Pity Hezbollah. After years of hearing earnest observers tell you what a quintessentially Lebanese party it was, and a revolutionary one at that, now we can plainly see that it is merely the Foreign Legion of the Iranian leadership – there to march or die at Tehran’s behest – as well as, more recently, cannon fodder for Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
With the United States intending to attack Syria for the regime’s use of chemical weapons in the Ghouta east and west of Damascus, Hezbollah may again be placed at the forefront of a retaliatory plan.
Iranian parliamentarians have warned that any attack would provoke a response against Israel. “In case of a U.S. military strike against Syria, the flames of outrage of the region’s revolutionaries will point toward the Zionist regime,” Mansur Haqiqatpur, an influential parliamentarian said on Tuesday. Hossein Sheikholeslam, who heads the Iranian parliament’s international affairs committee, warned that “the first victim of an attack on Syria will be the Zionist regime.”
Most analysts, however, see such statements in the context of implicit red lines set by the Iranian regime. They also note that threats made by parliamentarians, even important ones, do not necessarily have the same impact as those issued by senior security or political figures, perhaps buying Iran a margin of maneuver.
Iran’s red line, evidently, is this: If the United States limits its attacks both in time and scope and does not undermine the Assad regime, then the Iranians will not retaliate, or ask Hezbollah to retaliate. However, if American action takes longer than a few days and is seen as tipping the balance in favor of the rebels, then Iran and its allies will widen the war, most probably by firing rockets at Israel.
But let’s pause for a moment and look at what that means. It means, first, that Hezbollah is likely to find itself once again in a conflict with Israel. Speculation that rockets might be fired from Syria makes little sense. Any Israeli response to that would be directed against the Assad regime, which is precisely what the Iranians want to avoid.
So, instead, we can expect that Lebanon would become the front line in a new war, and Hezbollah tasked with firing its rockets across the southern border. The party would not have the choice to say no; after all, if obscure Iranian parliamentarians thousands of kilometers away say something will happen, it is the party’s duty to implement it.
That such a Hezbollah action would lead to a new catastrophe for Lebanon matters little to the party’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. After all he has said that Hezbollah would fight to the end on behalf of the Assad regime, and even offered to pick up a gun and enter the mêlée himself. One would never have thought Assad merited such commitment, but Nasrallah must consider several things.
The first is that any effort by Iran and Hezbollah to widen the conflict may ultimately negate their own strategic objective: the survival of the Assad regime. Once all the gloves are off, both Israel and the United States may decide that the deliberate, contained policy that Barack Obama favors is no longer valid. A sudden military escalation may persuade them to lance the Syria boil and hit Assad’s most vital military assets, weakening the regime and precipitating its downfall.
Second, Hezbollah reportedly has several thousand combatants in Syria. The sudden heating up of the Lebanese front would force the party to redeploy many or most of them to Lebanon, leaving Assad in the lurch at a crucial moment. Meanwhile, talk that Hezbollah can conduct a two-front war effectively is unpersuasive.
Third, Hezbollah has been careful in recent months, since its entry into the Syrian conflict, to keep a tight rein on domestic Lebanese affairs. Its primary aim is to avoid a sectarian civil war, which would draw in the party and neutralize its ability to act on Iran’s behalf. But a war with Israel would turn much of Lebanese society, even allies like Michel Aoun, against Hezbollah, and do great damage to its domestic strategy. No Lebanese wants to suffer so Hezbollah can act as a water carrier for an Iran wanting to keep Bashar al-Assad in office.
Fourth, if Hezbollah brings war to Lebanon once again, it will have to manage not only with the discontent of most Lebanese; it may also have to deal with that of the hundreds of thousands of Shiites bound to be displaced by the conflict. A million Shiites on Lebanon’s roads and in the country’s parks and schools, along with the nearly one million Syrian refugees currently in Lebanon, would be a calamity of biblical proportions. Even if the state doesn’t collapse, Hezbollah and Iran are ill prepared, financially or politically, to swiftly absorb Shiite anger.
All this does not mean that Hezbollah will do nothing if the Iranians ask the party to widen the Syrian conflict. On the contrary, it is almost certain that Hezbollah would – seeing Assad’s survival as part and parcel of its own survival. But the potential costs are higher than anything the party has faced in its history as a branch of Iran’s security and intelligence apparatus. This will make Hezbollah think twice before acting rashly, and may give Barack Obama the leeway he seeks for a limited military operation in Syria.
The question is whether all sides are good at reading the signals sent by the other. When the rockets start flying, cool judgment often goes.
Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star. He tweets @BeirutCalling.