Hezbollah’s costly victory in Syria
Here’s what Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah is reported by Al Akhbar to have said about the Syrian war: “We have won the war in Syria. What remain are only spare battles.” He described “our martyrs, wounded, captives and people” as engaged in a big project. They “are changing equations,” said Nasrallah, “and writing the region’s history, not Lebanon’s.”
He contextualised the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) and other militant groups, such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS, the former al-Nusra Front), as follows: It was “even more serious than the 2006 July war,” the 34-day conflict with Israel.
This is rhetorical acrobatics. The popular uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime originally had nothing to do with Islamist radicalism and there was no risk of the Lebanese fighting ISIS or JFS on Lebanese territory. Arguably, the brutal policies of the Assad regime and the deployment of Hezbollah forces in Syria radicalised the Syrian opposition, creating an opportunity for Islamist radicals to emerge as a force in Syria.
And yet Nasrallah was quoted by the Iranian Fars News Agency discussing the importance of the Syrian civil war with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in apocalyptic terms.
“Back then,” Nasrallah said, referring to the start of the Syrian civil war, “everyone believed the Syrian regime would collapse within two to three months. We explained our viewpoint and said, if we don’t fight in Damascus, we must fight in Hermel, Baalbek, Dahieh, Ghazieh, Western Bekaa and southern Lebanon.”
Khamenei is reported to have responded: “Not only in these areas but also in Kerman, Khuzestan, Tehran and the like… This front has several axes: The Iran axis, the Syria axis and the Lebanon axis. Bashar Assad is the commander of the Syria axis and we must see to it that he prevails and prevail he will.”
It’s not hard to see why Nasrallah resorts to rhetorical acrobatics and historical revisionism. He is finding it difficult to explain the cost of Hezbollah’s military involvement in the Syrian civil war. After all, Hezbollah’s raison d’être is founded on the doctrine of al-Muqawama — resistance against Israel.
Yet, since at least September 2012, the Shia militia has fought fellow Arabs in Syria on Iran’s behalf to secure the survival of the Assad regime and maintain its overland bridge to Tehran.
Worse, there is every indication that Hezbollah’s victory in Syria took a heavy toll. Reports on funerals for Hezbollah fighters killed in combat in Syria, in particular those appearing on www.southlebanon.org and www.yasour. org, show that it was a costly win. At least 1,139 fighters were killed from September 30, 2012, through September 20, 2017. This must be considered a conservative estimate because of Hezbollah’s interest in downplaying its losses in Syria.
Lebanese sources further identify 72 of the fatalities as “al-Qaid al-Shahid,” (martyred leader/commander) or “al-Qaid al-Maydani” (field leader/commander). This indicates they were commanding officers and not rank-and-file fatalities. Hezbollah clearly paid a heavy price in Syria.
So, what did Hezbollah get in return? An overland bridge securing the constant flow of arms from Iran in the east to Hezbollah on the shores of the Mediterranean. This is an important achievement but Nasrallah and the Hezbollah leadership must realise the policy consequences of their achievement. The arms flow will maintain Hezbollah’s dependency on Tehran, forcing it to fight Iran’s future wars to secure future arms deliveries.