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Hizbollah’s Pyrrhic Victories in Syria
Hizbollah’s Pyrrhic Victories in Syria
A man gestures as people rush to a site hit by what activists said was heavy shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Douma neighborhood of Damascus, on 16 June 2015. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
Report 163 / Middle East & North Africa

New Approach in Southern Syria

Syria’s civil war is stuck in a vicious cycle, and the U.S. is best placed to change the appalling status quo. Washington should take advantage of opportunities in southern Syria to launch a new policy to improve the chance of a political settlement, chiefly by deterring regime aerial attacks on rebel-held civilian areas.

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Executive Summary

The Syrian war rages on, its devastating civilian toll rising with no viable political solution in sight. Diplomacy is stymied by the warring parties’ uncompromising positions, reinforced by political deadlock between their external backers. The U.S. is best placed to transform the status quo. A significant but realistic policy shift focused on dissuading, deterring or otherwise preventing the regime from conducting aerial attacks within opposition-held areas could improve the odds of a political settlement. This would be important, because today they are virtually nil. Such a policy shift could begin in southern Syria, where conditions are currently most favourable.

While the White House has declared its desire for an end of President Bashar Assad’s rule, it has shied from concrete steps toward this goal, pursuing instead a strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State (IS), which it deems a more serious threat to its interests. Yet, a year into that strategy, the overall power of Salafi-jihadi groups in Syria (as in Iraq) has risen. This is no surprise: the Assad regime’s sectarian strategy, collective punishment tactics and reliance on Iran-backed militias, among other factors, help perpetuate ideal recruitment conditions for these groups. By attacking IS while ignoring the regime’s ongoing bombardment of civilians, the U.S. inadvertently strengthens important aspects of the Salafi-jihadi narrative depicting the West as colluding with Tehran and Damascus to subjugate Sunnis.

Salafi-jihadi groups, including IS and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate which fights both IS and the regime, are strongest in the north and east, where they have exploited disarray and conflicting priorities among the opposition’s external sponsors. While the U.S. has attached greatest importance to the battle against IS, for example, Turkey has pressed for a more concerted effort to topple the Assad regime, while pushing back against Kurdish groups allied with Iran. Continuing disagreement has prevented establishment of a northern no-fly zone, a key Turkish demand.

Southern Syria currently provides the best environment for a new approach. Beginning in early 2014, increased assistance from Western and Arab states and improved coordination among the southern armed opposition factions they support sparked a string of victories against regime forces, enabling these factions to gain strength relative to Salafi-jihadi groups. With these factions in the lead, by late January 2015 opposition forces had gained control over contiguous territory encompassing most of Quneitra province and the western third of Deraa province. A major regime counter-offensive the next month south of Damascus, with unprecedented Iranian and Hizbollah support, recaptured only a small share of territory and failed to halt the momentum of opposition forces that extended their territory through much of eastern Deraa between March and June. An opposition offensive is ongoing in late summer to capture the portion of Deraa’s provincial capital still under regime control.

Some of this success can be attributed to the steady erosion of regime military capacity, which manpower constraints suggest will continue. This may force Assad to deepen reliance on Iran-backed militias in areas he fears losing, or concede these to the opposition and resort to aerial attacks (including barrel bombs) to keep them ungovernable. In either scenario, Salafi-jihadi groups would gain further traction, lowering prospects for resolving the conflict politically. Avoiding this requires a joint strategy among the opposition’s backers to empower credible opposition elements to fill the military and civil voids on the ground by establishing effective civil administrations. The south, where Salafi-jihadi groups are weakest, is the most favourable starting ground.

As has become clear throughout Syria, however, opposition elements cannot build effective governance amid the death and destruction caused by aerial bombardment, particularly given the regime’s tendency to target precisely those facilities necessary for capacity to emerge. Diplomatic admonitions which are not backed by concrete action carry little weight with the regime’s backers, and are unlikely to halt Assad’s use of air attacks as part of a scorched-earth strategy and a way to mete out collective punishment. The U.S. needs to be ready to pursue other means at its disposal, and to signal that readiness.

The Obama administration has sought to avoid that deeper involvement in the conflict, due to scepticism about what a more robust policy could achieve and concern that the regime’s allies might retaliate against U.S. personnel and interests elsewhere. But this conflict will not end without a shift in U.S. policy. In addition to improving living conditions in the south, it could also significantly help in degrading Salafi-jihadi power and otherwise improve prospects for an eventual negotiated end of the war.

It would do so, first, by enabling opposition groups to consolidate military control and establish governance capacity in the south. This would improve their strength and credibility vis-à-vis Salafi-jihadi groups and could incentivise their development as political actors capable of governing their areas.

Secondly, achieving a zone free of aerial attacks in the south could provide a model for a different approach by the rebels’ state backers in the north, where poor coordination and divergent priorities with Ankara, Doha and Riyadh have contributed to a situation not conducive to an escalated U.S. role. A move by Washington to halt regime aerial attacks in the south could signal it would consider doing so in the north as well, if those allies would assist in bringing about a similar shift in the northern balance of power away from Salafi-jihadi groups.

Thirdly, a U.S. push to halt regime air attacks in the south would signal resolve to the regime’s most important backers, Iran and Hizbollah, and demonstrate that the returns on their investments in the status quo will further diminish. Iranian and Hiz­bollah officials play down the long-term costs of their involvement, believing they can outlast their opponents in a proxy war of attrition, and viewing the price of doing so as preferable to negotiating a resolution that includes an end to Assad’s rule. Their view appears based, in part, on the assumption that Washington’s narrow focus on IS and reluctance to confront the regime are pushing its policy toward accepting Assad’s political survival and thus, ultimately, a resolution of the conflict more favourable to them.

The U.S. initiative described here could help refute that assumption and put weight behind the White House’s assertions that the nuclear deal will not pave the way for Iranian hegemony in the region. This message of resolve should be paired with a parallel one indicating U.S. willingness to take the core interests of the regime’s backers into account in any political deal to end the war.

Beirut/Brussels, 2 September 2015

Hizbollah’s Pyrrhic Victories in Syria

Originally published in esglobal

Four years into its full-fledged military intervention in Syria, Hizbollah looks as mighty as ever. Together with its allies, it has saved the Syrian regime, imposed Bashar Assad as a presence, if not a partner, in the fight against Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State; put paid to what it feared might have been hostile Sunni reign in Syria; secured its vital weapons supply route while gaining greater military capabilities and expertise; created a buffer zone in the Syrian Qalamoun mountains largely sealing Lebanon’s eastern border against jihadist attacks; and rallied the majority of the Shiite community behind it.

Yet, Hizbollah’s stunning successes come at considerable cost. Mirroring foes and allies alike, the party has sharpened the sectarian dimension of the conflict. Its approach has helped the Syrian regime confine the rebellion to a Sunni Islamist milieu increasingly dominated by jihadis – which also has made Hizbollah into an ever more integral element of Iran’s regional agenda. Unlike Iran, however, Hizbollah and the Shiite community of Lebanon are within easy reach of jihadis. While the party’s professed objective in entering the war was to keep radical militants away from Lebanon, in reality its intervention in Syria has amplified the danger, as a spate of attacks in 2013-2015 revealed.  

By pursuing a maximalist stance that leaves Syrian rebels with no options except to fight on and die or surrender on Assad’s terms, Hizbollah and its allies prevent the emergence of a rebel leadership capable of implementing a negotiated settlement if and when one is achieved – as even Russia appears to recognise. This creates a vicious circle, since the lack of a deal will perpetuate the Assad regime’s need for Hizbollah and other (predominantly Shiite) foreign fighters to prop up its crumbling rule.

Already, Hizbollah’s capacities are overstretched. The intervention in Syria has strained the party’s (and Iran’s) treasury, exacerbating economic problems at home. More important still is the drain on its personnel. The movement has lost more than 1,500 fighters, among them experienced, difficult-to-replace commanders, and likely will have to continue compensating for its Syrian ally’s dwindling manpower. More victories on the battlefield are unlikely to change this equation. A string of deadly attacks against regime figures and civilians in Homs and Damascus in 2017 gives a taste of things to come if the Syrian civil war turns into an open-ended, asymmetrical conflict reminiscent of post-2003 Iraq.

Hizbollah’s Syria intervention has earned it credit in Damascus and Tehran but has inflicted unprecedented damage to the acceptance and cross-sectarian appeal it once enjoyed at home and in the wider region because of its confrontations with Israel. This is perhaps the war’s greatest cost to the party: the threat of jihadist violence certainly has helped galvanise the support of Lebanon’s Shiites, yet the hostility of the region’s overwhelmingly Sunni environment likely will come back to haunt it. Hizbollah and the community that sustains it seemingly will remain trapped in a militarised, sectarian ghetto, reliant on the party’s hard power to maintain political and socio-economic gains. And paradoxically, while the Syria intervention has provided it with additional combat experience and materiel, Hizbollah is more isolated and hence more vulnerable on the frontline with Israel. Unlike in 2006, the majority of Lebanon’s Sunni community and anti-regime Syrians will likely see any future war between Hizbollah and Israel not as a national cause to rally behind but as an opportunity for revenge.

Hizbollah needs a viable exit strategy to convert its formidable battlefield success into political assets. While there is no easy way to de-escalate, let alone solve the Syrian conflict, the party, in tandem with Iran, could take significant steps in that direction. Hizbollah should reconsider and tone down its use of sectarian rhetoric, and cease to lump all armed opposition groups together as “violent extremists”. With Tehran, it should actively work to help stabilise what remains of the ceasefire, and open lines of communication with non-jihadist groups to agree on mutually acceptable forms of decentralisation, and to ease the tit-for-tat restrictions and attacks on the besieged (Sunni) villages of Madaya and Zabadani near Damascus, and the (Shiite) communities of Fouaa and Kefraya in the rebel-controlled province of Idlib.

Hizbollah and Iran should also press their ally President Bashar Assad to negotiate a political settlement and refrain from new offensives against opposition-held areas such as Idlib, which are only liable to deepen the sectarian divide. Conversely, if it continues down the road of hard power and military solutions, Hizbollah’s leadership may soon find itself stuck in the same dilemma which, some 2000 years ago, prompted the famous quip attributed to King Pyrrhus of Epirus: “If we are victorious in one more battle…we shall be utterly ruined".