Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Hezbollah, Syria, and the Brezhnev Doctrine

by Elliott Abrams
May 27, 2013


During the Cold War the Soviets pronounced the “Brezhnev Doctrine,” under which no state that was in the Soviet camp would be permitted to leave it. This is my topic in an article in the new edition of The Weekly Standard, entitled “The Brezhnev Doctrine, Iran-style.” Now the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has enunciated his intentions with great clarity, as the New York Times reports:


The leader of the powerful Lebanese militant group Hezbollah decisively committed his followers on Saturday to an all-out battle in Syria to defeat the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad. He said the organization, founded to defend Lebanon and fight Israel, was entering “a completely new phase,” sending troops abroad to protect its interests.


Hezbollah is willing to fight to protect its interests; here is my sense of their view:

We cannot afford to lose this one. A Sunni government in Syria would align with Turkey or the Gulf Arabs or the West, or some combination of them, against us. The bridge between Iran and Hezbollah would be lost. Hezbollah would be badly weakened, thus weakening our ability to threaten Israel. Israel would be more likely to attack our nuclear sites for this very reason—because it would think Hezbollah and Iran are weaker. Our influence in Iraq would fall too. People would say the rise of Iranian and Shia influence in the region was now over. Hezbollah’s enemies in Lebanon, the Sunnis above all, would be energized. People would realize Russia is no match for the Americans. So we must win, and we will dedicate to winning any resources that are needed. As to the humanitarian toll, we don’t care about Sunnis in Syria, or about weakening Turkey or especially Jordan; in fact, those would be nice side benefits from the struggle in Syria. There is only one point here: Do we win or do we lose? We have decided to win.”

The key question now is whether we are willing to accept a Khamenei Doctrine, whereby no state that is part of the Iran/Hezbollah security system is permitted to leave it. Of course, the Brezhnev Doctrine was that of a global superpower armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons; the Khamenei Doctrine is that of a third world state, Iran, of only 75 million people and so far without a nuclear arsenal. And this is what makes the American   position to date so incomprehensible, and so dangerous. Nasrallah and Khamenei are taking a gamble based on their assessment of us–that we will do nothing even in the face of their sending expeditionary forces to Syria. So far they have been proved right. Will we really accept this action on their part, with its consequences throughout the Middle East?

Put another way, Nasrallah and Khamenei have decided to win. They understand the costs of losing, and the benefits of winning, and have made their decision. The United States has made no such decision and appears content to lose. In my article in the Standard I discuss the likely response to this argument–that “winning and losing have no meaning” in the context of Syria. That facile conclusion is an excuse for inaction while foreign troops, from Lebanon and Iran, bring victory for the Assad regime. If the United States allows this to happen, allows Hezbollah and Iran to win, our own credibility will have been shredded–with significant consequences throughout the world. It can only be hoped that Nasrallah’s clarity and his contempt for us will somehow awaken in the Obama administration an understanding of American interests and the need to defend them.


Post a Comment 6 Comments

  • Posted by Steve

    The author is as usual delusional – this time imagining he knows what Hezbollah is thinking. WHO CARES what Hezbollah thinks. All we should care about is what is good for the United States, a country with its own increasingly porous borders, increasingly precarious finances and increasingly stagnant economy. American interests are in keeping this fight going on for as long as we possibly can, with as little financial input as we can, with neither side winning at all. We do not want the Sunni to win – they will not be pro-Western. Belief in that should be evidence of degenerative brain disease. Hezbollah is in their Vietnam and like the US in Vietnam, something this author no doubt would have supported to the end without ever fighting, it is a drain for no gain. Hezbollah can NEVER win in Syria because they are hated now by 2/3 of the population. Let them fight forever. As for 2/3 of the population in Syria. They are our future enemy should they win. Has this author not done enough damage already in Iraq? Turning the country over to Iran.

  • Posted by zreik

    I think hezbollah has no alternative, if the sunni rebellion wins in syria, sooner or later they will attack with their sunni allies in lebanon hezbollah. The rebellion in syria is sponsored by Qatar and saudi arabia and they have obligations to run their policy and demands when they win.

    I think it is going to be ugly either ways for hezbollah, but fighting in syria is less evil than fighting in your own home and at least it looks like they are fighting for all the minorities (christians, druze, kurds ..).

    either way, what I do not understand, is that there is an inherent confusion, hezbollah and iran shall be an ally to israel and not the inverse. the shiites in the region are a minority as the jews and the christians, and like the christians and the shiites are allies in lebanon currently, israel and iran shall reconcile their differences because the real danger is the al qaeda and the sunni extremists that do not believe in co existence.

    if the allawites lose in syria, I do not think it is great for the region.

  • Posted by Elemenopee

    This is escalating out of control. Russia is insisting on sending sophisticated missile defense systems to Syria, which will inevitably end up in Lebanon. Israel is threatening to strike the Russian shipment. The United States is letting this get out of hand by doing nothing and is creating a bigger catastrophe through abstinence than it could have through intervention. This idiotic isolationism is a very alarming state of affairs.

  • Posted by David S. Most

    Syria is a quagmire of competing factions: political, theological, and ideological. Toss in some geopolitical and residual old Cold War stuff for good measure! Now consider whom we have to deal with this unstable mess.
    An administration that continues to ignore the realities of the Middle East tectonic shifts and which dumped an ally, Mubarak, because it believed “democratic rule” would follow. That didn’t work our so well for the West.
    Perhaps Syria should be left to fragment into separate, small warring states. That way, we can sit on the sidelines and focus on ‘containment’. We seem to be doing this quietly with Iran and its nuke program. When we finally face a nuclear Iran, then Syria will become a minor issue!

  • Posted by Christopher Slade

    America does not want to get involved because of our lead from behind foreign policy which means we have to react to what happens rather than shape what happens. All Iran needs is enough of Syria in Assad’s hand to ship weapons to Hezbollah. If Russia can keep Assad regime up with the weapons to keep Israel out of the war then their influence can grow in the region at the US expense. I think Putin would be just fine with that because instability in the Middle East means higher oil prices.

  • Posted by Abu Nudnik

    Other than the ad hominem attacks on the author (is there evidence the author has done harm with his pen anywhere?), I agree with Steve to let the bloodletting continue to exhaust both sides. While I believe the Obama foreign policy is preposterous, a clock is right twice a day even when broken. That describes the Obama administration’s foreign policy re: Syria. Every place it has been involved things have gotten worse. Hopefully, the paralysis will last until January 2017.

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