Having started in 2011, the political upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have irrevocably transformed the region, and the world, as well. Beginning as peaceful protests for democracy, justice and equality, these uprisings resulted in the overthrow of long-time dictators such as Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Moammar Gadhafi in Libya – with external interference in the last case. Called the Arab Spring, this rapid change was first seen as a new chapter in the region in which there could be radical change toward democracy. Traditionally, MENA is perceived as immune to waves of democratization, differing from other regions. For this reason, these uprisings were at first appreciated as a popular movement to get rid of mostly secular but authoritarian rulers who had been in power for decades. However, the outcome has been very different.
The wave of popular unrest in Syria did not result with the ouster of Bashar Assad as in the case of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Syria became the scene of violence, death and destruction, transforming the Middle East into chaos, creating instability with no end in sight. It opened up a troubling sectarian fissure, drowning in regional and world powers. A power vacuum resulted with the creation of non-state actors and a major refugee crisis that affects not only neighboring countries, but also the future of the European Union.
During all this turmoil, Assad had undisturbed support from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah – the Lebanese militia that transformed itself into a political actor. Russia supported Assad diplomatically with its veto power in the United Nations Security Council and by providing crucial arms. Iran supported the regime financially, with military training and expert advice. Still, Assad also had a reliable and determined military willing to fight to protect his rule. He was unable to mobilize the Syrian military due to the growing sectarian considerations inside it. Hezbollah entered the Syrian conflict as a result of the dire necessity for a trustful military power on the ground. In 2012, Iran mobilized its proxy Hezbollah to assist Assad in this war. Hezbollah's role increased dramatically in direct combat as well as training militias. Hezbollah suffered great losses, but nevertheless, there are still thousands of Hezbollah fighters deployed in Syria ready to fight for Assad. While Hezbollah prevents the ouster of Assad, it is not strong enough to gain an ultimate victory for him. As the Syrian war is nowhere close to ending, Syria and Assad's survival remains the main consideration for Hezbollah. And as long as Hezbollah is committed to this goal, it is safe to say that there will be no major aggression against Israel, its traditional enemy.
Hezbollah is one of the most important products of the collaboration of Iran and Syria. At present, Hezbollah is paying its debt by pulling for Assad. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has said that "Bashar al-Assad's fight is Hezbollah's fight." Even this statement is powerful enough to show how decisive Hezbollah is for protecting Assad.
WHEN HEZBOLLAH IS BORN
Hezbollah, the "Party of God", emerged during Lebanon's 15-year civil war (1975 to 1990), in the aftermath of Israel's invasion of the country in 1982. Already influenced by the success of the Iranian revolution in 1979, Israel's move incited Shiites in support of an Iranian-style clerical regime to take up arms and organize.
Hezbollah's resistance to Israel and Western involvement in the Middle East has made it an effective proxy for Iran and Syria. Iran supported the group financially and provided it with weaponry and military training. Syria, on the other hand, supervised Hezbollah's attacks against Israel. Damascus also secured the supply route from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Conducting many terrorist attacks, Hezbollah became the leader of the Shiite resistance against Israel and the West.
Following the Taif Agreement of 1989 that ended the civil war in Lebanon, Hezbollah started to organize itself as a political party. Hezbollah did not disband or disarm its militia as other groups did during the process. It legitimated itself by declaring the necessity for a strong resistance against Israel. Hezbollah by then was more powerful than the Lebanese military.
With Israel's withdrawal in 2000, and Syria's withdrawal in 2005, Hezbollah started to act independent of Syrian concerns and achieved a major role in Lebanese politics. Hezbollah had transformed itself into an organization dominating the coalition in Lebanon, using legitimate political tools to achieve its goals.
Hezbollah is risking all this with its involvement in Syria. Its choice to defend Assad also means the end of pan-Arabism. Sinking deep into the Syrian conflict, Hezbollah is perceived as a Shiite force fighting against Sunnis in the eyes of the Arab world. If Hezbollah wants to change its image, the easiest way is by attacking Israel – the common enemy that has the power to unite the inhabitants of the region for a cause. This may be the reasoning behind the Iranian and Hezbollah's flags and the provocative billboards across the Israeli border. This can be considered part of the psychological war that is going on between Israel and Hezbollah.
It is true that Hezbollah has gained fighting expertise in Syria and rearmed itself since its last war with Israel, but it will be very costly for Hezbollah to open a second front with Israel when still fighting in Syria.
RISKING FOR ASSAD
The question is why Hezbollah risks all its domestic supremacy in Lebanon for the rule of Assad. The simple answer is that because Iran wants it. The relationship between Iran and Hezbollah is not just pragmatic, but ideological in nature. In its founding manifesto dated 1985, known as "the open letter", Hezbollah vowed its loyalty to then Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini. Since its establishment, Hezbollah has had a clear proxy relationship with Iran. Hezbollah considers any order from Iran to be divine and does not hesitate in fulfilling it as is stated clearly in the open letter: "[we] abide by the orders of a single wise and just command currently embodied in the supreme Ayatollah Ruhollah al-Musavi al-Khomeini." So according to the nature of their relationship, it is Iran and not Hezbollah that decides the group's actions in Syria.
The question remains why it is so important to keep the rule of Assad in Syria.
For Iran, the location and closeness of Syria to Lebanon provides easy access for Iran to its proxy. Most importantly, Iran sees its alliance with Assad's Syria crucial to the regional balance of power against the Sunni bloc of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. If Assad falls, Iran will not only lose access to Hezbollah and the chance to intervene against Israel via Hezbollah, but will also lose a major ally in the region. The Syrian war is at the same time a chance to expand its power and ideology. Iranian military activities in Syria show that it started to use its military force to project power in the Middle East. Iran has demonstrated that it has the capability to conduct long-term, expeditionary operations, which gives Tehran a major advantage over regional countries.
For Hezbollah, a post-Assad Syria would endanger its power, leave the group isolated in the Mediterranean and interrupt the supply of Iranian arms. Hezbollah sees the survival of the Assad regime as critical to its own survival and also to the prosperity of the Shiite community in the region. It is also crucial to add that Hezbollah's vision to transform Lebanon into an Islamic state similar to Iran is only possible with Alawite rule in Syria, as Syria is the logistic bridge between Iran and Hezbollah.
It is true that Hezbollah's arms are supplied by Iran through Syria. However, there are some weapons that Iran does not have access to because of the international sanctions on it. Hezbollah, while fighting for this passage to remain open, also tries to gain access to Russian weapons and technology in Syria for its future war with Israel. Israel, on the other hand, has frequently attacked arms convoys in Syria to prevent any transfers to Hezbollah. According to media reports, Iran started to set up workshops to produce weapons in Lebanon in order to save itself from complex smuggling operations behind Israel's back.
Once a militia formed against Israel and the West, Hezbollah has now become one of the crucial actors in the Syrian conflict. It became a regional power and defends the survival of its sponsors at the expense of itself. Iran has taken advantage of the situation in Syria. The empowerment of Iran through the ongoing Syrian war and its return to the international system with the nuclear agreement shows that it is a major and dominant actor in the region that is pragmatic but also decisive to achieve its goals. While the Arab Spring initiated radical change in the region, Syria, Iran and Hezbollah became the inseparable side in the growing Shiite-Sunni sectarian war that shows no sign of end.
Karel Valansi, Daily Sabah, 1 July 2017