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Lebanon’s Hizbollah Turns Eastward to Syria
Lebanon’s Hizbollah Turns Eastward to Syria
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Riots in Lebanon’s Tripoli are Harbingers of Collapse
Riots in Lebanon’s Tripoli are Harbingers of Collapse

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

Security forces push anti-government protesters away from al-Nour square in the centre of Lebanon's impoverished northern port city of Tripoli on 31 January 2021 amid clashes. Fathi AL-MASRI / AFP

Riots in Lebanon’s Tripoli are Harbingers of Collapse

Four days of violent unrest in Tripoli on Lebanon’s northern coast could presage more to come, as a new coronavirus outbreak deepens the country’s severe socio-economic crisis. Humanitarian aid is urgently needed to keep the worst-case scenarios at bay.

Starting on 25 January, residents of the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli took to the streets over four consecutive days. Many protested peacefully, but some attacked government buildings and clashed with security personnel, who fired upon them with tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition. Rioters torched the historic municipality headquarters, vandalised the Sunni religious court and government administration building, and hurled Molotov cocktails and, according to authorities, hand grenades at the security forces. By 31 January, the toll was one protester dead and more than 400 injured, along with at least 40 soldiers and police. Lebanese army and military intelligence units detained at least 25 men for their roles in the events. Lebanon’s international partners should continue pressing its elites to chart a viable path forward, while redoubling humanitarian assistance to an increasingly desperate population.

The immediate trigger for the protests in Tripoli was the social impact of a hard lockdown imposed by Lebanon’s caretaker cabinet in response to a new surge in COVID-19 infections.

The immediate trigger for the protests in Tripoli was the social impact of a hard lockdown imposed by Lebanon’s caretaker cabinet in response to a new surge in COVID-19 infections. The restrictions have left many unable to sustain themselves, mainly because the lockdown is only the latest in a series of calamities that have hit the majority of Lebanese since 2019. In that period, at least 500,000 have lost their businesses and jobs. The local currency’s value has dropped by more than 80 per cent in the black market, fuelling inflation. People have lost billions in savings and, according to the World Bank, more than half of Lebanese had fallen below the poverty line already in May 2020. Government officials estimate that some 75 per cent of Lebanese nationals need aid. Among the more than one million Syrian refugees living in the country, as many as 90 per cent require humanitarian and cash assistance, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. 

Tripoli and its surroundings are among the poorest areas of Lebanon, but hardship is worsening across the country. In their actions and responses, protesters, rioters and security forces in the city may have provided a preview of what awaits most of Lebanon in the months to come. During interviews conducted by Crisis Group over the past three months, Lebanese officials, political party operatives, political activists, security officers and NGO representatives across Lebanon all expressed similar fears: if the downward economic slide continues, or austerity measures such as subsidy cuts cause a sudden increase in social pressures, the country may become dangerously unstable.

Foremost among the challenges Lebanon faces are the stress on and erosion of state institutions, as inflation devalues public-sector salaries and already perfunctory services disappear altogether. Over the past months, tensions triggered or amplified by the crisis have repeatedly erupted in security incidents that appear isolated but, taken together, seem to indicate a worrying trend. Security forces, which number more than 130,000 with an additional hundreds of thousands of dependents, may increasingly struggle to preserve order, prevent violence and protect property. They may find themselves becoming the face of state failure, as they compensate for the absence of policy and governance by policing people whose grievances they share. As security deteriorates, political parties, local strongmen and business tycoons will step into the gap. 

Even the army has been under stress and may soon lose its lustre as one of Lebanon’s most capable and least partisan public institutions. Like civil servants, teachers and police, soldiers today earn a fraction of what they did a year ago, many as little as the equivalent of $150 per month. Even senior officers are expressing concern about their personal and institutional futures. As one told Crisis Group: “[The army] will abide by its mission, but at the end of the day, these soldiers are children of their society and environment. [Officers’] own sons and daughters are studying abroad and [we] can’t pay tuition anymore”.

No relief should be expected from politicians. Six months after the catastrophic blast in the Beirut port that brought down the previous government, they have yet to form a new one, much less engage in fundamental reforms required to unlock international assistance or explore long-range initiatives to create opportunities for development and investment. Political elites will more likely behave as they have in the past: buying time with money that is not theirs; distributing benefits narrowly and burdens broadly; and working to salvage the system that keeps them in power. In the improbable event that some Lebanese leaders come to their senses or that a future cabinet moves to act, vested interests and a low capacity for governance will stand in their way. Meanwhile, external partners such as the U.S., European states and Arab countries remain determined to withhold non-humanitarian assistance unless Lebanese leaders shape up. They are right to do so. Lebanon will escape its predicament only if and when its political elites change their behaviour, which has created the crisis.

Lebanon’s external partners must redouble their efforts to prevent state collapse and the onset of a severe humanitarian emergency.

Until such time, however, Lebanon’s external partners must redouble their efforts to prevent state collapse and the onset of a severe humanitarian emergency. On 30 January, the World Bank signed an agreement with the caretaker government for a loan of $246 million to provide cash assistance to some 800,000 of the poorest Lebanese. International donors should increase funding for humanitarian purposes and aim to reach as many beneficiaries as possible directly. Lebanon’s external partners should also consider deepening their cooperation with different security agencieswhile taking steps to minimise any danger that protests prompt unnecessarily tough policing. Outside cooperation would allow those agencies to help preserve order and avoid the proliferation of protests and local tensions into widespread unrest and violence. Lebanon’s international partners can help stop the country’s crisis from getting worse, but to do so, they must act now.