The Iranian and Syrian relationship with Hezbollah developed from a combination of ideological, domestic, and regional factors. Both Tehran and Damascus found Hezbollah to be a useful proxy to further regional objectives. Today, however, Hezbollah's position has changed. Tehran's growing strength is matched by Damascus's regional weakness. As overt Syrian suzerainty over Lebanon fades and Hezbollah increases its regional role without regard to the Lebanese government, the nature of Hezbollah's relations to Syria has changed. The group has outgrown its subservient relationship to Damascus. Hezbollah is no longer the junior partner in the axis.

Background

Hezbollah's roots lie in both the Lebanese Shi'i revival of the 1960s and 1970s and, more directly, to the return of Lebanese clerics who had studied in Najaf under the supervision of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. After the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Jerusalem sought to set up a Lebanese government friendly to itself. Tehran and Damascus sought proxies to undermine this new government and, in Tehran's case, advance its new revolutionary agenda. In 1982, Shi‘i political activist Hussein al-Musawi broke away from Amal, then the Shi‘i community's main political movement, and allied himself with radical Shi‘i clerics to form Hezbollah (Party of God).

Tehran adopted the new group. It bankrolled it and sent its own Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to train it. Syrian president Hafez al-Assad also supported Hezbollah. He and the Iranian leadership agreed to a strategic framework to govern their relationship with the group: Tehran would organize Hezbollah, subsidize it, and provide it with weaponry. Damascus would oversee Hezbollah operations against Israeli troops to ensure that Hezbollah operations did not expose the Syrian army to military confrontation with Israel and would allocate the Bekaa Valley as a location for the IRGC to establish training camps. In addition, Syrian authorities would secure a supply route and assist with logistics.[1]

In a number of terrorist attacks through the 1980s, Hezbollah proved its capability and lethality. But Assad's support for Hezbollah's terrorism was not unconditional. He expected to maintain a tight grip over the group. When, on July 19, 1982, Hezbollah, acting under Iranian direction but without Syrian knowledge kidnapped David Dodge, the acting president of American University in Beirut, Assad was furious and threatened to expel the IRGC from Lebanon.[2] Damascus and Tehran also sparred over Hezbollah's June 14, 1985 threat to execute hijacked TWA flight 847 passengers on the tarmac of Beirut International Airport. On June 17, 1987, Syrian troops beat Hezbollah members for kidnapping ABC correspondent Charles Glass near a Syrian checkpoint[3] and, later that year, Syrian troops shot twenty-seven Hezbollah fighters after they refused to obey a Syrian officer's order to remove a West Beirut checkpoint.[4] Clashes the following year between Amal and Hezbollah reflected continuing tension between Damascus and Tehran. Still, such tension was the exception, not the norm, and improving processes to resolve conflicts improved their working relationship. Assad began to see Hezbollah not only as a "resistance movement" but also as a strong Lebanese political force.[5]

Transforming Hezbollah

On October 22, 1989, Lebanese deputies meeting in Saudi Arabia signed the Ta'if accord, a compromise brokered by the Syrian government and mediated by Saudi and Algerian diplomats, ending the 15-year Lebanese civil war.

The agreement recognized Syria's "special relationship" with Lebanon, a trusteeship augmented by the May 20, 1991 Treaty of Brotherhood, Cooperation, and Coordination and the September 1, 1991 Lebanon-Syria Defense and Security agreement.

As the Syrian government exerted more formal suzerainty over Lebanon, Hezbollah clerics such as Secretary-general Hasan Nasrallah and Political Council president Ibrahim Amin al-Sayyed understood the need to compromise the party's ideology to adjust to Lebanon's changing circumstances. Although the mission of "Islamizing Lebanon" remained a central tenet of their party, it became a long-term objective. In the more immediate term, Hezbollah sought to become a mainstream political party. At the same time, Damascus sought to use Hezbollah both to pressure Israel for a return of the Golan Heights and to undermine the development of any opposition movement in Lebanon.

Such objectives were difficult to reconcile. How could Syria build Lebanon's state institutions and support Hezbollah's military role? Assad established rules to govern the relationship among the state, Lebanese political forces, and Hezbollah, which the Syrian intelligence chief in Lebanon would oversee:[6]

  1. Pro-Syrian officials would staff Lebanese state institutions and the army.
  2. The cabinet of ministers would exclude any anti-Syrian official, and Damascus would retain effective veto power over sensitive government portfolios such as the ministries of the interior, defense, and foreign affairs.
  3. The Syrian chief of intelligence in Lebanon would oversee elections and gerrymander districts to control them.
  4. Hezbollah would take the lead on military operations against Israel but enjoy the implicit political support of the Lebanese government.
  5. Unless otherwise approved by Damascus, Hezbollah would limit its operations to the Israeli-occupied "security zone" in southern Lebanon.
  6. Neither Hezbollah nor the state could use force against the other with Damascus the arbiter in disputes.
  7. Lebanese political parties could pursue their objectives so long as they did not conflict with Syrian policies.
  8. Absent Damascus's approval, no political party could use external forces to advance a political agenda.
  9. While Damascus would supervise Hezbollah's operations against Israel, Hezbollah could decide the timing within windows specified by Damascus.
  10. Hezbollah could capitalize on its resistance role and financial assistance from Iran to advance its political agenda but could not do so at the expense of pro-Syrian parties such as Amal.

Assad, through his intelligence apparatus in Lebanon, enforced those rules. For example, Ghazi Kana‘an, Syria's intelligence chief in Lebanon, closely oversaw the 1992 and 1996 parliamentary elections. The Lebanese government toed the Syrian line and exiled, jailed, or liquidated major opposition figures.

The year 2000 marked a new phase in the Hezbollah-Syrian relationship. Israel's unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon undercut the legitimacy of the Syrian presence. With Syrian encouragement, Hezbollah exerted a claim to Lebanese sovereignty over the mountainous Shebaa Farms.[7]

On June 10, 2000, Hafez al-Assad died; his son Bashar took the reins of power. Though Bashar sought to observe the rules governing Syria's relationship with Lebanon and Hezbollah, he enhanced Hezbollah's political status and power not only by receiving Nasrallah warmly in Damascus but also by supplying Hezbollah with increasingly sophisticated weaponry.

His rapprochement accelerated after the United States launched military operations against Iraq in March 2003. Assad said he "wished that its [U.S.] military plan would fail in Iraq"[8] and his foreign minister, Farouq al-Shara, told the Syrian parliament that "Syria has a national interest in the expulsion of the invaders from Iraq."[9] Syrian officials turned a blind eye toward jihadist infiltration from and through Syria into Iraq.

Relations between Damascus and the United States deteriorated. On May 3, 2003, the Bush administration sent Secretary of State Colin Powell to Damascus to demand Syria close terrorist organizations' offices, decommission Hezbollah's armed groups in Lebanon, and support the extension of Lebanese army authority throughout southern Lebanon. On December 12, 2003, over State Department objections, the Congress passed the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act calling upon Syria "to halt Syrian support for terrorism, end its occupation of Lebanon, and stop its development of weapons of mass destruction."[10] With the cosponsorship of the French government and its successful passage, U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 placed Lebanon on the international stage with the call for Syria to withdraw from Lebanon and for Hezbollah to be disarmed.[11]

Encouraged by these events, many Lebanese sought to reclaim their country from Syrian occupation. While Damascus sought to extend the mandate of pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud and accelerated the delivery of enhanced Iranian weaponry to Hezbollah, former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt began to rally anti-Syrian politicians.[12]

The Syrian regime fought back. It responded, according to the suspicion of many governments and U.N. investigators, by ordering the February 14, 2005 assassination of Hariri, which sparked mass protests—the so-called Cedar Revolution.[13] Several bombings, assassinations, and violent clashes followed in subsequent months. But, under significant international pressure, on April 26, 2005, Syrian forces officially withdrew from Lebanon.

Damascus still used Lebanon's state institutions to support and give political cover to Hezbollah, which opposed the Cedar Revolution, and directed Lebanon's state security apparatus to support logistically the arming of Hezbollah. [14] The directors of institutions who provided safe routes for shipping arms by land and air and those who interceded to handle emergency cases included such pro-Syrian officials as Brig. Gen. Jamil Sayyed, the chief of the General Security Department (known as Sûreté General); Gen. Edward Mansour, director-general of the State Security Apparatus; Gen. Ali Hajj, chief of the Internal Security Forces; Brig. Gen. Raymond Azar, chief of Military Intelligence; Brig. Gen. Mustafa Hamdan, commander of the army's presidential brigade; and Col. Ghassan Tufeili, chief of the "Eavesdrop Apparatus" in Military Intelligence.[15] Syrian rearmament not only of Hezbollah but also of Palestinian groups in Lebanon such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command and the Abu Musa Organization coincided with the Lebanese debate about their disarmament.

Perhaps Syrian officials hoped that their campaign of violence and intimidation would demonstrate that only Damascus could prevent Lebanon from descending into chaos. Syrian actions both undercut Lebanon's national dialogue and undermined the argument that Hezbollah needed to disarm. The Israel Defense Forces launched air raids against Palestinian terrorist bases in Lebanon on May 28, 2006, to retaliate against rocket attacks on its northern border. Lahoud responded by commending Hezbollah's "resistance" and criticized political forces calling for the party's disarmament.[16]

A New Relationship for a New Reality

As international pressure increased on both the Syrian regime and Hezbollah,[17] both parties retrenched their relationship. Their intimacy metamorphosed into a quasi-strategic relationship in which Hezbollah no longer remained the junior partner. Though Damascus could count on pro-Syrian officers in Lebanon's state institutions and pro-Syrian forces and parties, the Syrian army's withdrawal from Lebanon and the consolidation of a Lebanese nationalist opposition in parliament to the Syrian presence undercut Syria's position. Damascus needed Hezbollah should Syria wish to reclaim its "historical" role in Lebanon. And, while Syrian intelligence could activate its Palestinian allies inside Lebanon, these were not organic to Lebanon's society. Only Hezbollah could serve as the Trojan horse which could bring Syria back into Lebanon.

Recommitment to Iran accompanied Assad's increasing ties to Hezbollah. On February 26, 2004, the Syrian and Iranian governments signed a "memorandum of understanding" to outline expansion of bilateral defense cooperation—and to codify an Iranian commitment to protect Syria in case of attack by either Israel or the United States.[18] Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's January 2006 trip to Damascus further underlined the relationship.[19] In June 2006, the two countries signed a defense treaty. Cooperation between Tehran and Damascus continues to increase with both countries signing an additional defense protocol underlining their joint approach toward the United States and Israel.[20] In this approach, Hezbollah is a shared tool.

But whereas the Syrian regime sees its struggle as a fight for survival, the Iranian leadership is angling for regional hegemony. Damascus is the linchpin in the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis. Its location allows Syria to extend Iran's reach into the Levant, as well as to provide Arab nationalist cover for Iranian regional ambitions. But Syria is also the junior partner in the alliance. In the words of former Syrian vice-president Abdel Halim Khaddam: "Bashar Assad is not a strategic ally of Iran but only a strategic tool."[21] As Syrian troops left Lebanon, Damascus lost leverage over Hezbollah and some Palestinian groups operating there.

Still, the Syrian-Hezbollah relationship is important.[22] Hezbollah provides a means by which the Syrian government can exert pressure on the government of Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora. The group has impeded his ability to appoint anti-Syrian officials to sensitive posts. The Syrian government has also used Hezbollah to break the unity of Cedar Revolution forces. Hezbollah has significant room to maneuver as many Lebanese remain reluctant to confront it over its demands, fearing the renewal of civil and sectarian strife which cost 150,000 lives during the 1975-90 civil war.

It is in this context that the summer 2006 war erupted. Given the history of the Hezbollah-Syrian relationship and the recent subversive activities allegedly orchestrated by Syria in Lebanon, it is likely that senior Syrian officials knew beforehand about Hezbollah's cross-border operation into Israel that sparked the crisis. At the same time, it is also plausible that Hezbollah carried out the operation in order to deflect growing Lebanese domestic criticism over its arms and to highlight the need to preserve the party as a militia to defend Lebanon.[23] The two explanations are not mutually exclusive.

In the wake of the summer 2006 war, Hezbollah consolidated its position. Its ability to launch a war unilaterally undermined the position of Siniora's government as did the resulting political crisis although the war did create grumbling about Iran's sacrifice of Lebanon for greater Shi‘i interests.[24] The war augmented Hezbollah's stature—and therefore Syrian and Iranian influence—within Lebanon. In an article in An-Nahar, Mona Fayed, a Lebanese University professor, asked "Who is a Shiite in Lebanon today?" and suggested it is someone "who terrorizes coreligionists into silence and leads the nation into catastrophe without consulting anyone."[25] However, some officials, such as Christian leader Michel Aoun, sought closer alliance with Hezbollah and adopted many of their demands.[26]

The Syrian government has not hesitated to ride the wave of victory which Hezbollah claimed. While Nasrallah's declaration of victory may have been spurious given the destruction wrought upon both Lebanese infrastructure and Hezbollah members—he himself declared "had I known about the scope of Israel's response, we would not have kidnapped the two soldiers"[27]—the group could argue that not only had the Israeli government failed to achieve their objectives,[28] but Hezbollah had also become the first Arab "army" since 1948 to attack Haifa.

Assad embraced the new Hezbollah strategy. In an August 15, 2006 speech to the Syrian Journalists Union in Damascus, he supported Arab resistance as the new paradigm of Arab nationalist struggle against a weakened Israel. He criticized Arab leaders as "half men" who brought humiliation to the Arab world and lauded Hezbollah's achievements by reaffirming Syria's support of the "legitimacy of the central role of resistance as a viable alternative to conflict resolution when peace negotiations fail."[29] The Syrian leadership, which sought until summer 2006 to maintain a balance between its relationship with Iran and Arab states, has now cast its lot with Tehran.

Whatever semblance of national unity Lebanon had exhibited during the summer crisis dissipated upon the end of the crisis. Recriminations and counter-recriminations became a staple of Lebanese politics. At the heart of this charged political climate has been both a clash over the attempt by the government in Beirut and its Cedar Revolution allies to implement U.N. Security Council resolutions and establish an international tribunal[30] and also to prepare for the 2007 presidential elections which could create a showdown over whether or not the titular head of state remains a Syrian proxy. At a minimum, Hezbollah seeks veto power over government decisions under the pretext of national unity;[31] at a maximum, Hezbollah desires the collapse of the Siniora government. It was in this context that on November 30, 2006, Nasrallah called for a mass protest and sit-in in Beirut to topple the prime minister's government,[32] an action which many Lebanese nationalist activists labeled a "Syrian coup attempt."[33] Sporadic clashes continue.[34]

While the outcome of the struggle between pro- and anti-Syrian forces in Lebanon is unclear, the struggle reflects Syria's diminished status in the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis. On February 8, 2007, Lebanese authorities detained a truck transporting weapons to Hezbollah in violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701. Hezbollah confirmed that the weapons belonged to it but reiterated its right to fight to liberate "the remainder of occupied territories,"[35] a position the Lebanese cabinet endorsed before it supported U.N. Resolution 1701.[36] While the Lebanese government is emboldened to confront Syrian interests, Hezbollah's position remains secure. Given increased polarization of Lebanon's society, the group has become impervious to compromise.

Lebanese authorities have moved instead to confront other Syrian proxies. On February 13, 2007, terrorists bombed two commuter buses in Ain Alaq, a Christian town north of Beirut, killing three people and wounding twenty. Lebanese authorities arrested three Syrians, who confessed to being members of a new jihadist organization called Fatah al-Islam, and charged them with carrying out the bombing.[37] In May and June 2007, the same group became the focal point of an uprising in the Palestinian Nahr al-Bared refugee camp.[38] The Lebanese government, despite threats from Hezbollah,[39] continues to pursue formation of an international tribunal to hold Syrian officials accountable for Hariri's assassination. Hezbollah might have once been, in part, a Syrian proxy, but it is no longer the most vulnerable member of the axis. Syria is. While by no means sovereign, Hezbollah's embrace of Lebanese nationalism has augmented its stature at Syria's expense. Addressing members of parliament sympathetic to Siniora and to his demands for Syrian accountability, Hezbollah parliamentarian Ali Ammar remarked that the "sovereignty of Lebanon precedes the sovereignty of international institutions."[40] While Assad likewise ruled out cooperation with the international tribunal,[41] Hezbollah's obstructionism has become a more serious impediment to the tribunal's formation than Syrian complaints.

Patterns and Expectations

While Hezbollah may appear to be operating in Lebanon to safeguard the interests of the Syrian regime, deeper analysis suggests that Hezbollah's actions go beyond either protecting the Syrian regime or forcing the collapse of the Beirut government. Hezbollah has escalated its political brinkmanship far beyond what is needed to counteract the government's policies.

Hezbollah has, for example, changed its position on several sensitive national matters. Hezbollah denied that it ever supported Siniora's seven-point plan to end hostilities between it and Jerusalem in August 2006. It has tried to preempt the Lebanese government from placing the Shebaa Farms under U.N. jurisdiction in the event that Israel withdraws from the territory. After failing on January 23, 2007, to grind transportation to a halt in its attempt to extend authority over the entire country, Hezbollah dropped its demand that the pro-Syrian opposition should possess eleven ministries, giving it an effective veto. This is not a good sign: Rather than compromise with the Siniora government, Hezbollah is staking out a more maximalist position to eschew cooperation and instead dominate the country and transform its political character into an Iranian-style fundamentalist state. Nasrallah's speech of April 8, 2007, in which he sarcastically questioned whether or not to give the majority forces of the current government one-third of the cabinet seats in the forthcoming legislative elections, attests to his ambition to dominate Lebanon.[42]

To accomplish this, Hezbollah and its allies have called for more "democratic" measures, which they believe would advance the group's power: early national elections, direct presidential elections, and policy by referendum.[43] As the Shi‘a claim a plurality, Hezbollah believes that such measures could translate into irreversible power. At the same time, the group couples its quest for such reforms with its traditional reliance on military measures. Naim Qassem, Hezbollah's deputy secretary-general, brags that Hezbollah has "rebuilt its defenses in a way to respond to any new Israeli attack."[44] By keeping Lebanon in constant sociopolitical and military flux, Hezbollah believes it can whittle away at the power of the majority.

Against this backdrop, it becomes difficult to conceive that Damascus is behind Hezbollah's political challenge. This is not to deny that Damascus could use its agents in Lebanon to wreak havoc. But the reality is that Damascus—in contrast to the 1980s and 1990s—can no longer match its ability to inflict damage on Lebanon with an ability to force the major parties in the country (particularly Hezbollah) to reconcile as it did in 1989 when it helped broker the Ta'if accord. Syria's role in Lebanon today is far less powerful than it was then.

Rather, it is Tehran that is orchestrating and backing both Hezbollah and Assad's moves. The Iranian government is confident that the Bush administration is in deep crisis in the Middle East and will not be able to regain its capacity to "manage" the region before its term ends in January 2009. It also feels secure in its new influence in Lebanon where Tehran's agents have consolidated a state within a state. Here, the Islamic Republic has adopted Damascus's former role in the country and is sending a message to Washington as well as to Arab capitals that there can be no resolution to the crisis in Lebanon without Iranian involvement.

Robert G. Rabil is director of graduate studies and an assistant professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University. His most recent book is Syria, the United States, and the War on Terror in the Middle East (Praeger, 2006).

[1] Judith Palmer Harik, Hezbollah: The Changing Face of Terrorism (London: I.B. Tauris, 2004), p. 38.
[2] Robert Baer, "It's Not Syria's Problem Anymore," Newsweek International, Aug. 14, 2006.
[3] Ibid; Magnus Ranstorp, Hizb'allah in Lebanon: The Politics of the Western Hostage Crisis (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997), pp. 99-100.
[4] For a Hezbollah account of the incident, see Naim Qassem, Hizbullah: The Story from Within (London: Saqi, 2005), p. 240.
[5] Robert G. Rabil, "The Evolution of Hizbollah-Syrian Relations," paper presented at the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA CORP), Oct. 27, 2006 and at the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, CNO Executive Panel, U.S. Department of Navy, Nov. 17, 2006.
[6] Harik, Hezbollah, pp. 43-52.
[7] Gary C. Gambill, "Syria and the Shebaa Farms Dispute," Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, May 2001.
[8] As-Safir (Beirut), Mar. 27, 2003.
[9] Alfred B. Prados, Syria: U.S. Relations and Bilateral Issues, Congressional Research Service (Washington: The Library of Congress, Oct. 10, 2003), p. 6.
[10] Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003, Public Law 108–175, Dec. 12, 2003.
[11] U.N. Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1559, Sept. 2, 2004.
[12] Daily Star (Beirut), Jan. 29, Feb. 3, 2006.
[13] Peter Fitzgerald, "Report of the Fact-finding Mission to Lebanon Inquiring into the Causes, Circumstances and Consequences of the Assassination of Former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri," United Nations, New York, Mar. 24, 2005; Detlev Mehlis, "Report of the International Independent Investigation Commission Established Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1595 (2005)," United Nations, New York, Oct. 21, 2005 (hereafter "Mehlis Report.")
[14] Interviews by the author with a senior Lebanese army official and political activist, Beirut, June 30, July 10, 2006.
[15] Interview by the author with a senior Lebanese army official, Beirut, July 10, 2006; An-Nahar (Beirut), Mar. 3, 2005.
[16] Lahoud's statements on Lebanese Broadcasting Company International (LBCI) May 28, 29, 30, 2006.
[17] See U.N. Security Council S/Res/1636 (2005) and S/Res/1644 (2005); "Mehlis Report."
[18] Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA, Tehran), Feb. 29, 2004.
[19] Daily Star (Beirut), Jan. 20, 2006.
[20] An-Nahar, Mar. 13, 2007.
[21] Al-Mustaqbal (Beirut), June 5, 2006.
[22] Interview by the author with a senior Lebanese army official, Beirut, July 10, 2006.
[23] Emile El-Hokayem, "Hizballah and Syria: Outgrowing the Proxy Relationship," The Washington Quarterly, Spring 2007.
[24] Jihad al-Zein's letter, An-Nahar, July 26, 2006.
[25] An-Nahar, Aug. 7, 2006, in Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), Special Dispatch Series, no. 1258, Aug. 22, 2006.
[26] An-Nahar, Aug. 16, Sept. 25, Dec. 2, 2006; United Press International, Nov. 20, 2006.
[27] An-Nahar, Aug. 28, 2006.
[28] "Winograd Commission Interim Report," Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Apr. 30, 2007; Ha'artez (Tel Aviv), May 18, 2007.
[29] Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA, Damascus), Aug. 15, 2006.
[30] UNSCR 1559, Sept. 2, 2004; UNSCR 1701, Aug. 11, 2006.
[31] An-Nahar, Mar. 10, 2007.
[32] Al-Manar television (Beirut), Nov. 30, 2006.
[33] Al-Mustaqbal, Nov. 30, 2006.
[34] As-Safir, Jan. 24, 25, 2007; An-Nahar, Jan. 24, 25, 2007.
[35] An-Nahar, Feb. 9, 2007.
[36] As-Safir, July 26, 2005.
[37] As-Siyassa (Kuwait), Mar. 6, 2007.
[38] BBC News, May 21, 2007; Al-Jazeera (Riyadh), May 20, 2007.
[39] See Nasrallah speech, Al-Intiqad (Beirut), Apr. 11, 2007.
[40] Al-Intiqad, May 18, 2007.
[41] Al-Jazeera, May 30, 2007; Nahar.net, May 10, 2007.
[42] Al-Intiqad, Apr. 11, 2007.
[43] An-Nahar, Apr. 10, May 1, 2007.
[44] An-Nahar, May 6, 2007.