Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian war has transformed the Shiite party, turning it into a powerful regional force in an environment that is growing increasingly hostile to the Lebanese militia
https://today.lorientlejour.com-L’Orient-Le Jour / By Stéphanie KHOURI
“Pray for Mohammad and for Ahli Mohammad. At your command, ya Hussein! Yes, Hezbollah!” three young blond men in oversized military fatigues shouted in patchy Arabic, in response to commands by another young man, clearly in a playful mood.
This was in 2016, in a military camp in Syria: Russian soldiers with puzzled looks on their faces as they replied to the military commands of a Hezbollah fighter.
Parachuted into Syria in ultra-sophisticated uniforms, these young Russians looked like extras in a choreography they hadn’t rehearsed.
There was nothing new about this scene. At that time, several foreign forces had come to Syria to support the regime of Bashar al-Assad against the insurgents. Russians had been present in Syria since 2015 and the Lebanese Shiite party militants since 2013.
Yet, behind this ingenuous and seemingly already victorious scene, the stakes were high, and a decisive military equation was far from certain.
Despite this naive display of camaraderie, relations between those allies were not without rivalries, and this depiction of what was happening almost succeeded in making people forget that Hezbollah had not always taken on the Syrian venture with such ease.
To understand how things developed to reach this point, we have to go back to the origins of the war.
It was 2011, the entire world was animated with the hopes sparked by the Arab Spring movements. Hezbollah was no exception: thus far the party had spoken in favor of the Tunisian, Egyptian and Yemeni revolutions.
But when the first demonstrations broke out in Syria — in Deraa first and then in the rest of the country — the party’s leaders were faced with a dilemma, “caught between two themes that are dear to them, namely the anti-establishment revolution and anti-Israel resistance,” says Didier Leroy, a researcher at the Royal Higher Institute for Defense.
The party would gradually choose resistance.
From the very beginning, Hezbollah was sacrificing part of its ideological dogma by deciding to engage in the Syrian war.
‘The outright survival strategy took over’
The first year of war in Syria saw a peaceful revolution turn into an armed conflict. For Hezbollah, it was a question of survival. The fall of the Syrian regime would cut off the land route that connected the party to its Iranian godfather, which meant losing a weighty ally in this self-proclaimed axis of resistance.
The Shiite party initially decided to protect the Lebanon-Syria border and the logistics routes in order to keep circulating weapons and goods.
“The fall of the regime would have threatened all this, so Hezbollah had to intervene in order to protect its own existence,” says Mohanad Hage Ali, a researcher and communications director at the Carnegie Middle East Center.
As of 2012, “the outright survival strategy took over,” says Leroy.
This was translated into sending troops to Syria. “According to news leaks, the armed wing of the Islamic resistance had started sending units” to Syria, Leroy adds.
At the time, however, it was still a shy engagement.
“The involvement was gradual, first to protect Lebanese villages in the Hermel area, and then certain Christian villages,” explains Faysal Abdelsater, a journalist close to Hezbollah.
It was a kind of first warning, in order to “prevent the Syrian-Lebanese border from becoming a problem,” says Hage Ali. The Shiite party was pushing back Sunni armed groups, which could have threatened its positions, should they have established a foothold in Lebanon.
It was about “the famous Sunni axis, Tripoli-Arsal-Anjar, perceived as an axis in gestation, which absolutely had to be broken,” Leroy says.
The operation was underway, but the party did not officially announce it. It was rather difficult to justify the actions of a party that based a good part of its political identity, especially the legitimacy of its weapons, on the resistance against the Zionist enemy.
“It’s one thing to fight on your territory against Israel, it’s another to go and fight outside national borders against Muslim civilians,” Leroy argues.
The 2006 victory against Israel was still fresh in people’s minds, and Hezbollah still enjoyed a certain aura in the region, especially among the Arab-Sunni public, which viewed the party’s secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, as “the new strong man after [Gamal Abdel] Nasser, and the first to have known how to inflict a defeat on Israel,” adds Leroy.
By choosing Damascus over Jerusalem, the party took a sharp turn that would drive a wedge between it and Arab public opinion, which Hezbollah had managed to win over, albeit not for long.
Did Hezbollah have a choice? According to several sources, the order came from Tehran, the party’s benefactor, which has funded it for decades and to which Hezbollah pledges allegiance, particularly on all matters relating to strategic issues.
On April 22, 2013, Nasrallah made a secret visit to Tehran to discuss the issue with the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Many observers then interpreted the visit as a sign that the party of God was acting at the orders of its Iranian godfather.
“I know for a fact that Hezbollah militants, and the Sayyed [Nasrallah] himself, were not convinced of this war,” Subhi al-Tufayli, secretary-general of the party from 1989 to 1991, told Reuters.
‘We are the victory of God’
The real motivation behind the party’s decision to get involved in the war next door did not affect the voluntarism of the military campaign nor the firmness of the communication strategy.
From 2013, Hezbollah no longer appeared to be worried about its involvement in the Syrian war. Its tone grew stronger and allusions to the war were less and less concealed.
On April 30, 2013, a week after Nasrallah’s secret meeting in Tehran, the secretary-general dropped a bombshell in a televised speech.
He reiterated that Syria had “true friends in the region,” who would not let it “fall into the hands of the Americans, Israel and the ‘takfiri’ groups.”
Nasrallah’s rhetoric now revolved around new religious arguments, including the need to defend the holy shrines of Shiite Islam.
“We are the wrath of God, the victory of God”: music videos began circulating online in praise of “Sayyida Zeinab,” the Syrian town in which the shrine of Zeinab, the prophet’s grandchild and the daughter of Ali and Fatima, lies.
That same year in June, the battle of Qusair was decisive for the Shiite party.
“As of that moment, the discreet and relative commitment [to the war] was transformed into [a full-blown] offensive military campaign that would be endorsed publicly,” says Leroy.
The party had also faced challenges in the rough terrain of Qusair and logistical difficulties in “an area that was far from home, in the face of extremist groups espousing dangerous ideologies,” says Abdelsater.
The victory at Qusair shifted the balance of power on the ground in favor of the Syrian regime and its allies, who “began to get their second wind,” according to Leroy.
The Qalamoun battles of November 2013 and summer 2014 would be a gradual confirmation of this strategic advantage.
Once the initial goal of securing the border was achieved, the Shiite party was to advance deeper into Syrian territory.
To this end, Iran and Hezbollah recruited tens of thousands of Shiite militants from Iraq and Afghanistan, as infantrymen to defend the ranks of the “resistance.”
Beyond military victories, the entire narrative of the war changed at that time. Islamist armed groups were already occupying ground in Syrian opposition-held territories.
The emergence in 2014 of Daesh, also known as the Islamic State, and the horrific and terrorizing scenes it brought, contributed to influencing an element of Arab public opinion.
Images of bloody conquests went viral around the world, which allowed Hezbollah to perfect its anti-takfiri rhetoric by presenting itself as the protector of minorities against the obscurantist forces of radical Islam.
On the Lebanese scene, this discourse somehow even resonated with the most skeptical.
“Camps that are historically opposed to the party of God, such as the Lebanese Forces, continued to officially castigate its presence in Syria. But, if you scratched the surface, a portion of the Christian population was in real fear,” says Leroy.
If the party insisted on talking about a legitimate fight against “takfirism,” it was because every term was full of meaning. Hezbollah could not afford to appear to be hostile to Islam, even Sunni, without running the risk of angering part of Lebanese, Arab and Muslim public opinion.
Another problematic issue was to speak of a fight against “jihad,” as the Shiite party refers to its own fighters as “mujahideen.”
Thus, by emphasizing the fight against “takfirism,” the party set a new line of communication to differentiate between the Shiite jihad and the Sunni jihad.
“Hezbollah considered its intervention in Syria as a kind of defensive jihad dictated by the circumstances, with the aim of pushing back the existential threat represented by the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra and their radical Sunni derivatives,” explains Joseph al-Agha, a specialist in Hezbollah’s ideology and a professor at Haigazian University in Beirut.
At the same time, Hezbollah’s intervention in the war signaled a reconfiguration of its relations with Damascus. Some senior members of the party had not forgotten the tragedies of the Lebanese Civil War, including the massacre of Hezbollah members in Fathallah in February 1987 at the hands of Syrian troops.
But the tide had turned; fate and common interests brought these former adversaries together. At the domestic level, the Shiite party consolidated its independence following the official withdrawal of the Syrian regime from Lebanon in 2005.
In the 2006 war against Israel, Hezbollah was able to count on the Syrian backyard to fall back when necessary. But for a long time, “the Syrian regime saw Hezbollah as a mere playing card in the negotiations,” says Hage Ali.
The Syrian war allowed the Shiite party to return the favor of 2006 and to regain control by coming to the rescue of Damascus.
‘Fighters are not allowed to speak’
The picture, however, was not ideal, and many gray areas persisted. In Lebanon, the party had to first cope with heavy losses: 2,000 out of 8,000 fighters involved in the war returned home as martyrs — a heavy death toll that set the party’s teeth on edge.
“The party had lost more men in Syria than against Israel: a symbolic threshold that was difficult to defend given its initial ideological line,” Leroy says.
This subject remains taboo until today. All the party’s fighters that L’Orient-Le Jour tried to contact declined to respond without the party’s go-ahead.
“Fighters are not allowed to speak,” says Rana Sahili, the head of Hezbollah’s communications office.
The party, whose reputation had already been damaged by its actions in May 2008 when its operatives seized control of parts of the capital in Lebanon, was also losing much of its regional goodwill in the wake of the atrocities committed in Syria.
“It came as a major shock to Arab [public] opinion, which was discovering that there was something crueler than Israel: the Syrian regime,” says Hage Ali.
On the military ground, the victory was not complete. In May 2016, Mustafa Badreddine, a top party leader, was assassinated in Damascus, and Hezbollah blamed takfiri groups.
Part of the Syrian territories remained beyond the control of the regime and its allies. In Idlib, for instance, the insurgents regained ground and established an autonomous administration in the area.
Russia’s intervention in 2015, however, would once again shift the balance of power via its “formidable aerial cover, [which was] almost providential,” says Leroy.
At that time, the Iranian presence on the ground and the Russian air support made it possible for the Syrian regime to retake some areas and to consolidate its gains.
Hezbollah participated in the major decisive battles: the recapture of Aleppo in December 2016, and Eastern Ghouta in 2018.
By the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017, as military developments continued to unfold, it was becoming clear which warring party was defeated and which was victorious. Hezbollah belonged to the latter camp and emerged gloriously from the Syrian venture.
The fierce battles on the ground had also allowed the party to develop its military capabilities. “In Qusair, Ghouta or Aleppo — all the battles in which Hezbollah participated have led to outright victories,” says Abdelsater proudly.
But the party owed part of its triumphs to the alliance of the “Russian air cover, Iranian forces, the pro-Syrian Palestinian militia of the Jerusalem Brigade, and the Shiite, Iraqi and Afghan militias,” counters Agha.
The party was also victorious in terms of mastery of equipment and strategic expertise, and it learned how to lead other foreign militias on the ground.
Hezbollah changed its status from a Lebanese Shiite militia supported by Iran to a real regional strike force that was involved in Iraq and to a lesser extent in Yemen. Iranian forces managed to secure a corridor that connects Iran to Lebanon.
This euphoria, however, did not last long. The advance of the Iranians and Hezbollah, particularly in southern Syria, was frowned upon by Israel.
The Shiite party was seeking a foothold there to gain a second front against Israel. The latter, however, would carry out thousands of air raids on Iranian positions, with Russia’s approval, to annihilate this settlement attempt.
This showcased two paradoxes in Hezbollah’s position: first, its silence on the Israeli strikes in Syria, while it successfully managed to impose a deterrence principle in Lebanon; second, its dependence on the Russian air force while Moscow adopted a laissez-faire strategy vis-à-vis the Israeli strikes.
The conflict has indeed transformed the party. While it made it stronger at the strategic and military levels, it rendered it less well-adapted to its regional environment, disconnected from the needs of a part of its popular base and at odds with the regional opinion.
On the Lebanese scene, Hezbollah was able to delegate part of the management of domestic affairs in order to “concentrate most of its resources on the military and regional levels,” which allowed it to carry out this “astounding transformation,” says Leroy.
But amid the events of the past few months in Lebanon, including the popular protests, the economic, social and health crises, not to mention the brewing anger in its areas of control, the Shiite party might be prompted to focus on the domestic arena once more.
This article was originally published in French in L’Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.