Are religious doctrinal differences primarily responsible for stoking intercommunal fear and hatred? What roles have state, sub-state and transnational actors played in fomenting sectarian discord? And what could be done to avert sectarian violence, to foster tolerance and peaceful coexistence, and to promote reconciliation? The essays in this series tackle these and other salient questions pertaining to sectarianism in the MENA and Asia Pacific regions. Read more ...
When the unrest against the Bashar al-Assad regime began in the spring of 2011, the Lebanese Hezbollah did not hesitate. Although it was part of the Najib Mikati government and hence stood completely opposed to any importation of the Syrian chaos into Lebanon and supported neutrality vis-à-vis the conflict roiling the neighbor to the east, Hezbollah still took a clear position. Hassan Nasrallah, its Secretary General, acknowledging the party’s preference for maintaining the powers that be in Damascus, called on the protagonists not to resort to violence and advocated a negotiated political solution. Then, in May 2013, it was ultimately learned, incontrovertibly and officially, that the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s military organization parent, was engaged in combat in Syria in the Qusayr region alongside regular Syrian army troops. What exactly does Hezbollah seek to accomplish through this sort of intervention? How does it view the conflict in Syria? What outcome does it hope for? And will intervening like this for the first time outside its national territory cost it in terms of popularity and mobilization in Lebanon?
Hezbollah’s Discourse on the Syrian Situation
Some history is called for. When the Israeli army invaded Lebanon for the second time in June 1982, it provoked a part of the militant Shi‘i scene to mobilize around the idea of creating a Resistance dedicated to repulsing the invader. The Islamic Resistance in Lebanon (IRL) was thus born, which would take on the 18-year mission of fighting Tel Aviv’s troops and its local proxies on Lebanese soil. Soon after the IRL’s formation, its leadership felt the need to create a buffer organization, which consisting of a network of charitable and medical institutions, would be charged with securing the connection between the Islamic Resistance and the society it evolved in back then—essentially, the Shi‘i community. The division of labor was therefore established from the very beginning: the IRL, a military organization, would take over the armed struggle on the ground; a civilian Hezbollah would take responsibility for recruiting for the IRL, promoting its cause to the public, and, a few years later, defending its interests in the political spheres. Therefore, the IRL is not Hezbollah’s military wing; rather it is Hezbollah that is the IRL’s civilian wing—its natural extension whose agenda remains subordinated to the latter’s priorities.
Until 2011, Hezbollah and the IRL always focused their actions on the problem of the menace presented by the Israeli army for Lebanon: the justificatory discourse invariably focused on the question of “resistance” against the potential danger that Tel Aviv posed for its northern neighbor. When the IRL’s leadership decided to join the fight in Syria beginning in the spring of 2013 (according to Bashar al-Assad “on invitation by the Syrian regime,” obviously with Iranian backing), combat against Israel and combat in Syria were thus “naturally” linked. Especially early on, Israel was accused of being behind the Syrian unrest and of seeking to harm the Islamic Resistance through it. Declarations made by the Syrian opposition would be advanced as illustrating the correctness of this reading of events, beginning with the declaration by Burhan Ghalioun, president of the Syrian National Council, who as early as in December 2011, after having voiced his favorable opinion of a peace with Israel, said: “When the Assad regime falls, the new power will drastically revise its relations with Israel and Hezbollah.”
The increased importance of jihadists among the opposition groups, including the appearance of Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State, would rapidly add another element to the justificatory discourse. The unrest in Syria turned into a wider conflagration, where Saudi Arabia and Qatar were depicted as backing the extremists on behalf of the United States and Israel. The friendly ties between Israel and Jabhat al-Nusra observed by United Nations forces stationed in the Golan Heights and confirmed by the statements jihadist fighters made about Israel’s medical and material support to Jabhat al-Nusra in the region would certainly be fully exploited by Hezbollah to buttress its accusations. In Baalbek, in the spring of 2014, one could read banners that said: “In Lebanon, at al-Qusayr, at al-Qalamoun—Israel defeated every time.”
As a corollary to the preceding argument, the necessity for fighting on Syrian territory would be justified in terms of defending minorities against the “barbarism of the (Sunni) jihadists.” Lebanon’s frontier zone with Syria being largely Shi’a and Christian, especially in the Bekaa Valley, it has been easy to render the menace of jihadist radicalism toward these regions credible, the more so since anti-Assad jihadists rocket attacks against these areas started well before the IRL’s intervention in Syria. For the past three years, Hezbollah therefore has championed the cause of Lebanon’s minorities—beginning with the Christians—and thus portrays its interventions in Syria, especially in the frontier region, not as offensive but defensive. Without saying so explicitly, the IRL would in effect employ the same technique adopted by the Israeli army in South Lebanon between 1978 and 2000 of creating a buffer zone in neighboring territory “cleansed” of all hostile presence.
Finally, Hezbollah’s leadership is eager to remind all those who are scandalized by this concrete intervention to back Assad, that they ought to remember that “Hezbollah would have been the last to intervene in Syria.” Not only would it reiterate that combatants of various nationalities were spotted almost from the start in the ranks of the opposition, including “those supported by Saudi Arabia and Qatar,” but that even in Lebanon, it would hopefully be recalled that former prime minister Saad Hariri was caught red-handed in the fall of 2012 supplying armaments and material and financial support to the Syrian opposition, meaning more than six months before the IRL’s intervention on the side of Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
It is necessary not to lose sight of the fact that to these justifications,which focus on self-defense and the imperative of not letting Israel put its imprint on an eventual redistribution of power in Syria, must be added other imperatives less commented on by the party’s leadership but that are nevertheless just as real.
A Hierarchy of Interests
The necessity of making the frontier a secure zone emerges genuinely enough in the statements of Syrian-based IRL fighters to be accepted as a reason that effectively explains the Resistance leadership’s choice to enter into battle, for the first time in its history, on territory that is not its national territory. Yet, it is not the only explanation. The most plausible reason for the involvement of the IRL in Syria remains that of two converging interests. The Syrian regime, by retaking the area around Qusayr and Homs, “unblocked” the great transport and traffic roads linking Damascus to the country’s northwest including the coast. A contrario, it interdicted the route from the Bekaa Valley to the rebels who had found a rest area, logistics route, and weapons depot there. In 2015, it opened a new front in the South by Quneitra and Deraa, once again in order to free up the roads to the capital. But it has obviously never been a question of the IRL fighting on the regime’s side to help it re-establish its authority over the entire country, as attested to by the fact that the Islamic Resistance is so far less engaged in the northwest and not at all in the east. Its efforts bear mainly on the frontier zone with the Shi‘i Bekaa, hence on the Damascus-Homs-Aleppo axis. The IRL’s participation in the war in Syria thus appears to relate to the IRL’s own interests, translated less into an attempt to save the Syrian regime and more into anticipating any eventual adverse fallout on its own interests from Bashar al-Assad’s fall.
It is worth recalling that the modalities of the strategic alliance that governs relations between Hezbollah and Damascus since the 1990s consist essentially of facilitating the logistics route for IRL weapons funneled through Syrian territory from Iran. In all likelihood, these arrangements would not be maintained in the event the Syrian regime falls. It is not that Hezbollah is particularly attached to the person of Assad. The Ba‘thist regime as a whole has actually always been criticized among Hezbollah insiders. There are numerous accounts that I personally collected from party members after 2005 telling of their satisfaction with the end of the Syrian tutelage over Lebanon. Many fighters assigned to logistics details felt dismayed when confronted with certain practices of the Syrian army and especially its intelligence apparatus, which they judged as barbaric. However, it is not surprising that Hezbollah’s leadership—and probably the Iranian regime—in reality have no objection to an end to Assad’s reign and his security apparatus, provided his replacement does not call into question the interests of Hezbollah and of Tehran in Syria. While waiting for such a candidate to emerge, it is a fact that if the Syrian opposition groups today are unquestionably split, they nevertheless share the same aversion for the Iran-Hezbollah duo, which would therefore jeopardize the preservation of the advantageous cooperation that it benefits from under the Assad regime. A well-thought out utilization of an eventual new order, however, can make it possible for Hezbollah and its Iranian mentor to preserve their main assets there. The fact is that they do not need to be welcome throughout Syrian territory; a stable and protected sanctuary is sufficient provided it has access to certain logistical facilities.
The sectarian geography in Syria’s northwest—mainly Alawite and Christian and hence favorable to the Ba‘ath’s regional preferences—presents a primary area where Hezbollah and Teheran could re-establish for themselves a space for a presence and a functional organization. In plain terms, this is the space located between the coast and the Qusayr-Homs-Aleppo axis. The IRL’s armed intervention in the region therefore seems to be as much a preventive self-defense response as an attempt to secure a part of a sector where the Resistance might have to restrict its logistical maneuvers on Syrian territory.
Will Intervention Compromise Hezbollah’s Mobilization?
Recall that Lebanon’s political scene has been split since 2005 between the March 14 Alliance—a coalition of parties and individuals opposed to the Syrian regime and consisting mainly of the Sunni “Future Current” of Saad Hariri and the Christian "Lebanese Forces" of Samir Geagea—and the March 8 Coalition, which has favored maintaining close ties with Damascus and is led by the Shi‘i Hezbollah with the support of the mainly Christian “Free Patriotic Current” of Michel Aoun.
It has been assumed by the March 14 movement—and some of its Western supporters—that Assad’s ouster and the advent of real democracy in Syria would almost automatically result in a decisive victory for its forces over March 8 in Lebanon and thus marginalize Hezbollah. In this view, the changing balance of power between the Syrian regime in Damascus and its opposition would logically and necessarily replicate itself in Lebanon between the two coalitions. But, the potential ramifications in Lebanon of what happens in Syria demonstrate that,contrary to the popular adage, the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.
To start with, Lebanese Christians of all political stripes are not happy with the major role played by the Sunni jihadists at the heart of the anti-Assad networks. Shocked by what their Iraqi co-religionists have suffered in recent years and what has already happened to their counterparts in Syria, Lebanese Christians see their worst nightmare in the arrival in Lebanon of a similar regime of repression, abuse, and ultimately forced exile.The massive coordinated attack by Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS in the summer of 2014 on the area around Arsal in the Bekaa overwhelmingly confirmed in the eyes of many Lebanese that the jihadist menace for their small country of 18 official denominations is in fact no illusion. While Geagea, the leader of the March 14 movement’s Christian faction, depends on the moderate and Western-allied Sunni FC, Aoun, who heads the opposing camp, is wary of Hariri’s close links with Saudi Arabia and pushes for an alliance with Hezbollah, whose behavior in Islamo-Christian relations has for years been seen as exemplary. Thus, Hezbollah and Aoun’s media, which diligently cover all abuses Sunni jihadist groups commit against Christians throughout the region, highlight Hezbollah’s strong ties with Christians at every opportunity.
For example, the media dwell on the joint project the Maronite Patriarch and Hezbollah announced in January 2011 to promote the concept of a “civil state of believers”; Hezbollah’s reception of Pope Benedict’s September 2012 visit to Lebanon (for his arrival at the Beirut airport, it sent a welcoming escort of hundreds of the party’s Scouts sporting berets adorned with the Vatican’s coat of arms); the construction work of Jihad al-Binaa, a Hezbollah organ, which, after the 2006 war with Israel, repaired churches damaged by Israeli bombs and artillery shells during the month-long conflict at its own expense; Hezbollah’s support for the so-called “orthodox” electoral law that had long been a pet project of Christian conservatives, the majority of whom belong to the March 14 movement; and the November 2012 invitation to Hezbollah’s leadership by the Maronite Patriarch, Monsignor Beshara Boutros al-Rahi, to send its own delegation to accompany him to the Vatican on the occasion of his formal installation as cardinal.
Thus, the Christians already favorably disposed toward Hezbollah have no reason to change their position—all the more so in light of the embarrassing position in which their March 14 co-religionists find themselves, given the strength of jihadist groups in the Syrian opposition. Indeed, Geagea, who had argued for months after the outbreak of the insurrection in Syria that an Islamist regime there would not prove harmful to Christians, abruptly abandoned that claim before 2012 ended. At the same time, the Gemayel family, the second political grouping within March 14’s Christian constituency, never endorsed Geagea’s initially enthusiastic embrace of the rebellion and instead has preferred to support the government’s position of not taking sides. The Maronite patriarch himself, Msgr. Beshara Boutros al-Rahi, would say, in the fall of 2014, that “if not for Hezbollah, ISIS would have marched all the way to the (coastal and Christian) town of Jounieh.”
As for Lebanon’s Shi‘a, they have three reasons for not supporting the fall of Assad’s regime. The first relates to the bipolarity of Lebanon’s political scene. The two camps and their followers hold highly defined views regarding their political, factional, regional, and international allegiances. On the one hand, March 8 is allied to Syria and Iran and looks positively on Russia. On the other hand, most of March 14 followers have no problem dealing with Israel, are friendly with Saudi Arabia, and at the international level, consider France and the United States their natural protectors. Thus, without necessarily harboring any admiration for the Damascus regime, the strong majority of the Shi‘a “naturally” prefer it as the lesser evil compared to any regime that would upset the regional equilibrium.
This is the reason why the Shi‘i community in 2005 disapproved of March 14 buying into an American neocon policy aimed at upending the existing regional balance of power. Faced with a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea, Lebanon’s Shi‘a feel more at home and comfortable—and secure—under the Syrian-Iranian umbrella than if they were caught up in US-European adventures in the Middle East—particularly in the wake of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Over the past 20 years, the Shi‘i community has also developed a very special, strong, and sophisticated relationship with Hezbollah. The party’s successive victories over the Israeli occupation and its social and political achievements on the domestic front have built a solid confidence in its strategic acuity. Those accomplishments have also sparked a revival of a communal identity and the promotion of a collective self-image based on a new “Shiite pride.” In so doing, the party has helped the community rid itself of inferiority complexes that it has suffered from for decades, if not centuries, thus inspiring a strong, durable feeling of gratitude towards Hezbollah and, accordingly, cementing an enduring political bond between the party and the community.
One other reason why the majority of Shi‘a are unlikely to desert Hezbollah is their strong hostility toward the Sunni jihadist groups in the Syrian opposition. Christians are not the only religious group fretting about their growing importance. Shi‘a feel much the same fear because they know that the jihadist groups’ hatred directed at them is based more on religious than political differences; that is, they are hated for what they are rather than for what they think. In a country where the state lacks the resources to assure the security of its citizens, and despite the 2013-2014 reprisal attacks and bombings carried out in Lebanese Shi‘i areas by Syrian groups opposed to Assad, paradoxical as it may seem to some, Hezbollah appears to be the only group capable of defending not only its community but the nation. In this respect, a survey conducted in July 2015 by Hayya Bina, a Lebanese NGO focused on the Shi‘i community, is revelatory: it found that among Shi‘a “78.7% support Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria” and “79.9% think that Hezbollah’s actions in Syria make them feel more secure.”
In other words, intervention in the Syrian crisis has not changed the basic political configuration of Lebanon. Hezbollah’s critics still criticize it; those who support it also continue to do so. Those feelings may have become more polarized as a result of Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria, but they do not augur any consequential shifts in Lebanon’s political landscape.
 On the comments made about an IRL intervention in Syria before 2013, see Aurélie Daher, Hezbollah. Mobilization and Power (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2016), chapter 10.
 Quoted in Al-Arabiya, February 12, 2011.
 See “15 Questions for the Shia Lebanese Community,” A Hayya Bina Project, July 2015, pp. 12-13, http://www.shiawatch.com/public/uploads/files/15-Questions-Lebanese-Shi…;
The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.