As of 2017, Hezbollah is all-in with the Syrian civil war. The Party of God’s involvement has been a source of irritation for many: for those who wish to see the Assad regime gone, it’s another obstacle; while for those who just want a political settlement in Syria, it’s a potential spoiler. But perhaps the most serious issue is that the Syrian civil war has made Hezbollah’s future harder to read, and the changes that the organisation has undergone bring uncertainty about what it will do when the war finally winds down.
The most obvious change has been the shift within the party’s ranks. After six years in Syria, several prominent figures lie dead. Some were killed by other actors—the son of prominent operative Imad Mughniyeh, Jihad Mughniyeh, was killed by the Israeli Defence Force in 2015; while veteran fighter Samir Kuntar was also killed that same year. Others have been killed by internal squabbles—dissenting views about tactics or strategy have occasionally been too much for the leadership, leading to the deaths of those who voiced them.
These losses won’t be a major issue in the short term, and wartime pragmatism means that Hezbollah’s activities will be dictated by its strategic interests—propping up Assad and guaranteeing continued Iranian support—for the time being. But in the long term, the party’s direction will be connected to ideological debates within it, and the outcome of these debates will be shaped by the internal balance of the party. The loss of respected middle-level voices will shift this balance to a yet-unclear degree, making the direction to be taken by the party after the war ends impossible to ascertain.
Alongside the internal shifts, Hezbollah’s domestic political position has also changed, and there are looming questions about how Hezbollah will guarantee domestic support as it sends Lebanese to die for Iranian or Syrian interests. This isn’t to say that Hezbollah is about to lose its base to decidedly un-Islamist parties like Lebanese Forces or Kataeb, but it means that Hezbollah is at risk of creating an image problem for itself. It’s likely that the party leadership are aware of this, but how they’ll manage it after the war is another question.
Hezbollah could take the problem in its stride, and shout critics down as it did in the past. But should the political blowback of the Syrian civil war prove too much, it may decide that talk of war with Israel should transform into action, and attempt to launch a war for the sake of a domestic political outcome. This possibility is troubling, given its likely consequences. Yet worse is the fact that between the talk of war and the shifting internal balance discussed above, it’s impossible to give a clear reading of whether Hezbollah will give it serious thought.
But perhaps the most severe change of all is that in Hezbollah’s military capabilities. This is largely because of Russian involvement in the Syrian civil war: seeking to prop up their partners as much as possible, Russian advisors have helped Hezbollah become a more professional force, while Russian light and heavy weapons systems are allegedly making their way to Hezbollah in Lebanon despite efforts to stop the transfers. As a result, Hezbollah has capability it previously lacked, and decisions to attack its main enemy—Israel—will likely not be constrained by severe power imbalances in future.
The question this begs is whether this near-parity with Israel will change Hezbollah’s judgments about the advisability of war. This question was easier to answer a decade ago—after the 2006 war, there was an internal view that just because Hezbollah can do something, doesn’t mean it should. But this view was arrived at in a very different strategic reality—Hezbollah couldn’t match the threat of the IDF as it might now. Thus, as Hezbollah’s new capabilities shift the balance of threat between it and Israel, and as recent statements by party chairman Hassan Nasrallah don’t indicate a sharp change in strategic thinking, a question once thought answered is again wide open.
The big question was never whether Hezbollah would survive the Syrian civil war—the organisation had strategic and political depth which meant the costs of war would always be bearable. Rather, the question is about what the organisation will do after the war. And after six years of involvement, the changes Hezbollah has undergone have turned that question into one with no clear answer.
Phillip Etches is an International Security and Middle Eastern Studies student at the Australian National University, with an interest in networked violent non-state actors.