Hezbollah loses heavily in Syria but emerges as new threat
Muqawamah, or “resistance to Israel,” is the self-proclaimed raison d’être of Lebanon’s Hezbollah. However, at least since 2012, the Shia militia, the most powerful military force in Lebanon, has been entangled in the civil war in Syria where it is fighting fellow Arabs rather than its Zionist enemy.
Hezbollah is doing this with the strategic goal of securing survival of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime and thereby maintaining the land bridge lifeline connecting Lebanon on the shores of the Mediterranean to its benefactors in Tehran through Syria.
In recent months, Hezbollah seems to have made advances towards achieving its strategic objectives, not least because the militia has received the support of Russia’s air power, coupled with ground operations with the pro- Assad forces, combat units from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and allied Shia militias from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
These advances, however, did not come cheaply: A survey of death notices in pro-Hezbollah Lebanese media show that at least 865 Hezbollah fighters have been killed in combat in Syria from September 30th, 2012 to February 16th, 2016.
But it should be noted that this number is considered a highly conservative estimate. The real death toll is believed to be much higher but is kept secret by the Hezbollah leadership to mask its losses from its enemies, such as Israel, and its domestic opponents, namely Lebanon’s Sunnis, who are backed by Iran’s arch-rival, Saudi Arabia.
So who are the Hezbollah fighters killed in combat in Syria and how is that war likely to affect Hezbollah?
Analysis of the governorate of origin of the combat fatalities shows that the Bekaa region in northern Lebanon, the Shia heartland, along with the southern governorate of Nabatieh and south Lebanon generally account for 682 of the fighters killed in Syria.
The home regions of 136 are not known. The remaining combat fatalities came from the Mount Lebanon, Beirut and northern governorates, with ten from villages on the Syrian side of the Lebanon border.
Pro-Hezbollah sources do not disclose the exact location and circumstances of those killed in action but surges in Hezbollah funeral services in Lebanon invariably follow major battles in Syria. Eighty-eight Hezbollahis were killed in May 2013, following the Battle of Qusayr in western Syria near the Lebanese border, the first major engagement in which the Lebanese militia played a leading role. Another 36 funerals took place in July 2014, in the wake of the Islamic State’s seizure of the Shaer gas field in Homs province and the capture of the Syrian Army’s 17th Division base near Raqqa in the north on July 25th, 2014.
In February 2015, 34 Hezbollah funeral services were held following a rebel offensive by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s Syrian wing, against Hezbollah positions in western Qalamoun, a strategic region near the Lebanon border.
Since the Russians launched their relentless air campaign in Syria on September 30th, 2015, providing air cover for pro-regime offensives by Hezbollah and allied militias, a monthly average of 36 Hezbollah fighters have been killed in combat.
A survey of Hezbollah death notices also helps identify 49 commanders among the militia’s combat deaths. Ali-Hussein Nassif, also known as Abu Abbas, who was killed in clashes with the FSA close to the Lebanese border on September 30th, 2012, was the first Hezbollah commander to fall in battle.
Hassan Hussein al-Haj, aka Abu-Mohammad al-Eqlim, or Haj Maher, however, is the most senior Hezbollah commander to have been killed in Syria. He met his end in the suburbs of Idlib on October 10th, 2015.
Regardless of the outcome of the Syrian war, now moving into its sixth year, veterans of the brutal conflict will likely rise fast within the ranks of Hezbollah in the coming years. Success in Syria is likely to encourage Hezbollah to engage in further military adventures in the region as its patron, Iran, pursues a strategy of political and military expansion.
Separately, the pan-Shia character of the alliance to which it belongs is likely to fuel future sectarian conflicts in the Middle East. Muqawamah may survive, but more as a slogan than political-military doctrine.
Nonetheless, the Israelis are increasingly concerned that Hezbollah, which they have battled since 1982, including the 34-day 2006 war in which Hezbollah fought the vaunted Israeli military to a standstill, is transforming through its battle experience in Syria from a guerrilla movement to a conventional military force.
Hezbollah would thus pose a greater threat to the Jewish state than it ever has before.