Hezbollah and the Future of Syria

Jihadi geopolitics in a powder-keg.

Despite Hezbollah’s proven record of terrorism, the European Union and most of its member states refuse to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. The reason is that they are afraid of provoking terrorist attacks against themselves and their interests around the world. Their fear is realistic and understandable, although morally and strategically questionable.

Those who believe that Hezbollah – at least its “political wing” -- can be pacified and even reconciled fail to comprehend that this is not a case of buying off the bad guys. Hezbollah is an ideological organization; they have a goal and they are committed to it. They may agree to shift, if convenient, but they will not abandon their Jihadist vision and plan.

So far the US and EU have decided to back the radical Sunni-led Islamic opposition. But Hezbollah’s support of President Assad in the Syrian civil war makes that decision problematic, since Assad is fighting not only for himself but for the Alawites and others who would likely face slaughter and/or expulsion under Sunni rule.

As long as Hezbollah supports Assad, and behind them stand Iran and Russia, defeating them would be difficult without foreign intervention and the risk of a wider conflict. Assad knows this and he also knows that he can’t win; he is fighting for a draw, one that will allow him and his followers to survive. Hezbollah is probably the only group that can offer some kind of reliable guarantee.

Hezbollah is fighting not only for a role in any future Syrian government, but also for its status in Lebanon and a wider Iranian presence in a Syrian-Lebanese format. It is not seeking to take over a state, but for a foothold in Syria.  Unlike its presence in Lebanon, Hezbollah is not a Syrian entity; it is protecting Assad and the Alawites.

The question is how much Hezbollah and its patron is willing to invest in order to sustain its position in Syria. Even with a political settlement, non-Sunnis (Alawites, Shiites, Christians and others) will remain a minority; the Kurds will take care of themselves. Despite deep and reasonable mistrust and animosity, however, the stand-off is an opportunity to end the fighting.

Hoping for Assad’s downfall, therefore, is wishful thinking and bad policy. The alternative is to accept Hezbollah as the key to a negotiated settlement. That acceptance would require a change in US policy. It also means giving Hezbollah legitimacy and recognition, at least de facto.

The civil war in Syria may end on the surface, but it will continue underneath. Either Syria will break up into autonomous regions, or it will remain under a divided central government.  Alawites and other minorities may be tolerated, meanwhile, but that seems unlikely in the long run as radical Sunni Islamists become more powerful and depending upon Hezbollah's role.  Regardless of the final configuration, one issue looms over everything else: the vast stores of chemical and biological weapons.

As long as WMD remain in Syria, there is a potential for enormous tragedy.  Those weapons must be eliminated as a prerequisite for any political settlement.  Ending the civil war must be linked to eliminating stockpiles of those weapons.

Moshe Dann is a PhD historian, writer and journalist living in Jerusalem.