For Hezbollah, Qalamoun may be one battle too many

Friday 17/07/2015
Mourning a Hezbollah fighter killed in Qalamoun region

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.