Posted by Joshua on Thursday, April 19th, 2007
Emile El-Hokayem, a research fellow at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, D.C., has written a brilliant essay on Hizballah and Syria. I copied some important bits and his policy recommendations. Everyone interested in Syria or Lebanon should read the entire article. I will make a few comments after the article.
Hizballah and Syria: Outgrowing the Proxy Relationship
Washington Quarterly, Spring 2007, Vol. 30, No. 2
Terms such as “proxy” and “client” are often used to characterize the power dynamic between Hizballah and its allies Iran and Syria. These states’ vital resources and indispensable political sponsorship elevated Hizballah to the position it enjoys today. They each played a central role in past decisions of momentous importance for Hizballah. Today, however, this image of Hizballah as a client of Iran and Syria has become obsolete due to the power base the Shi‘ite group has nurtured and expanded in Lebanon and the growing political capital it has acquired in the Middle East thanks to at least the perception of its military victories, be they real or not, particularly in the summer 2006 war against Israel.
By holding its ground against Israel, the region’s strongest military, Hizballah demonstrated its capacity to shake the Lebanese and regional political landscape. Hizballah resisted Israel’s onslaught without substantive Syrian support. By partnering with Hizballah, Syria hoped to defy isolation and reclaim its role as a pivotal power in the region, as well as give the Asad regime a new lease on life. The shifting dynamics of this relationship, however, with Hizballah asserting itself as a more-autonomous actor, have considerable implications for policies aimed at engaging or isolating Syria, as well as for dealing with the Hizballah challenge. ….
Today, for strategic and ideological motives, Syria is more pro-Hizballah than Hizballah is pro-Syria.
[The following are selected bits from the article]
Hafiz al-Asad and Hizballah
The writings of prominent U.S. and Israeli peace negotiators as well as interviews with Syrian officials confirm that Hafiz sincerely desired a negotiated settlement with Israel, contingent on the full recovery of the Golan Heights in exchange for a flexible mechanism for its return, including mutual security guarantees, water arrangements, and diplomatic relations.6 Although Hafiz hoped to orchestrate an Arab front to strengthen his own negotiating position, the collapse of the elusive Arab front after the 1993 Oslo accords and the 1994 Israeli-Jordanian peace agreement forced Syria to look elsewhere for leverage. ….
Lebanon, firmly anchored in the Syrian orbit, served as Damascus’s strategic depth. It guaranteed good-faith negotiations over the Golan Heights from a position of relative strength. The Western and Israeli assumption underlying Syrian-Israeli talks was that Damascus would constrain and eventually disarm Hizballah once peace was reached. As former Western and Arab diplomats put it, there was an informal understanding that once peace between Syria and Israel was signed, a treaty between Israel and Lebanon would follow, providing a framework for Hizballah’s disarmament and the integration of its fighters into Lebanon’s regular armed forces.7 Yet, Hizballah’s future was never explicitly put on the table, and there is no clear indication that Syria was asked to offer written guarantees to that end. …
During the Period of Syrian-Israeli peace talks of the 1990s
Midlevel Hizballah officials were naturally concerned about the future of their movement when the much-publicized land-for-peace formula assumed the dismantlement of its armed branch. Yet, they also held a belief, born from Hizballah’s political successes, that Hizballah could genuinely transform itself into a political party if need be.16 Ironically, while Hizballah’s military successes in 1993 and 1996 raised its value as a Syrian asset in negotiations, they also gradually transformed it into a more autonomous player with enhanced Lebanese and regional prestige, creating some confidence that it would survive any Syrian-Israeli peace.
Ultimately, of course, there was no grand bargain between Syria and Israel. In its place, after repeated Israeli failures to degrade Hizballah and to break Syria’s linkage of southern Lebanon to the Golan Heights, a set of rules were formulated in 1993 and formalized in 1996 to manage the escalation of violence and enforce redlines in Lebanon. Hizballah agreed to limit its attacks on Israeli forces and their surrogates in southern Lebanon, while Israel pledged not to strike Lebanese civilians. These rules augmented Syria’s leverage by formalizing its role as a guarantor of stability in the area.
Hizballah’s actions since the 2005 Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon are often presented as an extension of Syrian and Iranian policy.21 To be sure, its interests often coincide and reinforce those of Syria and Iran, but many overestimate the influence that they have over Hizballah’s decisionmaking and preferences. Syria today is more pro-Hizballah than Hizballah is pro-Syria. Hizballah is no longer a card or a proxy; it has become a partner with considerable clout and autonomy.
Paradoxically, there is little love today for Syria among Hizballah’s supporters.22 They see Syria as having constrained Hizballah’s political potential. The Lebanese Shi‘ite community also suffered from Syrian workers competing for the same jobs. Furthermore, Hizballah owes no particular heritage to Syria, contrary to Iran, which remains a supreme religious and ideological reference. An anecdote making the rounds in Beirut has Hizballah militants comparing Syria to a ring and Iran as a finger on Hizballah’s hand. The ring can fall off or be taken off willingly, whereas the finger can only be severed.23 This contrasts with the attitude of the Syrian public, which identifies with Hizballah. Syrians view the Lebanese as fractious, greedy, and ungrateful for Syrian sacrifices in Lebanon, but they see Hizballah as righteous and animated by a just, pan-Arab cause.
Hizballah’s objectives are often misunderstood. Hizballah’s raison d’etre has become the very idea of perpetual but not necessarily active muqawama against Israel. A former Hizballah activist put it this way: "Resistance is like a one-wheel[ed] bike that Hizballah is riding. If it stops pedaling, it falls."24 …
Hizballah has genuinely adjusted to the sectarian fabric of Lebanon’s society, gradually emphasizing muqawama instead of Islamism in its rhetoric and ideology. Hizballah has not abandoned its Islamist ideal, but to the extent that this goal complicates its ability to pursue muqawama or erodes its image, Hizballah is willing to do away with it. What Hizballah today wants most is to ensure that nothing, especially Lebanese domestic considerations, can constrain its ability to conduct its resistance agenda in the time frame and form of its choosing.
Syria’s departure from Lebanon meant that Hizballah could no longer count on an external enforcer to protect its weapons. This left Hizballah with three options: build alliances with other forces and deepen its political engagement to eventually govern the country, manipulate sectarian politics to create a Shi‘ite shield, or a combination of the two. All of these options are highly dissatisfying. They turn Hizballah into a political party like the others and conflict with the nonsectarian image it cultivates for national and regional purposes….
This fear of the end of a national consensus over its armament prompted Hizballah to enter the Lebanese government for the first time in 2005 and to obtain a formal Cabinet statement endorsing the resistance as "a sincere and natural expression of the Lebanese people’s right to defend its land and dignity in the face of Israeli aggression, threats, and ambitions as well as of its right to continue its actions to free Lebanese territory." Hizballah’s concern was quickly validated as its rationale for remaining armed came under heavy domestic criticism.
The necessity of reaffirming the value of its arsenal led Hizballah to launch the fateful July 12 operation that started the summer 2006 war with Israel with the stated objective of obtaining the liberation of the remaining Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails. For its supporters, the war validated the need to preserve Hizballah as a militia to defend Lebanon. For its critics, it illustrated the dangers of Hizballah’s continued resistance.
A senior Hizballah official confirmed this in December 2006: "Now we are demanding [a greater government share] because our experience during the war and the performance of the government has made us unsure. On several occasions they pressured us to lay down our weapons while we were fighting a war."28
The U.S. government and others, including Lebanese politicians, misrepresent Hizballah’s push to obtain more governmental power as a Syrian- and Iranian-engineered attempt to overthrow the Lebanese government….
Hizballah pursues [the objective of blocking the International Tribunal into the Hariri trial] for a different motive: guaranteeing an institutional cover for the resistance by seizing a veto over government decisions in order to prevent a further erosion of its domestic position.
If talks were to begin, Bashar would be expected to demonstrate his willingness and ability to constrain Hizballah and then to disarm it once an agreement is reached. Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon has eroded its capacity to deliver on both counts. Syria could theoretically cut off the supply of Iranian weapons to Hizballah as required by UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the summer 2006 war with Israel. Further, Hizballah could still be negatively affected by changes in Damascus, particularly if Bashar awakes to the precariousness of his position. To be sure, Damascus retains leverage over Hizballah because it receives logistical support from Syria. Yet, although Hizballah and Iran give Bashar short-term legitimacy and strategic confidence, they cannot offer him regional and international acceptance or much-needed economic assistance.
The Syrian regime, despite some bombastic statements during the summer war, cannot embrace Hizballah-style resistance because it has a lot more to lose to an Israeli attack than Hizballah does. Syria is also nervous about growing Iranian power in the Levant, a powerful constraint on its diplomatic options. …
Hizballah could turn the tables on Syria if it felt outmaneuvered, most likely by provoking Israel without Syrian knowledge but at Syrian expense. Testing Syrian intentions without a clear process and end goal could therefore backfire.
In reality, despite encouraging signs from Damascus, including high-profile interviews of Bashar in Western media and meetings with U.S. senators, Syria is in no position to respond constructively to potential U.S. overtures anyway. A Syrian list of demands and apparent readiness to talk do not amount to a coherent and encouraging negotiating posture. Bashar welcomes the process of dialogue mainly because it replaces the narrative of 2005 as Bashar having systematically miscalculated with a new one of Bashar having correctly positioned Syria to take advantage of the rapidly changing landscape in the Middle East. Moreover, calling for dialogue while knowing that the other side will not respond makes Damascus seem open to compromise and makes Washington look intransigent and arrogant. Bashar may well calculate that, were he to survive the next two years and wait for the next U.S. administration to adjust to the many U.S. failures in the Middle East, he would emerge on top, stronger and vindicated.
Although Syria could negotiate peace in good faith during the 1990s because of its strong strategic position, the loss of Lebanon as its economic and political depth and the apparent international consensus on preventing its return to Lebanon suggest that Syria will not sacrifice its ties to its few remaining strategic partners, Iran and Hizballah. Bashar is prisoner to the radical outlook he has espoused in order to gain domestic and regional legitimacy. He can hardly jump ship in the current regional environment. Syria is in a position of relative weakness vis-à-vis its partners.
His narrow sectarian base, though loyal, is hardly expandable; and Syria’s crippling economy, sectarian fabric, and domestic discontent are a recipe for internal instability.
The new relationship between Syria and Hizballah profoundly impacts how peace should be pursued in the region. Seeing Hizballah only through a regional prism and assuming that Syria will systematically determine Hizballah’s behavior is flawed. ….
The underlying assumption that Israeli peace with Syria will lead to Hizballah’s disarmament must also be reassessed. There is no more symmetry in what to expect from Syria with regard to Hizballah. Today, Syria probably retains the power to ignite Hizballah and hopefully to restrain it, but it has lost the power to disarm it. This prospect alarms Israeli strategic thinkers and explains their measured enthusiasm for the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. The summer 2006 war between Israel and Hizballah even suggested to some that the predictability of a deterrable Syria controlling Lebanon is better than the alternative of an unbound Hizballah….
What Next for Hizballah?
Despite its summer 2006 victory, Hizballah’s position in Lebanon remains precarious, with a risk that it might overplay its hand.
The need to avoid domestic strife, which would durably taint Hizballah, could lead it to respond positively to Iranian or Arab pressure to accept an unsatisfactory political compromise, although Syria could emerge as an obstacle to such a settlement….
Hizballah is also in the process of reframing muqawama to include the United States, now seen as an existential threat to be countered. Given this emerging reality, an overly aggressive U.S. posture will only reinforce Hizballah’s rationale for pursuing the muqawama instead of undermining it. This is why reaching a political accommodation with Hizballah, as unpleasant as it may be, is so essential.
The fates of Syria and Hizballah are intertwined, but addressing the challenges they pose requires differentiated approaches. Hoping that Syria is the key to Hizballah ignores the reality that although Syria retains some influence, Hizballah has gained leverage and independence over its former patron. Although Syrian and Iranian nods, as unlikely as they may be, would go a long way in containing Hizballah, confrontation by proxy is no longer enough. Rather, only the Lebanese political process, as messy and imperfect as it is, can constrain Hizballah. Political reform and progress on some of Hizballah’s demands, including those related to the Lebanese-Israeli track, will undermine its main levers of power and influence. This is of course fraught with considerable risks and is premised on the capacity of the Lebanese polity to demonstrate adaptability and farsightedness. Nonetheless, this is the approach that the international community should promote to prevent another dramatic explosion of violence.
[End El-Hokayem] Download the full article, available in Adobe Acrobat [.pdf] format.
El-Hokayem's analysis of the Hizballah-Syria relationship and Syria's interest in it as leverage against Israel is excellent. The only point on which I disagree is on Syria's weakness.Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon has put a dent in Syria's ability to influence Hizballah and threaten Israel. Nevertheless, this does not mean that Israel and particularly the West should discount its importance or hesitate to engage it.
El-Hokayem paints an overly dire portrait of Bashar al-Asad's position in Syria. He is not weak and he is not going away. Emile very correctly argues that the US must not try to confront Hizballah, but should pressure it into relinquishing muqawama in exchange for a larger, but not overly large, role in politics. He has no illusions that this will be easy because the top leadership of Hizballah is wedded to resistance. Nevertheless, he believes that the "middle level" party leadership is willing to take the political path.
Because Syria no longer plays the dominant role in Lebanon and is no longer Hizballah's master, he suggests that the US can move toward peace with Hizballah and cut Syria out of any broader regional deal. Indeed, he implies, or at least that is how I understood his policy prescription, that the US should cut Syria out. Why? Because Syria is too wedded to Iran, has a weak economy, does not want peace with Israel, and Bashar, being an Alawite, lacks legitimacy and cannot deliver. What is more, he argues that Washington should not reward Syria or Asad by helping it get out of isolation or get back the Golan.
These are arguments similar to those made by Giora Eiland in an article, which I recently posted. I must confess that they don't make much sense to me. Bashar al-Asad is not going away and retains formidable powers to either hinder or help the US in the region. It will hinder the US so long as the US does not help it to retrieve the Golan.
Trying to persuade Hizballah to give up resistance and fully join the political process in Lebanon would be infinitely easier if Syria were helping in the process. Hizballah's weapons come through Syria, which translates into major influence. The only way Damascus will be inclined to stop the flow of weapons to Hizballah is if it gets back the Golan.
More importantly for the US, Syria will be crucial in dulling the power of Iran in the region once the US begins pulling out of Iraq, which it will have to do eventually.
The Iranian-Syrian alliance is founded on their common interest in containing a powerful and threatening Iraq. The two countries came together when Saddam attacked them in the 1980s. They rejuvenated their moribund alliance when the US invaded Iraq in 2003 and threatened both countries from Iraqi soil. Once the US leaves Iraq in a mess and weak, however, Iran and Syria's interests will diverge. It is in America's interest to win Syria to its side. It is in Saudi Arabia's interest to win Syria to its side. This is why we saw the Saudi King being nice to Asad at the Arab League summit in Riyadh, despite their differences of opinion over Lebanon.
Arab unity will be the only shield against a powerful Iran that is allied to an independent Iraq. Once the US has withdrawn from Iraq, Syria's interest will be in seeing that the Iraqi Sunni community has an important share of power — an interest it will share with Saudi Arabia, the US, and Turkey.
Of course Syria will not "flip" overnight. It will need assurances that its stability will not be undermined by the West or Israel. Once the Golan issue is resolved, Syria will have every interest in becoming a reliable partner to the West. It wants trade with the West. It wants loans and economic assistance. It wants investment. Iran cannot supply these things. Syria became anti-American because of its conflict with Israel, not because it is perverse. It became anti-American well before the Baath came to power. Getting Syria to work with the West should be a major policy goal of any new US administration. An understanding with Syria would help Lebanon solve its problems. It would help Israel solve its Palestine problem and help the US, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey ensure that Iran will not be able to project its power into the center of the Arab World.
El-Hokayem's excellent argument about Hizballah does not need to exclude a solution to the Syrian-Israeli conflict. The chances of bringing Hizballah into Lebanon's political process and out off the resistance business would only be increased if such a effort were also extended to Syria. By including Syria in a regional peace solution, the chances of the Lebanese building a modicum of political unity will be immeasurably improved. Just as importantly, the US would regaining some of its stature in the region as a super power that respects justice for everyone.