On June 27, 2013, the Middle East Institute held an event titled “Hezbollah’s Plunge into the Syrian Abyss” featuring MEI scholar Randa Slim. In her introductory comments, Kate Seelye, senior vice president of MEI, described the “dramatic nature” of the unfolding civil war in Syria and Hezbollah’s shift from a resistance movement to the defender of a set of “very narrow Shi`i interests,” as demonstrated by the Party of God’s unprecedented participation in the recent battle of Qusayr between the Syrian government and rebel forces.
Slim began by outlining what she called the “Four Stage Narrative” of Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria: denial, describing the first 4-6 months of the Syrian crisis, in which Hezbollah was not involved; self-defense, during which Shi`a had to defend their own land and businesses (according to Secretary General of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah); sectarian, when Hezbollah intervened in order to prevent a wider Sunni-Shi`a war in the region; and resistance against what Nasrallah has called a cosmic conspiracy of the U.S., Israel, and the Takfiris (Sunni fundamentalists) to topple Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Hezbollah is concerned that this conspiracy will not stop with the fall of Assad, but will move on to target the Party of God inside Lebanon.
Slim identified the July 2012 suicide bombing in the Syrian government chambers that killed four senior officials as a turning point in Hezbollah’s assessment of the conflict. After this point, the Party of God’s engagement began to shift from an advisory role to that of an active participant. Slim also emphasized the nuanced relationship that has developed between Iran and Hezbollah. While there still exists a senior-junior dynamic between Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei and the party, the two have established mutual trust and loyalty built on shared ideological and religious politics, geopolitical interests, family ties, and the desire to undermine U.S. influence and interests in the Middle East. According to Slim, the disappearance of Assad would reinforce this interdependence.
Slim identified three challenges facing Hezbollah: the Shi`a challenge, the Sunni challenge, and the Arab challenge.
In Lebanon, a strong inner core of devoted Shi`i families, fighters, business partners, and ideological affiliates comprises 20-30% of Hezbollah’s support base. However, the party has not yet managed to achieve consensus around the possibility of protracted, open-ended involvement beyond what is necessary for the security of the Shi`i community in Lebanon. For example, public opinion supports Hezbollah’s involvement in the border town of Qusayr, but not an insurgency into Aleppo, which would be seen as a distraction from the home front. A changing mood in the Shi`i community may help Hezbollah overcome this first challenge.
Slim introduced the “Sunni challenge” by outlining the two major Lebanese divides on the issue of Syria: north-south and Sunni-Shi`a. She said that the majority of Sunnis support the rebels, while the majority of Shi`a want Assad to remain in power, not because they support his regime, but because they fear that something worse, such as an anti-Shi`a Islamist regime, would replace him.
Slim traced the origin of Hezbollah’s “Sunni challenge” to Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s death in 2005 when his motorcade was bombed, possibly with Syrian involvement. Since then, she said, drastic political changes have occurred in Lebanon, such as the Cedar Revolution and the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. Up until that time, Syrians had mediated relationships between the different components of Lebanese politics, which prevented Hezbollah and other organizations from developing trust in the Lebanese political class. Hariri had begun meeting with Nasrallah to develop this trust, but his death created a power vacuum that has yet to be filled.
Finally, Slim discussed the “Arab challenge,” which she described as Hezbollah’s failure to solidify support among the leftist nationalist groups. Contrary to its original reputation as a resistance movement, Hezbollah has now come to be seen as part of the oppressor camp.
In response to the question, “What will they do next?” Slim noted that Hezbollah has shown absolute ruthlessness when it has sensed threats to its priorities. This fear is now particularly acute because if Assad falls, the Shi`i community at-large will likely be targeted next. Slim compared Hezbollah’s reaction to Assad’s strategy during the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when he felt threatened by the American presence in the region. Hezbollah’s goal is to keep the U.S. mired in its current conflict and to prevent a military victory. However, Slim asserted that Hezbollah’s best-case scenario of returning to the status quo is no longer possible. Rather, she suggested that the least worst-case scenario would be political instability and a power vacuum in Syria, which she predicted would be more successfully managed by Iran than the U.S. or Saudi Arabia.
Slim then discussed the immense impact of the Syrian refugee crisis. In the short- to medium-term, the militarization and mobilization of refugees needs to be watched carefully because the recent influx of fighters rejoining their families in Lebanon might create a “guns-for-hire” phenomenon, which could exacerbate future internal Lebanese conflicts. In the long-term, Slim addressed the social and demographic impact that the refugees might have on their host population of four million. Slim warned that while there are currently one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, this number will likely double in size by 2014, a change that will greatly alter the fragile demographic composition of Lebanon and could potentially lead to civil war.
During the Q&A, MEI scholar David Mack asked a question regarding Hezbollah’s understanding of efforts by the U.S, Russia, Turkey, and Israel to contain the situation. Slim reiterated the party’s deep-seated belief that this is an existential crisis for the Shi`i community and that they view any interaction with Israel as a zero-sum game. She noted that Turkey’s approach has become too sectarian, though Slim expressed some optimism that Russia may have the reputation necessary to play more of a role in this conflict.
Moderator Kate Seelye asked if Hezbollah could have made other calculations that would have prevented such deep investment in the sectarian conflict. Slim responded that they underestimated their opponent. While involvement in Qusayr was unavoidable, Hezbollah should have stopped after securing its interests. But Slim noted that, due to the party’s relative success and the fragmented nature of Lebanese politics, the leaders have taken on a “creeping arrogance” in the way that they speak about their political opposition in Lebanon. Slim suggested that as a result of this arrogance, they may not have completely thought through the political implications of their continued involvement in the conflict.
Michael Thomas asked what the reaction in Lebanon would be to General Dempsey’s recommendation that the U.S. provide arms and training to the Lebanese Army. Slim responded by saying that such a program has already been implemented in Lebanon with the support of Hezbollah and that it would be hypocritical for the party to reject the increased aid now, though the evolving geopolitical context may change their position.
In response to a question posed by Nabil Khoury of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs regarding who has influence over the Lebanese Army, Slim said that the Army is the only institution holding the country together, and that, despite its inadequacies, it has achieved a high level of professionalism among its soldiers. Though the sectarian identity of officers remains important, Slim noted that being a member of the armed forces is an important status symbol, particularly for marginalized Shi`a. Similar to the Maronites before them, Lebanon’s Shi`a have come to see joining the army as a sign of “making it.” Sunnis, on the other hand, are moving further away from participation in state institutions.
In response to a question on what the impact of Asir's arrest might be, Slim expressed her hope that he be captured soon because his death would make him a martyr and that he be given a fair trial. However, his location was unknown at the time.
Responding to a question on whether Hezbollah’s continued targeting of Sunnis could be seen as indicative of a larger phenomenon of ethnic cleansing, Slim said that Hezbollah will doubtless be accused of committing some of the massacres in Syria, and that the negative ramifications of such actions and/or accusations would increase the longer Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria lasts.
Randa Slim is a scholar at the Middle East Institute and an adjunct research fellow at the New America Foundation. A former vice president of the International Institute for Sustained Dialogue, Slim has been a senior program advisor at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, a guest scholar at the United States Institute of Peace, and a program officer at the Kettering Foundation. A long-term practitioner of Track II dialogue and peace-building processes in the Middle East and Central Asia, she currently co-moderates the Middle East Dialogue, a Track II initiative to monitor and analyze emerging political and security dynamics in the Arab region. The author of several studies, book chapters, and articles on conflict management, post-conflict peacebuilding, and Middle East politics, she is working on a book manuscript about Hezbollah.
Kate Seelye is senior vice president of the Middle East Institute, where she oversees MEI's programs and communications. Prior to joining MEI, Seelye worked as a radio and television journalist covering the Arab world from 2000-2009 from her base in Beirut, Lebanon. She reported on the region for NPR, BBC's The World, PBS' Frontline/World and the renowned Channel Four British investigative news series, Unreported World. Prior to that she worked as a producer for the Newshour with Jim Lehrer on PBS.