Clinging on by Their Fingernails: Hezbollah’s Intricate Involvement in the Syrian Conflict

Perspectives Internationales 30/03/2014 0

Hezbollah has managed to “Turn the Tables” for Assad’s regime during the Syrian conflict, with an outstanding proficiency in guerilla and urban warfare. Most recently, the Shiite militia has managed to assist Assad’s forces with seizing the strategic border town of Yabrud and the northern town of al-Qusayr. However, Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria also carries poisonous repercussions as the movement faces constant militant attacks across its strongholds, multiple casualties in Syrian battlefields and local criticism from its loyalists in Lebanon.

History of intertwined interests

The Syrian civil war has greatly impacted the greater Middle East region, though Lebanon in particular is historically, politically, and religiously tied to the Syrian conflict, with each of its religious sects supportive of either the Assad regime or the opposition. Lebanon’s powerful Shiite Hezbollah faction is among the Assad regime’s strongest supporters, following a decades-long history of military and political support from the Assad dynasty and Iran. Hezbollah is fighting the fight of its life in attempt to secure the survival of its main regional ally, the Assad’s regime, which continues to serve as the movement’s political patron and a conduit of weapons. Hezbollah’s strategy in Syria aims to fulfill three main goals, prolonging the Assad regime’s tenure; protecting Shiite areas near the Lebanese border; and securing its long-term military hegemony in Lebanon. As the Syrian conflict intensifies, Hezbollah has become increasingly involved in the conflict both militarily and politically, raising tensions within Lebanon considerably. This involvement has increased militancy threats across Lebanon and destabilize security situation in the country amidst continued militant attacks on Hezbollah strongholds.

Strategic military shift

Since The Second Lebanon War in 2006 and the relative success of Hezbollah’s guerilla warfare with countering Israel Defense Forces, Syria has attempted to draw conclusions from the successful campaign and converted several armor battalions to more flexible infantry units, which would be able to maneuver more efficiently in urban areas. Bashar al-Assad attempted to rely on two counterinsurgency strategies, following the success of his father with annihilating the Muslim Brotherhood threat in the 1980’s. Assad relied on small core of most-loyal military units, a third of the Syrian army, which decreased his ability to commence an intensive counterinsurgency campaign. He also depended on Shiite and Alawite militias to safeguard his prominent strongholds along the Syrian coast. However, defections and attrition have exacerbated the regime’s central challenge of generating combat power. Assad has started to loose grounds in Northern Syrian, especially during the battles of Aleppo and Al- Raqqah[1].

With the defeats in the northeast, Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict has increased considerably, including the overt participation of fighting units in various combats zones throughout the country. Hezbollah is estimated to have diverted approximately one third of its current fighting force to the Syrian conflict, and is estimated to be training thousands of other fighters for additional campaigns. Hezbollah commanders are actively involved in the establishment of a 50,000-member paramilitary force in Syria (comprised of local Shabiha and The local Popular Committees), meant to protect mostly Alawite areas in the coastal northwest of the country from rebel attacks. The majority of Hezbollah’s direct military involvement is centered on the Homs and Damascus area and includes the use of Special Forces and regular fighting units.

The involvement of Hezbollah and the Shiite militias have managed to turn the tables for Assad’s regime, as the Syrian army regained control over strategic areas along the Damascus – Aleppo highway. The Syrian forces, alongside Hezbollah have manage to retake Qusayr, the northern town on the Syrian-Lebanese border which enabled them secure their flow of militants and weapons smugglings routes to and from Lebanon to Syria. Qusayr also serves as the connecting corridor between the coastal Alawites towns and the capital. Most recently, the Syrian army seized the city of Yabrud, while securing the entire Syria-Lebanon border from insurgency threat. The Syrian regime has also closed most of the border crossing to Lebanon to halt necessary flow of logistics and weapons to the rebels from their strongholds in Lebanon, mainly across Tripoli area, as they will likely to rely solely on shipments from other bordering countries Turkey, Jordan and Iraq.

Destructive repercussions 

As the Syrian conflict prolongs, Hezbollah is forced to divert additional Special Forces and ground troops otherwise needed to maintain its deterrence in Southern Lebanon. Hezbollah has already incurred more than hundred of losses in Syria, which have been acknowledged by the group’s leaders as deaths. At least five high-level commanders have been killed during fighting or by targeted assassination attempts. Inside Lebanon, on November 19, 2013 a double bombing struck the Iranian embassy in Beirut, as part of a series of attacks against Hezbollah and Iranian assets in the southern districts of the capital. Syrian rebels’ affiliates and al-Qaeda assailants continue to challenge the Lebanese security apparatus across the country due to Hezbollah involvement in Syria. Hezbollah is perceived to be the major factor behind the rebels defeat in Qusayr and is considered to be part of the safeguard of Damascus. The involvement of the Shiite militia has also increased sectarian tensions with the Lebanese army and fueled several plots of Sunni collaborator to attack military facilities across the country in attempt to further destabilize the security conditions. The increasing role of Hezbollah in Syria is likely to continue jeopardize the fragile security situation in Lebanon, especially in mixed sectarian areas as Tripoli, Southern Beirut districts, and the eastern border region. As such, additional militant, and missile attacks are likely to occur in and around Beirut and Shiite border areas in order to expedite the withdrawal of Hezbollah’s forces form Syria.

Internal divisions have worsened within Hezbollah, as well as within Lebanon’s Shiite community, over its involvement in the Syrian conflict. In February 2013, former Hezbollah Secretary General Sabhi al-Tufayli publically criticized the group’s involvement in Syria. Although Tufayli is known for his critical views of Hezbollah’s current leadership, criticism of Hezbollah’s actions is growing in the Baalbek and Hermel areas, spurred by concerns of retaliation by Syrian rebels against Shiite villages in the border area. The Shiite residents in the Bekaa Valley have begun forming a divergent political movement aimed at pressuring Hezbollah from disengaging from Syria.  The new movement consists of four major groups, which includes former Hezbollah Secretary General Sheikh Sobhi Toufeili, a known critic of Hassan Nasrallah with numerous Shiite followers. Another party, named Baalbek-Hermel Choice, is led by local officials. The third party is Baalbek’s Residents Gathering, which is currently working to organize meetings with representatives from the Lebanese Forces. The final party in the movement is the Al-Jaafari Al-Imami Gathering, which includes prominent clan figures from the Meqdad and Tlais families. The movement is openly critical of Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, but advocates on behalf of the impoverished region, which is on the verge of economic crisis[2].

While the bloc is led by prominent leaders from Hermel region, the opposition within Lebanon will likely to remain marginal and will not compel Hezbollah to withdraw from Syria, until Assad’s regime is secured. However, Hezbollah political influence may decline ahead of possible parliament elections next year. Regionally, given Hezbollah support of Assad, the movement has already lost 10% of public support in Egypt and Jordan between the years 2010-2012. Furthermore, the European Union has blacklisted its military wing and designated it as a terrorist group. As such, the movement is facing increasing local and international criticism that will only likely to grow as the Shiite militia continue to play in the Syrian swamp[3].

Prospects of conflict emergence with Israel

Throughout the Syrian conflict, Israel has reportedly bombed several Syrian arms caches and weapons convoys destined to Hezbollah, with most lately the attack on a reported weapon convoy in the Beqqa valley along the Syrian border, killing several Hezbollah members.  While Hezbollah has largely been avoided to respond to Israeli incitement, it recently was accused of detonating an explosive along the Israeli-Lebanese border during an Israeli patrol in the area, wounding two IDF officers. As Hezbollah was forced to divert military capabilities and manpower it perceives the current situation as unfavourable to engage in fighting with Israel, and is less inclined to commence hostilities along the border that would trigger harsh Israeli military response in Lebanon. However, the movement will likely to continue supporting other fringe groups along the Syrian-Israeli border and the Lebanese border to commence limited attack on Israeli forces while attempting to attack Israeli assets abroad.

Conclusion

As the Syrian conflict lingers on, Hezbollah is not likely to withdraw most of its forces from Syria, in attempt to secure the survival of its regional and military patron- Assad regime. Hezbollah will continue to be accused of diverting its capabilities against rival Arab insurgents, instead of maintaining its military abilities to fight against its primary rival- the Israeli forces. In the long term, should Assad regime be forced to step down from power, Iran would still be able to rearm Hezbollah through Iraq and Syria, since both countries are likely to remain fragile and unable to secure their borders. However, any Sunni-led government rising to power in Syria will most likely jeopardize Hezbollah military supremacy that would have a dire impact on the movement’s regional political standing.

Barak Gatenyo

Barak Gatenyo is a graduate student at Sciences Po International Security program. Barak worked as a political and security risk analyst in the Middle East.


[1] Holliday, Joseph. 2013. The Assad Regime- from counterinsurgency to civil war. Middle East Security Report. Institute For the Study of War.

[2] al-Fakih, Rakan. 2013. Baalbek-Hermel voices slam Hezbollah’s Syria involvement. The Daily Star, March 12, 2013.

[3] Berti Benedetta and Schweitzer Yoram. 2013. Hezbollah in Syria: Losing the Balance between “National Resistance” and Sectarian Interests?  Strategic Assessment, Volume 16, No. 2, July 2013.

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