Brig-Gen.(Ret.) Dr. Shimon ShapiraBrig.-Gen. (ret.) Dr. Shimon Shapira is a senior research associate at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
The Revolutionary Guards and Khamenei want to preserve Hezbollah's power and status so that it can pursue its principal mission of anti-Israeli jihad.
Hezbollah's military involvement in Syria is now a subject of heated domestic debate in Iran. This debate is being waged against the backdrop of the international refusal to let Iran take part in the Geneva 2 talks on Syria's future, in light of Iran's opposition to the principle of a transitional period leading to Bashar Assad's removal from power.
On one side of the debate is the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, which is backed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and favors ongoing military involvement in Syria as one way of advancing Iran's regional ambitions. Those ambitions entail making Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon a sphere of Iranian influence, to which Bahrain and Yemen are eventually to be added.
Against the Revolutionary Guards and Khamenei stand President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif, who are supported by former president Hashemi Rafsanjani and see the Syrian involvement as an albatross that hampers Iran's efforts at rapprochement with the West – efforts which are primarily aimed at vitiating the sanctions regime that is seriously damaging the Iranian economy.
An echo of the struggle in Tehran could be heard at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where Zarif denied that Iran had dispatched Hezbollah to Syria – "We are not sending people, Hezbollah has made its own decision.” Zarif, however, refused to call for Hezbollah's removal from Syria, though he agreed to call on all foreign forces to leave the country. His words, in any case, provoked the rage of the Revolutionary Guards. They are well aware of the Hezbollah leadership's difficult straits in light of the growing military entanglement in Syria and, even more, the recent Salafi bombing attacks on the organization's home base, the Dahiya quarter of Beirut.
Although Hezbollah's leaders claim it is fighting in Syria in order to protect Lebanon, Lebanese Shiites are not convinced and Hezbollah's supporters are dubious. Hezbollah has now lost almost 350 men in Syria, not all of whom have been brought back to Lebanon for burial, while the number of wounded has passed a thousand.
This puts into question Hezbollah's ability to keep sacrificing its fighters in Syria when its target of jihad is Israel. Moreover, the devastating Salafi terror attacks in Beirut, including an attack on the symbolically charged Iranian embassy, have left Hezbollah helpless to respond.
Even more critically, Hezbollah has trouble functioning as a movement when its leaders, operatives, and supporters are busy trying to survive and searching for car bombs. Indeed, Hezbollah is losing the public and popular support that is so important for a movement of its kind.
The question of Hezbollah's continued involvement in Syria will not be decided in Lebanon. The heads of the Revolutionary Guards in Tehran, who are aware of the organization's intensifying plight, will have to ponder which is worse – the loss of Hezbollah's power and influence in Lebanon or its removal from Syria, which at this stage would not influence Assad's ability to continue slaughtering his opponents in the Syrian revolt.
Above all, the Revolutionary Guards and Khamenei want to preserve Hezbollah's power and status so that it can pursue its principal mission of anti-Israeli jihad. At the end of the day, Hezbollah's entire raison d'être is to be Iran's spearhead in its struggle against Israel.
Hence, it appears that the more Hezbollah is battered, the greater will be the pressure on Khamenei to order his representative in Lebanon, Hassan Nasrallah, to significantly scale back the organization's involvement in Syria. Nasrallah will humbly and unquestioningly obey.
Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Dr. Shimon Shapira is a senior research associate at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.