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How Hezbollah Is Changing the War in Syria - and Vice Versa

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HEZBOLLAH SYRIA
Lebanese supporters of Shiite Hezbollah movement gather in the southern town of Bint Jbeil, to watch a televised address by Hassan Nasrallah, the movement's chief, to mark the 14th anniversary of the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon. Nasrallah said that the Syrian regime and the 'resistance axis' including his Lebanese Shiite militant movement would triumph in Syria's conflict. AFP PHOTO/MAHMOUD ZAYYAT (Photo credit should read MAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images) | MAHMOUD ZAYYAT via Getty Images

BEIRUT - Hezbollah is changing the shape of the war in Syria - but the war is also changing Hezbollah, with potentially far-reaching results.

Hezbollah's intervention in Syria has achieved significant gains: it has provided the Syrian regime momentum, averting its military defeat; dislodged rebels from areas adjacent to the borders; stopped further outrages against Shiites; and prevented a detrimental recalibration of the regional balance of power.

From Hezbollah's perspective, its intervention became a strategic necessity as the initial Syrian uprising morphed into a zero-sum regional war. It has come to see the potential loss of its Damascus ally as an existential threat, placing it next in line, and frames the war as being aimed at the so-called "axis of resistance" against Israel, which includes Hezbollah, Iran and the Syrian regime.

Moreover, the flow of foreign jihadis into the armed opposition constituted a genuine, long-term threat to Hezbollah. It declared a preemptive war against what it labels takfiris (Islamists who denounce others as infidels or impious), regardless of the differences and divergences among Syrian armed groups. In May 2013, Hezbollah publicly spearheaded an assault against Syrian rebels in the border town of Qusayr.

In February 2014, Hezbollah sent its troops to the Qalamoun mountains north of Damascus and led the campaign to capture Yabroud, allegedly the transit hub for car bombs smuggled into Lebanon that targeted the party, Iranian assets and predominantly Shiite neighborhoods. The party's detractors accuse it of deploying fighters across Syria, in particular in Deraa, Aleppo and Idlib, in addition to Damascus and its suburbs.

The result of this, however, has been that Hezbollah ("party of God" in Arabic), once widely respected by Sunnis in Syria and the region for its military struggle against Israel, is now frequently dubbed the "Party of Satan." However extreme, this labeling reflects the depth of the shift.

Hezbollah is being transformed by the conflict. Over many years, it meticulously built its reputation as an organization of principle. But it is now losing its hard-won soft power and growing more accustomed to relying on hard power to achieve its strategic objectives. The enmity this metamorphosis engenders is, ironically, fuelling the very same threats the party strives to repel. Its involvement ignites the extremism it is combatting as it deepens the regional sectarian rift. It also endangers its own strategic depth as it alienates wide segments of the Syrian population.

Despite the fact that the Syrian regime's immediate survival is no longer at stake and Lebanese-Syrian borders largely secured, as party leader Hassan Nasrallah has affirmed, Hezbollah is not providing signs that it will withdraw from Syria anytime soon. Some among the movement's regional and wider international critics might see a silver lining in these developments: Hezbollah is mired in a war of attrition in Syria, fighting a determined and radical enemy, and is distracted from its traditional focus on Israel. But the same vortex is pulling in both Hezbollah and its enemies, with no prospect of escape for either. Nor will the critics relish the spread of the Shiite jihadism that, alongside a growing Sunni jihadism, the Syrian war is nurturing.

This has grim implications for Lebanon, which depends for its well being on an always difficult balancing act among Shiites, Sunnis, Christians and Druze. Lebanon is holding itself together for now, through what is known as "the security plan," but the respite is likely temporary. Lebanon's Sunnis are frustrated; Shiites, whose memories of oppression and marginalization are still vivid, are eager not to lose political and social gains they have acquired in the past decades; and other confessional groups are caught in the middle.

The past two years' escalation - clashes in Tripoli, Saida and Arsal along with unprecedented waves of suicide attacks against Shiites - is only a foretaste of what could ensue if the security agreement breaks down. Lebanon has long lamented its political paralysis, the latest evidence of which is the leadership void as parliamentarians have failed repeatedly to agree on a new president. Yet, as the Syrian conflict deteriorates further, many Lebanese are hoping for just such a standstill - as a best-case scenario.

Sahar Atrache is a Lebanon analyst for International Crisis Group, whose latest report is "Lebanon's Hezbollah Turns Eastward to Syria."

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