeded in averting a Syrian regime offensive in Idlib. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2018 annual early-warning update for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to continue to provide diplomatic support for Turkey and engage directly with Russia to prevent an attack that would likely have catastrophic humanitarian consequences.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2018 – Third Update.

The 17 September Sochi agreement between Russia and Turkey forestalled the Syrian regime’s imminent attack on rebel-held Idlib governorate and surrounding areas in Syria’s north west. The agreement established a 20km buffer zone between rebels and the regime along Idlib’s borders, which was to be emptied of heavy weapons by 10 October. By late October, the agreement’s implementation appeared to be in progress: heavy arms were no longer visible, though it remained unclear if they had been removed. In any event, Russia expressed satisfaction with Turkey’s efforts to demilitarise the zone.

The agreement succeeded in averting – for now – a battle that the UN warned could trigger the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century. But while Idlib’s fate remains uncertain, European partners must work to support Turkish efforts to implement the deal’s conditions and sustain a political process while bolstering preparations for managing the humanitarian fallout in the event of an attack, the threat of which remains real.

The EU and its member states should consider the following steps:

  • Keep backing the agreement, both publicly and in direct contacts with Russia. Europeans should emphasise that an all-out assault on Idlib and a humanitarian disaster there would substantially impair their future cooperation with Russia on Syria, and thus prevent Russia from achieving its political objective – not just the regime’s survival but a settlement that leads to a degree of regime rehabilitation.
     
  • Engage prudently with Russia. The EU should be open to discussing avenues of cooperation with Moscow on Syria, both independently and in support of Turkish initiatives such as its 27 October quartet summit alongside France, Germany and Russia. At the same time it should resist Moscow’s efforts to accelerate the provision of European reconstruction assistance in the absence of any political progress.
     
  • Press Russia to continue to show flexibility with Turkey as it proceeds with implementing the commitment it made in Sochi in September. Europeans should continue to vocally support Turkey and, if necessary, condition future cooperation with Russia on such Russian flexibility.
     
  • Encourage Turkey to continue its own humanitarian preparations in the event of an attack on Idlib, including planning, building aid infrastructure, and pre-positioning assistance; and materially support Turkey in these efforts.
     
  • Urge Turkey to coordinate its humanitarian response with international allies. Europeans should ask Turkey to share more information, specifically about its security operations in Idlib that restrict humanitarian access. If the Syrian regime attacks Idlib, Turkey’s allies will be more effective partners if they have jointly planned and prepared.
     
  • Urge Turkey to allow humanitarian action in Turkish-controlled Aleppo independent of Turkish state and para-state bodies. Turkey may be uncomfortable with allowing autonomous relief actors into an area it is keen to keep under control, but otherwise Europeans and others cannot support its aid efforts.
Europeans should continue to vocally support Turkey as it implements Sochi’s provisions.

Sochi’s Origins and Stakes

Several factors enabled the Sochi agreement, notably Turkey’s strong indications it would resist an Idlib offensive – including its decision to send considerable addi-tional weapons to Syrian rebels in Idlib – and U.S. pressure. Arguably most im-portant was Ankara signalling to Moscow that an offensive would end Turkish-Russian cooperation on a political settlement. As one of the guarantors (together with Russia and Iran) of the Astana process, Turkey remains central to Russia’s ef-forts to find a political resolution to Syria’s war. Russia needs Turkish buy-in if it hopes to crown its military success with some international re-legitimisation of the Syrian regime and secure outside funds for the country’s reconstruction. 

Along with the U.S., EU member states provided important diplomatic backing to Turkey in support of an Idlib deal. Emphatic public European opposition to an assault and energetic, direct diplomacy with Russia by EU member states con-vinced Moscow that an all-out attack would seriously damage cooperation on Syria. Europeans should continue to vocally support Turkey as it implements Sochi’s pro-visions and, through direct channels with Russia, stress that a humanitarian disas-ter that displaces more refugees (and some militants) into Turkey and Europe di-rectly prejudices European interests. EU member states should make clear that an attack on Idlib would poison further cooperation and cripple Syria’s political pro-cess, on which major reconstruction funds depend. 

The Potential Humanitarian Catastrophe 

The priority for Europeans and others must be preventing an attack on Idlib, as the humanitarian impact would outstrip even the best-planned and well-resourced re-sponse. But the EU should also anticipate the worst case scenario, namely the So-chi deal’s collapse and an ensuing regime offensive. The EU needs to ensure it is prepared to the extent possible, helping humanitarian partners plan and pre-position supplies and funding the humanitarian response. 

Turkey has been undertaking emergency preparations, though it has not always publicised them for fear of undermining good faith efforts at de-escalation. Yet its limited communication prevents donors and their international NGO partners from effectively coordinating and planning their contribution to a relief effort. Turkey has also restricted independent access for international organisations to the parts of Aleppo governorate it controls. Humanitarian capacity is already stretched in these areas, which are the likeliest destination for Idlib’s residents if they have to flee.

Europeans must continue to appeal to Turkey to share information on their ef-forts in Idlib in order for other donors and humanitarians to appropriately plan. And the EU needs to push Turkey to allow independent humanitarian action inside Turkish-controlled Aleppo, where, if Idlib is attacked, Turkey will be unable to sin-glehandedly meet vulnerable Syrians’ urgent needs.