While Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria is helping Assad regain military foothold in key areas of the country, it promises a more vicious and prolonged sectarian conflict in the longer run. The involvement strongly backed by Iran, could open the door for the West to arm the opposition in hopes of changing the calculations of a defiant Assad.
Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese Shiite party, has made no secret of its support of “Assad’s Syria” from the early days of the uprising. This support was displayed in political, logistical and financial help early on, and has escalated to direct military involvement during the last few months. It is mostly manifested today along the Lebanese-Syrian border and what the U.S. administration has described as “Hezbollah’s occupation” of these villages, as well as in the key battle of Qusayr, some suburbs of the capital Damascus. For Assad, this support from skilled fighters in guerrilla warfare comes handy as his army is stretched too thin in key parts of the country and as he fights for his regime’s survival. But as importantly, this fight is as crucial for Hezbollah’s own military strategy, and in protecting the arms transfer routes for the party, which for decades have been brought from Iran to Syria and through these exact border areas that it’s trying to secure.
By plunging itself into a civil war, Hezbollah is operating on a shortsighted and defensive agenda. The Lebanese party that was admired once for its heroism in fighting Israel, has ambushed itself in a sectarian trap, and is being portrayed as a Shiite party fighting Sunnis in their own villages. It is a crisis that will mar Hezbollah’s legacy, and further complicate its political life inside Lebanon.
The military gains that Hezbollah is helping Assad achieve in Syria are “very temporary”, according to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry who estimated the presence of “thousands of Hezbollah militia forces.” Ceding Syria or parts of it to Hezbollah or Iran’s control is a political redline for Washington and for many of its regional allies. Ties to Iran have always been a source of tension between the U.S. and the Syrian President, even before the uprising started in 2011. Assad the son has drawn Syria much closer to Iran than his father, and has provided Hezbollah with unprecedented political and military support inside Lebanon. Kerry’s own rapprochement with Assad before the uprising was to try and create a wedge between him and Iran. Today, the Assad regime is more dependent than ever, economically and politically, on Tehran, and the U.S. is eying to change this dynamic in any post-Assad transition period.
Arming the Opposition
Hezbollah’s involvement is defining more broadly the conflict in Syria along both sectarian and regional axis. It is also pushing the U.S. into arming the opposition if the “Geneva 2” talks fail next month. There is no indication so far that these talks will succeed, and no date has been set yet for the event. Regionally, not many are waiting for the peace conference, and Assad himself has doomed it as a failure while the opposition is split and has not agreed on a transition plan.
Kerry has been more vocal about supporting the opposition, and the military command of the “Free Syrian Army” ran by General Salim Idriss has asked according to the “Washington Post” for “military balance” on the ground before heading to Geneva. The U.S. top diplomat even stated from Amman that “if Bashar al-Assad thinks that the gains that he’s made in the last few days are going to be determinative of this, then he is miscalculating.” Changing Assad calculations is still at the core of the U.S. strategy and for that Idriss is asking for anti-tank and anti-craft weapons.
On the legislative side, the U.S. Congress appears to be moving with a bill that offers President Barack Obama the legal cover to arm Syria’s rebel. This Tuesday, the bill entitled “Syria transition support act” cleared the Senate Foreign Relations committee with a 15-3 vote, and endorsement from key senators in both parties. The bill would extend limited lethal assistance and training to “vetted rebel groups”, and would impose sanctions on any party who sells oil or transfers arms to the Assad regime (Iran and Iraq). The European Union will also discuss lifting the arms embargo on Syria as a way to provide lethal assistance for the rebels. The embargo expires end of the month, and while France and the UK would like to see it gone, other countries such as Germany and Austria want to keep it in place.
The involvement of Hezbollah in Syria as well as intensified efforts to arm the opposition promise a prolonged conflict and a delayed political settlement. In the words of a wise senior Arab official, the Syrians might have to wait for “Geneva 17” before their conflict is resolved.