Hezbollah sinks deeper into Syrian quagmire
BEIRUT - Hezbollah, Iran’s strike arm in the Levant, is a key part of a major push by the Syrian government to encircle the much-contested city of Aleppo and crush the rebels holding out in what was once Syria’s largest city and economic heart, a battle that could be the most decisive of the 5-year-old war.
Despite heavy losses in recent weeks, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has declared that driving rebels out of Aleppo is its most important objective in Syria and the “great battle” of the savage conflict.
He vowed Hezbollah will reinforce its fighters around Aleppo. “There can be no retreat and no doubt,” he declared in a June 24th speech in Beirut.
Some analysts, however, say Hezbollah is getting dragged deeper into a struggle that could threaten its power.
The Lebanese group also appears to be gearing up for another offensive aimed at recapturing the strategic Deir ez-Zor region in eastern Syria, much of which has been held by the Islamic State (ISIS) since mid- 2014 and which contains Syria’s main oil and gas fields.
In a May 25th speech, Nasrallah declared: “We are present… today in many places (in Syria) and we will be present in all the places in Syria that this battle requires.” He portrayed the fight against ISIS in apocalyptic terms, describing the threat as “unprecedented in history”.
According to regional analyst Jonathan Spyer: “This sounds… like a preparing of the ground for a larger and deeper deployment of Hezbollah fighters in Syria.
“Such a deployment will inevitably come at a cost to the movement. Only the starkest and most urgent threats of the kind Nasrallah is now invoking could be used to justify it to Hezbollah’s own public.”
The Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, which is staunchly pro-Hezbollah, reported that plans for the new offensive were drawn up by the defence ministers of Iran, Syria and Russia at a June 9th meeting in Tehran after Iranian and Hezbollah forces were badly mauled in a battle at Khan Touman, a village south-west of Aleppo, on May 6th.
Nasrallah acknowledged these losses — a rare admission — and claimed they were due to the large number of fighters the Syrian rebels threw into the fray.
But Syrian and Lebanese sources say Hezbollah’s losses were primarily due to the absence of Russian air cover because Moscow had unilaterally declared a two-day ceasefire. There are constant reports of sharp differences over strategy and objectives between Hezbollah and its allies.
Hezbollah is also facing growing problems at home, even among its core Shia constituency, which is increasingly dismayed by the growing casualty toll in Syria, a calamity engendered by Hezbollah’s allegiance to Iran.
A US crackdown on Hezbollah’s financial network, particularly through Lebanese banks that handle its business, and a series of sanctions against Hezbollah interests worldwide have caused major consternation in the Party of God.
On May 3rd, Lebanon’s central bank, anxious to avoid international problems adding to the country’s deepening economic crisis, ordered banks to abide by US legislation and close accounts associated with Hezbollah.
This has clearly hit the movement where it hurts — to the point that an unclaimed June 12th bombing outside the headquarters of Banque du Liban et d’Outre-Mer (Blom), one of Lebanon’s leading banks, was universally seen as a warning by Hezbollah to the banking system to defy the US sanctions.
For now, Hezbollah’s objective is to ensure Syria remains within Iran’s orbit. To do that, it has put 6,000 troops there at any one time out of a total force of as many as 20,000 men.
But the price has been high. It has lost an estimated 1,200 fighters killed in action, including several of its most able field commanders, with perhaps three times as many wounded. On May 12th, the party’s overall military commander, Mustafa Badreddine, was killed in a mysterious explosion in Damascus that Hezbollah blamed on unidentified Syrian rebels.
Many analysts suspect that part of the Americans’ strategy in Syria is to keep the conflict going simply to bleed Iran and its Lebanese ally militarily and economically. If that is so, it may be working.
Hezbollah has been forced to recruit non-Shia, often forcibly, among the Sunni and Christian tribes in northern Lebanon, to meet its manpower demands. Many young Shias are evading Hezbollah’s conscription policy.
The party’s leaders are finding it increasingly difficult to justify to their own people the growing stream of body bags coming out of Syria. Badreddine and others were, after all, killed by fellow Arabs and Muslims, not Israelis, who since Hezbollah’s inception in 1982 have been portrayed as the real enemy.
Hezbollah has lost more men fighting other Arabs in Syria since 2012 than the 1,200-plus killed in action battling Israel over the last three decades.
Now, with Iran sliding dangerously towards open conflict with its old rival Saudi Arabia, Hezbollah, as a key element in the Islamic Republic’s covert campaign of expansion, is also being dragged into that confrontation by Tehran.
This will strain Hezbollah’s limited resources even further at a time when Syrian President Bashar Assad and Tehran are relying on it to take more of the burden in the war in which Assad’s biggest problem is, as it has always been, a chronic lack of manpower.
Hezbollah “looks set to be drawn further and deeper into the Syrian quagmire”, Spyer observed. “Faced with a task of strategic magnitude and ever-growing dimensions in Syria, there are indications that the movement is being forced to cast its net wider in its search for manpower.”
Indeed, there is the danger that Hezbollah will be stuck in Syria for years.
The Party of God, along with Russia and Iran, “appear increasingly confident that the US is coming around to treating the regime of Bashar Assad as a partner in the war against the Islamic State,” observed Yezid Sayigh of Carnegie’s Middle East Centre in Beirut.
“More importantly, they hope to extract US acceptance of a political solution to the conflict.”
“But victory may prove pyrrhic. Russia, Iran and Hezbollah are pursuing a short-term outcome that enables them to pull out of Syria and cut their costs. But Assad would be left heading a hollowed-out state, devastated economy and largely resentful population.”
“A coercive outcome of the sort Russia, Iran and Hezbollah envisage will result in a perpetually weak and unstable regime they will have to prop up indefinitely,” Sayigh cautioned.