In Syria, Hezbollah’s war veterans dig in for the long haul
Beirut - As the Syrian war gradually shifts from the battlefield to the negotiating table, Lebanon’s Hezbollah could soon begin concentrating greater efforts on post-war plans to establish a permanent military presence in Syria.
Hezbollah has played a key role in defending the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, forming the sharp end of the Iran-mobilised Shia paramilitary forces drawn from Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan that have battled opposition rebel groups across Syria.
Despite frequent speculation in the media and calls from the Syrian opposition, and recently Turkey, for Hezbollah to pull out of Syria, there is little chance that the Party of God plans to withdraw any time soon.
“We will remain in Syria until we completely triumph over the terrorist project,” Sayyed Ibrahim al- Amine Sayyed, head of Hezbollah’s political council, declared in early January.
Syria is seen as a critical component of Iran’s regional security architecture. It is the geo-strategic lynchpin connecting Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon, allowing Tehran to project power directly to Israel’s northern border.
“Because Syria is a crucial element of the chain of resistance, the Islamic Republic of Iran sided with the Syrian government and people from the inception of this regional and international conspiracy [against Damascus]. And it will continue to do so,” Ali Akbar Velayati, a top adviser to Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khameini, said in early January.
A December 30th ceasefire brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran has generally held, bringing some welcome calm to a country nearing its sixth year of war. An exception, however, has been in the Wadi Barada area west of Damascus where Hezbollah and Syrian troops have battled rebels for control of strategic springs that provide water for the Syrian capital.
The Syrian Army announced on January 29th that the area had returned to state control after troops entered the water pumping station that had been in rebel hands since 2012.
Wadi Barada is also important for Hezbollah due to its proximity to the Lebanese border.
A hallmark of Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria has been to establish control over Lebanon’s north-eastern and eastern border with Syria to protect key arms supply routes and also Shia-populated villages in the Bekaa Valley from attacks by Sunni jihadists infiltrating from Syria.
On the Syrian side of the border, Hezbollah led offensives in 2014 and 2015 to secure the Qalamoun area, which lies between Damascus and Homs and includes the main M5 highway connecting the two cities.
The party has also turned Qusayr, a town 8km north of the border that it seized in June 2013, into a major military base. Its Sunni population fled during the battle and is not expected to return.
“I don’t think I can go back. The regime’s doing ethnic cleansing,” said Khallaf al-Khaled, a farmer from Qusayr living in a refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. “They don’t want us back there.”
On the Lebanese side, over the last two years Hezbollah has built dozens of hilltop outposts in the barren mountains. Some are substantial permanent strongpoints with fortified bunkers and artillery emplacements.
Most are concentrated south of Arsal, a Sunni town in the north-east Bekaa region, where they serve as a bulwark against jihadists of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and the Islamic State holed up in mountains and valleys to the east.
Hezbollah has also built new graded tracks to connect the outposts in this desolate area. At least two new tracks, wide enough to carry trucks, cross the border, potentially allowing Hezbollah fighters to deploy east into Syria or for arms shipments to head west into Lebanon.
The other area of Syria relevant to the agenda of Hezbollah, as well as Iran, is the Golan Heights, part of which has been occupied by Israel since 1967.
Two years ago, Hezbollah and Iran were preparing a military infrastructure of bunkers, tunnels and ammunition storage sites in the northern Golan, a long-term investment that was aimed at Israel rather than Syrian rebels.
An Iranian general and a top Hezbollah commander were among six people killed near Quneitra, capital of the Golan, in a January 2015 Israeli drone strike. Sources close to Hezbollah said the commander was inspecting the new facilities when they were attacked. Iran and Hezbollah view the Golan as a useful arena to extend the “resistance” front against Israel from the adjacent south Lebanon.
The war in Syria has been transformative for Hezbollah. It has greatly expanded in size and gained an array of new war-fighting skills and combat-tested troops. Amid Russian efforts to secure a negotiated peace settlement, a strengthened and battle-hardened military wing will be able to turn its full attention once more to Israel.
“Hezbollah is too small a name for what we’ve become,” bragged a veteran Hezbollah fighter who has served several tours in Syria. “We should call ourselves Jaish Allah [the Army of God].”