BEIRUT: What Hezbollah will do if and when the regime of Syria’s embattled President Bashar Assad is toppled by the widening armed rebellion is of increasing concern to the Lebanese.
Also, Arab and foreign countries have repeatedly voiced concerns through their ambassadors in Beirut over the country’s stability and security in a post-Assad era.
The issue has gained much credence in recent weeks amid growing signs pointing to predictions of the “imminent collapse” of the Assad regime by senior Western officials as well as Syrian rebel and opposition groups.
The past few weeks have witnessed major developments in favor of the Syrian opposition, auguring ill for the Assad regime, which has clearly failed to crush the rising popular uprising despite the excessive use of military force, including warplanes to pound rebel positions since the revolt began in March 2011.
Political analysts told The Daily Star that Hezbollah was positioning itself to deal with the possible collapse of the Assad regime and the consequences for Lebanon, including a change in the balance of power in favor of the party’s opponents in the March 14 camp.
While they ruled out the possibility of a Hezbollah attempt to take over power in response to the fall of the regime in Syria, the analysts warned that the party would react in a military manner if provoked.
“Hezbollah will not react to the fall of the Assad regime by attempting to seize power in Lebanon unless provoked by local Lebanese adversaries,” said Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. “The party will not use its military power to take over the political system unless it is provoked. If provoked, Hezbollah will react in a military way like what it did in May 2008,” he added.
Khashan was referring to the street clashes between pro- and anti-government gunmen in Beirut in May 2008 after Hezbollah fighters briefly took over west Beirut to protest a government decision to dismantle the party’s private telecommunications network. More than 80 people were killed in Beirut and Mount Lebanon.
“What Hezbollah will do is contingent on what the March 14 coalition will do. If they [March 14 parties] try to monopolize power in Lebanon or jeopardize the party’s position, Hezbollah will respond,” Khashan said.
Fadia Kiwan, head of the political science department at Saint Joseph University, also ruled out a Hezbollah military action to control Lebanon in a post-Assad Syria. She said Hezbollah was keeping a low profile internally, while closely following up the military developments in Syria and positioning itself for Assad’s possible downfall.
“With the collapse of the regime in Syria, Hezbollah will be cornered politically to make many concessions in order to arrive at an internal settlement on the shape of a new government,” Kiwan told The Daily Star.
“But if provoked, particularly with fresh calls to hand over its arms, Hezbollah will react in an appropriate manner,” she said.
A similar view was echoed by Simon Haddad, professor of political science at AUB, who said Hezbollah was worried about the emergence of “a hostile regime” in a post-Assad Syria.
“The downfall of the regime in Syria is a matter of time. Hezbollah is preparing itself for facing the security and political repercussions of the regime’s fall in Lebanon,” Haddad told The Daily Star.
He said a Hezbollah military reaction to the fall of the Syrian regime seemed remote.
“The situation since the May 7 [2008 clashes] has changed and most Arab countries have become hostile to Hezbollah because of its support for the Assad regime,” Haddad added.
“Hezbollah is ready to accept political changes in Lebanon and will be in a defensive position after the downfall of the regime in Syria,” Haddad said. “But if it comes under a military attack by an internal party, Hezbollah will respond,” he added.
Hezbollah officials contacted by The Daily Star refused to discuss the party’s options in a post-Assad Syria, noting that they did not expect the regime to fall in the first place. “When and if it happens, we will act accordingly,” a Hezbollah official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
However, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah has sought to reassure worried Lebanese that the party will not attempt to seize power in Lebanon.
Referring to Hezbollah’s brief takeover of west Beirut during the 2008 May clashes, Nasrallah said in a recent speech: “We had a chance to take over power in 2008, but we did not do it.”
He reiterated this position last month, calling the party’s attempt to seize power in Lebanon an act of “madness.”
“Hezbollah’s experience in politics does not qualify it so far to lead Lebanon. It is madness to think that Hezbollah wants to take over power in Lebanon because experience has proved that no party or a Lebanese sect can rule Lebanon alone,” Nasrallah said during an open dialogue with university students on Dec. 7.
The fast-moving developments in Syria have focused attention on the dire consequences of Assad’s downfall at the local and regional levels.
Strategically, Hezbollah and its regional master, Iran, have the most to lose, while their regional foe Saudi Arabia has the most to gain from regime change in Syria.
A hostile post-Assad Syria would deprive Hezbollah of its only land supply route and deny Iran its main access to an Arab world long suspicious of Tehran’s expansionist designs.
The rise of a hostile regime in Syria, even a moderate Sunni-dominated government, would tilt the balance of power in Lebanon in favor of Hezbollah’s political opponents, presenting the party with a tough challenge.
Clearly, the uprising in Syria has put Hezbollah on the defensive, greatly tarnishing its image in the Arab world as a popular resistance movement against Israeli occupation because of its staunch support for the Assad regime.
The group’s siding with the Assad regime in its current military confrontation with the rebels, ran in sharp contrast with Hezbollah’s declared support for Arab revolts in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain.
“Hezbollah’s fate depends in part on the outcome of the Syrian crisis. If rebels defeat the Assad regime, the group might have to reconsider its political and strategic options,” Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, wrote in an article last month. “If the Assad regime survives, Hezbollah will likely be reinforced,” he said.
Khashan, the AUB professor, said a regime change in Syria would weaken Hezbollah politically in Lebanon “but not to the point of empowering the March 14 coalition.”
“The situation in Lebanon is extremely tense. Hezbollah is keeping a low profile and will not provoke anybody,” he said. “Hezbollah’s main concern is to keep its arms and to be left alone.”
Khashan said the fall of the Assad regime may not necessarily mean tipping the balance of power in Lebanon. “Only if the Sunnis take full charge in Syria, one can talk about a change in the balance of power in Lebanon,” he said. “It depends on what the post-Assad Syria will look like.”
Talal Atrissi, an expert on Iran and Middle East affairs, said Hezbollah is preparing for all eventualities, including the collapse of the Assad regime.
“Hezbollah is preparing for a possible dialogue and understanding with the forces that will take over power in Syria. It is also readying itself for the possibility of a military confrontation with these forces if they opted for a confrontation through the March 14 parties and Lebanon’s Salafist forces that are allied with the Syrian opposition forces,” Atrissi told The Daily Star.
“Hezbollah’s response depends on how Syria’s new rulers as well as the March 14 parties and the Salafist forces allied with the Syrian opposition will react,” he said.
Atrissi added that Hezbollah would respond to any attempt to “besiege it politically in Lebanon.”
“If Hezbollah is attacked by a Lebanese party backed by the Syrian opposition forces, it will respond fiercely,” he said. “At the same time, the party is ready for dialogue and cooperation with the new [ruling] forces in Syria if they wanted.”
Tewfic Hindi, a Lebanese politician close to the opposition March 14 coalition, said a regime change in Syria was inevitable, adding that Hezbollah was acting to pre-empt the consequences of the regime’s fall.
“Hezbollah is offering a full package to the March 14 coalition ahead of the regime’s fall: A new electoral law, elections with predetermined results, the formation of a new Cabinet, and probably an agreement on a new president,” Hindi told The Daily Star.
“If the March 14 coalition agrees to such a package, it’s fine. If not, Hezbollah will try to prevent [this year’s] elections from being held by destabilizing the situation,” he said.
He ruled out “a military adventure” by Hezbollah to take over power in Lebanon, even though the toppling of the Assad regime would put the party in “a difficult position.”