Hizballah, Israel, and the Syrian Unrest

9 05 2011

Editor’s note: this article originally appears on the Foreign Policy Association website.

The protest movement in Syria continues to grow, with thousands of demonstrators taking to the street on Friday for a “day of rage”. We have seen similar days of rage in the other Arab countries that have undergone or are undergoing revolutions. The people of Syria, at first demanding reforms, are now openly calling for an end to Bashar Assad’s entire Baathist Alawite regime.

Syria is viewed by many as the linchpin of the Middle East. Damascus is involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the US-Iran conflict, and the Iraq War. When there is talk of regime change in Syria, many ears turn toward the conversation. On this topic there is no shortage of interested parties, but perhaps none more so that Israel and Hizballah.

Hizballah has counted on Syrian support for over 25 years. Syria’s previous leader, Hafez Assad, considered the group a tool to be used when necessary, but to be kept at bay and in check at all times. Under Assad Junior however, the Party of God has enjoyed much more influence and flexibility. Over the years Syria has used its formidable political power in Lebanon to ensure the interests of the group.

Iran also enjoys a close relationship with Hizballah. Hizballah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has sworn allegiance to the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic. The group acts as Iran’s insurance policy against Israel and the West. In return, Hizballah is showered with weapons (light arms and medium-range rockets) and cash (reportedly in excess of $100 million per year). Cash is easy enough to move, but the weapons must come through Syria, so the whole arrangement is predicated on Syrian cooperation.

If the regime in Damascus is replaced by a Sunni group, the country is simply less likely to continue its close relationship with Iran, and this has to be troubling for Hizballah. A Sunni-led Syria, particularly with a moderate Islamist tone, would likely turn southwest towards Egypt in terms of regional associations. The two countries were actually united into one for a brief period of time in the late 1950’s under the banner of Pan-Arabism (the country was named the “United Arab Republic”).

When protests began to take their toll on Tunis and Cairo, Hizballah came out in favor of the protesters. After all, those movements were attempting to remove key US allies from power. The Party never anticipated that the Arab Intifada would spread to Syria, where Bashar Assad had touted his resistance to Israel and the West as the reason his people loved him and would never revolt.

Hizballah’s support for those movements is proving uncharacteristically short-sighted. Hizballah’s roots are in helping the oppressed and disenfranchised of Lebanon (historically, the position of the Shiites) and supporting Bashar Assad in his bid to oppress and disenfranchise the people of Syria seems incredibly transparent and self-serving.

After Hizballah successfully expelled Israel from Lebanon in 2000 (with help), the group was shown a rare degree of respect from Sunnis, who had been worn down by years of failure to do the  same from their own lands. That support spiked when Hizballah repelled the IDF for 34 days in 2006.  As the first Arab group to enjoy such success, it didn’t really matter that they were Shia.

But over the years, that glow has worn off. Now Hizballah is seen by many as a tool of the Iranians, who are both Persian and Shiite. Today, the Arab world is undergoing a major awakening of sorts, and Hizballah has chosen to fight against the tide of revolution. This is what Barak Obama refers to as “being on the wrong side of history”.

Hizballah risks looking hypocritical by supporting the Assad regime, yet it must consider what it would mean for the Shia of Lebanon to have Sunnis take over in Damascus. Israel is in the same boat: Assad might not be the optimal choice, but he is probably better than the alternative.

Israel has been at war with Syria since the Jewish State declared independence in 1948. In 1967, Syria lost Lake Tiberius and the Golan Heights to Israel, and the bulk of Syrian foreign policy over the years has been dedicated to getting it back. It’s the primary reason Syria supports Hizballah: to use the group as a tool against Israel. Land for Peace.

Syria is one of the few supporters of Iran, which has also been hostile to Israel over the years. Tehran refers to Israel as “the Little Satan” and supports groups like Hamas and Hizballah. Since 1979, the Ayatollah and Company have been under intense pressure from the West, and during that time Syria has been the only country standing between Iran and total global isolation.

It seems Israel would be on board with a change in leadership in Damascus: Syrian support is critical to Hizballah and Iran, Israel’s two greatest threats. However, the Israelis are understandably nervous about all of this.

Israel is already concerned with the intentions of the new leaders of Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood seems to be making solid gains. Will Eqypt’s peace treaty with Israel be reconsidered? It’s doubtful, but when combined with the potential blossoming of relations between Syria and Egypt, two historic foes, it’s unclear whether it is better to see Assad stay or go.

Israel can’t really support the protesters publicly, as doing so could paint the revolt as an Israeli invention, but it should not do anything to stand in their way. This includes closed-door meetings in Washington. Their fear of the unknown is understandable, but in the long run the spread of democracy in the Middle East should be good for Israel.

For now, Israel and Hizballah can only wait and see how far the revolution in Syria will go.

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