The reported presence of thousands of Hezbollah fighters and Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Syria to protect President Assad and his regime means Iran has made a strategic commitment not to lose Syria. That in turn means Syria will not follow the example of Libya.
Backed by Iran and Russia, Hezbollah will not allow Assad to be deposed, hunted down and assassinated, nor will it allow a massacre of Alawites and supporters of Assad. This emphasizes the importance of Hezbollah in Syria and the role it will likely play in any future settlement and government.
There will be no NATO/US military action in Syria, as there was in Libya.
But, as the US and Europeans support the Syrian rebels diplomatically and supply them with arms, Hezbollah’s presence in Syria is a game changer that should prompt policy rethinking.
With Hezbollah fighting alongside the Alawites, it will be impossible for the rebels to defeat Assad, and sooner or later the rebels will understand that they must make a deal which will allow for power-sharing and the protection of Alawites and other minorities. The Kurds, who have created a virtually autonomous region, will likely follow the path of the Iraqi Kurds toward quasiindependence.
Hezbollah is the critical element in such a deal – which would not only end the civil war, but ensure Hezbollah’s place in Syria – similar to its role in Lebanon.
As part of a new Syrian government, Hezbollah will be protected and legitimized.
Backed by the EU, it will enjoy international support despite its involvement in terrorist attacks around the world, drug trafficking, counterfeiting and other criminal activity. With a significant presence in Syria and Lebanon, the US will probably reconsider its relationship with Hezbollah.
Fragmented among various factions, a new Islamist/Sunni-backed Syrian government will be weak and no match for the more disciplined, organized and well-funded Hezbollah. Backed by “democratic” elections, Hezbollah will gain legitimacy and a political role which will give them a chair at the diplomatic table.
A renewed Syrian-Lebanese axis under Hezbollah will provide Iran with a huge land base from which to extend its influence in the region and lead the fight for every inch of what many in the international community consider “occupied Syrian territory” – the Golan Heights.
A new, radical Islamist Syrian government will focus on a return of the Golan to Syria as a way of building national cohesion. Their efforts will be primarily diplomatic and media-oriented, intended to further isolate and condemn Israel.
Guerrilla terrorist incursions and missile attacks, however, should be expected as part of a campaign to “liberate land stolen by Israelis (Jews).”
Israel’s northern border, therefore, will become “hot,” like that with Egypt and the Gaza Strip. Since Iran supports Hamas and Hezbollah, it is logical to assume these organizations are working together. Although it’s unclear what Egypt’s position will be in a growing confrontation with Israel in the north, one would expect at least approval if not active support. Egypt could, for example, allow Hezbollah units to operate in the Sinai, along with Hamas, to create a second front. It would be a nice fit with Moslem Brotherhood interests.
Along with Judea and Samaria (the “West Bank”) and eastern Jerusalem, the Golan Heights will be on the negotiating table. This sets up a standoff that cannot be resolved without Israeli capitulation.
Even Israeli politicians, like President Shimon Peres, who have advocated relinquishing the Golan, would be hard pressed to make that argument again.
The unpredictable danger regarding a future Syrian government that includes Hezbollah is the massive stockpile of chemical and biological weapons which remain unsecured and are still available to President Bashar Assad and his regime. Presumably, these weapons of mass destruction would also be available to any future government, and perhaps to splinter groups and non-governmental rogue actors. The failure of the international community to eliminate this threat is at least on par with its failure to prevent Iran achieving nuclear capability.
The international community can and must take responsibility for removing all WMD from Syria.
Hezbollah’s role in the Syrian civil war is ominous. Supporting Syrian rebels will have the short-term effect of prolonging the crisis, but will not end it.
Only when a stalemate is reached and the sides are exhausted will the standoff result in some form of political compromise.
As the recent terrorist attack in Bulgaria shows, however, the danger of Hezbollah is not limited to its presence in Lebanon and Syria. Supported by Iran, it is a worldwide terrorist organization capable of attacking anywhere and at any time. Ironically, it is also the key to resolving the Syrian civil war.
One of the few ways the international community can check Hezbollah and Islamists is by recognizing Israel’s claims to the Golan Heights and removing it as a bargaining chip. Failure to do this will encourage Islamists in Syria and Hezbollah in their efforts to destroy Israel and create havoc in the rest of the world.
The Syrian civil war will consume more lives before both sides decide that they have had enough. Limited foreign intervention cannot resolve the basic issues in this struggle, and may exacerbate them. Unfortunately, things will have to get worse before they get better.
The author is a PhD historian, writer and journalist living in Jerusalem.