Predictions of the toppling of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria have been around since protests began back in March 2011. Some eighteen months later, however, the conflict has picked up intensity and shows few signs of abating. Regardless of who emerges victorious in this ever-so-bloody struggle (which by today’s estimates has left some 20,000 dead), the Syria of tomorrow will be indistinguishable from the Syria of yesterday.
Hezbollah, a staunch ally of the Syria regime that was recently sanctioned by the US for supporting the Assad regime, has much to lose if the regime crumbles. Not only has the Assad regime been a key military ally to the Party of God – by facilitating weapons transfers and providing intelligence and logistical support, among other things – but it has been a key political ally, priming Hezbollah’s rise to the dominant force in the Lebanese government. If the Assad regime collapses, therefore, how will Hezbollah react?
NOW Lebanon asked this and related questions to four analysts, namely journalist and author of ‘Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel,’ Nick Blanford; commentator for Al-Balad newspaper and Al Janoubia, a Shia-directed news website, Ali al-Amin; An-Nahar columnist Ibrahim Bayram; and a source close to Hezbollah who asked for his name not to be printed.
All the interviewees believe that with its track record and as any serious political party ought, Hezbollah has contingency plans for potential outcomes to the Syrian crisis.
The source close to Hezbollah believes that the party calculates not complete regime change, but a loss of government control over some areas and the distinct possibility of the conflict escalating into an open or civil war (a term some external observers, including the International Crisis Group, have already used to describe the conflict). In a similar vein, Amin reckons Hezbollah may be gambling on the length of time regime collapse would take to occur, and will maneuver to best “manage the chaos” in the interim. When asked how it might do so, Amin said the party may reach out to other Lebanese political parties, but stressed that this was only speculation.
As for Hezbollah’s access to weapons, Blanford believes that although regime change may threaten the party’s access to an important land channel, Hezbollah retains control over Beirut airport and key ports (as evidenced by past weapons shipments from Iran that were intercepted by Israel) through which it will be able to access weapons. Moreover, land routes will only be cut off if a strong, anti-Hezbollah government replaces the current regime, which is difficult to envisage in the immediate future.
According to the unnamed Hezbollah source, weapons transfers would undoubtedly be more complicated if the Assad regime is replaced, but the party, he believes, will be able to adapt. “Look at what happened in Gaza in spite of the siege,” he added, referring to supplies and weapons which were smuggled to Palestinians despite a land, air, and sea blockade on the territory by Israel and Egypt between 2007 and 2010.
In addition to complicating weapons transfers, regime change in Syria would deal a significant political and psychological blow to Hezbollah and Iran, according to Amin. In particular, he believes a loss of Syria as a close ally will damage the notion of resistance to Israel, with party members aware that in a future conflict with Israel, Hezbollah may not enjoy similar levels of diplomatic and political support it received with the Assad regime. Syria, moreover, is the only Arab state allied with Hezbollah and Iran.
With so much potentially at stake for the party if the Syrian government is toppled, it is perhaps little surprise that the party has been accused of supporting the regime. A US diplomatic source, for instance, who spoke to NOW accused the party of providing “a range of critical support to the Assad regime—including training, advice, and logistical assistance.”
Amin believes that if true, this is unsurprising as, “considering [Hezbollah’s] dogma and political mindset, it becomes their duty to [support the Assad regime].”
However, when asked whether Hezbollah is militarily supporting the Assad regime, Bayram replied “in the sense that [Hezbollah] would send forces to Syria in support of the regime, [such a situation is] so far off that it is non-existent.” The party, he continued, is effective through guerrilla tactics but does not have the means to fight as a traditional army. “Hezbollah,” he concludes, “doesn’t have the strength to save a regime like the one in Syria.”