Hezbollah, Loyal to a Fault

The Lebanese militia's campaign in Syria helps its Iranian sponsor, but hurts it at home.

As the United States becomes more involved in the war in Syria, it’s important to consider the role played by non-state actors—particularly the Shia militant group Hezbollah. Understanding the role of such entities shows how proxy fights are inherently dynamic and unpredictable. Hezbollah may perceive it has the upper hand today, but should Assad fall, it’s putting itself in a risky position.

So why, then, are Hezbollah fighters risking their lives in Syria in the first place? And why is the organization risking its political standing, in Lebanon and internationally, to defend Bashar al-Assad’s regime? Conventional thinking about Hezbollah’s relationship with Syria and Iran takes Hezbollah’s loyalty to Assad for granted. After all, Hezbollah receives a staggering amount of arms and resources from Iran, the bulk of which flow through Syria to reach Hezbollah’s coffers. Hezbollah rightly perceives that its military victories to date were made possible by Tehran’s generosity and its willingness to replenish weapons and materiel lost in various encounters with Israel. It is unlikely that a post-Assad Syrian regime would be willing to continue to serve as a conduit for Iran.

Furthermore, the increasingly sectarian nature of the civil war in Syria—which pits Sunnis against Shia, Alawites, Christians and Druze (while the Kurds strive to carve out an autonomous space)—has strengthened Hezbollah’s commitment to defend its perception of Shiite interests in the Levant. Nevertheless, at the grand-strategic level, Hezbollah’s decision to devote increasingly greater and more public resources to upholding Assad’s control of Syria might prove to be an enormous blunder for the organization.

Hezbollah’s behavior is puzzling in three related respects. First, recent events have called into question Iran’s reliability as an ally. Western sanctions have dealt a considerable blow to the Iranian economy, decreasing the amount of aid Iran can funnel to Hezbollah. Additionally, the development of Iran’s nuclear program might make Hezbollah less important as a deterrent force for the Iranian regime. Second, Hezbollah’s protracted and effective resistance against Israel has translated into concrete political gains. In the most recent election, Hezbollah secured twelve seats in the Lebanese parliament and two cabinet ministries. Hezbollah enjoys considerable loyalty from the Shia community in southern Lebanon, where the group essentially acts as a ministate, as well as credibility in the Middle East and globally from its anti-Western resistance. Third, Hezbollah’s actions in Syria are undermining the very thing that would allow it to be more independent from Iran: local political legitimacy. Drawing even closer to Assad and Tehran could isolate Hezbollah domestically. Even Lebanese president Michel Suleiman—a Hezbollah ally—publicly chastised the group for prioritizing Syria over Lebanon. While local political support cannot substitute for the arms and resources provided by Iran, if Hezbollah’s strategic objective is to secure real political power in Lebanon it cannot afford to alienate the Lebanese public.

While Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah now publicly acknowledges the group’s presence in Syria, Hezbollah’s involvement in the war began as a covert affair. Hezbollah-run funerals for the “martyrs” who died in Syria did not disclose where the fighters lost their lives. Nasrallah’s initial hesitance to admit to the group’s involvement in Syria suggests he is aware of the political costs of siding with a dictator’s ruthless suppression of his own people, especially in the broader context of the Arab Spring. Hezbollah stood by the Iranian regime in 2009, but the violence there, though brutal, pales in comparison to the ongoing carnage in Syria. Additionally, Nasrallah likely wanted to avoid giving Israel a pretext for intervening in the conflict.

Given these costs, why would Hezbollah go public? Most likely, Hezbollah was drawn into incrementally greater involvement in the Syrian conflict to the point that its role could no longer be plausibly denied. The more Assad’s forces were in need of Hezbollah’s assistance—through training and provision of fighters—the more Hezbollah had to ratchet up its commitment to the conflict.

This kind of mission creep is prevalent in the context of proxy warfare. Relations between states and their proxies often operate as “open secrets,” where third parties are aware of the alliance but not its specific provisions. The ambiguity and clandestine nature of these relationships creates opportunities for allies to exploit and draw one another into costly foreign-policy gambits.