The final outcome of the unrest that continues to shake the broader Middle East remains in the balance. The grassroots protests that ushered in the fall of despots in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya and continue to rile ruling power structures in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and elsewhere are shaping a new domestic political structure predicated on greater participation, accountability and openness. The geopolitics of the region, as reflected in the condition of longstanding alliances and rivalries between nation states, also stands at the precipice of realignment. The volatility in the region will also impact the status of prominent non-state actors that have come to wield tremendous influence on the region’s politics and security, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
In particular, the uprising that toppled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, a longtime enemy of Hezbollah and close ally of its nemeses Israel, the United States, and Saudi Arabia, bolstered Hezbollah’s position in Lebanon and region-wide. In recent years Hezbollah appeared to reach the apex of its influence and legitimacy in Lebanon, even compared to the period immediately following Israel’s withdrawal from its occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000. Hezbollah survived Israel’s 2006 attack against Lebanon and relentless efforts by members of the international community and its domestic political opponents, led by the March 14 Alliance, to incriminate it in the 2005 assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri and isolate Hezbollah and its coalition partners in the March 8 Alliance.
By endorsing the demands of the demonstrators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain, Hezbollah, from its perspective, placed itself firmly on the right side of history. As the masses organized to depose leaders they saw as agents of the United States and Israel, Hezbollah was able to tie the popular calls for reform heard across the region to its own narrative of resistance (see Terrorism Monitor, April 1).
The Syrian Dilemma
With opposition protests against the Ba’athist regime of president Bashar al-Assad engulfing Syria, a staunch ally of Hezbollah, the group is confronting a precarious dilemma. From a strictly operational military perspective, Syria provides Hezbollah with the crucial strategic depth it requires to preserve its military capabilities and deterrence capacity against Israel, especially in areas such as logistics. Hezbollah’s concern about the escalating instability in Syria was such that it dispatched a diplomatic delegation to Moscow for the first time to confer with Russian authorities over the deteriorating situation there (Al-Safir [Beirut], October 21). Russia is a longtime ally of Syria that continues to support the Ba’athist regime in the midst of growing calls for sanctions and other measures to punish Damascus. Russia, along with China, vetoed a UN Security Council draft resolution in October condemning Syria for its crackdown against the opposition protests (Al-Jazeera [Doha], October 11).
The unrest in Syria also threatens Hezbollah’s equally important benefactor, Iran, during a period of heightened tensions between the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia on one side and Iran on the other. Disputed reports alleging Tehran was behind an elaborate plot targeting Saudi and Israeli diplomatic officials and facilities in Washington and the heightened rhetoric out of Israel regarding possible air strikes on Iran’s nuclear program reflect the current climate of tension surrounding Iran and its traditional adversaries (Haaretz [Tel Aviv], November 4; Reuters, November 5). Iran joins Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas in what is regarded as the “Resistance Axis,” an unofficial alliance that stands against the U.S-led alliance made up of Israel and authoritarian regimes such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies.
Notwithstanding the strategic military aspects of Hezbollah’s relationship with Damascus, arguably it is the group’s political and ideological legitimacy it commands in Lebanon and the broader Middle East that is most threatened by its pro-regime stance on the developments in Syria. While it endorsed the wave of popular revolt across the Arab world in recent months, analogous displays of dissent in Syria against the Baathist order put Hezbollah in a difficult position. Having initially adopted a quiet line on the situation in Syria, the growing media attention drawn by the escalating violence and the concomitant crackdown by Damascus prompted Hezbollah to address the situation publicly.
Acknowledging Syria’s need to pursue a path of reform and to engage in a peaceful dialogue to end the internecine violence, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah defended al-Assad during a public address in August:
We all say and support the need for major and important reforms in Syria so that it can develop and become better as a result of its important position in the region. We want a Syria strong with reforms. This means that all those who claim they are friends of Syria and are keen on its unity must combine efforts to help calm the situation in Syria and push matters toward dialogue and a peaceful resolution…Anything else is dangerous for Syria, Palestine and the region (Daily Star [Beirut], August 27).
Nasrallah pointed to Syria’s role in the resistance camp in regards to Israel and the plight of the Palestinians as opposed to the position of pro-U.S. autocracies that continue to count on U.S. and Western support:
America and the West want concessions, not reforms from the Syrian leadership. A proof of this is that there are other countries in the region ruled by dictatorships but they still enjoy protection from America and France … This land here [south Lebanon] would not have been liberated had it not been for the Resistance, and the Resistance would not have won if had it not been for Syrian support (Daily Star, August 27).
During a recent interview featured on Hezbollah’s al-Manar television network, Nasrallah again affirmed Hezbollah’s support for the Ba’athist regime owing to its stance of resistance to U.S. and Israeli dictates: “the Syrian regime is the only regime that cannot be described as subject to the United States’ will” (Al-Manar [Beirut], October 24). Addressing critics of the group who highlight its apparent hypocrisy in standing by the Ba’athist regime as it quashes dissent as opposed to supporting the tide of opposition, Nasrallah added: “On this issue, we will talk with transparency, clarity, and responsibility. This is because some sides try to say that there are double standards here… the only Arab president who used to talk about Iraq and the Iraqi resistance was perhaps president Bashar al-Assad who did not accept all these conditions and refused to succumb.” Nasrallah added that Syria is “a partner in the victory of the resistance movements.” The Hezbollah leader also defended the track record of the regime in Damascus regarding its declared intent to implement genuine reforms: “[Al-Assad] is serious about reforms, can make reforms, and he began reforms.” Expressing his confidence in the resilience of the regime, Nasrallah also opined that Syria had “passed the state of danger” (Al-Manar, October 24). Hezbollah’s position is clear: it will not abandon Syria.
Recalibrating the Resistance
In light of the prevailing geopolitics of the region, the logic underpinning Hezbollah’s stance toward the Ba’athist regime in Damascus is easy to discern. As the multitude of state and non-state actors jockey for position in the course of the regional tumult, it is worth considering that current alliance structures are by no means static. Remarks allegedly made by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in September that called on al-Assad to avert further violence and open dialogue with the protesters, for instance, seemed to indicate the potential for a realignment of sorts, especially as different actors watch as the previous status quo they had so much invested in slowly dissipates. According to the Portuguese translation of a September 7 Radiotelevisao Portuguesa interview with the Iranian president, Ahmadinejad said; “A military solution is never the right solution… We believe that freedom and justice and respect for others are the rights of all nations. All governments have to recognize these rights. Problems have to be dealt with through dialogue” (al-Jazeera, September 8). Iran later denied that Ahmadinejad ever issued such a statement and instead accused hostile forces of distorting his words to weaken the resolve of Iran and Syria (Press TV [Tehran], September 12).
In this context it is worth considering the potential for a regional shift occurring in the existing alliance structures. Many observers are beginning to decipher a slowly emerging new Middle East map, one which may feature a new, recalibrated axis of resistance or concept of resistance (Asia Times [Hong Kong], September 2). The potential fall of the Ba’athist regime in Syria (as unlikely it may seem at this point) and its replacement with a civil war-stricken society or a Salafist-oriented regime would profoundly impact Hezbollah, Syria’s neighbors (particularly Lebanon and Israel) and Iran. Yet there are clues to suggest that a more subtle sequence of shifts are taking place incrementally and on multiple levels, including the diplomatic, ideological, economic, and defense spheres, the most important of which stem directly from the fall of Mubarak and the ongoing political transition in Egypt.
The fall of Mubarak, a longtime opponent of Iran, has opened a window to a rapprochement between Cairo and the Islamic Republic. Commenting in April on the future of Egypt-Iran relations in the post-Mubarak era, a spokesman at the Egyptian foreign ministry declared: “We are prepared to take a different view of Iran. The former regime used to see Iran as an enemy, but we don’t” (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], April 17). Coinciding with its apparent willingness to turn a page in its relations with Iran, Egypt has also seemed to float the idea of opening a dialogue with Hezbollah (Al-Ahram [Cairo], March 30). For its part, Iran has moved to alleviate the enmity between Cairo and Tehran going back over three decades to the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the 1981 assassination of Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat. Iran’s naming of a Tehran street after Egyptian army officer Khaled Islambouli, who assassinated the Egyptian president in retaliation for his signing of the Camp David Accords, is a testament to the former state of relations between Egypt and Iran under Mubarak.
While there are no solid indications that an alliance between Egypt and Iran is in the offing, Egyptian public opinion tends to strongly oppose the staunchly pro-U.S. and pro-Israel orientation of the country since the Sadat era. The rise of a more open and democratic Egypt where public opinion factors heavily into the formulation of its foreign policy will almost certainly pave the way for friendlier ties between Cairo and Tehran. The normalization of ties between the onetime enemies will impact Hezbollah, as it will be less concerned with evading the hand of the once hostile Egyptian intelligence services, allowing it to devote more resources toward deterring Israel. Iran is also eager to diversify its network of relations and alliances in the event that its relationship with Syria becomes irreparably damaged during the ongoing revolt. In this regard, Iran is also likely to court Iraq – a country where it already maintains great influence – as the most likely candidate to replace Syria in the event of the fall of the Ba’athist regime. This is indeed an attractive prospect for Iran, considering the upcoming scheduled withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country.
Israel stands to lose the relative security it enjoyed knowing that it could count on virtually seamless support from the Mubarak regime for its continued occupation of Palestinian land, its actions toward Gaza, and its confrontation with Lebanon. Egypt has also expressed its intent to improve relations with Syria, a trend that will also strengthen Hezbollah (al–Masry al-Youm, March 3). Relations between Cairo and Damascus plummeted when Syria criticized Egypt’s stance on the 2006 conflict between Israel and Hezbollah.
The evolving strategic triangle linking Hezbollah, Iran, and Egypt cannot be considered in a vacuum. Emboldened actors such as Turkey will also make their presence felt across the region. The recent announcement by the United States of a plan to reinforce its already robust military presence in the Gulf following the departure of U.S. troops from Iraq later this year, a move designed to shore up embattled pro-U.S. regimes amid the continuing rebellions in the region, must also factor into any geopolitical calculus of future scenarios (Al-Arabiya [Dubai], October 31). Undoubtedly, the potential loss of Syria as an ally would devastate Hezbollah; however, it would be shortsighted to underestimate the number of available options and the inherent flexibility of Hezbollah and other regional players that will allow them to react and adjust to the Middle East’s changing political climate.
Chris Zambelis is an author and researcher with Helios Global, Inc., a risk management group based in the Washington, DC area. He specializes in Middle East politics. The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of Helios Global, Inc.