The role of Hezbollah in the Syrian crisis

Hezbollah, whose name means “Party of God” in Arabic, is a political and militant Shi’ite Muslim group based in Lebanon. It was founded in 1982 after Israel’s invasion of South-Lebanon endured until 2000. The group’s main objectives are basically three and derive from Khomeini’s teachings and principles: since 1985, Hezbollah declared its intention to put an end to imperialism, to implement Islamic law in Lebanon as part of a universal Islamic revolution and to give to Lebanese people the possibility to choose for their own government. Hezbollah, whose ideology lies in a harsh opposition against the West and Israel, seeks to create in Lebanon an Islamic Shi’ite state modelled on Iran.

Its friendly relations towards Iran and Syria have pushed these two states to provide substantial organizational, training and financial support for the group that could rely on this military support during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. In this conflict, Hezbollah started to gain a stronger position over Lebanese politics since it revealed itself to be a unique bulwark and source of resistance against Israel’s success and invasion of the territory

The Israeli Defence Force withdrew from the country in 2000 after two decades of Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon; since then, Hezbollah assumed greater power in the war-torn territory and, notwithstanding the withdrawal of the Jewish State, it did not end the war against its enemy.
Although the group’s initial and primary goal was to “liberate” Lebanese soil, it also assumed the banner of fighting for the Palestinians and to defeat Israel once and for all. Therefore, externally and in close cooperation with Syria and Iran with which Hezbollah constitutes the “Axis of Resistance”, the Shi’ite group still represents a valid adversary of Israel whereas, internally, Hezbollah remains a strong political opposition with representatives in Lebanon’s parliament still enjoying large support from the country’s Shi’ite population, as well as backing from Syria and Iran.

It is through strategies of alliance and defense with these two states that Hezbollah preserves its resilience and survival. The relations among these three actors are characterized by geopolitical and military interdependence; this means that in order to preserve indirectly their existence each one of them has to provide for the others’ security and resilience.

On the base of this interdependence, in 2011 Hezbollah had to intervene in Syria in order to face the revolutionary wave brought about by the Arab Springs of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia that were undermining the Shi’ite government of Bashar al-Assad.

During its military campaign, Hezbollah has contributed in different forms to support al-Assad army. There is a general tendency to believe that Hezbollah continues to represent a per se political entity that moves along its own line and that does not act if not for its mere objectives. Moreover, it is a misconception to think that in quality of non-state actor it does not possess enough capabilities and resources to intervene efficiently in the battlefield and to reach long-term gains favoring the governmental forces.

On the contrary, Hezbollah has proved to be a key player in the Syrian conflict and, later, in the counteroffensive against the Islamic State (ISIS); in fact, without its presence on the battlefield, the Syrian government, notwithstanding the Iranian support, would have not been able to survive to the uprising. Since 2006, Hezbollah fighters have trained in Lebanon and Iran; through these experiences of military training, the group’s fighters can offer know-how capabilities that complement those of the Syrian army, providing additional training and combat manpower, including light infantry, reconnaissance, and sniper fire.

The role of Hezbollah in Syria changed abruptly in 2013 from what was primarily an advisory mission to one in which Hezbollah forces assumed a direct combat role, operating in larger numbers alongside Syrian military and paramilitary forces. Doing so, the group started to conduct offensive operations on behalf of the Syrian regime. In this frame, Hezbollah still brings important capabilities to the fight thanks to the military experiences acquired during the war against Israel.

Hezbollah’s support for al-Assad aims at achieving three main objectives: first, Hezbollah seeks to preserve the Axis of Resistance by incrementing the military capabilities of the Assad regime. Second, Hezbollah seeks to retain access to Iranian and Syrian material support by securing the region that extends from Damascus to Lebanon from any rebel interference. Finally, the group seeks to prevent the emergence of a Sunni-dominated regime in Syria that would rise with the oust of al-Assad from the government.

However, the resilience of the Syrian government is not only menaced by the regime’s opposition but also by the presence in the territory of another non-state actor: the Islamic State. As far as the new war against the ISIS is concerned, Hezbollah proves to be an important player countering the jihadist militants in both Syria and Iraq.

Because of Hezbollah’s position against the ISIS, the U.S. and of the European Union have changed their attitude towards the group; while they had previously categorized the Shi’ite political movement within the black list of terroristic organizations. According to the U.S. National Intelligence’s annual report, namely the “Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Communities”, last March both Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah have been cancelled by the list of the possible terroristic menaces for Washington D.C. To the international community, this has been an exceptional event since, throughout years, both these two actors have been considered by many Western countries and organizations as potential menaces to the international and regional security.

Yet, as far as Hezbollah is concerned, its role of bulwark against the advance of the worldwide caliphate has pushed the U.S. and the European Union to reconsider its role in the region and in the Syrian conflict. This recent fact, that has not passed by unnoticed in the region, might have potential consequences on the system of alliances characterizing the area.

In the light of this situation, the international community and many countries involved in the conflict are wondering how far this re-rapprochement of the U.S. towards Hezbollah is going; how would it change the destiny of the conflict and how would it change the system of alliances.


Master’s degree in International Relations (LUISS Guido Carli)

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