When Hizbollah – the Lebanese “Party of God” – threw its fighters into Syria in 2013, it sought primarily to save itself. Had the Assad regime collapsed or been defeated by U.S.-backed regional powers, it could have faced a hostile Sunni successor in Damascus and lost its essential arms channel from Iran. Today, its core objective of preserving the regime has been met, but there is no end in sight to the war. If Iran and Hizbollah continue to provide unconditional military support to the regime without a realistic exit strategy, they will be dragged deeper into what can only become a quagmire, even as their armed strength grows in the wider region. At the same time, they will have to contend with a potentially more hostile U.S. administration that has said it wants to push back Iranian influence even as it also pursues a more aggressive approach against the Islamic State (IS), an enemy it has in common with Hizbollah and Iran.
Avoiding being sucked into a quagmire requires negotiating a settlement that has buy-in from key countries that back the opposition, as well as (with Russia) imposing the requisite compromises on Damascus. This report proposes preliminary steps Iran and Hizbollah could take in that direction, including recognising non-jihadist rebels; initiating talks with them on whatever common ground they can find; lowering sectarian rhetoric; and refraining from new offensives against opposition-held areas so as to preserve a non-jihadist foe capable of enforcing a deal, if and when one is reached.