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Why is Hezbollah in Syria?
Hezbollah has prided itself as being an indigenous Lebanese liberation force committed to defending the Shi’a in Lebanon. Although Hezbollah was fighting in Syria against the Sunni opposition groups covertly, Hezbollah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah has confirmed that Bashar al Assad’s fight is Hezbollah’s fight. Why would Hezbollah risk its domestic stance in Lebanon, not to mention a religious backlash and civil war, in order to defend the Assad regime? Despite internal rumblings of disagreement with Hezbollah’s involvement, the Shi’a terrorist group has its reasons for intervention: Hezbollah is minding its state sponsor, keeping an ideologically-aligned, supportive government to its east, and seeking to gain advanced military technology from Syria in return for its defense of Assad.
In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon in order to oust the Palestinians. In response, Syria’s Hafez al-Assad, concerned with being overrun by Israeli forces, allowed Iran to send 1,000 members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to Bekaa Valley in Lebanon to unite, train, and equip the disorganized Shi’a movements against Israel and secular forces in Lebanon (Byman, 2005, p. 82). Hezbollah and its patron Iran have since been ever-present in Lebanon exporting the Islamic Revolution and fighting for the Palestinians. Concurrently, Hezbollah has postured itself as a Lebanese political and social organization that was born as a counter-invasion militia. Over thirty years later, on May 25, 2013 Nasrallah confirmed that Hezbollah fighters were actively fighting alongside Bashar al-Assad’s regime forces and against opposition forces in Syria (Bazzi, 2013, p. 3).
Nasrallah’s confirmation in May came after months of keeping secret Hezbollah’s military operations in Syria. Nasrallah obviously understands the risks associated with the Party of God becoming openly involved in what has become a religiously centered conflict in Syria. This risk became reality when a massive car bomb exploded and killed fifty people in a Hezbollah-dominated southern suburb of Beirut in July 2013 (Ghitis, 2013). While Hezbollah publicly blamed Israel for the bombing, there is still debate: what if this was the first of many Salafist retaliatory strikes on Hezbollah in response to the group’s involvement in Syria? The Sunni rebels in Syria have nicknamed Hezbollah hizb ash-shatan (the Party of the Devil) and threatened to continue to take the fight to Lebanon if Hezbollah does not depart the conflict (Yacoubian, 2013, p. 1). Yet Nasrallah continues to publically state Hezbollah’s intentions are to defend the Shi’a population living in the villages along the Syria-Lebanon border and counter the al-Qaida elements from taking over the Syrian government (Bazzi, 2013, p. 3).
The cost of Hezbollah’s intervention could be disastrous, with Ghitis claiming “Instead of a champion of Lebanon, Hezbollah is viewed today by much of the region as an enemy of Sunnis—even as an enemy of Arab and Muslims—and a protector of a brutal dictator” (Ghitis, 2013). Not only could the support for Syria cause backlash from Sunnis fighting in Syria, but the Syrian and Iranian connections to Hezbollah have historically aggravated Lebanon’s sectarian divides: “the majority of Lebanese Christian Druze consider Syria and Iran the second and third biggest threats to Lebanon, after Israel; 40 percent of Sunnis view Syria as one of the two biggest threats to their security” (Talbot & Harriman, 2008, p. 34)
Hezbollah, as both a militant and political movement, is defined by its primordial connection to the Shi’a concept of resistance against an oppressor. Ironically, the current perception of the Party of God is that it is on the side of a now famous oppressor, Bashar al-Assad. Assad belongs to the Alawite religious minority that makes up twelve percent of the population but have ruled the country in a “totalitarian Soviet-style regime for decades” (Toten, 2013, p. 30). After more than 100,000 civilians killed and over half the Syrian population has been displaced or have fled the country, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted text condemning violence in Syria: “…the Assembly strongly condemned the Syrian authorities’ continued and escalating use of heavy weapons, ballistic missiles and cluster munitions, including indiscriminate shelling from tanks and aircraft, against population centers” (United Nations GA/11372; Tabler, 2013, p. 90). Why would Hezbollah choose to risk its political and social forward momentum of the last thirty years for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad?
Iran Pulling the Strings
One cannot clearly delineate the ideological motivations of Hezbollah from the motivations born out of its proxy-relationship with Iran. That is, when Iranian Supreme Leader Khameini provides an order to Hezbollah leader Nasrallah the order is inherently divine and intertwined within the fabric of Hezbollah. According to the establishing Open Letter Addressed by Hezbollah to the Downtrodden in Lebanon and the World:
We, the sons of Hizbullah’s nation, whose vanguard God has given victory in Iran and which has established the nucleus of the world’s central Islamic state, abide by the orders of a single wise and just command currently embodied in the supreme Ayatollah Ruhollah al-Musavi al-Khomeini (Samii, 2008, p. 36).
Hezbollah has proven to be the puppet of an Iranian puppet-master. Iran brought Hezbollah into this world through its Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps training, funding, and arms shipments, and has been controlling its proxy group ever since. It was Ayatollah Khameini who, in 1992 supported and more importantly allowed Hezbollah’s participation in “a parliament based on a confessional political system that does not represent Hizbullah’s view of an ideal system” (Husseini, 2010, p. 806). More recently, in 2000, when Israel officially withdrew from Lebanon, the decision to continue Hezbollah’s militant resistance was vetted through the Supreme Leader of Iran (p. 808). The July 2007 meeting in Damascus between Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah illustrates the continued link between the state and the state-sponsored group (Samii, 2008, p. 33).
Thus, in order to understand Hezbollah’s interest in Syria, one must understand Iran’s interest in Syria, to include its historic use of Hezbollah as a proxy. In 1979, with the overthrow of the Shah, the clerical regime dramatically changed Iran’s foreign policy orientation. From 1979 onwards, Iran began outwardly championing the Islamic umma (community), of which Iran claims Ayatollah Khomeini is at the heart (Byman, 2005, p. 81). In the Iranian constitution (adopted 1979), the revolutionary regime mandated in Article 3 “the government is duty-bound to provide ‘unsparing support to the dispossessed of the world,’” and Article 154 says “the government ‘supports the just struggles of the oppressed against oppressors in every corner of the globe” (Samii, 2008, p. 35). More specifically, Ayatollah Khomeini announced in a 1980 speech marking the Iranian New Year, “I declare my support for the people of occupied Palestine and Lebanon” (p. 34). Iran arguably turned a “rag-tag assortment of guerrillas fighting with little coordination into a disciplined, skilled, and dedicated movement” (Byman, 2005, p. 97). Hezbollah therefore owes the existence it has now, possessing the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) label of terrorism “A-Team”, to its state sponsor (p. 97). Byman quotes Saad-Ghorayeb “Without Iran’s political, financial, and logistical support…by Hizbu’llahs reckoning, it would have taken an additional 50 years for the movement to score the same achievements in the absence of Iranian backing” (p. 97).
Even before the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the Shi’ite in Lebanon were underrepresented in politics as well as being economically disadvantaged, yet had begun to organize under clerics trained in Iran and Shi’ite areas of Iraq. One such area was the holy city of Najaf, southern Iraq. The Lebanese Shi’ite clerics were highly influenced by Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr who advocated for a regional Shi’ite voice (Mansour, 2010, p. 87-88). The returnees from Iraq brought fervor against Israel and advocated in favor of regional Shi’ite representation that translated into political mobilization within Lebanon and, more importantly, forged a direct relationship between the Lebanese Shi’a community and Iran. One of these trainees, Imam Musa al-Sadr, developed the Higher Shi’ite Islamic Council and, more importantly, he founded the Movement of the Deprived that would develop from political to military entity. This movement, which came to be known as Amal, is the group from which Hezbollah was born (Mansour, 2007, p. 88). The 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon was the catalyst for the formal creation of Hezbollah. Up until that point, the Shi’a community in southern Lebanon did not necessarily welcome Palestinian militant groups, but the 80,000 Israeli soldiers that subsequently displaced, injured, and killed many Lebanese citizens altered public opinion in favor of the Palestinians and, more specifically, against a lasting Israeli peace. Simultaneously, Syrian forces supporting the Palestinian militants were overwhelmed quickly by the Israelis, and turned to Iran for assistance (Byman, 2005, p. 82). Tehran “deployed 1,000 Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) personnel – the revolutionary vanguard of Iran’s military that often engages in covert revolutionary activity – to Lebanon’s Bekaa valley” (p. 82). The IRGC provided “direct military support, training, financial backing, organizational aid, and numerous other forms of assistance” (Byman, 2005, p. 87).
Three years later, the manifesto released by Hezbollah explained the scope of the newfound Party of God:
1. “Islam is the comprehensive, complete and appropriate program for a better life. It is the intellection, religious, ideological and practical foundation for the proposed organization.”
2. “Resistance against Israeli occupation, whish is a danger to both the present and future, receives ultimate confrontation priority given the anticipated effects of such occupation on Lebanon and the region. This necessitates the creation of a jihad (holy war) structure that should further this obligation, and in favor of which all capabilities are to be employed.”
3. “The legitimate leadership is designated to the Jurist-Theologian (walih al-Faqih) who is considered to be the successor to the Prophet and the Imams. The Jurist-Theologian draws the general guiding direction for the nation of Islam. His commands and proscriptions are enforceable.” (Mansour, 2005, 19)
Within these core objectives, the true nature and depth of the Iranian-Hezbollah alliance begins to become much clearer. Firstly, not only is Hezbollah stating their intent is to promote and defend Islam violently, but the ‘green light’ on such action will be provided to the group by the Jurist-Theologian, the chief religious leader in Iran, Ayatollah Khameini.
Without the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guard), Hezbollah would never have achieved the military successes it has experienced since its inception. History demonstrates the irony behind the Syrian-facilitated Pasdaran’s arrival in Bekaa Valley and the emergence of the driving Islamic force in Lebanon. Despite Iran and Syria’s common interest in countering Israel, the nations’ interests have diverged with respect to Lebanon. Throughout the mid-1980s, Iran and Syria supported a proxy-war within Lebanon with Iran supporting Hezbollah and Syria supporting what was left of Amal, Hezbollah’s main rival (Early 2006, p. 120). However, by the late-1980s, Iran acquiesced that Syria was the primary external force within Lebanon (p. 120). As a gesture of reciprocity, Syria went about disbanding and disarming all military parties within Lebanon except for Hezbollah, permitting the organization to maintain their militia (Mansour, 2010, p. 90). This cooperation between Syria and Iran during the Lebanese Civil War, which focused on the ultimate success and survival of Hezbollah, has proven to be one of the most critical consequences of the war with regard to the success of the organization and potentially, the survival of the Assad regime in Syria.
Further cooperation between Hezbollah and Syria was observed in Hezbollah’s compromise with respect to the Syrian-backed 1989 Ta’if Accord, which instituted a secular government but also called for the disarmament of all non-state militias (The Ta’if Accord, 1989). Hezbollah legitimized itself by declaring the necessity for a committed Israeli resistance as well as participating in the Lebanese elections (Norton, 2007, p. 45). Furthermore, Hezbollah would have compromised its relationship with Syria by not agreeing to the Ta’if Accords. In accepting the terms of the Ta’if Accords, Hezbollah effectively deviated from its fundamental charter in order to promote the longevity of their movement.
While not publically acknowledged or confirmed, the 1989 compromise within the Ta’if Accords could have been influenced by Syria’s backing of Iran during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. Even after 2006, when Hezbollah Lebanese support dwindled after inciting an attack from Israel, it was Iran but also Syria who paid for the rent for those that lost their homes in Israeli airstrikes. According to the leader of Hezbollah’s military operations in the south, “the organization will pay a year’s rent for those who lost their homes” and “We have to thank the friendly… countries that will help us, with Iran and Syria topping the list” he added (Samii, 2008, p. 41). A common thread that exists throughout the birth of Hezbollah has been the continued relationship between the “Shi’ite Axis”: Hezbollah-Iran-Syria. The cost of Hezbollah’s support for Syria in the current conflict could cause civil war to return to Lebanon and eventually crush Hezbollah itself. However, the reciprocal, symbiotic relationship between Iran and Syria demands Iranian support to the Assad regime, and in turn demands Hezbollah’s support to the Assad regime. Since its inception, Hezbollah has reportedly received $100 million a year from Iran. There is a multitude of examples of Hezbollah terrorists fleeing to safe havens in Iran after conducting an attack, and Iranian officials are credited with developing the constitution and structure of Hezbollah (Byman, 2005, p. 89). The bottom line is that if Hezbollah is in Syria, it is because Iran has pulled the puppet-master strings in order to get the terrorist group in Syria.
Keeping a Shi’a Ally to the East
While there is the historical master and servant relationship between Iran and Hezbollah, there are also long-established religious and ideological ties that are likely being invoked in the higher council of Hezbollah to justify the deployment of the militia to Syria.
The ideological connection that exists between Hezbollah, its historical state-sponsor Iran, and its Shi’ite ally Syria is undeniable. In fact, it was the Lebanese Shi’a community, pre-dating Hezbollah that provided Hafez Assad’s regime legitimacy. In the 1970s, the leader of the Lebanese Shi’a community, Musa al-Sadr acknowledged the Alawites as a sub-group of Shi’ism, thereby providing much needed regional justification to the Syrian President (Husseini, 2010, p. 810). Now, the “Shi’a Axis” of Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran is under attack by the Sunnis opposing the Syrian regime (Filkins, 2013, p. 49). According to one Hezbollah officer commenting on the deaths of fighters being buried back in Lebanon, “If Bashar goes down, we’re next” (p. 49). The war in Syria has thus been framed as a religious one critical to the future of the Islamic umma, both Shi’a and Sunni. From Hezbollah’s perspective, the survival of its own organization and the prosperity of the Shi’a population in the region rest with the Alawites maintaining control of Syria. Makdisi posits that “Sectarianism as a culture, therefore, is more than simply mindless religious violence: it is the historically contingent moment when religious difference becomes accepted and imagined as the bedrock of a modern politics of equal representation” (Makdisi, 2008, p. 24).
The conflict did not start out as a religious one, but now a larger struggle between Shi’a and Sunni, and between Saudi Arabia and Iran has taken shape. Both the regional power-houses “increasingly see their rivalry as a winner-take-all conflict: If Hezbollah gains an upper hand in Lebanon, then the Sunnis—and by extension, their Saudi patrons—lose a round to Iran” (Bazzi, 2013, p. 4). Hezbollah’s ideological reasons for supporting Syria can also be found closer to home. In the 2009 update to the open letter from 1985, Nasrallah does not recognize Lebanon as a nation-state and there are continued undertones of wishing to install the rule of Islam in Lebanon modeled after the wilayat al-faqih (the guardianship of the jurist) (Khashan, 2013, p. 81). If a relatively more secular government overtakes Assad, or worse a Sunni-led government is installed, Hezbollah has likely made the strategic calculation that its own chances of succeeding in creating an Islamic Lebanon will be much worse than they are with Assad at the helm.
Hezbollah’s commitment to Syria is nothing new, and in 2005 while Syria was under pressure to completely depart Lebanon, Nasrallah was quoted in a rally of hundreds of thousands as declaring “No one can get Syria out of Lebanon or out of Lebanon’s mind, heart, and future (Samii, 2008, p. 48). While Syrian forces were forced to leave, the protests and shows of support are illustrative of the direct and indirect support Syria has provided Hezbollah in the past and vice versa. Szekely postulates that Syria actually grew much closer with Hezbollah after the Syrian armed forces were forced to leave Lebanon in 2005 as Syria attempted to maintain its influence in Lebanon through Hezbollah (Szekely, 2010, p. 121). Coincidentally, the political and social strides Hezbollah had made in the thirty years following its inception made it the ideal proxy for Syria. The majority of this support has been Syria historically playing the role of weapons supplier and Iran the middle man (p. 42)
Quid Pro Quo Weapons Supply
In 2007, Nasrallah responded to critics of his militant group by stating “We do not fight our enemies with swords made of wood” and went on to admit “all kinds of quantities” of weapons were being acquired by Hezbollah (Blanford, 2013). Six years after Nasrallah’s comments, Hezbollah could possibly be gaining unprecedented military technology in a quid pro quo deal associated with Hezbollah’s assistance to the Assad regime. The evidence of this military assistance was demonstrated on 30 January 2013 when Israeli jets destroyed a shipment of advanced anti-aircraft missiles (Blanford, 2013). The Israeli jets destroyed a convoy “carrying SA-17 ‘Grizzly’ mobile medium-range anti-aircraft missiles” (Blandford, 2013). While Iran and Syria have consistently provided Hezbollah with arms and training, the technological and military bump in capability from the known SA-7s, SA-18s, and SA-8 ‘Gecko’ to the much more advanced SA-17s could be an indication the Syrian regime is reciprocating the assistance it has been provided by Hezbollah.
In the past, the military support provided to the Lebanese terrorist group has been presented ‘under the table’ normally disguised so as to not be able to directly linked to Iran or Syria. The covert tactics used by state actors have reportedly been in the form of only providing older technology that is available on the black markets and not advanced enough technology that only state actors possess. But this is not the case with the most recent SA-17 transfer.
In fact, only last year Syria confirmed “it had received a number of SA-17 batteries from Russia as part of a deal signed several years ago. Two batteries were reportedly operational last April along the Lebanon-Syria border” (Blanford, 2013). Whereas the previous arms shipments had included 1970s and 1980s technology (SA-7, SA-18, and SA-8) that Syria or Iran had access to for decades, the SA-17s, with a “range of 30 miles and can hit multiple targets at 40,000 feet” are a distinct escalation in military assistance being provided by the Syrian regime (Blanford, 2013). While Iranian military arms that transit Syria into the hands of Hezbollah are mostly decades-old or indigenous copies of these older systems, Syria continues to be supplied advanced military systems due to Russia’s access to Syria’s warm water port, Tartus. Hezbollah is likely attempting to prepare itself for the next time Israel attacks, as they did in 2006. During the conflict, despite the weapons provided by Iran, the military gap between the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) and Hezbollah was enormous.
The IDF deployed 10,000 soldiers to Hezbollah’s approximately 2,500 soldiers (Szekely, 2012, p. 122). Although Hezbollah possessed anti-tank and anti-ship missiles as well as “artillery, light weapons and several Iranian-made unmanned aerial drones, it possessed nothing to counter the power of the Israeli Air Force” (p. 122). The Syrian conflict will not change the fact that Hezbollah’s number one enemy is Israel, and Hezbollah is a violent organization always in preparation for a war with Israel. War happened in 1982, 1985, 1994, 1996, 2000, and 2006. Filkin interviewed families in southern Beirut who commented “it’s about that time again” (Filkins, 2012, p. 52). In the most recent conflict, Hezbollah fired an estimated 4,000 ballistic projectiles into Israel; according to American officials, “Hezbollah’s arsenal stands at closer to 50,000 projectiles” (p. 53). The implications of the Syrian conflict on the future capability of Hezbollah to fight a war are not lost on Hezbollah: “Right now, Hezbollah has enough missiles for one more war—a big war—but then all their weapons are gone. When that happens, if Assad is gone, then life will be very hard for Hezbollah” (p. 54). Nearly all war-making material Hezbollah possesses and will get in the future will come from Iran through Syria—rockets, small arms, money, and ammunition (p. 53).
At present, Hezbollah sees the opportunity to gain weapons that Iran potentially does not have access to because of strict embargoes and weapons transfer restrictions. Syria, due to its much closer and more active relationship with Russia, possesses more advanced surface-to-air technology than Iran. Thus, despite Israel’s recent destruction of the SA-17 convoy, Hezbollah is likely counting on supplementing its current weapons stockpiles with more advanced Syrian weapons, so as to close the enormous gap that exists between Hezbollah and the IDF, especially the Israeli Air Force.
Up until this point, however, Syria had merely facilitated weapons and training to Hezbollah, but not directly contributed to their stockpile. This escalation is based on the previous relationship Husseini describes as “strategic interdependence: Syria needs Hezbollah’s support to maintain its relevance in the region and to keep its fingers on the Lebanese political pulse, and Hezbollah relies on Syrian permission for the transit of weapons” (Husseini, 2010, p. 811). Hezbollah’s active support in the Syrian conflict could see the relationship alter and Hezbollah rewarded with unprecedented military technology.
The most public inclusion of Hezbollah fighters in the Syrian conflict has not coincidentally been in the western city of Qusayr. The battle of Qusayr is a powerful metaphor for why both Hezbollah and Iran are fighting for the regime. By some accounts, “Hezbollah fighters led the offensive” and “confirmed charges, long made by anti-Assad forces, that Iran has sent soldiers to fight on Assad’s side in Syria” (Ghitis, 2013). Qusayr stands at the crossroads of the objectives of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah. The town is in the province of Homs and forms a literal crossroads between Homs and northeast Lebanon. Iran has used the corridor into Lebanon to supply its proxy group with the weapons with which it has become the greatest military force in Lebanon but also with which it has launched attacks and defended itself against Israel (Ghitis, 2013). Ghitis asserts the reason Nasrallah has taken the chance on sending fighters to Syria is that if the ammunition flow from Iran is halted, then Hezbollah will quickly weaken and be cut off from its patron, Iran.
In 2008, Samii authored an article entitled A Stable Structure of Shifting Sands: Assessing the Hizbullah-Iran-Syria Relationship. In the article, Samii concludes that the only way Hezbollah would act outside of Lebanon would be “if a war against Iran is launched. Short of that, Hizbullah is unlikely to sacrifice its achievements or endanger its constituency due to its investment in Lebanese politics” (Samii, 2008, p. 53). And yet Hezbollah is now publically fighting with Syrian forces in Syria, and there is no direct threat to the Shi’a community in Lebanon. Bazzi rightly states “Hezbollah’s role reversal is striking: a movement that has long prided itself as an indigenous liberation force committed to defending its home is now fighting on foreign soil” (Bazzi, 2013, p. 3).
Nasrallah has publicly framed the argument as “if Assad falls, Palestine will be lost” (p. 3). But Iran, and therefore Hezbollah, has gone all-in—with Hezbollah seemingly having much more to lose—on the “Shi’a Axis” for the eventual goal of a “Shi’a Crescent” to include Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Syria, and Lebanon (Samii, 2008, p. 53). The easy answer to the question “why is Hezbollah in Syria?” is that it is following the orders of the Vali-yi Faqi (jurist-theologian) Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini. However, the answer is naturally much more complicated than that and includes reasons of religion, ideology and a perceived need for self-preservation. In his post 1970s writings, Khomeini cast society into “two warring classes—mostazafin—oppressed—against the mostakberin—oppressors” (Husseini, 2010, p. 805). At this point, Iran and Hezbollah are betting on the oppressor, Bashar al-Assad, as in the national interest of Iran and the defense of the Islamic Revolution. Furthermore, Hezbollah is not only attempting to maintain the status quo to its east but also profit in return for its assistance, as evidenced by the recent attempt at transferring Syrian SA-17s to Hezbollah. However, the group’s involvement in Syria is likely straining its own ability to internally manage its members due to a newfound identity crisis. Hezbollah is fundamentally a resistance movement dedicated to fighting Israel, but Hezbollah and Iran have decided that the venture into external operations in Syria is the only option in order to fight the next war against Israel.
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