Home inFocus Can Syria Change? (Spring 2009) Damascus and Lebanon’s ‘Party of God’

Damascus and Lebanon’s ‘Party of God’

David Kenner Spring 2009

Hezbollah (“Party of God” in Arabic) is the most powerful faction in Lebanon. Armed with sophisticated weapons and dedicated forces, Hezbollah poses a threat to Middle East peace and stability.

The group was trained and funded by the Islamic Republic of Iran amidst the chaos of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. When the war ended, Syria emerged as Lebanon’s occupying power. To consolidate its hold on the fractured state, Damascus forced all Lebanese militias to disarm—all but Hezbollah, which retained its arms to battle Israel in the “security zone” it created in South Lebanon.

Subsequent Syrian support to Hezbollah during its years of occupation (1990-2005) was crucial for Hezbollah’s emergence as the preeminent military force in South Lebanon. Indeed, the armed group may not have survived without Syrian aid. Ironically, Hezbollah is now strong enough to prevent Syria from straying from the Iranian axis.

The Syria-Hezbollah Relationship

There are many reasons to doubt Syria’s interest in reconciling with Israel and the West. From bellicose rhetoric to establishing a strong alliance with Iran, Damascus appears far from ideal as a peace partner. Similarly, Syria’s protection of Hezbollah from 1990 to 2005 cannot be ignored.

Damascus was instrumental in providing Hezbollah with political cover in Lebanon, as well as a virtual monopoly on violence against the Israelis in South Lebanon. This helped Hezbollah craft its brand as a popular resistance organization, and to generate a significant following—both in Lebanon and around the Arab world.

Lebanese parliamentarians, for their part, were beholden to the occupying Syrian regime. They were powerless to halt the flow of Iranian weapons and to Hezbollah, or to affect a change in their country’s Syria-dominated foreign policy.

Nevertheless, the Syria-Hezbollah alliance has been strained at times, reflecting temporary divergences in the goals of the Syrian and Iranian regimes. For example, during the civil war, Hezbollah was responsible for a string of kidnappings of Western civilians that Iran used as leverage. However, they infuriated Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, who was trying to convince the West that Syria could bring stability to Lebanon.

At times, that anger has boiled over. In 1987, after Hezbollah kidnapped ABC correspondent Charles Glass, Syrian troops dragged Hezbollah militiamen out of their cars and beat them. Later that year, as Syria secured its position in West Beirut, Syrian intelligence chief Rustom Ghazaleh ordered his men to execute 23 Hezbollah militiamen as part of a struggle between Hezbollah and Amal, a staunch Syrian ally.

Despite these episodes, the Hezbollah-Syria alliance has been remarkably warm in recent years. In March 2005, as Syria prepared to end its occupation under Lebanese and international pressure, Hezbollah organized a mass protest in downtown Beirut to “thank” Syria for its sacrifices in Lebanon. After an anti-Syrian alliance emerged victorious in Lebanon’s parliamentary elections, Hezbollah formed the backbone of the pro-Syrian opposition. Today, Hezbollah remains vital to Syria’s hopes to re-establish its influence in Lebanon.

The Iran Connection

While Hezbollah’s relationship with Syria has been strong, its ties to Iran are even stronger. Hezbollah has shown itself consistently eager to defend Iran’s interests and its ideology. In the summer of 2008, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, announced he was “proud to be a member of the party of vilayet-e faqih,” or guardianship of the Islamic jurists, referring to the governing philosophy of Iran.

Hezbollah’s rhetoric, consistent with Iran’s policies, makes it an intractable opponent to a negotiated peace with Israel. Indeed, Nasrallah stated on January 7, 2008, “Israel is our enemy and will remain so, despite any reconciliation with some parties.”

Hezbollah’s stance stems from the fact that Iran is its primary military patron. From Hezbollah’s inception, Tehran has provided the organization with the military hardware necessary to evolve into a potent fighting force. Iran has provided Hezbollah with its more sophisticated missiles, such as the long-range Zelzal systems. The Zelzal 2 is capable of striking south of Ashkelon, while the Zelzal 3 extends beyond Tel Aviv. The Israeli Air Force destroyed most of these long-range missiles in the first day of its bombing campaign, but Nasrallah boasted in July 2007 that Hezbollah had replenished its rocket supply to “reach any corner… in occupied Palestine.”

Iran also provides Hezbollah with high-level training. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps reportedly played a significant role in developing Hezbollah’s military strategy following the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. Israeli intelligence sources claim there were approximately 100 Iranian advisors on the ground in Lebanon during the 2006 conflict, a fact later confirmed by documents Israel captured during the war.

Tehran Trumps Damascus

Syrian advisors were not believed to have been present in Lebanon during the 2006 conflict. Damascus, however, played an important secondary role in helping Hezbollah prepare for war with Israel. Before the 2006 war, analysts estimate that Hezbollah possessed up to 13,000 missiles capable of striking Israel. The majority of these were short-range Katyusha rockets, largely supplied by Syria. These were the rockets that rained down on Israel’s north during the war.

Syria’s contribution to the Hezbollah arsenal notwithstanding, the Iranian influence over Hezbollah is far greater. Thus, should Syria stray from the Iranian axis, Hezbollah has the potential to make Damascus pay a hefty price.

In the unlikely event that Syria attempts to reconcile with Israel, Hezbollah (upon the prompting of Tehran) can be expected to launch rockets deep into Israel or conduct operations against Israeli interests abroad to undermine reconciliation between Syria and Israel. Indeed, Hezbollah would attempt to provoke a massive Israeli counterattack to derail peace negotiations.

Once the IDF responds to Hezbollah’s provocations by bombing South Lebanon, Syria would likely be forced to condemn the Israeli action. Good will would quickly erode. Prospects for peace would diminish significantly the moment an Israeli bomb hits a Hezbollah target in Lebanon—no matter how legitimate that target may be.

Hezbollah’s Constraints

Although it can play the role of spoiler, Hezbollah is shackled by some domestic restraints.

On January 8, as the Israel Defense Forces pressed further into the Gaza Strip, three Katyusha rockets were fired into Israel from South Lebanon. The IDF responded with artillery fire at the rockets’ point of origin. There were no casualties from the initial strike or the Israeli counterattack. As the preeminent force in South Lebanon, Hezbollah’s explicit or implicit approval would have likely been necessary for any other group to carry out the attack. Yet, the Shiite group disavowed the attacks.

It was the memory of Israel’s punishing military operations in the 2006 war that prevented Hezbollah from opening a northern front during the most recent Gaza conflict. With reconstruction efforts from the previous war still far from complete, Lebanese of all sects lack the stomach for another conflict. Indeed, the Christian, Sunni, Druze, and even Shiite sects already chafed at Hezbollah’s unilateral decision to drag the country into a war in 2006 that devastated the country. Their response to another war on Lebanese soil would no doubt be even more severe. Thus, Hezbollah’s regional interests—such as coming to the aid of the Iranian-backed Hamas —do not outweigh domestic considerations in Lebanon.

It is also worth noting that Hezbollah is under fire in Lebanon for prompting the worst sectarian violence since the end of the civil war. In May 2008, Hezbollah invaded Sunni neighborhoods of Beirut and Druze strongholds in the Chouf Mountains to combat attempts by the government to rein in their autonomy. One condition to the subsequent truce between the Lebanese factions signed in Qatar was a “national dialogue” process, which would include a discussion of Hezbollah’s weaponry. Hezbollah and its allies have managed in the ensuing months to largely derail this dialogue, but another Hezbollah-initiated conflict would revive the issue.

The Way Forward

The Hezbollah leadership may be willing to provoke Israel into yet another conflict to prevent regional peace, but the Lebanese people are increasingly unwilling to suffer indefinitely for the sake of Iran’s regional ambitions. Therefore, it is important to strengthen the Lebanese government and reestablish the political relevance of Lebanon’s Christian, Sunni, and Druze communities in conducting Lebanon’s foreign policy. This would pose a challenge to Hezbollah’s autonomy in South Lebanon.

Though the Lebanese government has been weakened by decades of Syrian occupation and sectarian struggles, it has made important strides since the 2005 withdrawal of Syrian troops. While the government cannot forcibly disarm Hezbollah, its gradual empowerment will put increasing constraints on the Shiite group’s ability to initiate attacks.

The dispute between Syria and Israel may not be resolved until the Lebanese government has been significantly strengthened. Still, incremental progress on the Syrian-Israeli track holds the potential to improve the Lebanese political climate. The possibility of peace would undercut Hezbollah’s justification for its autonomy in South Lebanon, and rob the party of support, especially among non-Shiite communities.

A lessening of tensions could also rob Hezbollah of its raison d’etre, and make it increasingly difficult for Hezbollah to sell attacks against Israel to the Lebanese public. It could also deprive Hezbollah of its smuggling routes across the 230-mile eastern border with Syria. These routes are key to facilitating the smuggling of weapons and people to Hezbollah.

While Syria’s intentions remain in doubt, it must be recognized that Hezbollah can put a severe strain on any efforts to extricate it from the clutches of Iran. Accordingly, if Hezbollah’s strength is diminished, the road to Damascus may be easier to travel.

David Kenner is a journalist who has worked in both Beirut and Washington, D.C.