Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Syrian conflict and Hezbollah: Are there winners in the Syrian conflict?







The Syrian conflict and Hezbollah: Are there winners in the Syrian conflict?*

The Wall Street Journal is one of America’s finest papers. It is also the paper with the biggest paid circulation. Even those who are liberal and not fond of its editorial policies have to admit that the reporting is professional, objective and accurate. There is a so-called Chinese wall between editorial writing and news writing.

Inaccurate and Unbalanced

On the Middle East, the Journal has good writers that have written deep and incisive pieces on the region. Understandably, Syria and Iraq get the bulk of the attention in Middle East reporting. One of the Journal’s reporters in the region is Maria Abi Habib. Recently, she wrote a piece on the Syrian conflict. Her thesis was that Hezbollah is the winner in the Syrian conflict. It seemed as if it was written by Hezbollah's PR department to raise the morale of its fighters and its core constituency.

The page one article by Maria Abi-Habib was entitled “A winner in Syria’s civil war: Hezbollah,” and it appeared in the paper of April 3, 2017. Abi-Habib article was an inaccurate and unbalanced report that overlooked the major losses and challenges Hezbollah is confronted with due to its immersion in the Syrian quagmire. Abi-Habib claimed that the intervention in the conflict strengthened the group. Far from strengthening it, the involvement has been costing it dearly and has weakened it.

Iran’s franchise

 In her article, Abi-Habib repeated a widespread myth in Middle East studies. She stated as settled fact that Hezbollah was founded in the 1980s to “fight Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon.” That is completely not true. The group was founded by Iran in its effort to export its revolution in the Arab world. Before Hezbollah the leading Shiite political group in Lebanon was the Amal Movement, founded by Sayed Musa al Sadr. The Amal Movement, beginning with Sayed Musa, allied itself with the Syrian regime. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard were providing military training and indoctrination of Shiites in the Bekaa valley. Amal, while not antagonistic to Iran, valued its Lebanese and Arab identity and refused to become an Iranian proxy. There are two excellent books on Lebanese Shiites that must be read by those who care to understand the community- one is Fouad Ajami’s The Vanished Imam and Shi'ite Lebanon: Transnational Religion and the Making of National Identities by Roschanack Shaery-Eisenlohr. Eisenlohr’s is especially useful in understanding the political dynamics of the Shiite community and its complicated relationship with Iran.

The myth of the Israeli occupation as the reason for the existence of the group is also belied by the fact that Iran has set up other Hezbollah franchises in the Arab world in countries that never had an Israeli occupation. The only successful franchise was in Lebanon due to the weakness of the state and the nature of the Lebanese political system. The Israeli occupation provided a pretext to build the capacity of the group to the level that it is today.
Iran: Ideology, weapons and funds

The group had no choice but to intervene in Syria. The strategic decision was taken by Iran. There was no room for dissent since the group gets its ideology, weapons and funding from the Iranian regime that is led by an infallible leader. Important Lebanese voices have spoken against the group’s involvement in the Syrian war. Former top security official and former Justice minister Ashraf Rifi warned the group that involvement in the Syrian war is akin to committing suicide and invites retaliation against the Lebanese by the Syrian opposition. A former leader of the group, Sobhi Tofaili, also criticized the group with very strong language. 
Constrained finances, ballooning liabilities

Abi-Habib claims that the group is the “winner” of Syria’s war and “has grown stronger fighting Syrian rebels.” Far from it. Thousands of its fighters have been killed or injured in Syria, many permanently disabled. Hezbollah is on the hook financially to provide for the families of its war dead and injured while facing dwindling financial resources. As far back as 2015 Newsweek reported on the group’s financial difficulties: ‘"Now our family only gets half of the medical care and medicine that we need,” she says. "This used to come every month without any problems, but today we are suffering." She’s not the only one. As critics continue to blast the party for the war in Syria, the slowdown has also led to a gradual reduction in social services, along with payments to Lebanese political allies. One Druze politician allied with Hezbollah used to receive $60,000 per month from the group, according to Khalil and a Lebanese political source close to the party. Today he gets just $20,000 each month. Both claim that another Lebanese politician used to get a monthly stipend of $40,000 but now must settle for $15,000.’

It has steadily gotten worse for the group. The arrest of its major financier Kassim Tajideen and his extradition to the US is part of several successful and effective measures to clamp down on its finances. This increased financial pressure coincides with increasing financial liabilities due to the Syria war- not a recipe for strength. Also, in addition to the thousands of dead and injured, the group has lost top operational commanders in Syria including Imad Moghnieh and his successor Mustapha Badreddine.   

The biggest Loser: Soft power

Most importantly the group has lost its soft power in the Arab and Muslim world. The group used to be immensely popular but after its involvement in Syria there was a tidal shift in Arab opinion away from the group and not just among the viewers of al Jazeera. A testament to this loss of soft power is the Arab Gulf Cooperation Council classifying it as a terrorist group and clamping down on its financial supporters and many others in its core constituency.

There are simply no winners in the Syrian quagmire. 
*A part of this entry appeared as a letter to the editor in The Wall Street Journal of April 13, 2017.
Abi Habib's article:

https://www.wsj.com/articles/syrias-civil-war-produces-a-clear-winner-hezbollah-1491173790



https://www.wsj.com/articles/there-are-simply-no-winners-in-syrian-war-1492122812



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