BEIRUT: Joining the fight in Syria may be part of Hezbollah’s strategy to defend the resistance, political analysts have told The Daily Star, but the party’s involvement, regardless of the outcome of the conflict there, is likely to alter Sunni-Shiite relations in Lebanon irreversibly. Analyst Qassem Kassir contends Hezbollah has a clear strategic goal, in line with its larger objectives, in joining the fight in Syria.
“The fighting in Qusair is not a gamble by Hezbollah. The party considers it is fighting a strategic battle in Qusair to defend the resistance,” Kassir, an expert on Islamist movements, told The Daily Star.
“Hezbollah has a strategic vision which says that what is happening in Syria is an international battle for Syria’s position. Hezbollah considers protecting Syria similar to protecting the resistance and the party’s arms supply route,” he continued. “Hezbollah is fighting to foil attempts to take Syria to the American-Israeli axis.”
For a fifth consecutive day Thursday, Syrian government troops backed by elite Hezbollah fighters fought rebels in the strategic Syrian town of Qusair just 10 kilometers from the Lebanese border.
Thus far, the party’s losses have been heavy, with bodies returning to hometowns in Lebanon’s north, Bekaa Valley and south.
Kamel Wazne of the Center for American Strategic Studies believes Hezbollah’s participation in Syria is part of a “calculated gamble.”
He contends that the war currently playing out in Syria between Iran and its allies and the U.S.-Israeli axis is one that would eventually have come to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
“The war that is taking place in Syria is the war that should be happening in Lebanon,” Wazne said. “They [Hezbollah] took the fight to Syria to battle it out.”
But, while in Wazne’s estimate, Hezbollah is “preventing the war from moving to Lebanon,” other analysts say even though widespread civil strife is not imminent on Lebanese soil, lasting repercussions from Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah’s party’s involvement in Syria will eventually be felt.
Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut, agreed that Hezbollah’s actions in Syria have “created a lasting wedge between them and Lebanese Sunnis.”
“Irrespective of the outcome of the Syrian conflict, Sunni-Shiite relations in Lebanon will never be the same again,” he said. “Historical wounds have been opened.”
Even though sectarian clashes in the northern city of Tripoli had Thursday morning killed 16 since Sunday, Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese Army general and the current director of Beirut-based think tank the Middle East Center for Political Studies and Research, told The Daily Star he does not think the present divisions will develop into a military conflict.
“Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria will further fuel sectarian divisions,” Jaber admitted, explaining that “Lebanon is sharply divided between Sunnis who are against the Syrian regime and Shiites who support it.”
But, he continued, “I don’t think that this division will escalate into a military conflict.”
Jaber and other analysts contend the appetite for larger scale strife in Lebanon is curbed on a number of levels, with both local and international political actors committed to avoiding any large scale escalation at present.
Wazne pointed out that “at this moment there is agreement between [Lebanon’s] political parties to keep the security situation under great care,” while Paul Salem of the Carnegie Center, Beirut, said Lebanon’s big international patrons are keen to maintain stability here.
Jaber elaborated on this: “There is an international decision to prevent a civil war in Lebanon for now and to keep the status quo as long as the war is raging in neighboring Syria,” he said, adding that Saudi Arabia and Iran, which wield great influence in Lebanon, have no interest in the outbreak of strife in the country.
Meanwhile Talal Atrissi, a Lebanese University Lecturer with expertise on Iran and the Middle East explained to The Daily Star: “Saudi Arabia has no interest in seeing the situation in Lebanon spiral out of control or slide into Sunni-Shiite strife. A sectarian strife in Lebanon will affect the kingdom where there is a Shiite population.”
“Despite Hezbollah’s participation in the Syrian fighting, particularly in Qusair, there are no fears of an outbreak of Sunni-Shiite strife in Lebanon because there is a regional and international decision against destabilizing Lebanon,” Atrissi added.
And while analysts generally don’t deem civil war in Lebanon an immediate threat, they do express concern over the repercussions of the outcome of the Syria conflict on Lebanon.
Should the Assad regime collapse, Jaber, the retired army general, cautioned that civil war will result in Lebanon and other countries.
“If the [Assad] regime falls and the opposition and jihadist groups take control of most of the country, a civil war will erupt in Syria that would lead to the country’s partition,” Jaber said. “The civil war would spread to Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey. The situation would be out of control.”
However, if Assad prevails in Syria, Khashan warned that the “the 21st century might become the golden age of Hezbollah.”
“Should Asad’s regime prevail in Syria, Hezbollah’s preponderance in Lebanon will consolidate and it would become virtually impossible to contest it,” Khashan said. “Such a development would place Hezbollah one good step forward toward the installation of an Islamic state in Lebanon.”
He added that the party had never disavowed this objective.
Meanwhile, Carnegie’s Salem wondered if the only fault line likely to be drawn by this latest Hezbollah action was between Sunnis and Shiites.
Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria may also, he speculated, have an impact within the Shiite community in Lebanon, which is now being “asked to fight a different war on a different territory, in a different situation” to that which it traditionally committed to.
So far, Salem said, the Shiite community has absorbed Hezbollah’s decision to become involved in Syria, but he questioned how long their tolerance can endure.