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Rami Khouri on Hezbollah’s Next Move in Syria

Earlier this month, the Syrian Army and fighters from militant Lebanese group Hezbollah declared victory over opposition forces after a 17-day battle in Qusayr, marking a win for Hezbollah in its first active engagement in the Syrian conflict and the latest in a string of morale-shaking losses for the Free Syrian Army. Controlling the strategically-located village (it’s five miles north of the Lebanese border) will help Bashar al-Assad’s regime control the highway that links Damascus, the capitol, to Tartous, a still-‘safe’ city in Assad’s home province of Latakia. It will also cut a main artery of weapons and fighters from Lebanon.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, speaks with Syria Deeply managing editor Karen Leigh about the battle between the Syrian army/Hezbollah and opposition forces in Qusayr, and Hezbollah’s next step.

Karen Leigh: What happens next?

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Rami Khouri: We don’t know what Hezbollah will do next in Syria. There are many reports in the media,most of which are speculation, that they may continue to fight in other places, in Aleppo and Deraa and around Damascus. Or they might just go back now, and it’s possible they only fought in Qusayr because it was strategically important to Hezbollah.

We don’t know if Hezbollah is going to fight other battles inside Syria to protect the Syrian regime. If they don’t, if they pull back now, then things will probably cool down. But if they do continue fighting, and if they escalate the level of their involvement, most assumptions are that they will send [a few thousand] troops to Syria. If they do that, you’re going to have a problem with serious consequences.

[As to] what those consequences could be, there are many possible outcomes. Three things have already happened:

You’ve had internal Lebanese parties who are opponents of Hezbollah and [who] have been for some years taking a more aggressive stand against Hezbollah politically and rhetorically, and some of them by fighting on the ground in the border area. There were a couple rockets fired at Hezbollah’s heartland in Beirut [last month]. We don’t know who fired them. [The sectarian fighting in the Northern city of Tripoli] was going on before the war, but it’s gotten much more serious.

So you could have people in Lebanon fighting against Hezbollah, you could have the Free Syrian Army and opposition groups fighting against Hezbollah in Lebanon or Syria, and you could have a wider regional Sunni–Shia escalation of rhetoric, tension or military clashes. Because you’ve already had major figures in the Gulf, like the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, saying that able-bodied Muslim Sunni men should go fight the Jihad against Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. In Syria.

So you have these three levels of escalation that could happen, and we have to wait and see which elements materialize. Or there could be other manifestations that are not clear. Clearly Hezbollah’s fighting in Syria opens up all kinds of dangerous new possibilities. But Hezbollah doesn’t particularly care, and is doing this because for itself it’s an existential threat if the Syrian regime is overthrown, and therefore they’re going to fight to the end to keep it in place.

KL: Were you expecting this victory to be declared this week, or did that come sooner than people had thought?

RK: The reality of that military victory in Qusayr is that it took them almost two and a half weeks. The Syrian army has massive amounts of men and machines, much higher capability than the FSA and opposition, thousands of Hezbollah guys, Iranian help and the Russians at the United Nations vetoing a move to allow humanitarian aid to move in and get out the wounded and dead. With all of these things, it still took them two and a half weeks. So I think the military victory is actually a sign of Syrian weakness, not Syrian strength.

KL: What’s Hezbollah’s next move? What do you think we’ll see happen in the next few weeks?

RK: They’re very secretive. They are clearly analyzing the political repercussions of Qusayr. They’ve had a lot of opposition to it, very vocal, in Lebanon and around the word. They lost quite a few troops – it’s not 10 and it’s not 500, but somewhere in between, probably 100 or more. It’s a significant number. And they’ve gotten some criticism for that from many people in Lebanon. [There are] even some quiet rumblings and complaints from their own supporters, [the] Shiite Lebanese who are Hezbollah supporters, but are wondering, Why are our best young men dying in Syria? We thought they were trying to fight Israel.

So [Hezbollah is] obviously weighing the political consequences of its move before it makes any other move, and my guess is they’re going to be much more careful. If they do get involved in any more fighting in Syria, I don’t think they’re going to send thousands and thousands of men. They’re not a standing army. They don’t have battalions that they can call on to send into battle. They’re a citizen resistance army, mostly based in South Lebanon and directed primarily at fighting Israeli occupation.

So for them to send troops to Syria to fight Arab opponents in an offensive rather than a defensive manner is completely against everything that they’ve done, and raises serious political objections from many people, including from some of their own supporters. So they’re going to be very careful about what they do next. Hezbollah is very good at resistance. They’re not really that good at politics yet. They’re still learning how to negotiate politically, to make compromises, to make deals, to [hear] public opinion, in Lebanon and the region. They don’t have the same proven skills [in the political arena] that they do in military resistance.

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