Hezbollah’s silence on the unprecedented developments in neighboring Syria betrays a growing unease over the outcome of the uprising and the strategic ramifications of a collapse of the Assad regime.
If Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is toppled it could fundamentally reshape the strategic balance of the Middle East and present stark challenges to the Lebanese group and its Iranian patron.
At the end of April it appeared evident that Damascus was pinning its hopes on maintaining the status quo through force against the protestors rather than ushering in meaningful reforms. It has long been axiomatic among some analysts that reforming the system in Syria would weaken the regime’s grip on the country and spell the demise of the Assad family’s rule.
Syria plays a key role in the so-called ‘Jabhatal-Muqawama’, or ‘Resistance Front’, which groups countries and militant organizations opposed to Israel and the American policy in the Middle East. It is the crucial lynchpin that connects Hezbollah and Iran, serving as a conduit for the transfer of weapons into Lebanon, providing strategic depth (and in the past, political cover) for Hezbollah and granting Iran a toehold on Israel’s northern border.
A colleague recently recalled a conversation she had with a mid-level Hezbollah official during which she asked whether the party had drawn up a contingency plan for the possibility of a collapse of the Syrian regime. Hezbollah’s constant refrain is that it is “ready for all eventualities” and it is well known that the party does compile meticulous contingency plans to cover all potential developments. But the official told my friend that no plans had been made because a collapse of the Assad regime was considered something of a taboo subject amongst the leadership. I’m not sure that is strictly true.
The notion of Syria departing from the Resistance Front is not a new concept. Hezbollah long ago internalized the possibility that Syria might one day leave the alliance. It was generally assumed, however, that Syria’s departure would occur as a result of a breakthrough on the Israeli-Syrian track of the Middle East peace process rather than an internal upheaval. That moment almost occurred 11 years ago when the two countries seemed on the verge of signing a peace deal. At the time Hezbollah refused to reveal its planned course of action if peace had been reached, but it was evident that Syria, the dominant actor in Lebanon at the time, would have required the party to dismantle its military wing as a component of its settlement with Israel.
Hezbollah has grown more powerful since then, especially after Syria politically disengaged from Lebanon in 2005 following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri. Iran entered the vacuum left by the Syrians and will probably seek to consolidate its influence in Lebanon through Hezbollah if the Assad regime falls or Syria collapses into chaos. As for the longer-term impact on Hezbollah and Iran, it depends very much on what new order emerges in Syria. For example, if a Sunni-dominated regime reaches power in Damascus, it could ally itself with Saudi Arabia at the expense of the three-decade alliance with Iran. A Saudi-friendly Sunni regime may prefer to cooperate more closely with Sunni elements in Lebanon and seek to roll back some of Hezbollah’s power.
Another possibility being aired is a continuation of the present system in Syria but under a new leadership, possibly drawn from the military or security establishment replacing the Assad clan. Such a regime may prefer to maintain the alliance with Iran and the confrontational stance against Israel.
For now, Hezbollah officials and cadres are closely watching developments in Syria, hoping that Assad will prevail and that there will be no fundamental change to the Resistance Front. But the Arab world is passing through a major upheaval where previous maxims no longer apply. The Arab-Israeli conflict paradigm has been superseded by the new reality of the people against the state. Iran, Syria and Hezbollah traditionally derive much of their legitimacy from their anti-Israel positions and it must be disheartening for them to see the struggle become relegated to the second tier of regional interests.
Nicholas Blanford is the Beirut-based correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and The Times of London