Iran’s Main Interest in Syria Is to Strengthen Hezbollah
It is typically assumed that the Islamic Republic of Iran’s all-out military intervention in Syria is in order to save its old, and now seemingly only Arab, ally — President Bashar Assad. However, I believe Assad’s survival, although an important objective, is not necessarily the Iranian regime’s ultimate goal. Rather, the foremost aim of the Iranian intervention in Syria is to uphold Hezbollah in Lebanon. In order to understand the logic behind that assumption, we must backtrack a few decades to examine the roots of the present situation in Lebanon.
Lebanon has always been a land of multiple sects and religions. The majority are Christians and Sunni and Shia Muslims, with a minority of Druze. On November 22, 1943, when Lebanon gained its independence from France, political power was unevenly divided between the Christians and the Sunnis, while the Shias found no or little legal representation. In order to fix that shortcoming, the Iranian cleric Musa Sadr was sent to Lebanon in the early 1960s.
Sadr, during the two decades he was stationed in Lebanon, organized the Shia population and turned it into a political power to reckon with. The Supreme Shia Council of Lebanon (founded in 1967) and the Amal Movement (founded in 1974) that Sadr set up became the Shia powerbases in Lebanon. However, the foremost preoccupation was to give a distinctive voice and identity to the Lebanese Shia population rather than making the Shias the sole political power in Lebanon.
Nevertheless, the emergence of a self-conscious Shia movement made the boiling pot of Lebanon even hotter, so much so that it can be claimed the rise of the Shia bloc became one of the major factors that contributed to the sparking of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975. During that dragged-out war, the Amal took up arms and fought alongside the Palestinian exiles against the Christians and their Western allies and Israel. As a result, when in the early 1980s, a freshly revolutionary Islamic Republic of Iran entered the stage, it had little trouble recruiting the radicalized elements of Amal and other members of the Lebanese Shia community to create the formidable Hezbollah.
While Amal, as previously mentioned, was mostly concerned with the well-being and promotion of the Shia population as one among the many religio-political communities of Lebanon, Hezbollah from day one was created to develop a totalitarian Shia Islamist hegemony in order to eventually install an Iran-style “Velayat-e Faqih” (Guardianship of the Jurist) system in Lebanon. The leaders of Hezbollah, especially Hassan Nasrallah, have time and again reiterated that goal.
Since its inception in the early 1980s, Hezbollah, with its newly-introduced instrument of “suicided attack,” played a major role in the Lebanese Civil War. It can be said that it was Hezbollah’s extensive suicide attacks, delivering major blows to all sorts of “enemies” and rivals of the Islamic Republic — such as Israelis, Americans, French and Lebanese Christians — that eventually pushed all the parties involved in the war to think of a “political” settlement for the Question of Lebanon.
The Taif Agreement of 1989 became the beginning of the end of the Lebanese Civil War. According to that agreement, all the militias were mandated to lay down their arms and disband. Only Hezbollah, as a result of a great deal of arm-twisting by the Islamic Republic and under the pretext of defending the southern borders against Israel, was allowed to continue to bear arms. Syria was also allowed to maintain its military presence as peacekeeping force. Therefore, the most tangible outcome of the Civil War was an exponential growth of a pro-Iran/Syria bloc of power in Lebanon. When in 2000 the Israeli forces finally withdrew from southern Lebanon, Hezbollah’s hegemony grew even more.
During that time, Rafik Hariri, the pro-Saudi Sunni politician, was the prime minister of Lebanon. In that capacity, Hariri took considerable steps towards the political, social, cultural, and economic development and stability of Lebanon. He also tried to bring Lebanon closer to Saudi Arabia and somewhat to the West. As a result, the Islamic Republic and the Assad regime panicked, and in a terroristic operation — whose process is still being investigated by international authorities — had Hezbollah assassinate Hariri. Mustafa Badreddine, the Hezbollah military commander allegedly in charge of Hariri’s assassination, was recently killed in an explosion near Damascus.
Hariri’s assassination became the prelude to Lebanon’s “Cedar Revolution” of 2005, when in reaction to Hariri’s assassination and Syria’s continued military presence in Lebanon, thousands took to the streets of Beirut, hoisting the Lebanese flag with the cedar at its center. During the mostly bloodless revolution, two major “coalitions” took shape in Lebanon: the “March 8th Coalition,”which is pro-Iran/Syria, and “March 14th Coalition,” which is pro-Saudi/West. The leader of this latter coalition is Saad Hariri, the second son of the late Rafik Hariri. Naturally, Hezbollah belongs in the March 8th Coalition.
Finally, a combination of domestic protest and international pressure forced Bashar Assad to withdraw the Syrian forces after around three decades of calling the shots and pulling the political strings in Lebanon. This in turn contributed to a further advancement of Iran’s influence in Lebanon as the main backer of Hezbollah. The 2006 “Rocket War” that Hezbollah allegedly conducted with Iranian-made missiles against Israel further boosted Hezbollah’s prestige. Since then, Hezbollah has become the supreme powerbroker in Lebanon.
Hezbollah soon took advantage of the tremendous political power it had obtained with the backing of the Iranian regime. Presidential elections are held in Lebanon every six years, with the post of the president being constantly allocated to a member of the Christian community according to the constitution. The last election was held in 2008 when Michel Suleiman became president. However, since Suleiman’s term came to an end in 2014, Hezbollah has been pulling the strings, obstructing the process of the election of the new president and shaping of the new cabinet. As a result, Lebanon has been faring without a president and a government for the past couple of years, which has made it very difficult for it to make important political decisions. This in turn has given Hezbollah a virtually free rein in Lebanon.
Since the start of the civil war in Syria in 2011, Hezbollah has extended its influence in Lebanon, Syria, and the greater Middle East with the initiation and cooperation of the Islamic Republic. Sure of its power and impunity, Hezbollah has even been persecuting the leaders of the March 14th Coalition and threatening them with assassination. And this has all been made possible with the complete political, economic, and military support of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Given all that, it can now easily be seen why the Islamic Republic insists on continuing the bloody and destructive war of attrition in Syria: it is first and foremost to prop up and promote Hezbollah in Lebanon. Geopolitically speaking, Hezbollah is stationed in the east adjacent to the Syrian border and in the south near Israel. Therefore, it is the perfect strategically-located place for the Iranian regime to continue its cold and sometimes not-that-cold war against Israel: the Islamic Republic provides Hezbollah with arms and ammunition through the Damascus area, and Hezbollah hoards it in southern Lebanon and sometimes uses it against Israel.
Therefore, the fall of Assad to the mostly pro-Saudi revolutionaries will expose Hezbollah’s flank to a force that is already fighting a bitter war against Hezbollah and its Iranian supporters, and is most likely to pinch Hezbollah. In the end, with the Islamic Republic’s ever-increasing immersion in the Sea of Blood that is Syria may well forebode what will eventually become of Hezbollah.
A version of this article originally appeared in Jerusalem Online.