Expert Commentary

Axis of Resistance: The Hezbollah-Iran-Syria Relationship

Steven Ward
Former Senior Analyst, CIA

Tehran likes to style the alliance between itself, Hezbollah, and the Assad regime in Syria as the core of an “Axis of Resistance.” The name tries to evoke the strength of will to confront, if not overthrow, foreign occupiers and oppressors—that is Israel and the United States—by Iran and its regional partners and proxies. Hezbollah has been the most active and effective anti-Israel and anti-U.S. participant in this Iranian and Syrian supported resistance since the group’s formation in the early 1980s.

Another definition of resistance, however, is a measure of the difficulty a power source faces in forcing electric current through a circuit. In other words, the amount of power lost or wasted in an endeavor. Amid the continuing chaos in Syria, this second meaning may be more relevant to describing the transitions within the relationship among these three allies, especially Hezbollah.  For Washington, a dissipation of Hezbollah’s power is, at best, a mixed blessing because, as Daniel Byman of Brookings has pointed out, the group is one of the Islamic State’s most formidable foes and is a barrier to Syria’s violence spreading to a vulnerable Lebanon.

Before Hezbollah’s creation, Lebanon, Syria, and Iran had longstanding ties, and in the case of Shia clerics, these links went back centuries. In the 1970s, radical Lebanese Shia, and later the Syrian regime of Hafez al-Assad, aided many of the future leaders of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution when they traveled to southern Lebanon to train in guerrilla tactics with the Palestine Liberation Organization. Among those who aided the Iranian Islamic activists was Lebanese cleric Musa al-Sadr, who was born and trained in Iran. Sadr also helped to politically organize both Lebanon’s Shia, and, after his country descended into civil war in the mid-1970s, the Amal militia from which many future Hezbollah fighters would emerge. Sadr had earlier assisted Assad, a member of the small Alawite sect, by issuing a religious decree that Alawites were Shia—and therefore Muslim—to bolster Assad’s legitimacy as Syria’s ruler.

Following the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Hezbollah was created with help from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), receiving military assistance, training, and financial support from the Islamic Republic of Iran and Syria. Tehran and Damascus encouraged the group to attack Lebanese, Israeli, and Western targets, such as the U.S. Embassy and Marine Barracks in Beirut, to make the Israeli occupation costly, undermine U.S. willingness to remain in Lebanon, and prevent the emergence of a Lebanese government willing to sign a peace treaty with Israel.

As Hezbollah became a powerful guerrilla and terrorist group, its domestic appeal was increased with Tehran’s help in developing social welfare services and establishing fundraising networks. Over time, these efforts, some abetted by Damascus, made Hezbollah into its current mix of military organization, terrorist group, social welfare agency, and political party. By the mid-1980s, Hezbollah, which shared Iran’s ideology and anti-Western worldview, was a devoted Iranian proxy that pledged its absolute loyalty to Iran’s Supreme Leader.

Apart from Hezbollah’s and Iran’s ideological affinity, the Hezbollah-Syria-Iran relationship was based on pragmatic considerations for addressing each party’s need to survive, but its course was seldom smooth. After its formation, Hezbollah’s interests occasionally clashed with those of its patrons in Damascus, who viewed Lebanon as part of Syria’s sphere of influence. Throughout the 1980s the Assad regime favored Hezbollah’s rival, Amal, and while happy to support Hezbollah’s battles with Israel, was wary of the potential consequences of some of the group’s terrorist activities. Syrian troops even clashed with Hezbollah’s forces in West Beirut in 1987, in part, to demonstrate Damascus’ predominant role in Lebanon and in the relationship.

During the same decade, Iran was in a stalemated war with Iraq and depended on Syria as a critical ally against their common foe, Saddam Hussein. Syria’s role as one of Iran’s few Arab friends and its central position as a transit point between Iran and Lebanon gave Damascus the stronger position in the relationship. Syria, meanwhile, counted on the Islamic Republic’s shared antipathy toward Israel to make it a replacement ally for Egypt, which had signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.

Between the late 1980s and the start of the Syrian civil war, Hezbollah continued to receive money, arms, and training from Iran and to a lesser degree, Syria. For much of that period through 2005, the group cooperated with Syrian occupation forces in Lebanon and continued to conduct anti-Israel terrorism, often at Syrian behest, to press Israel on matters of interest to Damascus. After Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father, Damascus continued to support Hezbollah as a tool against Israel, promoting its collaboration with Syrian-supported Palestinian terrorist violence in the West Bank and Gaza after Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000.

Iranian financial support is believed to have ranged between $60 million and $200 million a year, and this figure probably includes funds that support Hezbollah’s social service network. The money and direct transfers from Iran and Syria expanded Hezbollah’s inventory of arms to include ballistic, anti-tank, and anti-ship cruise missiles, rockets, man-portable air defense systems, and other advanced military equipment. With this assistance, much of which transited Syria and kept Damascus in a strong position in the relationship, Hezbollah developed a small core of full-time, highly trained and highly motivated fighters, backed by part-time reserves.

Their organization, equipment, and training allowed the group to move beyond terrorism to irregular warfare during years of conflict with Israeli occupation forces, including Israel’s 1996 Grapes of Wrath campaign. During the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, the group used elaborate bunker systems, rockets, anti-tank weapons, and well-designed explosive mines capable of crippling Israeli tanks to stymie Israeli ground forces and frustrate Israeli air attacks while maintaining heavy rocket barrages of northern Israel for the course of the month-long conflict. Hezbollah’s claimed victory temporarily increased its and Tehran’s standing in the Arab world, while increasing Iran’s deterrence against threatened Israeli attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities.

In the years preceding the start of the Syrian civil war, however, the relationship had already started to shift. Damascus began to lose its dominant position as the West increasingly isolated the regime of Bashar al-Assad and placed it under economic sanctions after 2001 for its support to terrorism and suspected weapons programs. Hezbollah continued to share Iran’s anti-U.S. and anti-Israeli hostility and to take ideological and strategic direction from Tehran. But, the group’s growing political role in Lebanon, along with the decline in Syria’s influence in the country following the removal of its troops in 2005, created Hezbollah’s own separate interests. Tehran recognized this change and increasingly treated Hezbollah more as a partner to consult than as a proxy to direct.

Iran, meanwhile, had opportunistically taken advantage of the U.S. destruction of Saddam’s regime to extend its influence into Iraq. This, however, had an adverse impact on the three-way relationship by heightening Sunni Arab fears about Iranian power and an evolving “Shia Crescent” of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. After the turmoil of the Arab Spring in 2011, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states were determined to reclaim Sunni power in the crescent, and the minority Alawite regime in Damascus appeared vulnerable.

Hezbollah now must deal with the effects of the Syrian civil war and the larger Saudi-Iranian proxy war of which it has become a part. Syria is a broke and broken state that depends on Hezbollah—and Iran and Russia—for military support. An overstretched Iran also depends on Hezbollah to provide well-trained Arabic-speaking fighters to work with the IRGC in mobilizing Syrian militias to battle the rebels. At the same time, Tehran still looks to Hezbollah to maintain the capabilities to threaten and deter Israel. And while the group’s aid has helped keep Assad in power, Hezbollah’s home turf faces increasing problems from the terrorism threat of Islamic extremists, a flood of arms from Syria into Lebanon, the influx of Syrian refugees, increasing communal violence, and an ongoing political crisis in Beirut. Even its financial network has been under attack, as the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration arrested several Hezbollah members in Europe last February for laundering millions of dollars from the sale of cocaine in the United States and Europe to buy weapons in Syria.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah’s standing in the majority Sunni Arab and Muslim world, once high because of its battles with Israel, has fallen precipitously now that it is associated with Iran as a Shia threat. And, on top of this, Hezbollah is estimated to have suffered between 1,000 and 1,500 casualties in Syria since it entered the conflict. To keep up with these losses and the high operational tempo, Hezbollah is estimated to have expanded its military wing from 15,000 to 20,000 trained fighters—with all of the attendant costs—to keep a force of about 4,000 to 5,000 in Syria on a rotating basis.

Hezbollah appears aware of the power that is being dissipated in Syria, but it has no good option other than to continue to fight. As a defender of Lebanese Shia, Hezbollah sees itself in an existential battle against the Islamic State and other Sunni extremists bent on crushing the Shia sect.  Hezbollah is seeking to stop the extremists in Syria so it will not have to face their suicide bombings and other atrocities in Lebanon. This approach mirrors Iran’s longstanding rationale for the “Axis of Resistance”—use other countries to provide strategic depth and serve in the front line trenches to keep war away from the homeland.                                

At the same time, however, the group risks losing support at home. In their increasingly polarized country, many Lebanese are opposed to Hezbollah’s relationship to Damascus and its actions in Syria and Lebanon. The group initially hid its involvement in Syria, fearing damage to its political position in Beirut with the anti-Syrian factions there. In addition, while Lebanese Shia welcome Hezbollah’s defense against the Sunni extremist threat, popular sentiment seems to be that the group should avoid conflict with Israel, not just because of the Syrian civil war but because of the strong Israeli deterrent posture.

Of course, there is another way to think about resistance and that is, as in physical training, an external force that builds muscle. Hezbollah eventually will recover from the Syrian civil war when the fighting finally stops. Israeli security officials are already concerned that Hezbollah fighters have gained valuable combat experience. Indeed, despite its losses and the other costs of the conflict, the group could emerge with a large number of battle-tested fighters using new tactics, advanced weapons and drones, and more sophisticated command and control structures. Such improvements would make Hezbollah an ever more formidable military force capable of a wider range of operations.

And, while Hezbollah’s focus has been on counterinsurgency warfare not well matched to confronting Israeli conventional forces head on, the civil war in Syria may present the group with opportunities to create more problems for Israel. For example, Hezbollah may be able to collect previously unavailable weapon systems, such as surface-to-air missiles, from Syrian military inventories. Or it might create alliances with the recently established pro-government paramilitary forces in Syria to provide additional support in the event of a conflict with Israel. The challenge for U.S. policymakers then is to help bring about a peace in Syria that maintains Hezbollah’s current reluctance to spark yet another war with Israel. 

The Author is Steven Ward

Steven R. Ward, a retired senior CIA analyst, is a consultant and instructor. He is the author of Immortal: A Military History of Iran and Its Armed Forces (Georgetown University Press).

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