Hezbollah’s Risky Syrian Gambit

The sectarian rifts, which were opened by George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, continue to tear apart the Middle East, now involving Syria and Lebanon. Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia, has plunged into Syria to fight Sunni-led rebels, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar notes.

By Paul R. Pillar

As Iraq — after the U.S. invasion — became a violent cauldron that featured, among other forms of bloodletting, a surge of Sunni terrorism, American apologists for the war and other supporters of the invasion who were trying to cope with their cognitive dissonance put the violence in a favorable light that even got additional mileage out of the pre-war fiction about how invading Iraq would be a way of dealing with al-Qaeda.

The new concept was the flypaper theory of counterterrorism: the idea that the war was serving to attract terrorists to a place where U.S. forces could more easily gun them down. Better to fight them and kill them in Iraq, went the idea, than to fight them later after they got to the United States.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

The fundamental flaw in the flypaper theory as applied to what was happening in Iraq is that it assumed there was a fixed number of jihadi terrorists, some subset of whom were cooperatively coming to Iraq to be martyred. Far from there being a fixed number, the war significantly boosted the number.

The great majority of those who committed terrorist violence in Iraq were not, prior to the war, previously established terrorists who had been hiding and plotting in some unreachable place in South Asia or elsewhere. Instead, they were perpetrating such violence for the first time, having been stimulated to do so by the U.S. invasion and occupation and subsequent Iraqi civil war.

In different circumstances, however, there might be something valid in a version of the flypaper theory. The key required difference would be that a specific organization is involved whose membership is closer to being fixed than is that of an inchoate movement that expands every time an angry individual decides to resort to violence.

As far as U.S. interests in particular are concerned, another difference is that the United States not become what it became in Iraq: a principal stimulant and target of the violence.

Conditions something like this exist today in Syria. Not among the radical Sunni jihadists on the rebel side, whose numbers have been expanding just as they did in Iraq, but instead on the pro-regime side with regard to Lebanese Hezbollah. Hezbollah has made a major commitment on behalf of the Assad regime, and it is paying a heavy price.

The price comes in the form of substantial losses in men and materiel, as well as politically in the form of alienation from the larger Sunni Arab world, most of which favors the Syrian rebels. Former Lebanese prime minister (and thus a Sunni) Saad Hariri said that Hezbollah’s decision to fight in Syria was “political and military suicide.” That’s an overstatement, but the costs for Hezbollah certainly have been high.

Meanwhile, the Syrian war has indirectly raised new challenges to Hezbollah back in Lebanon. Lebanese Sunnis have gained experience fighting in Syria. Rebels from Syria have even infiltrated parts of Hezbollah’s stronghold in the Bekaa Valley. These processes can be expected to continue as long as the Syrian war continues.

Such developments get overlooked by many people who profess concern about Hezbollah and its influence and who say that if Hezbollah is on one side of a war, we ought to back the other side. For anyone who really is concerned about Hezbollah and would like to see it weakened, it would be better to stand back and let the status quo continue.

It would serve Hezbollah’s interests for the United States and the West to do anything that would help the group do what it has often successfully done in the past, which is to pose as champion of causes with which most Sunni Arabs and not just Shia identify.

In a speech last weekend, Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah said his group is fighting in Syria to keep the country out of the hands of “America, Israel and the takfiris.” Rather than giving Hezbollah the propaganda gift of making that description seem true, it would be better to let Hezbollah get stuck more inextricably in the Syrian trap.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

6 comments for “Hezbollah’s Risky Syrian Gambit

  1. elmerfudzie
    May 30, 2013 at 19:40

    Indeed, there’s no such thing as a flypaper theory, it’s a fiction and creation out of thin air. This strategy whistles the same melody and hums the same terror jive we heard over and over again during the cold war’s, domino theory days. The rant has undergone some tweaking and then reused to justify many a COIN operation. Clearly the suggestion seems to be, if we don’t nip this thing at the bud now it will grow into something unmanageable, which is of course is total rubbish. There are many options open to the defenders. For example; true believer types from the old Spetsnaz, the betrayed SAVAK, disenfranchised Stasi or sleeper cells from the IRGC any one of whom can pull the rug out from under our domestic tranquility at any time. These well trained guys are probably hiding behind good paying jobs and full US citizenship. They’re up for hire, no doubt, and this sort of professional help can create some real certified trouble at home and abroad. However their antics have yet to surface because Western Occident forces are met with direct retaliation at the point of trespass, that is to say on the immolated victim(s) turf. Secondly, it’s important to keep in mind that there’s a stateliness to Hassan Nasrallah’s countenance. His followers hang on his every word. They are uneducated, poorly read and or fed! The throngs look to him as tho he were a demigod. This fact alone should give everyone great pause for concern. If there ever was a time for honest formal diplomacy, it’s now.

  2. John
    May 28, 2013 at 23:40

    John said:
    Hezbollah grew into a significant entity after Sharon, for no reason, invaded Lebanon in 1982 and south Lebanon became Israeli occupied land up to the Litani River. This was land which Zionists had asked to be included in what would become Israel but failed. The question begs, was this their effort to fulfil their wish. That idea is well supported in Alan Hart’s 3 volume series Zionism: the Real Enemy of the Jews. Recently you had an article by Hart and I luckily got his books through Amazon.
    Anyway, since the creation of Lebanon, the West has tried to make Lebanon a Christian led nation and in that effort the majority Shiites were deprived of their rights. Their success in removing Israel from the land occupied south of the Litani brought the Shiites new found power and broader support.
    Western intervention, and that includes Israeli intervention too, has abetted in dividing these people even more. Much of this story also can be extended to Syria where the West has supported unpopular minority leadership.
    Rather than unite the peoples of these regional areas, we have divided them. Once Jews, Muslims and Christians lived in peace and harmony there until Zionism was invented in the late 1800s.

  3. Michael Collins
    May 28, 2013 at 23:36

    Assad needs Hezbollah to assure a victory in Qusayr. Syria is doing what it needs to do to survive and also doing what the rebels have done to a much greater extent, involve foreign fighters. Nasrallah had to calculate significant losses as part of this effort. He’s there and, no doubt, knows of the terrible loss of life in this war.

    The United States and it’s NATO partners were never attacked by Syria nor does Syria pose an imminent danger to those powers. The war violates the Nurembert Principles.

    Here is Principle VI:
    “The crimes hereinafter set out are punishable as crimes under international law:

    (a) Crimes against peace: (i) Planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances; (ii) Participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the acts mentioned under (i).”

    The U.S. and NATO are participating in the”Planning, [and] preparation” of a war against an established government.

    60% of those surveyed recently oppose any military involvement in Syria – any. That’s a tad less than the just over 60% who opposed this at the outset. The citizens know what the government doesn’t. Stay out of illegal military aggression. Concentrate on our needs here.

  4. Frances in California
    May 28, 2013 at 14:49

    Can anyone remember Cambodia? Can we avoid repeating the Killing Fields?

  5. Robert
    May 28, 2013 at 10:33

    We really need to avoid Syria like the plague that it is…The human suffering is being ignored by everyone else, so why would the US be any different? Why does it always fall to us to settle things…Russia, and China should be held accountable for their stalling tactics…Now, Russia is sending in their new ground to air missiles, to forestall Western intervention…let the rest of the world deal with it…let the corrupt world corporations deal with it….

    • Peter Loeb
      June 4, 2013 at 05:09


      As long as the US (Legislative and Executive) feel entitled to supply Israel
      with more and more weapons (overt and covert)—See S 65, passed Senate 99-00)
      there seems no reason whatsoever to complain about any other nation supplying’its ally with weapons. When Israel returns ALL weapons received
      to the US plus all high-tich aid, bombs, etc. perhaps it will be able to
      complain about other nations doing likewise. Hezzbollah may not have the
      high-tech weapons that others (Russia) have so it why may it not supply
      what it does have instead. I am waiting for Israel to sign and ratify the
      non proliferation treaty and to sign and ratify MENFZ or Middle East Nuclear
      Free Zone with complete random inspection of all sites for the manufacture
      of weapons of mass destruction. Israel and the US consistently block consider-
      ation of such actions in the US as well as the examination of Israel from
      a human rights perspective by the UN Human Rights Council.

      Perhaps it is a shame that Israel signed and ratified the UN Charter which it
      NEVER intended might be applied to Israel itself which is (Israel maintains)
      exempt. I am certain you understand completely the reasons for this
      expression of Israeli superiority in all things. Zionism is, after all, product of SOCIAL DARWINISM whose other major expression of that era was

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