In Syria, like no other country in the Middle East, the mass protest movement widely known as “the Arab Spring” could change the entire regional order if it resulted in toppling the regime. This possibility appears even clearer in the context of Syrian-Lebanese relations. For the last four decades, Syria has had a large say on the political and strategic affairs of its smaller neighbour. The Lebanese political parties’ stance on Syria is the most divisive issue in Lebanese politics. The militant Shi’a Hezbollah movement leads the pro-Syrian March 8 coalition which currently dominates the cabinet. The anti-Syrian opposition, known as the March 14 coalition, is led by Sunni politician and former prime minister Sa’ad Hariri and enjoys the support of Saudi Arabia and the West.
Absolute Support for Assad
Hezbollah has expressed its absolute support for the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad against the popular uprising and regional and international pressure. In line, apparently, with the Syrian government’s insistence that the protests that call for toppling Assad’s regime are an internal issue, Hezbollah’s leaders did not make high-profile comments during the early stages of the protests. When the uprising gained momentum, the party’s senior command left no doubt about its support for Assad’s regime. This should not be seen as a surprise, according to Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah. Speaking on May 25 to a crowd of supporters on the 11th anniversary of the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon, Nasrallah declared his group’s strong support for the Assad regime. He hailed Syria for its support for the Resistance movement in Lebanon and Palestine and warned that the United States is applying new tactics to pressure Syria, but is still pursuing the Bush administration agenda of trying to create a “Greater Middle East.” For Nasrallah, toppling Assad was in the American and Israeli interest and must be resisted (al-Manar TV, May 25).
Hezbollah and the Arab Spring
Hezbollah has supported the protests movements in the region since they began. The movement was happy and comfortable in seeing regimes fall that had long-standing cooperation with the United States and the West. However, that support was not by any means inspired by the issue of spreading democracy. The principles of resistance and confrontation are the most vital elements in the party’s view of regional changes. It was very significant that when the Arab Spring came to Syria it was described as an American conspiracy by Muhammad Yezbe, a Hezbollah senior figure: “A conspiracy is underway against Syria but the country has powerfully resisted the U.S. plots… The Arab spring means spring of resistance and uniting efforts against the U.S. plots” (Fars News Agency, November 6)
The Question of Reform in Syria
In his speech Nasrallah called on the Syrian people to give their government a chance to carry out reforms. He said he knew for sure that Assad was determined to make reforms but would not do so under pressure. In spite of Nasrallah’s popularity among the Syrians, his call did not stop the protests or reduce their intensity. Hezbollah’s yellow flags and Nasrallah’s picture, which have always been respected symbols in Syria, were burned during rallies in different cities in Syria (al-Sharq al-Awsat, August 11).
Another source of the Syrian protesters’ anger against Hezbollah was reports that the movement had deployed groups of combatants to aid the Syrian authorities with their crackdown (Islammemo.cc, March 22; Nahernet.com, November 24). Although the movement has clearly lost some of its appeal and popularity over its decision to take sides in the Syrian strife, for Hezbollah the whole affair was put in the context of conflict, i.e. the Syrian uprising is for Hezbollah an American conspiracy that should be confronted and defeated.
The Power of the Resistance
Hezbollah’s decades-long confrontation with Israel has provided it with considerable popularity across the Arab and Muslim worlds. The movement is proud that its appeal became international as a symbol of resistance. 
Hezbollah still defines itself as a resistance movement. The full name of the party is “Hezbollah, the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon.” In its literature and statements the party refers to itself as al-Moqawama (The Resistance).
In spite of the localization of the party and its increasing involvement in Lebanese politics it still makes decisions and forms strategy on the regional level as al-Moqawama. However, Hezbollah would not have gained the identity it is so proud of without Iranian and Syrian support.
Hezbollah emerged in the early 1980s at the height of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) as a resistance group targeting the invading Israeli army and the multi-national forces in Lebanon. Various Lebanese militias used to refer to themselves as al-Moqawam, a term that had been first introduced by the Palestinian armed groups that emerged in the 1960s and launched attacks against Israel using bases in neighbouring Arab countries, including Lebanon. The term had even been used by right-wing Christian militias that had mainly fought the Syrian army and Palestinian armed groups (Radar-news.net, [Beirut], November 10; al-Jazeera, July 25, 2006).
By the end of the Lebanese Civil War, Syria had universal control on Lebanon. Hezbollah was the only militia that was allowed to keep its arms to resist the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. The movement did not need to precede the term al-Moqawama by the word “Islamic” as it became the only operative militia on the ground. In Hezbollah’s literature the alliance between itself, Iran, Syria and Palestinian groups like Hamas is called the “Axis of Resistance.” The Axis of Resistance (or Axis of Rejection, as it is sometimes styled) in Hezbollah literature is opposite to the so-called “Axis of Moderation” that includes countries on good terms with the United States or Israel like Saudi Arabia and Mubarak’s Egypt.
The Axis of Resistance
Both Tehran and Damascus have been comfortable with Hezbollah’s status as a non-state actor. Hezbollah also appreciates and understands that without the two states it would not have been in the same powerful position in Lebanese politics and, more significantly, in the regional arena.
In his justification for the party’s support for Syria, Nasrallah emphasized the importance of Syria’s support for the Resistance in Lebanon and Palestine: “The Syrian support has been crucial. A great part of the Iranian support comes through Syria. If it had not been for the will of Syria even the Iranian support would have been blocked and not reached Lebanon and Palestine” (al-Manar TV, August 25; al-Jazeera, August 26).
Hezbollah is thoroughly involved in Iranian grand strategy in the Middle East. Although in recent years the party’s loyalty to Iran has not been emphasized the same way it was when it emerged in the 1980s, this development should not be misinterpreted. Hezbollah might have embraced the Lebanese identity, taken a realistic approach in dealing with the status quo in the Lebanese politics and calmly dropped its old goal of forming an Iranian-like Islamic republic in Lebanon. Nonetheless, it still completely believes in the concept of Wilyat al-Faqih (The Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist), which gives the Iranian supreme leader, currently Ali Khamenei, a great say over his Shi’a followers wherever they live (see Terrorism Monitor, December 15, 2009).
With the increasing Western pressure on Iran over its controversial nuclear program and on Syria over its use of violence against protesters, the alliance between the two countries will most likely grow stronger. Hezbollah’s status as a non-state actor and the spearhead of the Axis of Resistance will likely mean its mobilization in any possible confrontation. In a recent speech, Nasrallah warned America and Israel that attacks on Iran or Syria will engulf the whole region: “They must understand well that a war on Iran and a war on Syria would not be confined to Iran or Syria. This war will roll over throughout the entire region. These are realistic calculations. This is the real situation” (Daily Star [Beirut], November 12; al-Manar TV, November 11).
The Sectarian Factor:
With warnings from different parties, including non-Shi’a, of a possible Syrian takeover by Sunni Muslim extremists, Hezbollah has another reason to worry. Hezbollah publicly advocates pan-Islamic solidarity and rejects the concept of a Sunni-Shi’a divide. However, the movement has increasingly been involved in a Shi’a-Sunni conflict in Lebanon that escalated into armed clashes in 2008. The fighting ended with Hezbollah consolidating its political powers and joining the government. Although Syria is governed by the Ba’ath party which advocates a pan-Arab secular ideology, the Alawite sect, which president Assad belongs to, is over represented in the state’s administration. The top security posts are generally occupied by Assad’s relatives.
A regime in Syria based on the Sunni Muslim majority would most likely be friendly to Hezbollah’s local rivals in the March 14 coalition. Such a regime would also have good relations with regional powers that have severe disagreements with the movement over sectarian and political issues, i.e. Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
Although the alliance between Iran, Syria and Hezbollah is cemented by a professed common Shi’a heritage, it is not merely a Shi’a phenomenon. It includes the Sunni Palestinian movement Hamas and it has appealed to a Sunni public in many countries across the Arab and Muslim world that was impressed by the movement’s solid confrontation with Israel and the West. As both Iran and Hezbollah are led by Shi’a clerics, Syria is much needed, in addition to its geopolitical gravity, to add the Arab nationalist factor and expand the appeal of the alliance.
Hezbollah will not stand by idly if Syria is harmed, said Hezbollah MP Hassan Hoballah. He added that in that case all options were open (NOW Lebanon, October 17). Considering the nature of the relations between Hezbollah and Syria, the movement will do all it can to prevent the fall of Assad, which would be catastrophic for the movement. There are two fronts for possible action by Hezbollah:
· In Lebanon the tension between Hezbollah and its political adversaries has intensified over the Syrian uprising. Both political coalitions are accusing each other of involvement in Syria. When the Lebanese March 14 coalition government tried to dismantle Hezbollah’s communications network in 2008, the party did not hesitate to act. Hezbollah fighters invaded the Sunni areas of Beirut and forced the government to drop its plan. For two days the party entered into a brief civil war in which it abandoned a long-observed commitment of not using the movement’s arms in internal conflicts. The possible fall of Assad would represent a far more serious danger for Hezbollah. A civil war in Lebanon could complicate the situation in the region and might give both Damascus and Tehran greater room to manoeuvre in dealing with external military and political pressure.
· The other front that the party might consider moving on is Israel. In 2006 Hezbollah critics accused the movement of inciting the war with Israel to serve Iranian and Syrian agendas. The two countries were then under immense pressure by the Bush administration over their alleged support for Iraqi insurgents, the Iranian nuclear program and other issues. Although Israel could not make significant inroads in its ground assaults, the damage its air force inflicted on Lebanese territory was enormous. Though Nasrallah called the result of the war a “divine victory,” he later admitted that if he had known the scale of the devastation caused by the Israeli attack he would not have ordered the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers that led to the Israeli operation (New TV [Beirut], August 28, 2006).
Under the current circumstances a Western attack on Syria or Iran would raise serious questions for the movement regarding the nature of its bond with those two nations. A war on the Lebanese-Israeli front could not be ruled out if the West’s confrontation with Syria and Iran moved to a higher level. Such a war would test Hezbollah’s combat capabilities and challenge the balance between its local and regional commitments. In these conditions, the question facing the region is what takes priority; preparing for an impending confrontation with Israel or the struggle for political reform?
Rafid Fadhil Ali is a journalist, writer and reporter. From 2003 to 2007 he covered the Iraq war and followed events from the field. Rafid worked for different pan-Arab and foreign media organizations. He is an expert in Iraqi politics and militant groups in the Middle East.
1. See the full text of Hezbollah’s manifesto, al-Jazeera, November 30, 2009; al-Manar.com, November 30, 2009.