A Matter of Survival - Why Hezbollah is Backing Assad's Crackdown

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Ready for the fight – Free Syrian Army rebels preparing a tank for combat (Image source: FreedomHouse on Flickr)

The ongoing Syrian conflict, one of the bloodiest unrests of the Arab Spring, is far from being resolved, even despite the attention of the international community. The civil war– as it was officially declared by the Red Cross few months ago– is in a limbo without any drawbacks or progression since March 2011. In terms of negotiations,  the first attempt to set a ceasefire that was planned for the 25th of October between the opposition and the troops loyal to the regime simply didn’t work. The firefights in Damascus and Aleppo persevered.

President Bashar Al-Assad, responsible for the heavy crackdown on the rebels , admitted that he is not going step down and to share the same fate as Muhammar Gaddafi, the former Libyan dictator who was killed in November 2011. He has also threatened with the possibility of retaliations and reprisals in case of foreign intervention on Syrian soil.

This current stalemate is the result of an intense game between, mostly external, forces. Many countries have interests bounded to the destiny of Syria and its people. Few want a real change. Many want to preserve the status quo given by Bashar Al-Assad’s regime.

Map of Syria (Image course: Central Intelligence Agency via Wikimedia Commons)

The last political character to join overtly the fight was the Lebanese party, Hezbollah. Literally translated to the “the Party of God, Hezbollah is the Lebanese Shia ruling party. Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has clearly backed Syrian president Assad’s iron fist during the ongoing civil war. Since mid-October, members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) reported strong military activity in the Bekaa valley, located on the Syrian-Lebanese border. What was considered a rumor became reality when the Syrian rebel could confirm the presence of Lebanese militiamen in the area.

Many Lebanese newspapers ran stories about a direct involvement of Hezbollah units in Assad’s strategy to crush the rebels. Allegedly a secret agreement has stated that Hezbollah will provide Damascus with 2,000 men in case of foreign intervention on the Syrian soil. Hezbollah’s official claim is that the deployment of military units over the Lebanese border would be an attempt to protect the Lebanese Shiites living in Syrian villages threatened by the anti-regime rebels.

Considering the ongoing “Pillar of Defense” offensive ran by Israel against Hamas, the only option the Party of God has is backing President Bashar Al-Assad and joining the repression.

The real reason for such a military action is, of course, preserving the strategic value of the Syrian status quo. Without the Alawite regime of the Assads – ideologically close to Nasrallah’s party – Hezbollah would stand completely alone. Losing Syria would mean losing clout and an ally against Israel, an enemy they hold much too close. Lebanon would be completely isolated and outgunned, especially since arm supplies often come from their Syrian neighbors. Above all though, it would disrupt the connection with Iran, another of Lebanon’s allies, as it would lie geographically too far to be of any help.

In a way, Hezbollah and Iran are keeping the eyes on the prize and fueling the crackdown. As long as the rebel coalition doesn’t overthrow the regime, the current balance of forces within the Middle East can be maintained. Considering the ongoing “Pillar of Defense” offensive ran by Israel against Hamas, the only option the Party of God has is backing President Bashar Al-Assad and joining the repression.

As the hostilities get harsher, the number of deaths and refugees is rising dramatically. According to UN estimations, the current death toll among civilians, rebels and regular Syrian soldiers has already risen above 30,000. The humanitarian emergency gets worse everyday, if we consider the refugees who fled to Syria’s neighboring countries. So far nearly 200,000 have crossed the borders to feel into Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan. According to the United Nations 2,5 million people are still in need of aid within the country, and the situation only seems to get increasingly dire.