When Hizbullah’s Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah admitted last week that his party was militarily involved in the Syrian conflict, the news seemed to deepen the cognitive dissonance initially caused by Nasrallah’s vocal support for the Syrian regime (in the context of his repudiation of other dictatorial regimes elsewhere in the region). Moral support was one thing; the fact that the party was now sending its Lebanese fighters to die in a guerrilla war against rebel soldiers was something somehow different.
I’ll admit that I too was surprised by the scenes of caskets draped with Hizbullah flags being paraded in the streets of Saida and Bint Jbeil. What is Hizbullah thinking? How can they possibly imagine that this is going to work out to their advantage? Surely the party understands that their military support of Assad means, among other things, that: (1) their cherished status in the Arab world is gone, perhaps forever; (2) even if Assad hangs on for a while, the regime’s days are numbered; (3) most importantly, they are opening the gates to hell in Lebanon, as Nadim Koteich points out here.
In response to my head-scratching, one of the regular readers of this blog offered the following comment:
Homs is the strategically important area, Al Qusayr is important because it is needed to fully control Homs. Al Qusayr is not a ‘distraction’ from the battles for Damascus. The opposition cannot attack Damascus if they lose Al Qusayr.
As for Hezballah, they see this battle as their battle because if the regime falls, they will lose as well. And Al Qusayr is right at the border so they can rely on the network of villagers they have trained over the past year to support them and hold ground. Among Hezballah’s base, involvement in Syria is not seen as terribly as other publics do. In Hermel, I’m sure the residents are pushing for the party to get even more engaged to quell the rocket attacks.
It’s a mis-reading to think Hezballah needs to be ordered by Iran to back the regime. The party will do everything to maintain its own supply lines, and that means making sure the regime survives the war.
Why have I been hesitant to accept the plain idea that Hizbullah “will do everything to maintain its own supply lines”? Since the beginning of this conflict, I’ve assumed that the party’s much heralded sobriety and sensitivity to the dangers of Sunni-Shiite strife would, at the very least, keep it from getting involved so publicly in the Syrian conflict, or at most, lead it to begin preparing quietly for a post-Assad future. It’s clear now that I’ve been mistaken.
If we step back and consider Hizbullah’s military activities over the past eight years, they tell a straightforward story. Whenever the resistance’s strategic position has been threatened, no response has been off the table, no matter the costs in terms of bad PR or sectarian strife. The party made a calculated decision to go forward with the operation that led to the July War in 2006 knowing full well that Israel’s reaction would be severe and would exacerbate the deep political divide in the country. The military takeover of Beirut in May 2008 came when the government threatened to shut down the party’s telecommunications network and to remove a loyal officer in airport security. The assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri and perhaps several others (at least according to the STL narrative) was allegedly carried out by individuals connected with Hizbullah in the wake of international pressure to isolate Syria and disarm the party.
Why should we be surprised when Hizbullah acts like a state? Why is it not obvious that the party would routinely use its military assets to protect its interests? In the deliberation process that precedes military action, public opinion and long-term “soft” consequences (like aggravating sectarian tensions) apparently count for very little.
Hizbullah’s case is not unique in this regard; witness the hand-wringing among American or Israeli liberals when their governments embark on a fresh bout of military adventurism. How many op-eds in The New York Times or Ha’aretz have prevented a drone strike that killed a busload of civilians? How often has the specter of international outrage stayed the hands of military strategists?
What matters is not what the world will say; what matters is what we will do. This formula has worked well for Hizbullah, so why change it now? The trouble is, if the party is thinking and acting like a militarily adventurous state, then it is vulnerable to the same mistakes that militarily adventurous states make. Seventy-five fighters lost in al-Qusayr, with an alleged 3,000-4,000 now operating within Syria? Is Hizbullah now in the nation-building game? Haven’t we seen this movie before?
America only began to rein in and “refocus” its military strategies when the tolls of those strategies in blood and treasure became unavoidable liabilities for its political leadership. I think that threshold is very far off for Hizbullah, which is a sobering thought to reflect upon.