Analysis: US wrong to ignore Hezbollah in Syria

Ruwan Rujoleh: It is just a matter of time before Shia extremist militias pose more serious, direct threats to the US

Ruwan Rujoleh
Ruwan Rujoleh
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Recent unguarded comments by US Secretary of State John Kerry have shown the true reason behind the US’ decision not to target Hezbollah in Syria. According to Kerry, Hezbollah is “not plotting against” the US, so they have decided to give the group the space to operate in Syria.

The problem, however, with allowing Hezbollah to conduct activities in Syria, is that it may well not be plotting against US interests directly, but that does not mean they are not indirectly plotting against the US and its interests.

Some experts argue that the rise of Shia militias is minor compared to the rise of Sunni radical groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda. That may well be true, but we should all be concerned that Shia Crescent territories have started to kick into gear again. Causing Hezbollah and other Shia extremist groups to meddle in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon, on top of countries like Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

This shift will instigate more regional instability, that, left unchecked, will affect US interests in the region, regardless of whether Hezbollah is ‘plotting’ directly against the US or not.

History shows us that states sponsoring non-state actors, mainly armed groups, to intervene in other states’ internal politics act as a destabilizing force. For instance, stable Sunni Gulf states, long allies of the US and the West, have suffered from Iran’s geopolitical ambitions of regional hegemony. Being ruled by Wilayat–al-Faqih, the ideology or the Iranian Islamic republic’s founding father Ayatollah Khomeini, Tehran has declared itself a representative of all the world’s Shia Muslims.

The differences between Iran and other Shia communities in terms of core beliefs, language, and culture seem to be irrelevant, as long as Hezbollah is used as a brand name to promote causes for existence. Creating this false link between Iran and other Shia communities via Hezbollah is the basis for exporting Iran’s revolutionary and strict interpretation of a Muslim theology. If containment of Iran is a US concern, then Kerry’s message makes little sense. It is, indeed, in everyone interests’, not just US’, to target Hezbollah.

The son of Lebanon's Hezbollah soldier Abbas Hijazi, who died in an airstrike in Quneitra, carries a toy weapon as he stands between his father's (R) and grandfather's (L) coffins. (Reuters)
The son of Lebanon's Hezbollah soldier Abbas Hijazi, who died in an airstrike in Quneitra, carries a toy weapon as he stands between his father's (R) and grandfather's (L) coffins. (Reuters)

Hezbollah, backed by Iran, emerged in Lebanon in 1982. Since its establishment, the Shia militia has declared its main aim as bringing about the destruction of the US’ key Middle East ally, Israel. Hezbollah has embraced Iran’s extremist ideology, which calls for establishing an Islamic republic according to strict interpretation of the Quran. The theology is different from that of ISIS, but it is not totally dissimilar.

Hezbollah has developed this approach with asymmetric warfare tactics that were clearly displayed even before the emergence of al-Qaeda or any Islamic Sunni radical group started fighting in Iraq or Syria. Hezbollah has a history of attacking US and Israeli targets around the world. To take just one example, the Beirut bombing in 1983, which resulted in the loss of 241 US service personnel, has been traced back to Hezbollah. This record says a lot about the group’s intentions toward the US and its allies.

Current US strategy has inadvertently neglected the concerns of US allies in the region. After signing the nuclear deal with Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia expressed their distrust of Iran, and dissatisfaction with the newly formed relationship. The deal resulted in sanctions being lifted, giving the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a branch of Iran’s army, space to act more freely in the region mainly in Syria and Iraq using the fund, supporting its proxies like Hezbollah. Consequently, the US is unable to pressure Iran to change its position in Syria, which has fed the tension between the two.

It is only a matter of time until the “axis of resistance” activates a full and direct series of operations to target not only US interests but also the interests of its allies in the region. Presumably, US policy makers are doing this in the knowledge that there could well be consequences. Hezbollah’s ideology believes in building an Islamic republic, equivalent to an Islamic Caliphate, with strict hard-core interpretation of the Quran, that uses force and military power to threaten others. Just like the Salafi-jihadi ideology of ISIS and al-Qaeda, Wilayat-al-Faqih believes in theological reasons for recruiting fighters and justify martyrdom in attacks against the ‘evil’ west and its allies.

There is an international consensus that the only hope Syrians have of bringing an end to the war is to put together a political settlement. One that addresses the problem of Assad and his affiliated Shia militias, of Russia, and of extremist groups like ISIS. They all need to be held to account.

An image grab taken from Hezbollah's al-Manar TV on June 24, 2016. (AFP/AL-MANAR TV)
An image grab taken from Hezbollah's al-Manar TV on June 24, 2016. (AFP/AL-MANAR TV)

Still, the West has to appreciate that Assad is one of the main reasons for the continuity of the conflict. He is far too entrenched to be part of the solution. Given that the majority of Syrians are Sunni, the answer has to be replacing Assad with a Sunni figure. This figure would lead a national Syrian council, consisting of political and military figures from both sides, with a constitutional system that protects the rights of religious and ethnic minorities in Syria. Pragmatic, realist Russia can be expected to fall into line; its interest is with a viable Syria as an ally, not solely protecting Assad, as Russia’s Prime Minister Medvedev has stated.

The US and western allies both need to work closely to restore trust of traditional allies such as Turkey, Jordan, and the Gulf states. This means involving European partners in bilateral and multilateral talks to identify concerns and explore desired settlements. Kerry might see the Sunni extremists as a priority in the conflict, but he cannot turn a blind eye to another sectarian armed force, such as Hezbollah. In such a chaotic situation, it is just a matter of time before Shia extremist militias pose a more serious, direct threat to the US.


Ruwan Rujoleh is a Middle East analyst with the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics. Ruwan conducts research and analysis on Syria. Her work provides a nuanced understanding of groups engaged in the conflict, including religious motivations and alliances.

Originally from Syria, Ruwan has experience in corporate communications, political research, and counterterrorism, in Syria, Libya and Tunisia. She has authored more than 25 reports on violent extreme groups, and has a Masters in Global Development and Peace from Georgetown University.

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