By Gabrielle Chefitz
Editor’s note: GPS intern Gabrielle Chefitz speaks with RAND Corporation analyst Julie Taylor about Hezbollah, civil war in Syria and the dangerous uptick of violence in Lebanon.
What was behind the recent EU decision to designate Hezbollah a terrorist organization?
For a long time, the United States has had Hezbollah listed as a terrorist organization. The Europeans had not. And one of the reasons why is because the EU highly values having open diplomatic channels, and cutting-off relations with a group that plays an important role in the Lebanese government restricts the EU’s ability to influence events in Lebanon.
After the Hezbollah terrorist attack on Israelis in Bulgaria [last July], the EU was under pressure to change its position. It took a middle path and only listed Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist organization, not the party as a whole. There are fears that this will isolate Hezbollah. [But] what I think is most important about the announcement is that this is coming at a time when Hezbollah members and supporters are being assassinated and kidnapped by Sunni extremist groups and Free Syrian Army sympathizers, both in Lebanon and Syria. While the extremists and FSA-Sympathizers aren’t necessarily working in tandem, these aren’t simply retaliatory attacks due to events in Syria: they are a deliberate campaign to try and draw Shiite Hezbollah into a more direct sectarian confrontation with Lebanon’s Sunni population.
What would be the benefits of a direct confrontation?
That it would further isolate Hezbollah. Even some Shi’as were against Hezbollah becoming involved in Syria. And so they are hoping that provoking Hezbollah will at the very least make it pay a strong political price inside of Lebanon. It could become much more difficult for the party’s coalition partners to stay with Hezbollah. There might be strong pressure on them to break off.
So, what is Hezbollah involvement in the Syrian conflict?
Hezbollah fighters have been crossing over into Syria since the conflict began, but their formal entrance into the conflict in May has provided pro-Assad forces a surge of momentum. They played a pivotal role in helping the Syrian Army retake Qusayr, a town that rebels had controlled for a year.
Is Hezbollah tipping the balance? Can the rebels still win?
I think the rebels cannot win this at this time. I think they could have won, but that time has passed. And the most important reason why is because the outcome of the war is more critical to supporters of the al-Assad regime – Iran and Hezbollah – than it is to the backers of the FSA-Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and the West. This isn’t an existential issue or the most important issue for any of the rebels’ external supporters. While Saudi Arabia and Qatar would like to contain Iranian influence in the region, it doesn’t imperil their regimes if al-Assad stays.
Why is Syria so important for Iran?
Syria’s real significance to Iran is that it’s the corridor through which they supply Hezbollah. Hezbollah forces, and the missiles Iran has inside of Lebanon, are Iran’s frontline defense against an Israeli attack. At least, that is how they see it. And so for them this is an existential issue because removal of the missiles makes them vulnerable. They might be open to having al-Assad step down as long as his regime is replaced by a government that is mindful of Iranian concerns, but they can’t have Hezbollah’s position in Lebanon threatened or the missiles put at risk. And so they will become much more actively involved. And if you have direct Iranian involvement in Lebanon, that just feeds the flames of this sectarian conflict.
Will Israel respond if Iran escalates its involvement?
It would be very difficult for Israel to not be involved. Right now, the Obama administration’s vacillation on the Syria issue makes it very unclear how they would get involved in a Lebanese conflict. So far, the Obama administration has strongly encouraged neutrality for all foreign parties who have an interest in Lebanon. But once Iran is directly involved I think it could be a very different picture for the United States.
How long could this fight last?
I don’t know, but the Lebanese civil war lasted for 15 years.
How much of the current sectarian struggle in Lebanon can be seen as an extension of that civil war?
It would open up all of the issues of the past, none of which were satisfactorily resolved by the Taif Agreement which ended the Lebanese civil war in 1990. But you have an additional destabilizing element that was not there before, which is the potential for rapid growth of jihadist groups inside Lebanon and for this to become a new front in the global jihad- and not just Lebanese jihadists, but for groups outside as well. If you had a front open up in which Iran and Hezbollah could be fought directly, that might be very attractive to Sunni jihadists.
Could this conflict continue to escalate? Is another civil war a possibility?
I think it could. I’m concerned about these tit-for-tat attacks: the assassinations, car bombings and kidnappings. Eventually, something will tip the balance and Hezbollah will feel its needs to react violently.
Why isn’t this getting more attention?
The situation in Syria has grown very ugly, so for good reason, it’s receiving most of the attention. The situation in Lebanon is very complicated, so I think that's another factor that keeps people from really understanding what’s going on. Plus, in Lebanon there’s always been a bit of instability. There’s always been periodic bombings and assassinations, so people may not realize that this is a very dangerous uptick.