By Bilal Y. Saab – I re-post this September 2012 analysis, entitled Axis of Resistance: Syrian Uprising Threatens Hizbullah’s Strategic Alliances, with the permission of IHS Defense, Risk, and Security Consulting.
As the conflict in Syria intensifies and the government continues to lose control over its territory due to the increasing strength and size of the armed opposition, scenarios of regime collapse are no longer distant. The question is no longer whether the Syrian regime will collapse, but rather a matter of how long that collapse will take. Regardless of its timing and nature, the fall of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad carries major strategic implications for the future of the Middle East. One actor that will stand to lose tremendously from the increasingly likely departure of Assad and his government’s support is Hizbullah.
Since its establishment in the early-1980s in opposition to Israel’s invasion in southern Lebanon, Hizbullah has received support from two primary benefactors – Syria and Iran. Collectively, the trio have made up the so-called “axis of resistance”, working together to thwart Israeli and Western ambitions in the region. Over time, the relationship between Hizbullah with its chief sponsors has evolved. Initially, Syria took a lead role in developing Hizbullah’s political direction due to the large presence of its soldiers and intelligence officers inside Lebanon during the 1990s. At present, Syria serves more as a key logistics hub and safe haven allowing Iran to transfer critical resources – including weapons and funding – to Hizbullah operatives. This facilitation network presents a threat to Israel’s security, especially if Hizbullah were to start moving strategic weapons across the border into Lebanon.
A rupture in this bond will make life increasingly difficult for Hizbullah. With opposition forces reportedly gathering strength and targeting key Syrian cities including Damascus and Aleppo, Hizbullah is likely to be feeling increased pressure to remove its strategic assets from the country. While there are no reports in the open source confirming such action, another prevailing concern is whether Syrian officials would transfer chemical weapons to Hizbullah if the regime’s fall becomes imminent.
While the fall of the Assad regime will curtail Hizbullah’s involvement in Syria, its ties to Iran will likely remain intact, though the relationship will have to adapt to its changing environment. Iran is the chief provider of weapons, training and funding to Hizbullah, all activities which are largely conducted inside Syria. Without Syria as a key facilitation hub, Iran will be forced to identify a new location – one where it has a good relationship with the government, offers multiple transit routes and is in close proximity to Lebanon. In the short-term, the relationship between Hizbullah and Iran may recede as they seek to re-establish the support network outside Syria; however, their shared opposition to Israel is a common bond that ensures these two groups will continue working together.
Hizbullah’s evolving relationships
The links between Hizbullah and Syria are rooted in the strategic alliance between Syria and Iran – a relationship that has endured for over three decades. From the early-1980s(when Hizbullah was created) to the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990, Iran and Syria have collaborated closely as well as competed, sometimes violently, for control over Hizbullah. This tension was largely a result of their differing objectives – Iran was set on spreading the Islamic revolution and projecting its power in the Arab world using its trusted surrogate Hizbullah, while Syria was focused on dominating Lebanese politics and regaining the Golan Heights, which it lost to Israel in the 1967 War. During these years, Syria carried more influence when it came to Lebanese politics and the armed struggle against Israel in southern Lebanon, largely due to its presence inside the country. After signing the Taif agreement on 22 October 1989, which provided the basis for ending the Lebanese civil war, Syrian forces remained in Lebanon to “keep the fragile peace”. Syria was also able to leverage its continued presence to influence Hizbullah activities; in particular, the scope and pace of its participation in Lebanese politics. The Syrians stayed on long after Lebanon’s civil war ended, effectively becoming the political master of its tiny neighbor.
Since 1992 (when Hizbullah participated in parliamentary elections for the first time), Hizbullah’s success in parliamentary elections has seemingly adhered to Syrian preferences of divide-and-rule in Lebanon and making sure no political actor becomes too powerful. In addition to influencing Lebanese politics, Syria placed constraints on the timing and intensity of Hizbullah’s armed resistance against Israeli forces in the south. Syria was able to exercise such control because it had thousands of stationed soldiers and an extensive network of intelligence officers working inside Lebanon. While Syria supported Hizbullah attacks against Israeli targets in southern Lebanon, it did not want to risk a conflict with Israel. Iran’s involvement in Hizbullah’s development during this period centered primarily on religious indoctrination, weapons training, and occasional transfers of finances and weapons.
A central focus of Iran’s foreign policy strategy was to develop a non-Iranian surrogate to execute terrorist attacks on its behalf. The terrorist bombings in Argentina in 1992 and 1994 and the 1996 Khobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia are just a few examples where Iran leveraged its relationship with Hizbullah to execute terrorism abroad. Syria leaves Lebanon In April 2005, Syria announced that its armed forces had left Lebanon in accordance with United Nations Resolution 1559 (adopted on 2 September 2004), which directed Lebanon to establish its sovereignty over all of its territory and called upon “foreign forces” (Israel and Syria) to withdraw from the country and cease intervening in its internal politics. The resolution also called on all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias to disband and declared support for a “free and fair electoral process”. The UN resolution, however, was not the sole factor that forced Syria to end its 29-year stay in Lebanon. The catalyst that ultimately led to Syria’s departure occurred on 14 February 2005 when the motorcade carrying Lebanon’s ex-premier Rafik Hariri (1992-1998, 2000-2004) was bombed in Beirut, killing the former Lebanese official and 21 others. Immediately after the attack, a number of reports pointed to Syria’s involvement. This led to a public uprising in Lebanon on 14 March 2005, known as the Cedar Revolution, made up of one million Lebanese people calling for Syria to leave. The Syrian departure resulted in significant changes to the relationship, although the axis of resistance remained relatively intact. First, Hizbullah regained freedom of action in Lebanese politics and consequently expanded its influence with continued Iranian military and financial sponsorship. At this time, Iran became Hizbullah’s undisputed caretaker, providing the majority of weapons, finances and training. While Syria was able to retain some influence over Hizbullah, its importance to the “Axis” has been as a weapons supplier and central facilitation hub for people and illicit materials transiting to Lebanon.
For the rest of the analysis, please click on the link provided at the top.
“This article was originally published in an IHS Defense, Risk and Security Consulting study on Hizbullah in September 2012. Reposted with permission. Copyright © IHS Global Limited. All rights reserved.”