Will Hizballah Fight for Assad or Fend off an Israeli attack?
Hizballah’s four-tier hierarchy has shelved a plan to glorify General Secretary, Hassan Nasrallah, with the grand title of “Supreme Guide” – just one notch below Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s handle of Supreme Spiritual Leader of Iran. This was supposed to have been part of a structural reform program presented to Hizballah’s 10th General Congress.
But no date has been set for this event because the Lebanese Shiite organization is wholly preoccupied with the conundrum of how to respond to a US-Israeli-NATO invasion of Syria – an event no one in the Shiite terrorist movement dared broach until very recently.
However, in the last couple of weeks, the Syrian war has spilled over into Lebanon in more ways than one: Najib Mikati has stepped down as Lebanon’s prime minister over Hizballah’s partisanship for Syria’s Bashar Assad; the Lebanese army has stopped functioning; clashes rage in Tripoli in the north and the Syrian Air Force has bombed rebel bases inside Lebanon.
The country’s 1.8 million Shiites, Hizballah’s power base, have found their voices and are clamoring for answers about what awaits them when Assad and his Alawite regime in Damascus, their insurance policy for many years, is swept off the Middle East map.
Now and again, whispers are heard criticizing the Shiite leaders of Hizballah for going overboard in their unreserved support for Assad and so placing the movement’s very survival in jeopardy.
One Arab Revolt door after another shut in Hizballah’s face
This would not be the first knock Hizballah sustained in its attempts to capitalize on the Arab Revolt after it erupted in December 2010.
In NATO’s Libya campaign, the Lebanese Shiite group first scrambled to carve out for itself and Iran a base of operations among Islamist opposition militias. Dominated by radical Sunni elements, the Libyan militias rejected Hizballah, only affording its agents a foothold in the smuggling network which flogged the contents of Qaddafi’s arsenals for big money.
Hizballah also failed to win a place in post-Mubarak Egypt after cozying up to the Muslim Brotherhood through its ties with the Palestinian Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Its most ambitious operation in Bahrain turned into its biggest fiasco.
In the years 2011-2012, Tehran assigned Hizballah the task of whipping the Shiite protest movement up into a revolt for overthrowing Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa and stirring up the two million Saudi Shiites next door into an insurgency against the royal throne in Riyadh.
This was to have been the crowning Shiite endeavor of the Arab Spring.
Hizballah and its security apparatus threw all its resources into this operation. The Shiite dissidents were given exhaustive training in guerrilla warfare and a Hizballah officer was attached to each group of 100-200 Shiite demonstrators.
They failed because Saudi Arabia stepped in to save the Bahraini throne with massive intelligence assistance and finally tanks which crushed the Shiite uprising.
The onset of the Syrian uprising in March 2011 and Hizballah’s expanding role in defending Bashar Assad overshadowed its comedown in Bahrain, although the guerrilla training local Shiites gained will no doubt surface in some future Persian Gulf crisis.
Hizballah is damned whether it obeys or flouts Tehran
A Western invasion of Syria and its potential for deposing Assad presents Hizballah with the prospect of its most agonizing debacle yet at the hands of its worst enemies, Israel and the United States, whom he has sworn to destroy.
Western, Arab and Israeli intelligence circles see only three options for Hizballah – all equally disastrous:
1. The most inconceivable would be for Hizballah to flout orders from Tehran – for instance, an order for full mobilization against the multiple Western attack on their key ally, the Syrian ruler.
Hassan Nasrallah’s loyalty to Iran is beyond question but, at least once in the past, he ventured to disobey an Iranian directive: In 2006, he overrode Tehran’s objections and, after abducting a group of Israeli soldiers, rained rockets down on Israeli towns, so sparking the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War.
But if he dares disobey Tehran in 2013, he has much more to lose because sections of his armed forces now defer directly to Tehran and they could break ranks or even stage a putsch to overthrow him as leader.
2. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources don’t expect Tehran to gamble with Hizballah’s very existence by making the organization throw all its resources behind Assad’s army when it fights off an invasion.
Will Israel use the Syrian war to finish Hizballah off?
There are indications instead that the Shiite group is preparing to appropriate sectors of the Lebanese-Syrian border and hold the door open for fleeing Syrian troops to move in and continue to fight from Lebanon. Certain sectors are already seen being fenced off.
Iran and Hizballah appear to be planning to act on the principle that for every piece of land Assad loses in Syria, he will be compensated with a replacement of territory in Lebanon. This principle is designed to deter Washington and Jerusalem from expanding the Syrian campaign into Lebanon.
3. It is not known whether Israel will make do with a limited operation against Syrian chemical and biological weapons, or use the opportunity for an offensive to vanquish Hizaballah and demolish its massive stores of weapons.
Tehran, Damascus and Beirut are treating this possibility as highly realistic.