Hezbollah’s ascendancy after Aleppo

Sunday 25/12/2016
Activists hold demonstration in Beirut to express solidarity with Aleppo residents

Beirut - The Syrian government’s claimed “victory” in the long battle for its northern city of Aleppo was good news for some in neigh­bouring Lebanon and bad news for others, a reflection of how the bloody Syrian civil war has divided Lebanese since its onset in March 2011.

With the balance tipped again in favour of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime and his Iranian and Hezbollah allies, those opposed to it are feeling the heat of the “victory” in Lebanon, which has long suffered from heavy-handed Syrian control.

Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt saw it coming when he de­clared on December 8th that “Assad will win in Aleppo, benefiting from the fact that most of the interna­tional community has given up on the Syrian people. Then he will de­stroy Idlib.”

Jumblatt then drew a painful con­clusion that Assad’s “influence in Lebanon will increase, and the Ira­nian-Syrian grip on (Lebanon) will strengthen.”

Despite being known for shifting alliances and changing his attitude whenever needed, Jumblatt seems determined not to mend relations with Assad. “I will not end my polit­ical life repairing a relationship with Assad… Even if the regime achieves total victory,” he said in published remarks.

The fall of Aleppo is a turning point in the nearly six-year Syria war but makes a political solution in the short-term less likely. “It will allow the Assad regime and its allies to become much more intransigent in terms of prospects of negotia­tions later on,” said a Beirut-based Arab diplomat.

“What reinforce this matter are the no-American presence and the new wave in European politics. Both are on the side of dealing in realpolitik with the established regimes independent of how au­thoritarian and how bloody these regimes are,” the diplomat told The Arab Weekly.

With the priority given to fight­ing ISIS and Turkey in bad shape because of its Kurdish problem, the battle for Aleppo gave the upper hand to the Syrian regime and its allies.

“Actually, there is no final victory for A or for B. It is not a key victory whereby things will fall back in or­der as it used to be prior to March 2011,” the Arab diplomat argued. “It will however complicate matters further and delay any serious at­tempt at taking the road for peace.”

It is clear this is not the time for political negotiations and solutions but rather to reach understandings to contain the emerging situation.

The Aleppo victory is expected to influence the very delicate balance of power in Lebanon, allowing lo­cal allies of the Syrian regime to be­come much more intransigent and less sensitive to other parties.

“There is a feeling (in Lebanon) after the Aleppo battles that one party scored a big achievement and wants to invest it internally while the other party, which made wrong bets on changes inside Syria in its favour, lost,” said Amin Kammour­ieh, a political analyst. “Hezbollah would thus say I won’t accept any more what I used to accept before. It wants to have the big say in the country.”

After imposing its Christian ally, Michel Aoun, as the sole candidate for the presidency and giving the country’s other political parties no other option to end the nearly 30-month political vacuum but to elect him, Hezbollah was pleased with the formation on December 18th of a 30-member cabinet that includes enough of its pro-Syrian and pro-Iranian allies to block any decision that would not suit it.

What Hezbollah and its support­ers are mostly eyeing, however, is a new proportional vote law in the upcoming parliamentary elections that would change the majority in the present parliament, which is currently in favour of Hariri and his allies.

“Hezbollah used to win militarily and lose politically. Now it wants both,” Kammourieh said, “and now that the balance of power is in their favour, though no final victory, they want their political victory to be the size of their military victory.”

Hezbollah, backed by its pro- Assad allies, will probably have a stronger hand to impose the policies it wants but it cannot but take into account the constraints of the coun­try’s sectarian political system if the fragile stability is to be maintained.

Even in foreign affairs, Hezbollah is to make sure attempts by Aoun to normalise ties with Gulf countries, mainly Saudi Arabia, do not go be­yond visits and declarations of Arab brotherhood.

Hezbollah’s influence grew after Syria, which maintained a military presence and orchestrated politics in Lebanon for almost 30 years, was forced out of the country fol­lowing the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 — an act blamed on the powerful Iran-backed group. Its military in­volvement in the Syrian war fight­ing alongside Assad’s forces has turned it into a formidable regional force.

Probably the Lebanese need to “understand” as Joseph Bahout, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie En­dowment for International Peace, said during a recent visit to Beirut that “our fate today is to live un­der — whatever you want to call it — mercy, ascendancy or protection of Hezbollah.”