Thursday, April 2, 2015

The regional quagmire traps Hezbollah

As a coalition of mainly Sunni countries has formed to contain Iran’s expanding power in the Middle East, many eyes are turned on Hezbollah.

The party has long embodied Iranian successes in the region, but now it has come to reflect Iranian limitations thanks to the blowback provoked by these successes.

In his most recent speech Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah condemned the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen against the Houthis. Hezbollah also expressed displeasure with Prime Minister Tammam Salam’s speech at the Arab League summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, in which he seemed to implicitly support the operation in Yemen. Yet the party found itself isolated at home, with the Aounists supporting Salam. Fears that the Cabinet might collapse as a consequence were not borne out.

That was not surprising, since Hezbollah is stretched to the limits. It cannot afford a political vacuum in Lebanon, because its ability to control a worsening situation on the ground is lacking. The party needs an effective Lebanese Army and state not only to maintain domestic peace, but also to legitimize its planned military campaign in the Qalamoun area of Syria against rebels opposed to Bashar Assad’s regime.

The fall of Idlib last week raised worrying questions for Hezbollah. The city was held principally by the Syrian army and pro-Assad militias, and their lamentable performance appeared to show that the military effectiveness of the Syrian regime is near its end. That means that the burden of fighting will continue to be shifted onto the shoulders of Iran and Hezbollah, as well as Shiite militias from Iraq and even Afghanistan.

However, their record has not been particularly impressive. Several weeks ago the Iranians and their allies mounted offensives south of Damascus in the areas of Deraa and Qunaitra as well as in the north around Aleppo. These seemed designed to cut off supply lines between the rebel groups and Jordan and Turkey, respectively. The results around Aleppo were disastrous, while in the south initial gains by Hezbollah and Iranian combatants soon stalled.

The counterreaction, however, did not. Last week Busra al-Sham, southeast of Deraa, fell to the rebels, followed by the much bigger prize of Idlib. Now Hezbollah must consider what to do in Qalamoun, where it has been planning an attack for months. Everything suggests the party will go ahead with an operation, for several reasons: to reverse the sense of collapse prevailing in pro-Assad ranks; to show that the neutralization of the border region with Lebanon can succeed, even if this failed in the north and south; and to inflict a defeat on the Nusra Front, when the group’s central role in the takeover of Idlib has given it a great lift among Syrians opposed to the regime. Hezbollah does not want Nusra to gain strength at the expense of ISIS, whom many Syrians accuse of undermining their revolution.

However, Hezbollah should be very careful. Qalamoun is a thankless place, and any military reversal there for the party, in light of those in recent weeks, would be devastating for Iran and the Assad regime. Hezbollah has to be sure that it can win in Qalamoun.

The Syrian army and militias will be essential to this. Yet after their mediocre presentation in Idlib, Hezbollah must have doubts about them, particularly if corruption on the Syrian side is exploited by the rebels to allow reinforcements.

The Lebanese Army will also have an important part to play in blocking the border and capturing high ground to trap the combatants in Syria. Yet Arab mobilization against Iran and its regional partners may make the army command think twice, particularly as Lebanese Sunni confidence has been bolstered by the response in Yemen. The army will want to avoid being seen as collaborating in a military action on behalf of Iran and Hezbollah while most of the Arab world is battling them.

Nor is Hezbollah’s ability to intimidate the government and its political adversaries what it once was. Salam knows he has some margin to maneuver because the party is worried about the million and a half Syrian refugees in the country, most of them Sunnis. Salam is anxious about them too, but he also grasps that Hezbollah’s ability to bring down his Cabinet is severely constrained as it is deeply committed in Syria and does not have enough men in Lebanon to impose its supremacy.

Syria may yet become Iran’s and Hezbollah’s Vietnam. But the Arab states, including such Sunni powerhouses as Egypt, Turkey and even Pakistan, appear willing to take the fight to Iran and its allies, and Yemen has become a new front in that struggle. In light of this one recalls with irony the notion of a “resistance axis” used to describe the alliance between Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and the Assad regime. Hamas is no longer a part of this coalition, Hezbollah is overextended, the Assad regime appears to be on life support, and Iran finds itself facing a united Sunni front throughout the Middle East, one with an unlimited amount of the money to fund its endeavors.

The challenge for Lebanon will be to manage Hezbollah’s fluctuating fortunes. The dialogue with the Future Movement must be continued. The Army has to expand its control over the border area, but avoid coordinating with Hezbollah and the Syrian army in their planned offensive in Qalamoun, if it goes ahead. And above all it must pursue efforts to gain Arab and international assistance to help Syrian refugees and avoid anything that might destabilize the security situation.

Lebanon has a front-row seat on the regional conflagration. It must ensure that it isn’t dragged onto the stage. But even Hezbollah, increasingly conscious of its own vulnerabilities, seems to be aware of the risks.

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