Hezbollah expands presence in Syria

Sunday 17/04/2016
Funeral of Hezbollah commander in Baalbek, after he was killed during battle for Qusayr

BEIRUT - One of the big winners in the Syrian war is Hez­bollah, the Lebanese Shia movement that has long been Iran’s most valued proxy in the Sunni-dom­inated region. There are growing signs that the Party of God is pre­paring to expand its zone of influ­ence into Syria itself and, backed by its growing military power, as­sert its domination of Lebanon.

“Like other foreign and domes­tic actors, Hezbollah has seized on the Syrian civil war to improve its position in the country and the surrounding region,” the US-based global intelligence consultancy Stratfor said in an April 6th analy­sis.

The party, established in 1982 as the first of Iran’s Shia proxy groups and now its most powerful ally, is setting up military bases in Syria after playing a leading role in en­suring the survival of President Bashar Assad’s Damascus regime at a cost of about 1,000 of its fighters killed and many more wounded.

This is clearly being done with Tehran’s approval, with Assad going along with it, willingly or unwillingly. The most important of these bases, for the moment anyway, appears to be the town of Qusayr in western Syria, close to the Lebanese border.

Qusayr has a special mean­ing for Hezbollah. It was there in June 2013 that the Lebanese group fought its first major battle of the war and drove out Syrian rebel forces to secure its supply routes from Damascus.

Hezbollah has matured and expanded from being a guerrilla group fighting a small-unit war against Israel to a conventional army with a sophisticated com­mand-and-control structure, an advanced telecommunications network, tanks, artillery and other heavy weapons able to wage a war of manoeuvre in conjunction with other forces. This critical develop­ment has not been lost on Israel.

Stratfor postulated that “Hezbol­lah’s attempts to expand and so­lidify its control” in western Syria along Lebanon’s largely mountain­ous north-eastern border “will only increase in the future… The base near Qusayr, like other antici­pated positions in Syria, is part of Hezbollah’s future strategy in the country.”

Satellite imagery indicates the Qusayr base will be extensive and heavily defended. All this indicates a permanency that underscores Hezbollah’s efforts to hold ground inside Syria and create a buffer zone to prevent jihadist forces from encroaching into Lebanon, now a Hezbollah-dominated out­post for Iran in the gas-rich eastern Mediterranean and poses a direct threat to neighbouring Israel.

“Along with its patron Iran, Hez­bollah recognises that Syria’s war is an opportunity to establish a strong position near the country’s border with Lebanon,” Stratfor said.

The Qusayr base underlines the breadth of Hezbollah’s strategy, which includes preparing for the worst, such as the possibility that Assad may be deposed. If that hap­pens, the Syrian bases will play “a significant role in protecting the militant group, and Lebanon as a whole, from the threats it may face”, Stratfor observed.

Iran and Hezbollah have long sought to control the Syrian-held portion of the Golan Heights in southern Syria, from which Ira­nian missiles could threaten Israel, which has occupied the western sector of the volcanic plateau since 1967.

Satellite imagery of the Qusayr base, along with reports from Arab sources, indicate that Hezbollah plans to deploy heavy artillery and some of its estimated 60 Russian-built T-72 tanks — weapons pro­vided by Syria or Iran during the war — along with short-range Katyusha rockets.

It is not clear whether other bases will contain such formida­ble firepower but what is evident is that Iran, Hezbollah’s patron, is complicit in this endeavour. Some sources say officers of Iran’s Is­lamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) frequently inspect the emerging base at Qusayr. Strat­for maintains the IRGC groups are “treating the base as an Iranian as­set”.

This may be the principal pur­pose of the Qusayr complex and those expected to be constructed. This implies that Iran, like Russia, plans a long-term deployment in Syria that could influence peace talks under way in Geneva and have significant strategic implica­tions across the Arab world as it undergoes a violent reshaping of the political, ethnic and sectarian landscape.

Israel, of course, is un­doubtedly the ultimate target of Iran’s expanding influence in the Levant.

Reports say the Qusayr complex houses long-range missiles, includ­ing Iranian Shahab-1 and Shahab-2 ballistic systems and Fateh-110 weapons. This has not been con­firmed by satellite imagery. Hez­bollah is known to have Fateh-110s in its arsenal — Israel says it num­bers 150,000 missiles — but has not been reported to have Shahabs.

“While these missiles could prove crucial in the event of a large-scale Israeli ground offensive against Hezbollah in Lebanon,” Stratfor observed, “they are not beyond the reach of the Israeli air force.”

Israeli warplanes have repeat­edly attacked Hezbollah arms dumps and convoys from Syria transferring advanced weapons to the Lebanese group. Israel claims Hezbollah’s acquisition of military skills and heavy weapons in the Syrian war makes it more threat­ening than it has ever been and is preparing to have to fight Hezbol­lah within the Jewish state itself in their next war.

Hezbollah’s drive to construct bases in Syria coincides with an expected offensive along the Leba­nese border, where for three years it has been battling Sunni jihadists of al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State as well.