Lebanon’s Future Hangs On Hezbollah’s Syria Stance
By: Antoun Issa
Published Tuesday, May 29, 2012
The recent clashes in Lebanon have placed the spotlight on the country's questionable ability to prevent the Syrian crisis from spreading to its territory. Tension is at a peak in the country, with a number of various incidents, unrelated to each other, but all in a way related to the Syrian crisis, threatening to return chaos to a country all too familiar with it.
Despite the fears, a civil war still remains unlikely, if only for the lack of an equal balance of powers threatening to go to blows. In 1975, Lebanon was polarized behind a powerful and heavily-armed Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and the Phalangists, the dominating Lebanese political player at the time. In 2012, only Hezbollah dominates in country, and is the only force that wields heavy weaponry. No band of militiamen carrying AK-47s and RPGs will ever be a match.
But it is power and not logic that determines Lebanon’s long-term stability. A logical solution to Lebanon’s recent tensions would have the socio-economic woes of impoverished Sunnis addressed, and applied to the entire country, to iron out sectarian divisions and ward off the threat of extremism. But logic does not defy power, and in Lebanon, power belongs to another, one which holds all the cards to the stability and prosperity of the country: Syria.
Lebanese squabbles will never be finalised inside the country, but rather in Syria, where its future, along with that of the Syrian people, will be decided. Hezbollah's policy towards Lebanese stability is contingent on its strategy on the Syrian crisis, and the success of its desired outcome.
Natural power dynamics
Understanding Hezbollah's, as Lebanon’s de-facto power, stance on the Syrian crisis requires a solid comprehension of the nature of relations between Lebanon and Syria. It's foolhardy to assume that Hezbollah's decision is simply a matter of supporting a long-time ally in the Baathist regime. Like all powers vested in the Syrian crisis, Hezbollah has calculated its own interests, and by reluctant default, assumed the role of protecting Lebanon's security interests.
Being Lebanon's protector, however, is accompanied with a set of limitations. Hezbollah's position toward Syria is emblematic of the power dynamics between Lebanon and Syria. During its short life span, Lebanon has failed to shrug off the natural influence from Damascus. Indeed, its entire political history has largely been a struggle of how to escape Syria. Its very existence is based on the promise of a safe haven for mountainous minorities from the powerful heads of Damascus, a project that has been doomed since day one.
The French-crafted boundary may have officially separated Lebanon from Syria, but over six decades of modern history show that the true boss of Lebanon is not the sect or faction that runs the streets of Beirut. Rather, it's the chief who sits at the helm in Damascus.
But while Hezbollah takes ownership of Lebanon's external affairs, it is imperative that any position regarding Syria is placed into the context of the power dynamics between the two states and the limitations imposed on Hezbollah. No power in Lebanon will ever be able to lecture the heads of Syria on how to determine its policies. Power and influence are not a two-way street between Damascus and Beirut.
Hezbollah’s Options and Limitations
While a democratic Syria might be the best outcome for Lebanon, it won't be from Beirut where those calls will emerge. Hezbollah, as all Lebanese sects, are hamstrung by Syria's overwhelming influence in the country. The Assad regime has placed enough checks and balances to ensure Hezbollah never steps out of line.
Hezbollah's number one priority is the unity of Lebanon's Shia community. So necessary is this point to Hezbollah's survival that Syria long ago placed its check when the Khomeini-inspired movement first surfaced in the 1980s and Iran wanted to wean Lebanon's Shias from the Baathist's grasp. The empowerment of Nabih Berri, the head of the Shia Amal Movement, by Syria is enough to ensure Hezbollah remains checked.
True change in Lebanon will occur once true change in Syria arrives. It is not change in Syria that Hezbollah fears, but change for the worst – a Saudi-installed Islamist proxy. But Hezbollah, and Lebanon, for all the constraints imposed by Syria's natural power over the country, cannot afford to allow such limitations to wholly determine its policy towards the crisis. The Baathist regime cannot maintain its rule by force forever, and it is only inevitable that a minority leadership in Damascus will succumb to the majority at some stage. Hezbollah, the most rational actor Lebanon has ever seen, is undoubtedly aware that Assad's long-term survival is tenuous at best.
What emerges in Syria post-Baathist dictatorship will determine Hezbollah's survival, and indeed, the makeup of Lebanon. The war for the future has already begun, and Saudi Arabia has lost no time in pumping oil-money into Islamist and Salafi groups in Syria hoping that a Saudi mirror rises to the throne. Such a scenario is a nightmare that Hezbollah has acknowledged and vowed to fight. But fighting such a scenario is not limited to throwing its backing behind Assad's crackdown on protests, which has no hope of succeeding in the long-term. Rather, Hezbollah's interests now rest on an alternative future that is beneficial to both Syria and Lebanon's national interests, as they are intertwined and cannot be determined separately.
It is not and cannot simply be a choice between an Assad dictatorship or a Saudi-backed Sunni dictatorship. Alternatives exist among internal opposition groups in Syria, movements that remain committed to Syria and Lebanon's interests, to Palestine, and to their collective sovereignty. Powerful elements of the Assad regime still believe it can ride out the storm through the power of the gun, as evident by the continued arbitrary detention of activists and ongoing violence. Hezbollah cannot fall for the same miscalculated estimation, and allow the regime to pursue the path of civil war, a conflict that will undoubtedly engulf Hezbollah and Lebanon.
Hezbollah's interests are not completely in line with the Assad regime, and strategies that deal with the short-term and long-term prospects of Syria need to be re-tuned to the probable outcome that the Baath will be forced to make concessions at some point. This does not necessitate a complete abandonment of Assad – as previously noted, this is a fixed position imposed on Hezbollah and Lebanon. But within the confines of the relationship, Hezbollah – with its powerful Iranian patron on its side – can promote the voices within the regime that are committed to fully implementing Kofi Annan's plan; bringing serious reforms to the country; and putting an end to the arrogant rule of force. It can also nurture ties with Syria's internal opposition groups eager to find a peaceful, political solution, and promote reconciliation between them and the elements of the regime willing to forge a new Syria, dwarfing the Saudi-backed elements of the opposition.
Security in Lebanon is dependent on Hezbollah's approach towards Syria. Hezbollah must address the concerns of all Lebanese, including marginalized and impoverished Sunnis, if it is to keep Lebanon stable and ensure no violence hits it from within the country. This requires a readjustment of its approach towards the Syrian crisis, one that is accommodating of a growing threat in radical Sunni Islamists at home. Avoiding a Syrian civil war is Hezbollah's short-term interest, and indeed Lebanon's, now that the country has had a taste of what could unfold. Ensuring a prosperous, stable Syria emerges that respects the rights and wishes of its people and is true to Syrian sovereignty is Hezbollah's and Lebanon's long-term interest. If a prosperous, stable and healthy Syria indeed equals a prosperous, stable and healthy Lebanon, then Hezbollah has no choice but to plan for a future without the Baath.
Antoun Issa is the News and Opinion Editor at Al-Akhbar English.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.