Practically all westerners looking at the influence that Hizbullah’s entry into the Syrian conflict has been having on the conflict have focused wholly on the military role that Hizbullah’s very well-trained and highly motivated fighters have played on the battlefield, especially in helping bring about the Syrian government’s reassertion of authority on Tuesday night, in Qusayr. But having studied Hizbullah’s development and SOP’s in Lebanon over the course of many years (see e.g. here and here), I suspect that the main impact its involvement has on events in Syria could well be in civilian affairs– that is, if the Baath Party and its allies are open to receiving coaching from Hizbullah’s civilian-affairs cadres on how to organize and build resilience in traumatized communities in times of war, then that could make all the difference.
During both of Hizbullah’s “definitive” battles against the (militarily very much stronger) IDF, in 1996 and 2006, it was the strength of the party’s civilian mass organizing that allowed it to “win”: In both cases, the Israeli government’s key war aim was to inflict such terrible losses on all Lebanese citizens that they would turn against Hizbullah; and in both cases, the effectiveness of the civilian mass base and the network of strategic alliances that Hizbullah had previously built up ensured that those bullying– one could even say openly terroristic– tactics pursued by the Israeli leaders were completely ineffective (even, very counter-productive) at the political level. In both cases, Hizbullah emerged from the Israeli assault politically stronger than it had been prior to the assault, and with its core military infrastructure unbroken.
Hizbullah’s civilian mass-organizing smarts in Lebanon depended on the speedy and effective delivery of vital humanitarian (and rebuidling) services to war-affected communities; the organizing of mass relocations of civilians from war-zones; building and maintaining broad networks of political and interfaith alliances; and, allied with all of these, strong commitment to building effective organs of the Lebanese state.
In Syria, if the regime and its allies can receive good coaching from Hizbullah in these skills, that will certainly strengthen its position on the ground. The goal of the takfiris among the Syrian opposition (especially, perhaps, the non-Syrians who have traveled from far and wide to join this takfiri battle) is not explicitly, as Israel’s goal was, to turn the Syrian population against the regime. Rather, it is to destroy Syria as a state and society completely, since they don’t believe in a Syrian state as such. (This is eerily similar to the goals pursued by Renamo in Mozambique in the 1980s, or by the Reagan administration against Nicaragua in the 1980s. Interesting to see the roles played by Elliot Abrams and Bandar ibn Sultan in both those earlier conflicts, too… ) This should make it fairly easy for the Syrian Baath to be persuasive in arguing to the Syrian people that the takfiris and their allies have nothing good to offer to Syria’s people at all. But the regime does also need to think about how to heal, restore, and revive the broadly traumatized civilian mass base of their society. I imagine a little effective coaching from Hizbullah on how to do this could help make this happen.
… The above thoughts were derived, by the way, from a presentation I heard this morning at the Carnegie Endowment here in Washington DC by the calm, smart, and always extremely well-informed Yezid Sayegh. I’m hoping that all of Yezid’s presentation will be up on the web soon. He was elaborating on many of the points he made in this recent paper on “The Syrian Opposition’s Leadership Problem.”
During today’s presentation, he made the point that the Syrian regime has been preparing for and organizing its counter-offensive on the ground against the rebels for several months now; and that its victory in Qusayr is not the only advance it has made on the ground over the past 3-4 months. He argued, though, that the crucial role of the Qusayr victory is that it will provide reassurance to regime supporters and those sitting on the fence that the regime can indeed (along with its allies) win a significant victory and hold ground. One result of this, he said, is that it will reinforce the other factors that have, over recent months, slowed the rate of defections from the regime armed forces to a bare trickle. He said he expects no significant further defections.
Notably, he expressed the judgment that the regime “has shown itself capable of learning from the mistakes it made in the past.”
As for the opposition, he (quite rightly) characterized it as mired in internal dissension and unable to agree on anything like a single coherent– let alone persuasive– political program. This, he said, has big implications on its ability to produce a coherent response to the proposal for the Geneva 2 conference. “It also has huge implications on the ground in terms both of its ability to manage military affairs and its ability to run a working civilian administration.”
The combination of the regime’s strengths and the rebels’ weaknesses could mean that the conflict is about to reach a decisive point. For the past six months the two sides have been in a situation of dynamic equilibrium. But now, if the balance shifts, it will shift in the regime’s favor… between now and the end of the year we could see the armed rebellion and the opposition movement in Syria in complete disarray.
The Syrian regime has, Yezid said, been getting a lot of external help. “But, it is also making good use of it.” He contrasted that with the situation of the South Vietnamese government in the U.S.-Vietnam war era, noting that the Saigon government, too, received huge amounts of external aid. “But in that case, all the aid in the world didn’t make any difference…”