Is Hezbollah heading for an early exit from Syria?
Iran’s regional proxy Hezbollah and Israel have been engaged in a shadow war in Syria. Could we be seeing the former retreating from an open conflict?
Lebanon has been beset by consecutive crises that have some wondering if the state is on the edge of a precipitous failure.
Persistent economic crises which have become more acute during the Covid-19 pandemic, protests demanding a revolution, uncollected trash in the streets, Beirut all seemed to indicate a dysfunctional state.
And all that was before the blast in Beirut on August 4 which levelled parts of the city, killing almost 200 people resulting in billions of dollars worth of damages. To most in Lebanon, it was a stark reminder of a failure of governance and legitimacy.
For Hezbollah, the aftermath could be a watershed moment where it withdraws from conflicts in Syria to deal with the pressures in Lebanon that could even undermine its power.
The former deputy director of Israel’s National Security Council, Dr Eran Lerman, recently wondered whether Hezbollah will “be facing greater and greater pressure from the Lebanese people to stop abusing their country for purposes which are not Lebanese, for purposes which are essentially Iranian?”
Certainly, Israel would like the people of Lebanon to scrutinise Hezbollah, which it went to war with in 2006 ultimately ending in a stalemate. Israel has also attacked the Lebanese group in Syria which has become another theatre of conflict between Iran, a backer of Hezbollah and Tel-Aviv.
One of Hezbollah’s political allies in Lebanon, Gebran Bassil, from the Free Patriotic Movement, a Christian party, said that the group was thinking of withdrawing its forces from Lebanon.
It is estimated that Hezbollah sent thousands of forces to Syria in a bid to shore up the Assad regime, the decision by the group’s leader Hassan Nasrallah has resulted in hundreds of deaths.
Speaking to a local media outlet the group has made clear that it will not withdraw from Syria completely stating “Over the past two years, the party’s role in Syria has changed a lot with the decline in combat operations. As for the withdrawal, it is linked to the withdrawal of all foreign fighting forces, and this is supposed to happen within two years.”
Yet within Lebanon, Hezbollah is still a force to be reckoned with. It still has allies inside the government, and the group has veto power over crucial governing decisions, in particular ones that could impinge on the group.
While Hezbollah has been reducing its forces in Lebanon, some have claimed that persistent Israeli strikes have been a driving reason for doing so, a claim that the group has been quick to deny.
Recent attempts by France to enter the political fray in Lebanon, its former colony, have yet to bear fruit and could like many other initiatives get bogged down in the country’s political squabbles.
The US, for its part, has been a strident foe of Hezbollah and recently sanctioned two individuals it claimed were “facilitating Hezbollah’s agenda” in a bid to stop a new government formation from including them.
There are also reports that Iran and Israel are seeking to lower tensions with Tehran scaling back from the border of Israel.
However, Iran seems to have no intention of leaving its hardwon gains in Syria. It could be consolidating its presence with the help of its regional proxy Hezbollah in other areas of Syria, which are less likely to be bombed by Israel.
An expert with knowledge about Hezbollah’s presence in Syria said that the group has likely reduced its presence by more than 50 per cent.
“There are clear efforts being made to reduce the tension between Israel and Iran, especially on the Syrian arena. Therefore, the party finds an interest in reducing its presence there, especially after its bases have become exposed throughout the Syrian soil,” the expert added.
Hezbollah’s power in Lebanon, however, is deeply intertwined with society and in particular with the Shia population of Lebanon. And as long as Lebanon remains a dysfunctional state with rampant corruption, Hezbollah will be a source of representation and its regional actions for many will be a price worth paying.