June 22, 2011

The nexus of Syria's protests and Hizballah's future

The recent protests in Syria pose a real threat to the regime of President Bashar al-Asad, and by extension, to the very existence of the Iranian-supported Shi'a militant organization Hizballah in neighboring Lebanon. Hizballah was started by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in 1982, and continues to exist and flourish because of direct Syrian support and Damascus's acquiescence in allowing Iran to provide substantial amounts of money, weapons and training via Syrian airspace and highways.

The future of Bashar al-Asad and his Ba'th Party is unknown. Many analysts believe that he will be able to weather the current storm and successfully - and brutally - suppress the protests and demonstrations against his continued rule. According to human rights groups, over 1,400 civilians have been killed and 10,000 others taken into custody by the dreaded Syrian security services since the protests began in mid-March.

Common sense analysis would normally lead you to the conclusion that at some point, the Syrian military, intelligence and security services will refuse to continue the brutal oppression of their own people. It was similar refusals on the part of the Egyptian, Tunisian and to some extent Yemeni forces that led to the fall of the presidents of those countries.

However, what is happening in Syria is not your normal situation. If Israeli intelligence is to be believed - and they have excellent sources in Syria - it is not just Syrian forces involved in the suppression of the demonstrations. The Israelis claim that Iran and Hizballah have dispatched armed units to assist the Syrians. The reports of non-Arabic speaking officials is consistent with the presence of Iranian units; Iranians speak Farsi (Persian), not Arabic.

Reports that Hizballah may have deployed some of its members to assist Syrian units is credible, for several reasons. Being Lebanese, Hizballah has no real allegiance to the Syrian people. In fact, the converse is true - Hizballah does have an allegiance to the Syrian government, based on a longstanding relationship in which the Syrian government provides weapons and training to the group, and the group functions as a surrogate armed force in Lebanon targeted against Israel.

In the past, when tensions between Syria and Israel increased, Syria would often direct Hizballah to create a disturbance on Israel's northern border. This gave Damascus the option of confronting the Jewish state without using an overt Syrian hand.

In the event that the Syrian government falls, the new Syrian government, be it secular or dominated by the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, will likely not be favorable to continue the close relationship with Hizballah. That would be the best case. In the worst case for the Shi'a organization, Hizballah may well find itself confronted with a government hostile to its very existence. Further, if the new Syrian government distances itself from its primary sponsor - Iran - Hizballah's support might wither substantially. The organization will find it difficult or impossible to survive without Syrian and Iranian support.

There are rumors rampant in Lebanon that Hizballah is making preparations for a possible war with Israel to divert world attention from the situation in Syria. I have problems with this on several levels. Rumors are the favorite pastime of the Lebanese. If Hizballah wanted to start a war with Israel, and I doubt that after the damage Israel did to southern Lebanon and the Hizballah-controlled areas of Beirut in 2006, they cannot challenge superior Israeli firepower. While the results of that war were inconclusive and Hizballah has been fully rearmed by Damascus and Tehran, the organization was sharply criticized for exposing the infrastructure of the entire country of Lebanon to extensive damage at the hands of the Israeli air force.

Despite the fact that Lebanon now has a Hizballah-dominated cabinet, I doubt if the majority of Lebanese would support Hizballah starting a war with Israel in support of Syria. Starting such a war may spell the end of the organization's role as the key political power in the country.

Hizballah faces a difficult calculus. It needs to do all it can to ensure that the Bashar al-Asad regime in Syria survives, but is reluctant to risk its current political situation in Lebanon in a war with Israel. If it does nothing, however, it risks its very existence.