December 13, 2016 | Newsweek

A Donald Trump Anti-ISIS Campaign That Spares Assad Would Only Empower Hezbollah

In late October, Hezbollah scored an achievement by pushing through its favored candidate, Michel Aoun, to the Lebanese presidency. Six thousand miles away, the group now stands to indirectly benefit from the results of another election: America’s.

It’s not that President-elect Donald Trump has any love for Hezbollah—which has spilled the blood of hundreds of Americans—or for its Iranian patron. On the contrary, he has promised to cripple the group by “starving” its funding. But during his stormy presidential election campaign, Trump consistently cast doubt over the wisdom of deposing Bashar al-Assad—Hezbollah’s second-leading benefactor after Tehran—in Syria’s civil war.

And despite the clear threat ISIS poses to U.S. citizens and interests, Trump’s strategy of fighting ISIS to the exclusion of countering Assad would inadvertently place Hezbollah in a position of unprecedented strength in its home base of Lebanon.

The group already scored a coup in Lebanon with Aoun’s recent election. Aoun, a Maronite Christian, had earned the Shiite organization’s friendship by consistently adopting policies favoring its domestic and regional ambitions. Hezbollah repaid the favor by shutting down Lebanon’s political process for two years, until his opponents acquiesced to electing him president. Now, even after the election, Hezbollah appears to be obstructing the formation of pro-Western prime minister Saad Hariri’s new cabinet until it achieves sufficient concessions guaranteeing its control of the government.

And just like Hezbollah got its choice of president in Beirut, it is committed to maintaining the rule of his counterpart in Damascus. In that, Trump—in spite of his promises to punish Hezbollah and its Iranian masters—may end up the group’s inadvertent partner.

The president-elect has said ISIS is a greater threat to the U.S. than Assad. That view appears to overlook the Syrian leader’s alliance with Iran, and the Shiite militias operating in Syria that have the blood of hundreds of American soldiers on their hands. Trump cites the precedents of Iraq, Libya and Egypt to suggest that ISIS or other extremists would replace the ruler if he were deposed, and therefore opposes military action against his regime. Assad has been unsurprisingly receptive to the remarks, calling the president-elect a “natural ally,” with his officials signaling readiness to cooperate with the incoming administration.

Likewise, Hezbollah’s fortunes stand to improve. To preserve its military and political supremacy in Lebanon—and indeed, its very survival—Hezbollah has backed Assad during the five-and-a-half years of the Syrian Civil War. Throughout, it has fought tenaciously, and—along with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard—facilitated the influx of thousands of Iranian proxy fighters into the country. Since 2013, Hezbollah has lost 1,600 fighters in Syria, compared with its approximately 1,200 fatalities against Israel between 1985 and 2000. Once the darling of the Arab world for confronting the Jewish state, its support of Assad has made it a pariah, with the Arab League and Gulf Cooperation Council sanctioning it as a terror organization.

Those sacrifices, painful as they are, have not deterred Hezbollah, as the costs to the group would be far higher should Assad fall and be replaced by a hostile, presumably Sunni-majority, Syrian government.

Damascus serves as Hezbollah’s lifeline to Iran ensuring Tehran’s flow of weapons to it and acting as a hub for fighters traveling to the Islamic Republic for advanced training. Syria is also Hezbollah’s gateway into Iraq, where for over a decade the group’s Unit 3800 has created Shiite militias to further Iran’s regional project—and which have killed hundreds of American soldiers. As a critical part of Iran’s ‘Axis of Resistance,’ Assad shields Hezbollah from regional adversaries like Israel and Sunni Arab states, as well as pro-Western Lebanese political forces.

Moreover, for over two decades, Damascus has acted as the guarantor of Hezbollah’s hegemony over Lebanon, and as the group’s strategic depth beyond its home country’s narrow borders. Even after the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon in the 2005 Cedar Revolution, Assad used his intelligence apparatus, assassinations and political pressure to weaken the Shiite party’s opponents. Today, it continues supplying the group with Russian and domestically produced weapons and bases for arms storage.

Assad’s victory would end the existential threat Syria’s war poses for Hezbollah, freeing up the immense resources the organization has devoted to that conflict. Its dominance in Lebanon now secured with Aoun’s election, Hezbollah could better devote its energy to threaten Washington’s allies and erode its regional interests to further Iran’s—much as it has already in Iraq and Yemen.

ISIS has murdered Americans domestically and abroad, undermined U.S. interests and threatened U.S. allies like Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Trump’s objective of using American military power to defeat the group is therefore sound. However, doing so while allowing Assad to remain in power would turn the laudable goal of ISIS’s destruction into a net strategic loss for Washington. Instead of starving Hezbollah, it would empower that implacable enemy of the United States—one which has already proven itself a formidable threat to Americans.

David Daoud is an Arabic-language research analyst focusing on Lebanon and Hezbollah at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


Hezbollah Iran Lebanon Syria