Hezbollah is keeping a close eye on the unprecedented uprising in neighboring Syria, wary that the collapse of the Al-Assad regime could fundamentally reshape the strategic balance of the Middle East and present stark challenges to the Lebanese group and its Iranian patron. For now, Hezbollah officials and cadres are expressing a quiet confidence that President Bashar Al-Assad will prevail.
Syria plays a key role in the so-called Jabhat al-Muqawama, or Resistance Front, grouping countries and militant organizations opposed to Israel and United States 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.
Al-Assad may yet contain the unrest that has gripped his country since March 15, but the opposition vowed to intensify their uprising after his uncompromising speech last week failed to elaborate on an anticipated reform package.
Hezbollah certainly 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 appeared on the verge of signing a peace deal. At the time, Hezbollah refused to reveal its course of action if peace would be achieved, but it was evident that Syria, then the dominant actor in Lebanon, would have required the Shiite Muslim party to dismantle its military wing as a component of its settlement with Israel.
Hezbollah has grown more powerful since then, especially after Syria militarily disengaged from Lebanon in 2005 following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Iran entered the vacuum left by the Syrians and will doubtless seek to consolidate its influence in Lebanon through Hezbollah if the Al-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 would emerge in Syria. For example, if a Sunni-dominated regime reaches power in Damascus, it could ally itself with Saudi Arabia at the expense of Syria’s three-decade alliance with Iran. A Saudi-friendly Sunni regime may prefer to cooperate more closely with Sunni elements in Lebanon and seek to rollback some of Hezbollah’s power.
Another scenario being discussed is a continuation of the present authoritarian system in Syria but under a new leadership, possibly drawn from the military or security establishment replacing the Al-Assad clan at the helm since Al-Assad’s late father Hafez took power in 1970. Such a regime may prefer to maintain the alliance with Iran and the confrontational stance against Israel.
Hezbollah officials seem confident 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.
A question now is whether the coming weeks might see an escalation of tensions with Israel–possibly along Lebanon’s southern border, from Gaza or even perhaps the Golan Heights–stoked by the Resistance Front in an attempt to deflect domestic unrest and focus once more on the struggle against the Jewish state.
Nicholas Blanford is the Beirut-based correspondent for The Times of London and The Christian Science Monitor. He is author of the forthcoming “Warriors of God: The Story of Hezbollah’s Military Struggle Against Israel” (Random House, August 2011).