When Hezbollah engaged in the Syria war, it was in a battle for its own existence. The collapse of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would result in Hezbollah losing a major ally that secured a much-needed supply route from its sponsor, Iran.
More than five years later, Assad is still in power due to Russia’s direct military intervention in the war but Iran’s influence in Syria — like that of all the other regional players — seems in decline, with Moscow and Washington emerging as the major actors.
A political settlement will be needed to end the war in Syria. Although it is premature to speculate how and when it will be implemented, the day will come for Hezbollah to pull its fighters back to Lebanon and this is a major concern.
“If Hezbollah, which awaits a dramatic change in Syria in its favor, thinks that it will have an influential role in [a] future Syria in a way it will benefit from to later have greater influence in Lebanon, it would be gravely mistaken,” said Amin Kammourieh, a political analyst. “The maximum it can achieve is to have an ally or rather a non-hostile regime in Syria that could somehow protect it… but it won’t be like it was in the past” when Syria had a free hand in Lebanon.
The heavily armed Shia Hezbollah is the most powerful group in Lebanon, with a strong military structure, well-established social institutions and representatives in the parliament and Cabinet. It has become a key power broker in Lebanon’s political system, with its critics accusing it of controlling the country.
However, Hezbollah’s formidable strength proved to be limited in Lebanon’s delicate confessional system, made up of 18 religious sects, with many political and social agendas as well as regional affiliations. The group has failed to impose the election of its favorite candidate for president, Michel Aoun, to formulate a new electoral law that would strip its Sunni rival of majority in parliament or to change the constitution.
“These are all signs of weakness and not strength. Hezbollah proved that it can obstruct but cannot impose,” Kammourieh said.
Riad Tabbarah, a political analyst and head of the Beirut-based Centre for Development Studies and Projects research institute, said Lebanon is like the U.N. Security Council in which Hezbollah and other major political groups “have the veto power but not the power of decision.”
“Although Hezbollah is the most powerful, it is not allowed to use its weapons in any internal civil war in Lebanon because billions of dollars were spent to acquire these weapons, including missiles, for the sake of confronting Israel and deter it from striking Iran,” Tabbarah said.
On May 7, 2008, Hezbollah fighters, along with other pro-Syrian militiamen, took control of Beirut’s largely Sunni areas and tried to expand their reach to Druze-controlled Mount Lebanon, triggering fierce clashes and almost plunging the country into another civil war. The Hezbollah coup came two days after the government declared a private telecommunications network set up by the militant group illegal.
“Hezbollah used its weapons during the May 7 events to frighten its [Sunni-Druze] rivals and it was a mistake,” Tabbarah said.
Now heavily engaged in the Syria war, Hezbollah appears more cautious and keen to avoid any internal strife that could degenerate into a Sunni-Shia war in Lebanon.
“The Syria war has created new realities and introduced new factors… The presence in Lebanon of 1.5 million Syrian refugees, the majority of whom are Sunni and support the opposition, is a major concern for Hezbollah,” said Kammourieh. “Many of those refugees, who are already trained to carry weapons from their military service time, could be armed and engage in a war here if provoked” to support the Lebanese Sunnis.
Hezbollah is facing solid resistance from its mainly Sunni rivals, who are refusing to bow to its demands and pressures to secure more political gains for the Shias in Lebanon at their own expense.
“If Hezbollah returns from Syria weakened, some call for embracing it. If it comes back strong, it will not be able to exercise such a strength because of the existing balance in the country,” Kammourieh said.
Hezbollah’s fate is undoubtedly linked to a settlement that would end the war in Syria and define Iran’s future posture in the region. This is related to the yet-to-be-achieved successful implementation of Iran’s nuclear deal.
“If Iran gets enough of what it wants and is rewarded in exchange for stopping its interference in the region, it would disband Hezbollah and the other Shia militias operating in the region,” said Tabbarah.
One scenario, he said, is Hezbollah becoming a political party engaging in a “democratic debate” to secure a larger share in the political system.
“But really, we don’t know what will happen when Hezbollah returns from Syria,” he added. “I don’t think they [Hezbollah and Iran] have plans or can say what will happen five years from now. They are playing that by ear now.”
Lebanon’s experiences have revealed that no party, no matter how strong it might become, could ever eliminate the other constituents in the country.
“We all reached this conclusion. I think Hezbollah understands this equation and knows that despite all its strength and its ability to stretch beyond the border, it cannot touch the co-existence formula; otherwise, Lebanon will sink into more rounds of violence, which would be in no one’s interest,” said Rami Rayess, spokesman for the Progressive Socialist Party, one of the main armed groups during Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war.