When war broke out in July 2006 in Lebanon, the Syrian leadership identified the circumstances that would force it to become involved in the war in an emergency meeting, as follows: First, if the Israeli forces succeed in crushing Hezbollah in the first week of the war. Second, if the Israeli forces advance in the Bekaa Valley in a manner that would put Damascus under risk. Third, if the Israeli air force carries out strikes deep into Syrian territory. But none of this happened, and Syria stayed out of the war.
A short pause at the first point confirms that Syria considers the safety of Hezbollah as part of its security and its ‘pro-resistance’ role, politically through its stances and militarily through its allies. This is evidenced by the fact that the most important request President Bashar al-Assad had for MP Walid Jumblatt, the day he returned to travelling on the Beirut-Damascus road, was to keep the arms of the resistance out of any discussion. Then Prime Minister Saad Hariri received the same request when he visited the Syrian capital.
The depth of the alliance between Syria and Hezbollah does not require such confirmations. The Secretary General of Hezbollah Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah confirmed this during an earlier occasion. When the sentiments of a large part of the Lebanese were inflamed in the aftermath of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Nasrallah, on the 8th of March, 2005, held an unprecedented rally raising the slogan of “Thank You Syria”, risking the reverence the resistance enjoyed within the Sunni community in Lebanon. This stance was one of the leading causes of the emergence of the March 14 movement.
The depth of the relationship thus needs no further confirmation. The majority of the rockets fired by Hezbollah in 2006 were manufactured in Syria. The open rocket supply line played a crucial role in that war. Meanwhile, Hezbollah prevented the emergence of a stable March 14 government in Lebanon, not only because of the international tribunal investigating the assassination of Rafik Hariri, but also to disallow Lebanon being pushed out of its position in the Resistance Axis, extending from Beirut to Damascus and all the way to Tehran. The purpose of the May 7 operation carried out by Hezbollah in the streets of Beirut and some parts of the Chouf District was to overthrow the parliamentary majority, and relink Lebanon to the Axis of Resistance.
It can be said here that Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah played an exceptional role in deepening the alliance between his party and Syria under President Bashar al-Assad, benefiting from a close personal relationship between the two men, and from his ability to create quasi-permanent harmony between the requirements of loyalty to the Iranian sponsor and the deep interests of the Syrians. This has made the relationship deep, dynamic and vital, and one that is, for both sides, ahead of all other considerations. This was the conclusion reached by the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as well as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Because of all of the above, the Lebanese today pose a tough question, which is: What will Hezbollah, the party that was forced by the bloody turn of events in Syria to stand against the Arab Spring there, do, at a time when it seemed as if it was supporting this spring when it had struck in other arenas?
It would be no overstatement to say that Hezbollah is facing difficult choices today, from its position as an armed, strong and disciplined party in a changing, and hitherto favorable, environment, in which the party operated, in Lebanon, Syria and the region. It is natural that the party finds itself tense and concerned these days. Indeed, Syria is mired in a devastating conflict, and the side that has protected it so far has been Russia, not Iran. But the Russian umbrella has prices and risks, in parallel with benefits and gains. Furthermore, the Sunni-Shiite tension in the region threatens to transform the conflict in Syria into one episode of a regional civil war.
I do not want to go into the future of the Syrian regime in the near term. My analysis pushes me to expect a long, costly and bitter conflict ahead. It also makes me believe that Syria itself may collapse before either side of the conflict is defeated.
The question Hezbollah now faces is mainly about how to coexist with a long and dangerous conflict in Syria without igniting the Sunni-Shiite fault lines in Lebanon. The second question is: What will Hezbollah do if the Iranian issue flares up while Syria is still steeped in internal strife that spreads from one place to another, and amid regional and international isolation? The third question is: What will Hezbollah do in the event it awakens to a change in Syria, in which case it would lose the depth that once gave it the political support as well as a supply line of rockets?
In Beirut, there are whispers about a scenario similar to what happened in Gaza, despite the many differences between the two cases. The scenario says that Hezbollah will be compelled to seize large parts of Lebanon to compensate for its losses in Syria. But I have a feeling that the party’s leadership is aware of the risks of such a measure. To be sure, a military incursion by Hezbollah in Christian areas would end its ally General Michel Aoun, and would lead to resistance against the party. Meanwhile, its entry to Sunni areas will lead to strife. Furthermore, the composition of the Lebanese army cannot tolerate a coup of this magnitude that may lead to its disintegration and defection of its personnel along the emerging fault lines.
One other option remains, namely a return to the realities of Lebanon, provided that the various parties are realistic, and away from the delusions of power and intimidation. I know that such an option is a difficult one for the party, and also for Tehran. But the party’s leadership certainly knows that the region is changing, and that the party must therefore interpret the situation with much insight, and to adapt and change.
The writer is a prominent columnist. The article was published in Dar Al Hayat on Mar. 5, 2012