Despite Declaring Victory in Syria, Hezbollah is not Ready for War with Israel
In mid-September, Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah declared victory in the Syrian Civil War, dismissing any continued fighting as “scattered battles.” Victory in Syria has long been considered a necessary prerequisite for the group initiating another war with Israel. However, Nasrallah’s declaration of triumph is still premature. Victory alone in Syria is insufficient to speed up the “doomsday clock” on the next clash between the two foes, since many regional, domestic, and internal factors continue to constrain the group.
The Situation in Syria
The war in Syria is far from over, and Hezbollah cannot yet withdraw even though the survival of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the near-term – critical to its own vitality – seems all but assured. Even after Nasrallah’s victory speech, the group continued to lose dozens of fighters in operations to dislodge ISIS from Deir Ezzor and in fights against rebel groups. Senior Hezbollah officials stated the group’s fight in Syria was far from over, dismissing rumors of their imminent withdrawal from Syria as “stupidity.” Nasrallah himself admitted more recently that pockets of resistance to Assad’s rule remain, and could become nuclei for reigniting a wider rebellion.
ISIS still firmly controls parts of Deir Ezzor – where it recently launched an aggressive counterattack – and Homs, and a large swath of territory east of those cities linking with Boukamal on the Iraqi-Syrian border. Opposition forces continue to hold Idlib, parts of Hama and Homs, the western and southern outskirts of Aleppo, Deraa, Quneitra, outskirts of Damascus, and a pocket in the eastern Qalamoun. Most critically, they control a pocket of territory surrounding the Tanf border crossing, which the broader “Resistance Axis” – the broader Iranian-led alliance including Hezbollah, Syria, and various Shiite militias – recently vowed to capture. Sporadic clashes have even erupted in areas once assumed pacified, like Foua and Kefraya.
Death and defections have decimated Assad’s army. Hezbollah, which has long borne the brunt of battle in Syria, will once again be responsible for reasserting the regime’s control over these areas. In fact, they are planning a largescale end-of-year offensive in the southern and western countryside of Aleppo. So long as its forces remain tied down in Syria, Hezbollah cannot confront Israel.
The Syrian Civil War has transformed Hezbollah into a regional pariah, with moderate Sunni governments and their citizenry viewing the erstwhile anti-Israel “resistance” movement as a mere agent of Iranian expansionism. Though Israel remains unpopular in the Arab world, their anger is now more focused on the Shiite group for shedding Arab Sunni blood in service of Shiite and non-Arab Iran. Many moderate Arab states took punitive measures against Hezbollah – curbing its financing, sanctioning its members and leaders, and proscribing it as a terrorist group – as they reportedly strengthened clandestine ties with Israel.
Hezbollah cannot afford to initiate war with Israel while its popularity is at its current nadir, and when few Arabs would oppose Israeli military retaliation. Moderate Arab states could act to delay a UN Security Council ceasefire – as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt encouraged the U.S. to do in 2006 – buying the IDF crucial time to defeat Hezbollah, and without worrying about antagonizing their citizens.
Domestic Considerations and Lebanese Weariness of Hezbollah’s Adventurism
Domestic sentiment will also influence Hezbollah’s decision to initiate war with Israel. Currently, Lebanese Sunnis and many Christians are furious at the group. Its regional adventurism has invited terror attacks upon Lebanon, soured relations with Beirut’s Gulf benefactors, is prompting new U.S. sanctions which could end up affecting Lebanon, and perpetually threatens to invite another war with Israel. Even within the group’s Shiite base, disgruntlement exists over the deaths of thousands of its sons in the seemingly interminable Syrian war.
Hezbollah’s popularity will suffer even more if it initiates an unprovoked war with Israel, particularly so soon after its involvement in Syria. With Lebanon’s parliamentary elections scheduled for May 2018, this takes on added importance. Maintaining popular support has always been important for the group, and Lebanon’s new proportional representation-based parliamentary electoral law makes popularity more important than before. Further angering the Lebanese with another war, particularly its Shiite base, could cause suffering at the polls and weaken its government representation.
Such a setback would deal long-term harm to Hezbollah’s goals. Its project in Lebanon is premised on a slow and steady increase in popular support until it attains an overwhelming critical mass of Lebanese willingly demanding its version of an Islamic system. Meanwhile, it requires sufficient governmental power to obstruct the Lebanese state’s ability to credibly compete from within.
Reduced popularity – particularly among Shiites – could also harm the group’s political alliances with Amal and the Free Patriotic Movement’s Michel Aoun, who are the source of its political strength. Notwithstanding any professions of love or fealty, these former foes of Hezbollah became the group’s allies out of opportunism, rather than shared ideology. They see the group slowly becoming the undisputed representative of Lebanese Shiites, the country’s fastest growing constituency, and want to secure their political future. However, if Hezbollah’s popularity erodes, an alliance with the group would transform from an asset into a liability. Aoun and Amal would then likely abandon it, leaving Hezbollah vulnerable to hostile Lebanese political elements, including high-ranking members of Lebanon’s current government who privately describe the group as a “cancer.”
Hezbollah’s Internal Dynamics Will Also Delay Another War
Hezbollah also has to recoup the internal losses it suffered as a result of the Syrian Civil War before it can confront the Israelis. Over the past six years it has lost many of its storied commanders and much its veteran fighters, forcing it to increasingly rely on less experienced or teenaged fighters. To date, an estimated 1,600-2,500 fighters have been killed in Syria, and 5,000-7,000 have been wounded.
The Syrian war has also considerably strained Hezbollah’s budget. The group has deployed approximately 6,000-8,000 fighters to Syria, though the number could currently be much higher. In addition to paying their salaries – which can reach up to $2,000 per month –Hezbollah organization also provides for their children’s education, and supporting them and families if they are wounded or fall in battle. U.S. sanctions on the group have exacerbated its financial strain. Though Nasrallah dismissed the effect of the sanctions last year, he recently admitted they were taking a toll. Their impact is evident in Hezbollah mobilizing both licit and illicit fundraising means that cannot be easily reached by Washington, and it will increase with new U.S. sanctions on the group or its Iranian patron.
Hezbollah would risk its survival if it enters the next war with Israel cash-strapped. The group’s existence depends on popular – primarily Lebanese Shiite – support. Most of that community’s members who support the group do so out of a sense of gratitude for its social services, rather than ideological commitment.
This is minor compared to the devastation promised by a future Israeli campaign. In the past, Hezbollah has been able to retain Shiite support in the wake of the IDF’s devastating operations by rebuilding and generously providing for survivors. Cash-strapped, it will not be able to reconstruct – and thus cover up its responsibility for provoking the Israelis – costing it much Shiite support.
Lastly, Hezbollah’s fighters also need a respite from the Syrian Civil War, the group’s most difficult conflict to date. Unlike in the clashes with Israel, Hezbollah’s fighters have spent the last six years fighting and dying on a distant battlefield, bearing the brunt of saving the Assad regime while his own army took a backseat role. Though Hezbollah is winning the battle in Syria, war-weariness has long set in with its forces. It will take considerable time before the group can rebuild the morale of its ranks and prepare them for another fight with the IDF, which the Israelis are promising will be more devastating than any of their previous Lebanon operations.
Conclusion: War is Not Imminent
Hezbollah is acutely aware of the unbridgeable gap between their capabilities and Israel’s vastly superior military might, and the aforementioned non-military factors only expand the IDF’s advantage. Each factor alone might not suffice alone to deter Hezbollah from initiating war with Israel. However, their confluence requires the group to act prudently and pragmatically, a capability it has demonstrated over the past 35 years. While a future war between Hezbollah and Israel may be inevitable, it is not imminent.
David Daoud is a research analyst at United Against Nuclear Iran focusing on Hezbollah, Lebanon, and Syria.