In its latest report, Lebanon’s Hizbollah Turns Eastward to Syria, the International Crisis Group examines the trade-offs involved in the group’s growing role in its neighbour’s conflict. Hizbollah has helped save the Assad regime from military defeat, but at the cost of losing much of the support Hizbollah enjoyed throughout the region when it fought Israel.
The report’s major findings and recommendations are:
Hizbollah’s initial political backing of its crucial Syrian ally morphed into a full-fledged military intervention to save a threatened regime; protect Hizbollah’s supply route for weapons from Iran; prevent an unfavourable change in the regional balance of power; and thwart the threat posed by Sunni takfiris (who call Muslim opponents apostates).
Hizbollah’s backing has enabled the regime to achieve its present relative advantage and dislodged rebels from areas adjacent to Lebanon’s borders, but the costs could be as steep as the short-term benefits are significant.
The resistance movement once widely respected in Syria and the region is now increasingly equated to an occupying force, ever more reliant on hard power, as it participates in a regional conflict that all participants are taking to higher levels of sectarianism.
“The military intervention steered Hizbollah into uncharted territory. From its perspective, it had little choice”, says Sahar Atrache, Lebanon Analyst. “However, it risks a profound reshaping of its identity”.
“Hizbollah’s Syria involvement exacerbates the sectarian divide, fuels extremism it purports to fight and erodes its legitimacy”, says Special Adviser Peter Harling. “These costs could be bearable if they led to a quick win, but Hizbollah’s top challenge is to define an exit strategy”.
“The warm popular embrace that, for the movement, was tantamount to strategic depth has diminished,” says Robert Blecher, acting Middle East and North Africa Program Director. “Ironically, shoring up its eastern front has made Hizbollah more vulnerable”.
Nadja Nolting (Brussels)
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Kimberly Abbott (Washington)
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