Saturday, 10 August 2013

Hezbollah fighters in Syria could undermine political influence in Lebanon

Loyalist forces in Syria have received military and political support from Iran in the shape of thousands of Iranian Republican Guard Corp (IRGC) personnel, but more worryingly for regional stability is the military support from the Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah. 

The majority of Hezbollah’s Syrian support is centred around the Homs and Damascus area and includes special forces and regular fighting units. Hezbollah has drawn criticism in Lebanon for participating in Syria from those who saw it just as a popular resistance movement, which could lead to a weakening of its political position in Lebanon.

Hezbollah is a Shiite militant group and Iranian proxy based out of the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, formed for the sole purpose of resisting Israel on behalf of Iran. They are the most organised and well-armed of any sectarian militia in Lebanon, even acting as a crucial lynchpin of the Lebanese defence doctrine. Their release into the Syrian conflict points to the critical Iranian strategic and geopolitical necessity of retaining Mr al Assad in power as an ally.

Lebanon is historically, politically, and religiously tied to the fate of Syria. Hezbollah has been a stalwart ally of Syrian President Bashar al Assad following a decades-long legacy of support. As the conflict in Syria drags on with neither side able to decisively defeat the other, Hezbollah has become increasingly involved in Syria as it attempts to ensure its strategic interests. However, their involvement is both raising friction in Lebanon and worrying Hezbollah leaders over just how deep they should commit their forces.

Hezbollah commanders will need to maintain vigilance that they not become over-extended in Syria to the detriment of their position in Lebanon.

Whether lending assistance to Mr al Assad to retain a key partner and thereby weakening Hezbollah’s military and political hegemony in Lebanon is going to be worth the price for the group is so far unknown. But they are trying this option anyway. Given Hezbollah’s impressive military capabilities and fighting experience, there is a good chance they could emerge stronger at the close of this conflict - whatever a conclusion for the Syrian conflict actually looks like. This will worry the group’s historic enemy, Israel, as a stronger more experienced set of Hezbollah fighters returning to Lebanon could destabilise the status quo in regards to defence.

Hezbollah have already led a number of successful - if costly - assaults on entrenched rebel positions over the past month or two. Rebel forces were pushed from their stronghold position in al Qusair in June largely by a concerted regime effort led by Hezbollah and IRGC forces. Hezbollah sustained relatively heavy casualties – relative to their participating numbers – which has cast some doubt on their continued involvement in the civil war. However, with rebel positions remaining within striking distance of Damascus and the Alawite coast, Hezbollah are being retained as a competent force-multiplier and extremely effective fighting group.

Up to one third of Hezbollah’s fighting force has been committed to the war, and there are reports of thousands more fighters training for additional campaigns and potentially up to 4000 reservists. Over 50,000 Hezbollah fighters and support personnel are presently in Syria, according to reports. 

At least five high-level commanders have already been killed during the fighting, as well as hundreds of regular fighters. In Homs area, the elite unit known as the 910 Brigade has been reported to be stationed and active during hostilities, while hundreds of advisors are embedded with Syrian troops across the country.

Special forces from Hezbollah have helped Syrian troops against rebels in Aleppo and Damascus. Hezbollah’s special forces are not being entirely committed to the Syrian conflict because of their importance to any future conflict with Israel.

Hezbollah have employed some parts of their rocket and missile inventory in the conflict, but much of their estimated 50,000 pieces remain in position in southern Lebanon. Some of the group’s more strategic weaponry, such as their collection of Scud and medium-range missiles, remain in bunkers in northern Lebanon or stored along the Litani River and are unlikely to be repositioned toward Syria.

The al Assad regime continues to hold major influence over the domestic politics in Lebanon. Should the Syrian regime stay in power, Hezbollah should be able to maintain its coalition with Shiite, Druze, and Christian partners. However, should the al Assad regime collapse, Hezbollah could find itself staring down the barrel of forcible disarmament as its strongest support line is cut and the militia loses a great deal of its power.

The group is expected to violently resist any disarmament policies. But Hezbollah has the motivation to talk to whatever government is in control in a more conciliatory tone rather than confrontational, should the al Assad regime fall. Coalitions with opposition groups in Lebanon would be preferable for Hezbollah, with violence being a last resort.

Beirut and Hezbollah’s political opponents, such as pro-Syrian opposition elements and Sunni Salafist groups and jihadists, will be watching for any political or military weakness coming from the militant group, with an eye to leverage back political power and away from the Shiia group. Israel also will not miss an opportunity to divide Hezbollah from the Lebanese political state if the group loses strength in any fundamental way.

Should the al Assad regime collapse in Syria, there is a threat of Sunni jihadist groups in Lebanon pivoting towards the country to refocus their militancy in Lebanon while the potentially victorious rebel groups solidify their control over Syria. Depending on the timeline, this event could occur some years down the track, giving the Syrian rebel groups and participating jihadist fighters plenty of scope to develop guerrilla fighting experience and bombing prowess. 

Shiite groups currently protected by Hezbollah would come under increased threat in this scenario causing the Shiia group to deploy its fighters towards Beirut in an attempt to better quell sectarian unrest from a central position. However, there is the potential for this to attract significant international condemnation considering how close it would resemble a Hezbollah-initiated coup.

Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian civil war has caused great damage to its image as a popular resistance movement against Israel. The current stream of Sunni unrest spreading throughout the region will undermine the group’s position in Lebanon if this discontent bubbles over. But now that Mr al Assad’s regime is looking slightly more in control of its stronghold positions in Syria, Hezbollah could become emboldened at home and look to deal with the developing security and political obstacles in Lebanon.

However, in the long term, and regardless of the military conclusion in Syria, Hezbollah fear their ability to rearm and rebuild critical infrastructure will be severely weakened. The situation in Syria is forcing the group to rethink how it will receive material from Iran if logistic routes overland cannot be secured. 

Any reduced ability to replenish arms will affect Hezbollah’s political standing in Beirut by reducing its military deterrent. Without the ability to replenish Hezbollah’s troops and missile supply in the event of another war with Israel, Israel Defence Forces (IDF) could be encouraged to conduct pre-emptive strikes, both overt and covert, on the group’s arsenals.

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