Hezbollah softens approach in Lebanon, hardens stance in Syria

Hezbollah, the armed Lebanese party, is trying to find a balance between its large scale military involvement in the Syrian conflict and containing its repercussions inside Lebanon. The strategy has so far seen the party pursue more conciliatory policies in Beirut, as it goes on the offensive and strengthens its foothold in Damascus.

In broader terms, Hezbollah is more dug in militarily and politically in its involvement in Syria, which is going into its second year next month. While many questions surrounded its scope and duration in the early stages, Hezbollah appears to have adjusted to an expanded and lengthy mission in Syria, and has recently compensated with a compromising political approach inside Lebanon.

Entrenched in Syria

A report by Marisa Sullivan of The Institute for the Study of War illustrates the gradual escalation in Hezbollah’s role in Syria. While training and defensive tactics defined the early stages of the involvement, Hezbollah is now directly involved in key battles on behalf of the Syrian regime, in places beyond the border area or the Shiite sites in Damascus. Today, fighters from Hezbollah are reportedly involved in the Qalamun region bordering Lebanon, in Damascus’ suburbs, in Homs and in the fighting taking place in Aleppo.

As it widens its mission in Syria, Hezbollah has moved to contain the repercussions inside Lebanon

Joyce Karam

Their combat tactics and skills in fighting a guerrilla war have been critical in helping the Assad regime and training members of Iraqi militias involved on the ground in Syria. U.S. officials who spoke to Al Arabiya News point to a deeper involvement for Hezbollah in the war, one that will not end anytime soon. Washington expects a long drawn-out war in Syria, one that could easily last another two years, and they expect a long term role for Hezbollah.

The military role is also blended with an aggressive political front for Hezbollah’s operation. Party officials have been more defiant about their involvement in Syria, and media affiliates of the party such as Al-Manar TV, and other friendly outlets such as Mayadeen TV and Al-Akhbar newspaper, have been at the forefront, championing the coverage from Syria and highlighting Hezbollah’s role in capturing territory from the rebels. Al-Manar lost three of its journalists this week while covering the Maaloula battles. Ironically, however, this increased political operation for Hezbollah has rubbed the Assad regime the wrong way, and the party’s media came under criticism from Syrian officials for giving Hezbollah, and not Assad, credit for recent gains. Live broadcasting from conflict areas is now banned for those stations, and Mayadeen withdrew their correspondent from Damascus.

Balancing inside Lebanon

As it widens its mission in Syria, Hezbollah has moved to contain the repercussions inside Lebanon. Key compromises that the party has agreed to by entering a government with its staunch rivals is paying off in bringing more stability and less attacks in Hezbollah’s strongholds in Beirut. Hezbollah’s coordination with high-ranking Sunni figures in the government, such as Nouhad Machnouk and Ashraf Rifi, has given the Lebanese army the political cover it needs to act in places like Tripoli and Bekaa.

Rifaat and Ali Eid, two militiamen that are considered Hezbollah allies in Tripoli and are responsible for a large portion of the Sunni-Allawite violence in the city over the last seven years, have fled their houses and reportedly gone to Syria. Also, in Bekaa, Hezbollah has evacuated a few checkpoints, ceding control to the Lebanese army.

Hezbollah’s calculus today sees strategic value in fighting in Syria, to protect the arms supply routes, prevent the collapse of the Assad regime or at least protect against the emergence of an anti-Hezbollah government. This strategy is driving Hezbollah’s operation inside Syria, and forcing the party to amend its approach in Lebanon by working with its rivals to contain the instability exacerbated by its own intervention and prevent a backlash on the home-front.

For the time being, with no end in sight in Syria, it is fair to expect a continuation of this strategy, pivoting Hezbollah’s military role more towards Syria while it attempts to forge consensus politics inside Lebanon.

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Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam
 

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:43 - GMT 06:43
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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