As Hezbollah continues to support the Syrian regime, fighting on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad, it risks losing its popularity both in Lebanon and among the Syrian population, says the International Crisis Group (ICG) in a new report.
“Hezbollah’s original military objectives in Syria were clear: to save a regime it sees as a vital ally and distance Sunni jihadis from its borders and neighborhoods,” the report says.
“Its contributions have been crucial. Its forces reversed the regime’s flagging momentum and enabled it to gain the relative advantage it enjoys today. Its fight against the Syrian opposition, which it has cast in harsh sectarian terms, has shored up its support base. But the long-term costs … could be steep.”
It goes on to posit that Hezbollah’s role in Syria is shifting the group’s identity by creating new problems for Lebanon, its home country, where it holds significant political sway.
Hezbollah’s fight in Syria “has deepened the regional sectarian divide, fueled the very extremism it purports to combat and eroded the movement’s legitimacy among constituencies that previously were supportive,” the report says.
“By framing its fight as a pre-emptive attack on takfiris – those who declare other Muslims to be apostates – Hezbollah has tarred all shades of the opposition, and indeed sometimes all Sunnis, with the same radicalizing brush. It has exaggerated, and thereby exacerbated, the sectarianism of the Syrian opposition as well as its own domestic opponents.”
We asked Sahar Atrache, a Beirut-based ICG analyst and the paper’s main author, to weigh in.
Syria Deeply: What’s the main theme you explore?
Sahar Atrache: The paper is about Hezbollah’s role inside Syria and how it has evolved. The main idea we present is that regardless of the outcome of the war, Hezbollah is now militarily involved, and this involvement is informing the party and changing its identity.
Even though at the beginning it gave the regime the momentum it needed by dislodging rebels from the border area, we think that in the longer term the outcome of this involvement is going to be negative for Hezbollah. It says it’s fighting extremists, but its very involvement fuels this extremism. It says it’s fighting to protect its [military] strategic depth, but the fighting endangers that because wide segments of the Syrian population are against [those fighting with the regime]. Inside Syria, it’s transforming the idea of Hezbollah, which was once a widely respected organization there. So it’s a dramatic change in Hezbollah’s trajectory.
Syria Deeply: How popular was Hezbollah in Syria before the conflict?
Atrache: All interviews with Syrians show that Hezbollah was very popular in Syria. Nasrallah was very popular, and during the 2006 [Lebanon war against Israel] the majority of Syria’s population stood beside the party and the Lebanese in general. One thing we tried to show in the report is that the problem now with Hezbollah is it focused on escalating its involvement with the regime on the political level, but it didn’t take time to build its relationship with the [Syrian] population. Inside Syria and Lebanon the main focus of the party was on security and the political arena. They have a very close relationship with the regime itself, but not a close relationship with society.
It’s not a question of popularity in the sense of just having people cheering. It’s important for the party to have the feeling that like in 2006, it’s supported. It’s very important for Hezbollah to have the deep social [support] in general. It’s important for the party not to have hostile groups across the border, or the areas that are considered strongholds in the Bekaa.
Syria Deeply: What has been Hezbollah’s evolution in the country?
Atrache: Some people said at the beginning that the party would not turn against its allies. It has been a gradual involvement: the first time it involved [moderate] rebels on the border, then the Islamist extremists, also on the border, so every time there was a new argument that it used to justify its involvement. For many inside Lebanon, they were surprised by the extent of Lebanon’s involvement. People didn’t think that the party would go so deep into Syria.
Syria Deeply: In regards to its involvement in Syria, what’s Hezbollah’s next step?
Atrache: What we were able to see from meeting with [Hezbollah officials] is that the party will not withdraw from Syria. It is willing to go all the way to secure the regime’s position. The next step for Hezbollah is to keep [fighting] to secure the Syrian regime, for the time being. They’re not thinking of an exit strategy right now. This is a key issue because if Hezbollah withdraws now from Syria, it would have achieved some gains and mostly be able to manage the [negative] consequences of its involvement. The risk at this point is that if it goes deeper and deeper into Syria, it goes into the unknown.