For Hezbollah, Qalamoun may be one battle too many
BEIRUT - Hezbollah is locked in an escalating battle with jihadist insurgents in the mountainous Qalamoun region that straddles Lebanon’s north-eastern border with Syria, but the Iranian-backed Shia movement may be biting off more than it can chew as Syria’s civil war increasingly infects its tiny Mediterranean neighbour.
Fighting has spluttered along the rocky frontier for months with neither side gaining control. But on May 4th, Hezbollah, already heavily committed to fighting the rebels in other part of Syria, launched a major offensive aimed at securing Qalamoun. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah says it will be “a decisive battle”.
Hezbollah fighters, who are struggling to support the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Tehran’s key Arab ally, have taken large areas of the rugged terrain, an area of roughly 2,600 sq. kilometres consisting of cave-riddled hillsides and peaks that reach as high as 2,500 metres.
On July 1st, Hezbollah began a determined push to capture the strategic Syrian town of Zabadani, one of the first towns they captured in the early stages of the civil war that began in March 2011.
Before that, Zabadani was the key logistics base for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to supply weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon through the nearby Masnaa border crossing.
The Qalamoun region runs from the border across central Syria to the outskirts of Damascus, and is important for both sides. For the Sunni Syrian rebels of Jabhat al- Nusra and the Islamic State (ISIS), it is a vital corridor for supplies and fighters in the battle to topple Assad’s minority Alawite regime.
Hezbollah has to secure the region because it is through there that it resupplies its ever-growing arsenal of Syrian and Iranian missiles to threaten Israel to the south. At the same time, it needs to counter the jihadist threat to its heartland in the Bekaa valley of north-eastern Lebanon.
In recent days, Hezbollah, aided by Syrian government forces and air strikes, reported heavy fighting around the town that straddles the main Damascus-Beirut highway at the southern end of the 100-kilometre Qalamoun range.
But after four years of constant fighting in Syria, Hezbollah is suffering from combat fatigue and heavy losses in a regional upheaval that has become a sectarian war for power between the dominant Sunnis and the minority Shias.
Hezbollah is also wrestling with growing discontent among its once-quiescent Lebanese Shia supporters, who increasingly question why it is shedding their young men’s blood supporting a regime that uses chemical weapons against it own people instead of confronting Israel, the traditional enemy.
Indeed, where it was once lauded across the Sunni-dominated Arab world for driving out Israeli forces from south Lebanon in May 2000 and in the 2006 war becoming the only Arab force to ever fight the mighty Israeli army to a standstill, Hezbollah is now being scorned as the tool of Tehran and its expansionist plans by backing Assad’s reviled regime. This is exacerbating Lebanon’s long-simmering sectarian rivalries.
“So far the peace in Lebanon has mostly held, in no small way because memories of the civil war there are still fresh,” US journalist and security expert Dexter Filkins observed recently. “But as Hezbollah commits itself more deeply to the Syrian war, the more difficult it will be to contain the violence in Lebanon itself.” Hezbollah’s reputation as a highly disciplined defender of Arabs against Israel has been undercut in recent years by corruption scandals and penetration by Israeli intelligence.
Five Hezbollah members are currently on trial before a UN tribunal in the Netherlands for the February 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister and iconic opponent of Syrian control of Lebanon. Although the Syrian regime is seen as the mastermind of that plot, the affair has cost Hezbollah dearly.
On top of all that, as the threat by ISIS expands across the Arab world up to the borders of Shia Iran, Hezbollah also has to maintain a presence in Iraq and far-away Yemen at the behest of its religious and ideological patron, Tehran, stretching its limited resources. It is also committed, again at Iran’s urging, to establish a permanent military foothold, with the support of the IRGC’s elite al-Quds Force, on the Golan Heights, a volcanic plateau in southern Syria partially occupied by Israeli since the 1967 Arab- Israeli war.
The Israelis view with deepening concern the prospect of a new front against Hezbollah that extends eastward from the traditional battlegrounds of south Lebanon.
All this is putting a growing strain on Hezbollah’s military capabilities, particularly a dwindling manpower pool. It is an increasingly critical problem that also troubles Assad’s minority Alawite regime.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war, Hezbollah is showing signs of being stretched thin. It has an estimated 5,000 fighters in Syria out of an overall force of 20,000- 25,000, including reservists.
There are unverified reports Hezbollah will have to boost its contingent to 6,000-7,000, with a similar number of Iraqi Shia militiamen recruited by the IRGC.
Hezbollah does not disclose its losses but they are considerable and increasingly difficult to conceal. The observatory estimates Hezbollah lost at least 700 killed before the battle of Qalamoun began, a toll that is now believed to top 1,000. Double that, at least, for the wounded.