It’s the latest high-profile military role in Syria for the Lebanese militant group, which has been fighting in support of President Bashar al-Assad, providing troops and, they say, occasionally training government soldiers. Hezbollah has been a longtime political and strategic ally of the Assad regime and of its key regional backer, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
But Hezbollah’s support has come at a cost to its own security at home. Sunni groups opposed to the Assad regime have targeted the Hezbollah in its stronghold of Dahieh, part of the southern suburbs of Beirut, with car bombings and violent attacks.
We asked Faysal Itani, a fellow at the Atlantic Council who studies Hezbollah and military operations in southern Syria, to weigh in on the group’s confidence level and whether or not rising tensions in Lebanon would ever lead them to pull their support for Syria’s Assad.
Syria Deeply: Right now, how invested is Hezbollah on the ground in Syria?
Faysal Itani: There are at least several hundred fighters who are there in a combat capacity. In places like eastern Ghouta and Qalamoun they have taken a leading role in actually commanding troops and fighting on their own terms independently from the regime in areas that they prioritize. Given that they won the battle of Qusayr and are making slow progress in Qalamoun and are still able to carry out these operations in eastern Ghouta, they’re not everywhere, but in the places they choose to concentrate on, they’ve done quite well. I would argue that they saved the regime from defeat in certain parts of the country.
SD: How confident is Hezbollah at the moment?
FI: Hezbollah’s confidence is not pure bravado, it’s due to the fact that they’re militarily competent, and the relationship of dependence has shifted from them depending on the Syrians to the Syrians depending on them. They’re in relatively good spirits. They feel that what’s happening in Dahieh, the sporadic bombings, is a price they can afford. Their sense is that the attackers haven’t been able to cause mass casualties and haven’t been able to kill people from Hezbollah. And as long as that’s the case, spirits will stay up and they will continue to fight selective engagements and play a leading role in the [Syrian] theaters they think are important.
Hezbollah is only one of the many foreign fighting groups fighting for the regime inside Syria. So bear in mind that there are actually more foreign fighters fighting for the regime than there are for the insurgency. There is a serious manpower issue in Syria, and thats the regime’s main weakness. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were helping with recruitment and with training, logistical support, things of that sort. They claim to be training elements of the Syrian army and I think that’s very credible.
SD: What’s the biggest benefit for Hezbollah in supporting the regime?
FI: The main calculation is strategic, that Syria, or the regime’s Syria, is both a critical conduit of weapons, a force of strategic depth for them so that they’re not confined purely to Lebanese territory if they need to escape an Israeli assault, to operate on the flanks of Lebanon. Then there’s a geopolitical alignment between Syria and Iran, which at the end of the day we shouldn’t underplay. Hezbollah’s grand strategy is decided with and sometimes by the Iranian leadership. I imagine that if they took a decision that Hezbollah needs to be involved in this fight on the side of the regime, even if Nasrallah had second thoughts, they’d have to go ahead and do it anyway.
There’s secondary reasons. Ultimately, they have antagonized most of Lebanon’s Sunni population over the last few years, even before the Syria conflict happened. As they feel it, they’re besieged by rising currents of Sunni radicalism as well, in the Levant. It’s in their blood to always try to retain the initiative when under threat. So rather than wait for a threat to develop, they have an activist mentality of hitting first and always fighting on your terms and not the opponent’s. So rather than fight them in Lebanon on the insurgency’s terms further down the line or fight the Lebanese Sunnis, they decided to nip it in the bud. Now they’re all in and they have to keep going.
SD: Conceivably, could there be anything the regime could do that would lead Hezbollah to pull out?
FI: I wonder that if the regime’s position collapsed in the center of the country and in the northwest, whether Hezbollah would still feel capable of extending themselves that much. I think what they would do in that instance is grab Qalamoun and northern Lebanon, or at least the area around Homs – the area they have prioritized thus far in the fight – consolidate what they have, hunker down and wait to form a longer-term strategy.
I don’t see them fighting in Aleppo and Damascus indefinitely if they feel that the regime is not going to survive, and I don’t think the Iranians would ask them to do that. As long as they feel that gradually they’re going to win and as long as the insurgency can’t kill large numbers of Shia civilians and key Hezbollah personnel, then these are costs they’re willing to sustain.
Something that might cause them to radically revise their strategy is that there is a strong backlash among the Lebanese Shia against the campaign. That’s always been Hezbollah’s main anxiety for the past 30 years: what the Lebanese Shia position is and what [Hezbollah’s] standing is among the local population. If they start to feel that the political costs are insurmountably high, they would have to recalculate, because at the end of the day their total posture is based on total dominance of Shia politics in Lebanon.
SD: On Feb. 16, after the last Dahieh bombing, Nasrallah gave a speech where he said Hezbollah was standing firm. What is the mood among Lebanon’s Shia? Does Hezbollah still have the support it did last year, or with every bombing does it wane?
FI: I’m sure there’s some ambivalence. They feel that they’re vulnerable. This sense of vulnerability in siege, at this point, is translating into [Lebanese civilians’] consolidation and support for Hezbollah. I don’t know at what point that sort of rallying effect becomes dissent against Hezbollah. I anticipate the factors that would change that are the number of casualties, both in Syria and Hezbollah’s Shia sons dying, and the inability to produce a decisive outcome. When people get to feel like they’re not going to win in Syria, there will be some questioning.