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Hizbollah’s Pyrrhic Victories in Syria
Hizbollah’s Pyrrhic Victories in Syria
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reacts as he attends a news conference after a meeting with his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Moscow, 23 March 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

Russia’s Choice in Syria

Many questions surround Moscow’s surprise announcement of a force reduction in Syria. Yet it clearly enhanced Russia’s leverage over the regime and provided a much-needed dose of credibility to the nascent political process. Avoiding further regional unravelling and spiralling radicalisation, however, and pushing the conflict toward an initial settlement will require further adjustments in Russia's strategy, including addressing the Assad conundrum.

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I. Overview

In announcing Moscow’s intent to withdraw the “main part“ of the military assets that it deployed to Syria since last September, President Vladimir Putin again caught much of the world off-guard, this time allies and adversaries alike. Having decla­red victory while maintaining its war-fighting capacity in Syria, Russia has left key questions unanswered: will it actually reduce its military role and, if so, to what extent, where and against whom. But if it implements the announcement in a meaningful way, this could create the best opportunity in years to push the conflict toward an initial settlement, especially on the heels of Moscow’s decision to help implement a “cessation of hostilities”.

This much is clear: Putin’s announcement underlined crucial points distinguishing Russian aims from those of the Assad regime and enhanced Moscow’s leverage over Damascus. It also, for the moment at least, increased Russia’s investment in the fledgling, fragile political process it is co-sponsoring with the U.S.

This much is unclear: having battered Syria’s non-jihadist rebels nearly to the brink of defeat but not over it, what sort of political and military arrangements will Moscow seek? Will it aim to cement battlefield gains, while maintaining a less aggressive posture in the hope that reduced violence will encourage the U.S. to drop any active opposition to President Bashar al-Assad’s rule and to increase coordination with Moscow against jihadist groups? This option is consistent with Russia’s general approach to the conflict, but would entail an open-ended military commitment, offer little prospect of improved stability and possibly play to the jihadists’ advantage.

Alternatively, will Moscow push for a more robust settlement that has a chance of stabilising the country – at least those parts the regime and non-jihadist rebels control? That would require an additional, political outlay: most importantly, delinking its own interests in Syria from the person of Assad – and, ultimately, convincing Iran to do the same. If Moscow wishes to avoid further regional unravelling and spiraling radicalisation, this is an investment worth making.

Istanbul/New York/Brussels, 29 March 2016

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".