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Lebanon’s Hizbollah Turns Eastward to Syria
Lebanon’s Hizbollah Turns Eastward to Syria
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Syria’s Idlib Wins Welcome Reprieve with Russia-Turkey Deal
Syria’s Idlib Wins Welcome Reprieve with Russia-Turkey Deal

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

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) meets with his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi, Russia, 17 September 2018. Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool via REUTERS

Syria’s Idlib Wins Welcome Reprieve with Russia-Turkey Deal

After weeks of escalatory rhetoric, Russia has partnered with Turkey in a deal to avert an all-out assault on Idlib, the last stronghold of Syria’s armed rebellion. International actors seeking to end the Syrian war should embrace the agreement.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin have unveiled an agreement to forestall a Syrian regime offensive in the country’s north-western Idlib governorate. Per Putin and Erdoğan’s announcement of the deal, signed following bilateral talks in Sochi, on Russia’s Black Sea coast, by 15 October the two sides will establish a demilitarised zone along the line of contact between Idlib’s rebels and regime forces. By 10 October, rebels’ heavy weaponry must be withdrawn from the zone, which will also be cleared of what Putin called “Jabhat al-Nusra” (now Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS) – who exactly will do the withdrawing and clearing remains unclear. Russian and Turkish forces will patrol the zone. By year’s end, Idlib’s main highways will also be reopened to normal transit.

Crisis Group welcomes this announcement, which would appear to prevent a new deadly round of conflict with tremendous human cost. But implementing the agreement likely will be difficult, and its collapse cannot be ruled out. Turkey seems as if it may have to shoulder the heavy burden of partially disarming rebels inside the zone and emptying it of jihadists, a step those militants seem inclined to resist. Still, insofar as the deal avoids – at least for now – what could have been a truly shocking spectacle of violence and death, even by the standards of Syria’s brutal civil war, the agreement warrants broad international support.

Idlib is the last major redoubt of Syria’s armed rebellion. Its rebels include thousands of jihadist militants, among them HTS, the latest iteration of former Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. Yet Idlib and surrounding areas also hold nearly three million people, nearly all civilians, almost half of whom are internally displaced, including from elsewhere in Syria. If conflict consumes Idlib, most have no apparent refuge. Their only possible destinations would be the Turkish border, now closed, or Turkish-held areas to the north of Aleppo, which are already overcrowded. For its part, Turkey has also been determined to prevent a wave of displacement toward its border, which would likely include militants who could threaten Turkish and international security.

A refugee camp in Idlib from Crisis Group's illustrated commentary "Voices of Idlib". CRISISGROUP/Titwane

Since September 2017, Idlib has been covered by a “de-escalation” agreement announced jointly by Turkey, Russia and Iran in the Kazakh capital Astana. Under the terms of this agreement, Turkey deployed troops to twelve observation points along the front line separating rebel from regime forces between October 2017 and May 2018. At this line they are tasked with monitoring the de-escalation and guaranteeing a ceasefire. These observation posts were subsequently matched by ten Russian and seven Iranian posts on the regime side of the line. Turkey also committed – alongside its co-guarantors – to dealing with Idlib’s jihadists. It has worked to do so through nonviolent means, using political engagement and economic entanglement to separate what it characterises as more pragmatic Syrian fighters from a transnational jihadist hard core, who will have to be isolated and eventually eliminated.

Yet Turkey has been unable to bring a full halt to militants’ provocations, including drone attacks on Russia’s main Syrian air base of Hmeimim apparently launched from Idlib. Turkey has also made only limited progress in demobilising or neutralising Idlib’s jihadists.

The agreement announced by Presidents Erdoğan and Putin was possible because, in theory, it meets the interests of the various protagonists. By forestalling a Syrian regime and Russian assault on Idlib, it averts the massive flow of refugees (including, inevitably, a number of jihadists) toward Turkey that Ankara had dreaded. It also has the potential to at least halt – or limit – cross-line attacks by militant groups, which, Russia claims, pose a destabilising threat to the de-escalation. In addition, and while Damascus was not present at the Sochi negotiating table, if the memorandum is implemented in full and Idlib’s main highways are secured, it offers benefits to the Syrian regime by further reintegrating Syria economically as Damascus positions itself for post-war stabilisation and reconstruction.

Pressure, both direct and indirect, from Ankara and its allied European capitals likely played a part in producing the accord. They wisely communicated to Moscow that a gruesome battle for Idlib would have come at a price. It would have undermined Turkish-Russian bilateral relations and cooperation on Russia’s Syrian political initiatives, including a recent push for organised refugee return. European resistance to contributing to Syria’s reconstruction without the start of a credible political transition would have hardened further in the face of mass atrocities. Turkey further demonstrated its commitment to preventing an offensive by sending reinforcements to its observation points, putting Turkish lives on the line for Idlib’s ceasefire.

This agreement represents some hope – however fleeting and fragile – of averting a genuine humanitarian catastrophe.

The agreement as outlined by Presidents Putin and Erdoğan roughly parallels the formulation advocated by Crisis Group earlier this month. But more important than the specifics of this compromise is the achievement of any compromise at all, which – by virtue of accommodating Turkey’s bottom-line needs – necessarily means postponing a full-bore attack on Idlib and thus providing more time to fashion nonviolent solutions to the jihadist challenge.

That said, the success of this latest agreement remains a long shot. HTS personalities are already reacting angrily online, refusing to surrender their arms and autonomy. In addition to jihadist spoilers, Damascus may be dissatisfied with an international agreement that, in its view, keeps Syrian territory out of Syrian hands. The regime may seize on Idlib’s jihadist presence as justification to attack, or initiate a confrontation in hopes of drawing in its Russian ally on its side. Whether Turkey will ultimately eliminate Idlib’s jihadists and remove this pretext remains an open question.

Ultimately, this agreement may still prove only a temporary reprieve before a final confrontation in Idlib. Still, it represents at least some hope – however fleeting and fragile – of averting a genuine humanitarian catastrophe. International actors who seek to end the conflict in Syria should explore whether Russia’s seeming reversal after weeks of escalatory rhetoric signals a new and broader shift by Moscow away from military solutions and toward more consensual negotiated settlements for those parts of Syria still beyond Damascus’s control.