Hezbollah's Miscalculation in Syria

There has been much speculation of late as to the likelihood that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will launch a war against Israel as a diversionary tactic to deflect attention from his brutal crushing of the Syrian popular uprising. A corollary concern is Hezbollah, which is allied with Assad and which uses Syria as a conduit for Iranian arms.

Hezbollah, too, has the capability to divert attention, both domestic and international, from its assorted crises by picking a fight with Israel. And there is little question that the walls are starting to close in on Hezbollah.

Hezbollah has thrown in its lot with Assad against the Syrian people, supplying gunmen to execute Syrian soldiers who refuse to take part in the killing of Syrian citizens. By siding so unequivocally with the Alawite dictator over his captive, predominantly Sunni population, and in a dispute that has nothing to do with Israel no less, Hezbollah has exploded its carefully constructed image as the standard-bearer for the Muslim common man against the Zionist enemy. Outraged Syrians are now being filmed burning posters of Hezbollah’s chief, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.

Hezbollah’s image has been looking a little frayed for some time. It is an open secret that Hezbollah members were instrumental in the assassination of popular former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. This revelation confirmed that when necessary, the group will take the gravest of measures to secure its position, even measures that are in direct opposition to the will of the Lebanese people. The discomfiture this exposure caused Hezbollah threatens to be revived now that once-quashed rumors are reappearing that Assad ordered the hit.

And as if all that weren't enough, Hezbollah is now dealing with an internal crisis: several senior members have been arrested on suspicion of spying for Israel.

So is a diversionary aggression against Israel by Hezbollah in the cards, then?

No, it probably isn’t.

IDF Major General Giora Eiland, former head of the Israeli National Security Council and now senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said yesterday in Jerusalem that the squeeze Hezbollah is currently experiencing makes the likelihood of their starting a war lower, not higher. The Syrian crisis, Eiland believes, is "even more helpful" in this regard.

Eiland argues that Hezbollah had little choice but to throw its weight behind Assad, since its own position will become highly untenable in the event that Assad falls. He sketched out three possible outcomes to the Syrian crisis: democracy; a Syria controlled by “very religious Sunnis, like the Muslim Brotherhood”; or a Syria that would splinter along ethnic lines. None of those outcomes augurs well for Hezbollah, so the logic is against its increasing its vulnerability by tempting the wrath of the Israelis right now.

In the case of the first outcome, democracy, Hezbollah’s advocates inside Syria would be hard-pressed to win over the Syrian people in an election after Hezbollah's performance during the uprising. The second outcome is also threatening, as an extremist Sunni regime might well believe it has a score to settle with the hostile Shia militia next door that took up arms against Syrian citizens. The third is dangerous by virtue of its sheer unpredictability.

Two other points argue against a reflexive move towards war by Hezbollah. First, unless Iran itself fills the vacuum in Syria following Assad’s departure, Hezbollah is going to have a tough time getting its hands on the large supplies of Iranian matériel that are stored inside Syria on its behalf. And second, there is little doubt that Sheikh Nasrallah vividly remembers that as a consequence of Hezbollah’s precipitate triggering of war with Israel in 2006, Iran slashed its budget by 50%. Nasrallah is not going to lift a finger against Israel without a green light from Teheran, and Teheran is waiting to see how Syria shakes out.

Continued vigilance is obviously required, but the odds are against Hezbollah starting any serious mischief with Israel in the immediate future.