Hezbollah's Contingency Planning

8 MINS READOct 18, 2012 | 10:33 GMT
Hezbollah's Contingency Planning
A Syrian regime supporter holds a picture of President Bashar al Assad and Hezbollah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah (R)

As Syrian President Bashar al Assad's regime continues to weaken and the conflict in Syria devolves into clan-based warfare, Shiite militant group Hezbollah is working on contingency plans to ensure its long-term survival. Hezbollah's goal is to maintain a strong military, political and economic presence in Lebanon, especially since proxy battles are almost certain to intensify in the Levant as emboldened Sunnis gain confidence to challenge Hezbollah's autonomous position in the region. Hezbollah wants to avoid triggering a premature conflagration with its sectarian rivals, and its increasingly cautious posture will make it a less reliable militant proxy for Iran in the near term. However, Iran shares Hezbollah's aim of ensuring that the militant group maintains a strong long-term presence in the Levant, and Tehran may try to use Hezbollah's potential shifts as leverage in the broader regional negotiations over a post-al Assad transition in Syria.

Hezbollah's contingency planning appears to be preparing for two distinct scenarios. The first entails Syria and Lebanon retaining enough political, economic and military cohesion to allow the Shiite organization to integrate itself more formally into the Lebanese mainstream. The second, more pessimistic scenario assumes that the Levant devolves into a severe state of sectarian warfare, in which case Hezbollah could attempt to carve out a bloc of Shiite territory in Lebanon adjoining an Alawite-majority coastal enclave in Syria.

Scenario 1: Hezbollah Joins the Establishment

The first scenario assumes that a post-al Assad Syria is able to maintain its territorial integrity and that a new government is stable enough to wield significant authority over the state. In this situation, Hezbollah would look to integrate itself into the Lebanese mainstream. Hezbollah has already pursued this route in building up an official presence in the government, and it currently has a strong presence in the Lebanese Cabinet. Hezbollah also has an extensive economic presence in Lebanon, albeit through mostly illicit channels.

The most critical shift to the organization would be seen in the status of Hezbollah's armed wing. Lebanon's security and intelligence apparatus is deeply fractured along sectarian lines. With help from Iran and Syria, Hezbollah has steadily installed its own members and Shiite sympathizers in these institutions over the past few decades to help insulate the organization. The Lebanese army has routinely avoided confrontation with Hezbollah, knowing that it lacks the will and sectarian unity to take on the well-trained and ideologically committed Shiite militia.

With the Lebanese army too weak and fractured to defend Lebanese sovereignty during Israeli incursions, Hezbollah was able to present itself as the true defender of Lebanon as opposed to any state institution. In the shifting environment, the prospect of a Sunni-dominated Syria changes Hezbollah's calculus entirely. Hezbollah will no longer have secure supply lines emanating from Syria. Sunnis on both sides of the Syria-Lebanon border, backed by strong regional stakeholders like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, France and the United States, will also likely be encouraged to take advantage of the Shiite organization's growing vulnerabilities and pressure the militia to disarm. Hezbollah has faced pressure to disarm over the past decade, but it will have a much harder time resisting this pressure without a strong ally in Damascus protecting its interests in Lebanon.

A possible solution to this dilemma would be Hezbollah's formal integration into the official Lebanese security and intelligence apparatus. The already fractious and weak nature of these institutions would allow Hezbollah to continue operating autonomously, while providing Lebanese Shiite fighters with an extra layer of insulation. Rather than having a potential conflict between Hezbollah and Israel be limited to southern Lebanon as it was in 2006, Israel would be dealing with a much more nebulous entity absorbed into the Lebanese army. In other words, Hezbollah's fights become Lebanon's fights.

There is a precedent for this model of long-term militia survival. During the 1990s and early 2000s, the Badr Organization was the most sophisticated and well-managed proxy Iran possessed in Iraq. These Shiite fighters were primed for the 2003 U.S. invasion and were well prepared to help Iran consolidate its gains in battling the Sunnis and the Americans in the early years of the war. Iran quickly moved to formally integrate this militia into the military and security apparatus in 2004 while increasing its authority over other militias (like Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army) and forming new groups to increase competition among the Shiite militias. This effort allowed Iran to maintain its overall proxy strength in Iraq, and those militant assets will be useful for Iran if and when Tehran faces a challenge from Sunnis in Iraq motivated by the Sunni resurgence in Syria.


Lebanon Topography

Additionally, Iran could use the possibility of "disbanding" Hezbollah's military wing as a powerful negotiating tool. Indeed, Iranian officials have reportedly raised the idea of disarming Hezbollah in making overtures for negotiations with the United States on the transition in Syria and broader issues. Hezbollah appears to be holding talks with Lebanese government officials on this integration process. Not coincidentally, Lebanese parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri said Oct. 15 that a decision has been made to "permanently deploy" the Lebanese army to the Bekaa Valley. The Bekaa Valley is Hezbollah's stronghold; its military assets and training camps are concentrated there and a large amount of cannabis grows in the valley, which Hezbollah uses for its alternative revenue source of smuggling drugs. On the surface, it would appear that the Lebanese army is intruding on Hezbollah's territory, but this was actually a decision that stemmed from consultations between Hezbollah and Lebanese President Michel Suleiman and Prime Minister Najib Mikati.

Not only is Hezbollah trying to build trust with other Lebanese authorities, it is also getting assistance in managing a proliferation of clan-based Shiite gang activity in the Bekaa Valley and southern suburbs. Recent flare-ups involving the Meqdad clan illustrated this growing threat. Hezbollah does not want to be responsible for law enforcement in these areas nor subjected to reprisal attacks as this clan warfare intensifies. Hezbollah would much rather this issue fall under the purview of the Lebanese army at large.

Hezbollah also appears to be using the opportunity to gain access to funds and weaponry from the Lebanese military. In the event of the Syrian regime's collapse, alternative supply sources will become increasingly important for Hezbollah. In mid-September the Lebanese government announced it would be spending $1.6 billion over the next five years on military hardware for the army. This is the first major allocation for defense spending since 1982-83 during Lebanon's civil war. The plans to increase defense spending were also part of the discussion between Hezbollah and the Lebanese political leadership.

Overall, the extent to which Hezbollah would be able to integrate itself in the formal government remains in question, since Saudi-backed Sunnis in Lebanon will resist any effort by the militia to entrench itself in the system.

Scenario 2: Building a Sectarian Fortress

The second scenario assumes that Syria fails to hold together under a post-al Assad regime and the country splinters into autonomous entities. In this situation, Lebanon's already shaky stability is likely to disintegrate as sectarian fighting in Syria encourages the expansion of Lebanese militia groups, with each faction left to defend its interests in civil war-like conditions.

Sectarian Divisions in Syria and Lebanon

Syria Ethnic Groups

In Syria, the Alawites will retreat to the mountainous coastal region for protection. The al Assad regime has already been preparing for this contingency by reinforcing military positions around the enclave stretching from Latakia to the port of Tartus. Stratfor has received indications in recent months that some Alawites have already begun fleeing from their urban homes in Damascus and Homs to relocate to the coast for protection in anticipation of a full-blown civil war.

A coastal Alawite enclave would be difficult to defend and sustain economically in isolation. However, if both Syria and Lebanon are consumed by civil war, Shiites and Alawites (who are an offshoot Shiite sect) would likely band together to defend themselves against their sectarian rivals. Hezbollah appears to have a contingency plan to carve out and defend a 20-kilometer (12-mile) border corridor with the Syrian Alawite enclave on the coast. This is a difficult endeavor, because Hezbollah does not exercise authority in Sunni-dominated northern Lebanon. Instead, Hezbollah would control strategic access to the Orontes River Basin in Syria and Lebanon to form a contiguous Alawite-Shiite mini-state.

The Orontes River originates in Lebanon near the city of Baalbek in the northern Bekaa Valley. It flows north between the Lebanese coast and the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon Mountains before it enters Syria near the Shiite-majority town of Hermel and drains into the Qattaneh reservoir. From there, the river passes through the Sunni-concentrated cities of Homs and Hama before cutting the Turkish-Syrian border.

Hezbollah currently claims control of 18 villages along the widest part of the basin: Bab al-Hawa, Wadi Hanna, Rabla, Matraba, Al Jadaliyya, Balluza, Al Huwayik, Ghawgharan, Al Summaqiyyat, Al Hamam, Al Safiyyah, Zeita, Al Fadiliyya, Al Qarniyya, Al Misriyya, Dibbin, Al Suwayidyya and Al Hush. Most reported Hezbollah activity in Syria has occurred in this area, particularly around the border town of Al Qusayr. Controlling the bulge of the river basin would theoretically allow Hezbollah to pool resources with an Alawite enclave in the northern Bekaa while the organization attempts to hold its ground in the southern Beirut suburbs and southern Lebanon.

The purported plan to build this sectarian fortress is fraught with complications, especially since the Shiite belt would likely face a major challenge from Sunnis on both sides of the border. But in contingency planning, one must plan for the best and prepare the worst. Hezbollah is evidently doing just that.

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