Why Hezbollah will have to leave Syria
If Hezbollah’s constituency has learnt anything recently, it is that nothing comes without a price. The party of God always calculates its moves and measures wins and losses before embarking on new adventures, and they always prepare themselves to deal with the losses as much as they invest in victories. However, their descent into Syria has probably been their most miscalculated move. Their losses have surpassed the gains, and the withdrawal from Syria will become a necessity for survival.
Hezbollah and its leadership in Iran did not expect their battle in Syria to last this long: they probably thought they’d go in, wipe out the rebels in a matter of days or weeks at most, and then return without anyone knowing. This was obviously a fatal miscalculation. Not only could they not wipe out the opposition and maintain Assad’s unified rule, but now many in Lebanon and the region consider them the number-one culprit in the ongoing war in Syria. The sectarian tension has never been this dangerous and the Shia community is starting to wonder whether it’s all worth it. On the political level, Iran has realized that its regional role has not been empowered by the intervention.
The question is how much longer Hezbollah can suffer the repercussions of their involvement in Syria. In other words, what is the point at which the promised victory can no longer justify the cost?
If you pay Dahiyeh a visit today, you will probably feel like you’re in a ghost town. Residents now refer to the road to Beirut’s southern suburbs as “the road to death.” The once-busy streets, formerly bustling with consumers and vendors, are now empty and weary. You can sense panic in every corner.
On top of the looming feeling of fear, people in Dahiyeh are losing their businesses and livelihoods. Commodities and services are known to be cheaper in the suburbs than elsewhere in Beirut, a role that constitutes the core of Dahiyeh’s economy. But no one now dares to step into Dahiyeh for anything. Even its residents are asked by officials to stay home unless for emergencies.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah’s officials have moved from Dahiyeh to safer locations, leaving the people to their fate.
To top it all off, Hezbollah internal sources are talking about more than 1,000 wounded and 400 dead fighters in Syria, whose bodies have been returned to their families without any tangible signs of victory.
These losses have crippled Hezbollah’s rhetoric about the threat of Sunni radicals. If Hezbollah has gone to Syria to stop them from coming to Lebanon, then Hezbollah has failed, dramatically.
Hezbollah’s failure in this issue means that the Party of God is not as omnipotent as it wants us to believe. This is a major blow to Hezbollah: if their own constituency started questioning the supremacy of the party, the aura of sacredness will dissolve and everything will go downhill from there.
On the political and diplomatic level, Hezbollah’s leadership in Tehran – the Revolutionary Guards – has also suffered a blow to its authority. Iran has been uninvited to the Geneva II meeting in Montreux and lost its status in an assembly that is supposed to eventually, even if not immediately, determine the future of the region.
This is a clear message to Iran that it its deal with the US is only about the nuclear program and has no bearing on its regional role, which is Iran’s main priority. It is also a sign to the Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah that their aggressive involvement in Syria did not and will not translate in a more powerful regional role: on the contrary, it is costing them. Indeed, they are excluded from Geneva today because of their involvement in Syria.
Inside Iran, this has had serious ramifications. The friction between the two camps, he Revolutionary Guards and Ayatollah Khamenei on the one hand vs. President Rouhani and former President Rafsanjani on the other, has escalated in the aftermath of this diplomatic blow. These developments have pushed Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, to deny Friday that his country had sent Hezbollah militants to fight in Syria, saying the Tehran-backed Shiite extremist group was making its own decisions. He also asked for all foreign elements to leave Syria and for the Syrian people to decide their own future.
Moreover, the Party of God has suffered a major ethical blow. There is now clear evidence that Syria has systematically tortured and executed about 11,000 detainees since the start of the uprising, according to a report published last week. Hezbollah is aiding a war criminal. This is not a small detail and it will cost Hezbollah serious moral credibility.
In sum, Iran is split over Hezbollah’s role in Syria, and the Shiite community in Lebanon is questioning the Party’s misadventure. Assad is still in power, true, but the regime has weakened drastically, and its delegation in Geneva II could not sell the “terrorism agenda” anymore. It was obvious that the transition of power is the sole item on the Geneva II agenda for everyone, except Russia, which stood alone when its Iranian ally was excluded.
What’s the use then? Hezbollah has lost substantially on the local and international fronts and has not gained much in return. The decision to withdraw from Syria is becoming inevitable unless Hezbollah is ready to sacrifice not only the Shiite community in Lebanon but also the status and power of the party itself. At the end of the day, Hezbollah and its arms are the main priority for Iran. Syria and its regime are mere tools to empower Hezbollah: they will not sacrifice Hezbollah for Assad.
Even now it might be too late, and Hezbollah will have to pay a steep price for their intervention. Assad will go, and they know it. So the question now is whether they will try to minimize the cost.
Hanin Ghaddar is the managing editor of NOW. She tweets @haningdr