Evolving Alliance with Hezbollah
Syria’s alliance with Hezbollah has evolved significantly over time and it has depended on the level of power that Syria has had in politics of Lebanon. During the era when Syria’s influence on Lebanon was at its peak, in the 90s, Hezbollah acted as a weaker partner in the domestic affairs and they were more or less in the shadow of Syrian’s control of power. However, from 2000 their role in Lebanon grew remarkably, especially after the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and the death of Syrian president Hafez Assad.
In Lebanon, though, the alliance between Syria and Hezbollah appears to be a sort of equal partnership since the Syrians try to take advantage of Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah’s, to gather more domestic support.
It is important also to highlight the ties between Hezbollah and Iran, a country that shares mostly the same ideology and religious identity of Hezbollah. Starting from those intertwined relationships, the framework shows that Syria needs its strategic alliance with Iran and as a consequence of the ties that Hezbollah has with Iran, Syria has found it convenient to strengthen its relations even with Hezbollah groups. Mutual support, then, is what links the country of both Syria and Iran in order to guarantee Hezbollah the transshipment of arms from Iran to both Syria and Lebanon.
Nevertheless, Syria’s role in Lebanon is getting weaker than the past due to two main key factors: first, the compulsory Syrian military withdrawal; then, the escalating of power and influence of Hezbollah, its key ally, in the political scene. Taken together, these developments have reshaped the relationship, placing Hezbollah on more equal level with Syria and transforming the alliance into more of an equal partnership. Experts say that with the passing of time, Syria will likely rely increasingly on Hezbollah to guarantee that Syrian interests are protected, especially when its influence in Lebanon will decrease.
Despite these changes, there are also other reasons that explain the Syrian-Lebanese relationship, such as mutually dependent economies, strong family ties, arms smuggling and corruption networks that enrich elites on both sides of the border. As Lebanon’s internal situation grows more rapidly, the Syrian government aims to work against the establishment of a strong, democratic government in Lebanon, which would, thus, threaten its networks of corruption and patronage. Regarding the relationship with Syria and Hezbollah, the reason that shows the interest of both sides is that Hezbollah’s target is the struggle against Israel and it finds a strategic partnership with Syria, which had been engaged in the war against Israel in the past.
Who is to blame? A controversial issue
After the assassination of Hariri, the United Nation Security Council immediately reacted by condemning it as a “terrorist act” and sending a fact-finding mission to Beirut. Within two months, a formal UN investigation commission was set up not without creating strong and controversial accusations and criticism. The increase of such criticism came after the creation of a Special Tribunal for Lebanon (LTS), in 2007, which accused the political members working within the Syrian regime, together with their Lebanese allies, as the culprits of the assassination.
The last report of LTS was issued in 2011 and it blamed other four members of Hezbollah who were involved in the assassination, which is thought to be a terrorist attack planned by both Syria and Hezbollah members.
Unfortunately, the debate on the issue is rather controversial due to the fact that every part attacks the other and it is not just a clash between United Nation, International Community and the U.S. against Arab countries but the rivalries go deeply within those national contrapositions that show Syria blaming Israel as responsible for the assassination and so does Hezbollah.
Therefore, this debate and controversial issue even remarks the national sectarian antagonisms existing in Lebanon and whose fragmentation is portrayed in its government made of many parties with a weak leader.
The Sunni community, for instance, views the STL as integral to holding Hariri’s killers accountable, while Hezbollah and the Shiite community accuse the STL to be part of a conspiracy plan to weaken Hezbollah and remove it since it represents an obstacle to both the U.S. and Israeli policy in the Middle East. On the other side, the Druze community vacillates between the two positions.
Then, the Christian community is split: some leaders support the STL while others denies its legitimacy. As a result, many analysts were concerned that the STL would give birth to sectarian tensions and foster domestic instability in Lebanon instead of finding justice for a crime that is not a simple assassination but an even more intriguing issue, which mirrors the difficult relations between Syria and Lebanon, including either their allies or enemies.