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Michael Young

Hezbollah’s Vietnam?

cows + soldiers

The only thing odd about Hezbollah’s intervention in the Syrian conflict is that it took over two years for the party and its backers in Tehran to make the decision. That’s because whatever one thinks of Hezbollah, the triumph of Syria’s rebels always posed an existential threat to the party and its agenda. 

 

The victory in Qusayr was undeniably an important one for Hezbollah and the Syrian regime, knocking the rebels out of a swath of strategic territory in the province of Homs, linking Damascus to the coast. It now allows the Assad regime to turn its attentions to other areas from where the regime was forced to withdraw.

 

Attention is now focused on Aleppo, where Hezbollah combatants have been amassing recently. However, we can’t forget that the rebels have already been pushed out of neighborhoods around Damascus. And the recent deployment of Patriot missiles and F-16 aircrafts to Jordan suggests there are expectations of a regime offensive in the southern province of Deraa, considered the most likely location from where rebels could mount an attack against the Syrian capital.

 

Hezbollah’s deepening involvement in the Syrian war is a high-risk venture. Many see this as a mistake by the party, and it may well be. Qusayr will be small change compared to Aleppo, where the rebels are well entrenched and benefit from supply lines leading to Turkey. In the larger regional rivalry between Iran and Turkey, the Turkish army and intelligence services have an interest in helping make things very difficult for Hezbollah and the Syrian army in northern Syria, particularly after the car-bomb attack in Reyhanli in May.    

 

Many will be watching closely to see how the current crisis in Turkey affects Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ability to react to the Syrian situation, particularly if the epicenter of the fighting shifts to Aleppo. Erdogan has faced the displeasure among many in Turkey’s southern border areas with their government’s policy in Syria. At the same time, a defeat of the Syrian rebels in and around Aleppo is not something that Turkey can easily swallow so near to its borders, particularly if Hezbollah is instrumental in the fighting.

 

Hezbollah is willing to take heavy casualties in Syria, if this allows it to rescue the Assad regime. The real question is what time frame we are talking about, and how this affects the party’s vital interests elsewhere. For now, Hezbollah has entered Syria with no exit strategy. The way in which Hassan Nasrallah framed the intervention indicates that it is open-ended. This will prompt other parties to take actions and decisions they might otherwise have avoided for as long as the Syrian conflict was primarily one between Syrians.

 

Hezbollah is already a magnet for individuals and groups in Syria keen to take the air out of the region’s leading Shiite political-military organization - or simply to protect their towns and villages. As Qusayr showed, the presence of Hezbollah only induces its enemies to fight twice as hard against the party. As a proxy of Iran, Hezbollah will prompt governments to do the same, and they will see an opportunity to wear down the party and trap it in a grinding, no-win situation.

 

Playing in the favor of Hezbollah’s enemies is that the party has little latitude to alter its strategy in Syria. It must go all the way, predisposing it to sink ever-deeper into the Syrian quagmire, or until the point where the Syrian regime and pro-regime militias can capture and control territory on their own. That is not easy in a guerrilla war in which rebels have often out-matched the army.

 

Hezbollah, by contrast, benefits from coordination between the Syrian regime and Russia and Iran. Hezbollah’s entry into the conflict in Syria was, clearly, one facet of a broad counter-attack agreed by the Russians and Iranians, who have slowly but effectively reinforced and reorganized Syria’s army and intelligence services in the past two years. Their behavior has been disgraceful and pitiless, but from the start their objective was clear – to save Assad rule – while the Obama administration offered no strategy at all, and compensated for its incompetence in addressing the Syrian crisis with empty rhetoric.

 

Many have commented on the fact that Hezbollah’s reputation is in tatters. The so-called champion of the deprived is now at the vanguard of Bashar al-Assad’s repression of his own people; the embodiment of resistance has shifted forces away from the border with Israel to help in crushing an uprising against a brutal dictator.

 

That’s perhaps true, but Hezbollah is not particularly concerned with its reputation, except when it affects its political power. The party’s behavior is shaped by stark power calculations, and it has often read this into political situations with some accuracy. Hezbollah feels that, ultimately, if Assad stays in office and the uprising against him is overwhelmed, this will impose a new reality that will allow the party to resist all counter-reactions. In the end, Hezbollah knows, power tends to define reputation in the Middle East much more than allegiance to what is regarded as the morally acceptable position. 

 

But that interpretation will apply only if Hezbollah avoids being drawn into a long and debilitating campaign in Syria. The party’s tolerance threshold is high, as is its ability to maintain Lebanese Shiite loyalty. But in Syria, as in Lebanon previously, the outsider is at a disadvantage. Hezbollah should learn the lessons from its own experience. The party cannot allow Syria to become its Vietnam.    

 

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon. He tweets @BeirutCalling.

 

Read this article in Arabic

Syrian army soldiers walk with cows on a Qusayr street on 6 June 2013. (AFP photo)

"Power tends to define reputation in the Middle East much more than allegiance to what is regarded as the morally acceptable position."

  • kot.oti

    On the money!

    November 2, 2013

  • janelasdedeus

    Operation Barbarossa intially looked overwhelming.

    June 9, 2013

  • Plantagenet

    From a U.S. perspective one is tempted to wish a pox on both their houses. While Hezbollah are the same folks who bombed the Marines out of Beirut and have done their best to reduce a vibrant Lebanese society into an international basket case where fractious warlords battle it out over heaps of rubble, the rebel forces are the broadest spectrum of Sunnis, from some genuine democrats to the most virulent jihadists. Not sure how we win by wading into this quagmire.

    June 9, 2013

  • Fenrir | No God but (...)

    You forgot the Fadl Brigade coming from the other side in Iraq. Listen bub: Hezbollah is not willing to take heavy casualties, nor do they expect to. The SAA is disorganized and poorly trained. Much of the reason they fell so bad. They were arrogant, and often were standing around or lounging as the enemy came. Hezbollah is different. They can easily dispatch these Sunni terrorists from Syria's soil and do what they've always done, which is protect Shi'a Muslim communities. This time it's against Sunni terrorists and Zionists. I'll say it again: get real bub.

    June 8, 2013

  • @peterclifford1

    Excellent article. Will be interesting to see how this pans out and whether it induces the West and Israel to get involved. For Israel, it would be an ideal opportunity to decimate Hezbollah. http://www.petercliffordonline.com/syria-news

    June 7, 2013

  • Beiruti

    @Gilberto I wish I could say that you are wrong about Obama, but unfortunately, you are probably correct. Unless his new National Security team can get him to act, he is likely to keep the US away from the Syrian Conflict which leaves the Regime and its regional and international allies free to take the war to the Syrian Opposition and end the conflict by conquest rather than by diplomatic compromise. If you game that out, what would such an outcome mean to the US? Our regional allies, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the GCC will have been diminished due to their alliance with the US as compared to Iran, Hezbollah and the Shia Government in Iraq which would be emboldened and strengthened. If the context is military, Israel is left unaffected as in the military context, Israel is second to none in the region. Assad would of course become emboldened that it could act outside of international norms and laws violating genocide laws and committing crimes against humanity with impunity and without consequence. The United States, and its allies as beneficiaries of sustaining the international order should find some interest with this grevious breach of order so that we should intervene, but Obama simply says no. I see a terrible loss for the US and our regional allies; I see a loss of US standing internationally that Russia played us so completely as we deal with China and the rest of the world. Unfortunately Obama does not see what is obvious to everyone else. This is why I say, maybe he will come around and if he does, then Hezbollah will have some genuine issues, but until then, the only candidate to become Hezbollah's worst enemy is Hezbollah.

    June 7, 2013

  • Gilberto

    @Beiruti, I wouldn't count on the US doing much. President Obama is weak when it comes to foreign policy and will look the other way. The sad thing is that raw power, i.e. Hezbollah on the ground, take decisive actions while the rest of the world yells and screams, but does nothing. The only real threat that Hizbollah faces is from Israel, but I suspect that it will be smart enough to avoid facing the wrath of the Israelis. I agree with Michael's point about the disgraceful role of the Russians. They have run circles around Mr. Kerry, who seemed to be pre-occupied by the illusion of a Peace Conference, while the Syrian/Iranian/Russian axis took Qusair. So we now have a weak US President being advised by an incompetent State Secretary :-( The fiery speeches by the politicians in Lebanon are just talk. They change nothing on the ground. The Lebanese Army is acting as Hizbollah's backyard policeman, enabling it to get away with its massive violation of Lebanese and Syrian sovereignties, while limiting any backlashes against it. I would like to see free Lebanese to start planning and acting on establishing and defending the part of the country that does not have Hizbollah (sorry to say Shia presence). Hizbollah, and by extension, the Shia community in Lebanon, have made it clear by their sustained actions (and inactions) over a period of several years that they do not believe in a modern and democratic country. They have systematically murdered or attempted to murder leading politicians who opposed them by non-violent means. Independence and freedom will require a new Lebanese Army built from the ground up. Yes, everyone hates the civil war, but the Lebanese will soon be forced to either submit to Hizbollah and its style and principles of law and order (and perpetual war and misery) or to stand up to them the only way that matters, that is militarily. Alas, the Lebanese government institutions are so weakened and penetrated by Hizbollah that one has to start fresh.

    June 7, 2013

  • Beiruti

    Makings such predictions of comming events in Syria, based on extrapolations of what has happened is risky business. Hezbollah is gambling, no doubt. Its strategy is clear, it will fight in Syria until the Assad Regime regains control of the country, by whatever means it takes. Then, with Assad restored by Hezbollah infantry, Hezbollah will emerge even more powerful than before as a regional player, not just a player in Lebanon. This is the thinking inside Hezbollah I am sure. But there are two variables which will adversely affect this eventual outcome for which Hezbollah is playing: (1) The response of the West and particularly the US. If the US takes the loss of Qaisayr as a wake up call and brings to bear military assistance to the rebels, then Hezbollah is caught up in a Vietnam like quagmire from which it cannot extract itself easily. Right now, Hezbollah is running in an open field against a disorganized and poorly supplied adversary while enjoying the benefits of uncontested control of the skys, and all of the advanced weaponry. That will change if and when the US engages. (2) Hubris. Pride Cometh before the Fall. Hezbollah cannot play a regional role. Its human resources are not that of a nation, but of a secular group in a small country. It will become over stretched trying to reach for the brass ring of being a regional player. This will make Hezbollah vulnerable in its own back yard, if no where else. So Hezbollah, enjoy Qaisyr. The Japanese enjoyed Peal Harbor, until the sleeping giant awoke. Will Qaisyr awaken the sleeping giant again?? We will have to wait and see.

    June 7, 2013