Forecasting the Middle East is a risky business. Everyone who has tried to do so since December 2010 has discovered, again and again, that it’s an impossible task. Still, at the risk of reality proving me wrong, there seem to be indications this week that the unofficial end of the Arab Spring is approaching.
It is too early to eulogize the Middle East’s revolutions and revolutionaries, and in many countries in the region, the political situation is far from stable (see Libya, for example).
But the elections this week in Egypt, and next week in Syria, suggest that the outcome is starting to become clear. The military and the old regime will return to power in Egypt through Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi; and in Syria, though the civil war is far from over, Bashar al-Assad will continue to be president. Egyptians have grown weary of the chaos, and are asking for quiet and stability above all, which el-Sissi has promised them. Many Syrians, too, are fed up with the bloodshed and the Jihadist organizations, who have destroyed their war for liberation and plenty more besides.
Syria and Lebanon as one
On Wednesday, the main roads of Beirut were clogged with cars because of elections in another country — Syria. Tens of thousands of Syrians living in Lebanon streamed toward the one polling station in Beirut at the Syrian Embassy in Yarzeh, a suburb of the capital, for early voting in Syria’s presidential poll (the actual elections are next Tuesday).
As time went by, the traffic ground to a halt on more and more streets. Syrian citizens, with no other option, walked to the embassy, holding Syrian flags and pictures of Assad, singing songs praising their president — all this after the deaths of 160,000 people, and counting.
More than one million Syrian civilians live in Lebanon today. According to some estimates, the number has reached one-and-a-half million. Some are refugees from the civil war; others lived in Lebanon before the outbreak of anti-regime demonstrations in 2011. The changing make-up of the population in Lebanon, alongside the involvement of groups from both sides of the border in the fighting, underline the extent to which the borders between the two states are being erased as the war drags on.
It’s hard to think of Lebanon as a sovereign, independent entity today. True, Syria has been a major player in Lebanon for decades. Damascus, under Bashar’s father, Hafez, took an active part in the fighting between the Shiite Amal militia and Hezbollah at the end of the 1980s. Syrian intelligence operated freely in Lebanon during the 1990s, and Hezbollah was likely behind the assassination of Rafik Hariri, Lebanon’s anti-Syrian former prime minister, on September 14, 2005.
The fighting in Syria and Lebanon has become a religious war unconnected to country: Shiites against Sunnis, as if nothing has changed since the second half of the 7th century
Nonetheless, the active involvement of Hezbollah in the fighting in Syria shattered the familiar rules of the game in Lebanon. Until then, the Syrians played on the Lebanese field. Now, Hezbollah has become the defender of Assad, his rock and his salvation.
The fighting in Syria and Lebanon has become a religious war unconnected to country: Shiites against Sunnis, as if nothing has changed since the second half of the 7th century.
The decision to fight in Syria had dramatic ramifications for Hezbollah’s political and public standing in Lebanon. If there were doubts about the Shiite organization’s loyalties before, it became clear that Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah takes his marching orders from the Iranian regime, which is directing Assad’s fight for survival. Nasrallah went from a hero in the Arab world after the 2006 Second Lebanon War to an object of deep hatred for Sunnis, who burn his image during demonstrations.
Meanwhile, the new reality in Lebanon is leaving its mark on the political institutions, also split between supporters of Assad and his opponents. On Monday, Michel Sleiman left the presidential palace at the end of his term. The Lebanese parliament has been unable to agree on a successor, who must be a Christian. No prospective candidate, including the pro-Syrian Michel Aoun or the anti-Assad Samir Geagea, has managed to garner the support of the necessary 65 members of parliament. Evidently controversy over the presidential succession isn’t limited to Israel.
Hezbollah’s special forces
The day that Michel Sleiman left the presidential palace after six years, Nasrallah gave one of his much-hyped speeches, this one marking the anniversary of Israel’s 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon.
Whoever expected to hear some doubt or reassessment of his decision to fight in Syria was disappointed. Nasrallah maintained his pugnacious line against Israel and against the anti-Syrian March 14 camp in Lebanon. He mocked the president for stepping down and continued to promise that his people, not the likes of Sleiman, would defend Lebanon.
Yet his characteristic bravado could not hide the fact that Hezbollah has suffered serious losses during the fighting in Syria. The best recent example of this is the death earlier this month of Fawzi Ayoub, an important Hezbollah fighter, who was killed in fighting near Daraa. Ayoub, arrested in 2000 in the West Bank, was held for four years in an Israeli prison and freed as part of the 2004 deal to secure the release of Israeli Elchanan Tenenbaum. Afterward, he was placed high on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.
Ayoub, like thousands of others in Hezbollah, fought in Syria in recent months. Following the conquest of Qusair and the mopping up of Yabroud, both close to the border with Lebanon, Hezbollah fighters are operating near Daraa, on the Jordanian border. The Syrian regime is focusing efforts there in an attempt to regain control of the area, and over the Syrian Golan Heights.
But the opposition fighters, especially those from Jabhat al-Nusra, have responded fiercely, inflicting numerous casualties on both Assad’s and Hezbollah’s troops, including Fawzi Ayoub. The number of Hezbollah dead in Syria is not clear, but Israel puts it at 400-500 fighters, in addition to more than a thousand wounded. In total, approximately 5,000 Hezbollah militants are in Syria at any given time.
While the Syrian army cleans out one street, Hezbollah fighters might be active on another
The casualties aren’t only from Hezbollah and Syrian soldiers. This week, news emerged that one of the heads of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Brigadier-General Mohammad Eskandari, was killed in fighting near Damascus. The rebels made sure to release a video showing a Syrian youth holding Eskandari’s head.
The Syria/Iran/Hezbollah campaign (along with Iraqi militias) is run today by three people: Hassan Nasrallah, Bashar Assad, and Kassem Suleimani, commander of the IRGC Qods Force, the body responsible for Revolutionary Guards activity outside of Iran.
This weekend, the al-Arabiya channel reported that Suleimani was in Syria, and not for the first time. The three are involved in all the details and are part of the key decision-making processes of the war, and have managed to cooperate to achieve success on the battlefield. Hezbollah and the Syrian army often operate in the same sectors, even the same cities, by dividing up neighborhoods and streets: While the Syrian army cleans out one street, Hezbollah fighters might be active on another.
Hezbollah’s fighting on Syrian soil has also brought about a change in the character of the organization. Until the civil war, Hezbollah relied primarily on its rocket arsenal against Israel. Now, it utilizes infantry assaults, maneuver, and mobility.
This experience could help it in the event of a war against Israel. For example, Hezbollah’s special forces, the Radwan units, specialize in raids and small-unit tactics. These skills could come into play in a fight with Israel — in an assault on an Israeli border town, for example.
At the same time, Hezbollah continues to develop its rocket arsenal, improving the accuracy and power of the rockets, while storing them in residents’ houses in villages and towns.
For Assad, there is a price to pay
The close relationship between Assad’s Syria and Hezbollah is not an old phenomenon. It might be a blood pact, but it is one without deep historical roots. And for Assad, there is a price to pay. The president is forced to give Hezbollah the best armaments he receives from Russia, and must let the Shiite organization do almost whatever it wants against Israel in places like the Syrian Golan Heights.
The borders are being erased for Israel military planners as well. It is not facing a military challenge on two fronts against two enemies, but on one front against two hostile entities operating alongside each other. In addition, Israel faces the opposition global Jihadist groups.
The good news for Israel is that for now, at least, Hezbollah continues to fight and take casualties in somebody else’s bloody, protracted civil war. The Syrian mud seems as deep and thick as the Lebanese quagmire once was for Israel.