Editor's Note: The following analysis was originally published Sept. 2, 2011.
The inability of Syria's al Assad regime to contain unrest across the country is naturally of great concern to Hezbollah and its patrons in Iran. The geopolitical reality of this region dictates that any consolidated regime in Syria will also be the pre-eminent power in Lebanon. Should Syria's majority Sunni community succeed in splitting the Alawite-Baathist regime, it is highly unlikely that a re-emerging Sunni elite would be friendly to Iranian and Hezbollah interests. On the contrary, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and others would have an opportunity to severely undercut Iran's foothold in the Levant and dial back Hezbollah's political and military influence in Lebanon.
This is not to say that the al Assad regime has reached the brink of collapse, or even that Syria's Sunnis have the tools, backing and unity they need to fill a power vacuum in Damascus without first undergoing a protracted struggle with Syria's minority factions (including Alawites, mainstream Shia, Ismailis, Christians and Druze who would much rather see Damascus in the hands of a minority government than under Sunni control). But the more vulnerable the al Assad government appears, the more likely Lebanon is to bear the brunt of the sectarian spillover from this conflict.
The Basics of Levantine Conflict
Whereas Syria's current conflict can be described broadly as a struggle between the country's majority Sunni population and a group of minorities, the sectarian landscape in Lebanon is far more complex. On one side of the political divide, there is the Shiite group Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran and allied politically with select Shiite, Christian and Druze forces. Collectively, this group is known as the March 8 coalition. On the other side is the Sunni-majority March 14 coalition, which is backed by the West and the key Sunni states in the region (most notably Saudi Arabia) and is also allied with select Christian and Druze forces. Hezbollah forcibly collapsed the Lebanese government in January, and since June the Iran- and Syria-backed Hezbollah-led coalition has maintained a high degree of influence in the Lebanese Cabinet led by Prime Minister Najib Mikati (a Sunni who is known to have deep business links with the al Assad regime).
However, Lebanese politics are anything but static. The Saudi-backed Lebanese Sunni community sees an opportunity to tilt the power balance now that Hezbollah's Syrian patrons are absorbed with a domestic crisis. In the middle of the broader Shiite-Sunni divide in Lebanon, the country's Maronite Christian and minority Druze factions can be expected to shift between these two poles as they try to assess which direction the political winds are blowing.
Lebanon cannot escape either the volatility of sectarian politics or the shadow of its Syrian neighbor. So long as the government in Syria is secure enough to devote attention beyond its borders, Lebanon will be saturated with Syrian influence in everything from its banking sector to its militant factions to the highest echelons of the government. This also means that whenever Lebanon reverts to its arguably more natural state of factional infighting, Syria is the best positioned to intervene and restore order, relying on Lebanese fissures to consolidate its own authority in the country.
The picture changes dramatically, however, if Syria becomes embroiled in its own sectarian struggle and is thus unable to play a dominant role in Lebanon. In that case, Lebanon's factions would be left to defend their interests on their own, and this is exactly the scenario that Hezbollah appears to be preparing for.
Hezbollah Prepares for the Worst
Because of what is at stake for Iran should the al Assad regime collapse, Hezbollah has been instructed by its patrons in Tehran to do what it can to assist the Syrian regime. Stratfor has received indications that Hezbollah has deployed hundreds of fighters in the past several months to assist Syrian security forces — who are also being aided by Iran's growing Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) presence in the country — in cracking down on anti-government protesters. As signs of Hezbollah's assistance to an increasingly repressive Syrian regime grew more visible in the region, Hezbollah suffered considerable damage to its political image.
A Stratfor source close to the organization claims that a split is emerging within Hezbollah over the group's Syria dilemma. Older Hezbollah members apparently want Hezbollah to take a more prominent political role in Lebanon so the group can operate more autonomously and thus try to insulate itself from its external patrons, while the younger members are adamantly calling on the leadership to stand by Syrian President Bashar al Assad. The source added that many Hezbollah youth, who are heavily influenced by Iran's IRGC, believe the Syrian president will survive because they also believe Iran will not abandon him. Many within the older Hezbollah generation, however, appear to be more skeptical of al Assad's long-term chances for political survival.
While waiting for the situation in Syria to crystallize, the Hezbollah leadership has chosen to make a short-term tactical change in its operations. The group's greatest concern at this point is that Lebanon's Sunni, Maronite Christian and Druze communities, with Saudi and possibly Western and Turkish backing, could work together to try to confront Hezbollah militarily should they feel confident that Syria and its proxies will be too distracted to intervene decisively. Weapons flows in Lebanon are already abundant, but as the situation in Syria has worsened, there have been increasing signs of Lebanese Sunnis, Maronite Christians and Druze bolstering their arsenals in preparation for a possible military confrontation. Hezbollah appears to be most closely watching the actions of Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, as Hezbollah believes his Christian militia is most likely to lead an armed conflict in Lebanon against Hezbollah.
It is impossible to tell at this point which side would be more interested in provoking such a confrontation. Just as forces looking to weaken Hezbollah could attempt to trigger a conflict, Syria is also interested in instigating sectarian clashes in Lebanon to distract from its domestic crisis (the urgency for Syria to do so will increase the more Syria feels that NATO countries will have more resources to expend as the military campaign in Libya winds down). Toward this end, Syrian intelligence chief Ali Mamluk recently summoned Jamil al-Sayyid, former Lebanese director of public security (and a Shi'i) to Damascus, and instructed him to revive his intelligence apparatus and prepare himself for action against Syria's adversaries in Lebanon. According to a source, al-Sayyid has been given the task of targeting leaders in the anti-Syrian March 14 coalition and instigating Sunni-Shiite armed conflict. The source claims Mamluk issued similar instructions to Mustafa Hamdan (a Sunni), another former officer who was jailed with al-Sayyid. Hamdan currently commands the al Murabitun movement, which has a small presence in Beirut, Tripoli and Sidon, and allegedly has orders to challenge Saad al-Hariri's Future Movement in Sunni areas.
The rising threat of armed civil conflict in Lebanon has led Hezbollah to turn its focus inward. According to a source close to Hezbollah, the group has shifted the bulk of its operations from the South Litani conflict area with Israel northward to the Shiite-concentrated Bekaa Valley, where Hezbollah is busy developing an extensive communications network in the northern and central parts of the area. Hezbollah appears to be setting up its defense line in the Upper Matn and Kisirwan mountain peaks to protect the central and northern Bekaa against a ground attack from the Christian heartland to the west. Hezbollah is hoping to complete much of this construction by the end of October.
Hezbollah and its Lebanese pro-Syrian allies are also attempting to build up their defense in the predominantly Sunni Akkar area in northern Lebanon, where Sunni-Shiite tensions are on the rise following a deadly shootout at a Ramadan iftar dinner Aug. 17. The dinner, organized by the pro-Syrian head of the Muslim Clerics Association in Akkar Sheikh Abduslam al Harrash, was interrupted when unknown assailants opened fire and killed an attending member of the Alawite Islamic Council. Lebanese army forces then killed Sunni lawmaker Khalid al Daher's driver. Al Daher responded by condemning the Lebanese military and accusing soldiers of operating as armed gangsters under the influence of Syria and Hezbollah. It is highly possible that the episode in al Ayyat was part of a Syrian covert strategy to instigate sectarian conflict.
The growing stress on the Syrian regime is, for a number of reasons, raising the threat of civil war in Lebanon. The range of political, religious, ideological and business interests that intersect in Lebanon make for an explosive mix when an exogenous factor — like the weakening of the Syrian regime — is introduced. Outside stakeholders like Iran will be doing everything they can to sustain a foothold in the region while Saudi Arabia and Turkey will be looking for a strategic opportunity to bring the Levant back under Sunni authority. Caught in this broader struggle are the Lebanese themselves, whose preparations for a worst-case scenario are ironically driving the country closer to a crisis.