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What exactly is Hezbollah doing in Syria?

Hassan Nasrallah has pledged his forces' support for the Assad regime

Isis’ surprisingly rapid routing of pro-regime militias in the eastern desert city of Palmyra has raised for the first time the serious prospect of the demise of the Assad regime, or at least its pinning back into core heartland areas where it can rely on external protagonists to lend it mission-critical support.

The most prominent of these non-Syrian props is Hezbollah, the powerful, but stretched, Lebanese Shia militia-come-political party.

Its strategists are in a quandary, as they observe the steady unravelling of the significant gains made by their Syrian ally over the last couple of years.

Hezbollah did much of the heavy lifting that helped secure Homs from rebel hands two years ago. It has also sacrificed numerous fighters in a battle that – ostensibly at least – is not of immediate relevance to a Lebanese-based group.

Its decision to throw its weight behind Assad was therefore not taken lightly. But in the cold calculus of its leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the consequences of seeing a vengeful Sunni-majority take the reins of power in Damascus would be too dangerous.

At the expense of much of its regional goodwill, it pitched in to save a tarnished regime. And that effort persists, even as the hated Isis “takfiri” extremists seize ground vacated by a tired and fractured army.

Ever the most media-savvy of Islamists, in mid-May Hezbollah took Western journalists a whistle-stop tour of the mountainous Qalamoun terrain in Syria that it had clawed back from a patchwork of Jihadis. 

Qalamoun offensive

Hezbollah has claimed swift victories against the Sunni Syrian groups active on the border area, which since the ending of winter and the melting of the snow is now fully accessible to its fighters.

They claim to have destroyed or dismantled 40 militant bases and four operations rooms in their two-week offensive in Syria’s Qalamoun mountain. They have, it is reported, taken over 300 square kilometres of territory that the insurgents used as a vantage point to shell Lebanese villages and mount attacks deep into Lebanese territory.

This upbeat message countered the narrative in Beirut that the group had sustained significant battlefield losses in fighting Assad’s war.

Having – if the Hezbollah PR campaign is to be believed – now mopped up the opposition, the aim now is to capture the political advantage. In this it is preparing to raise the stakes substantially.

Nasrallah has called on the Lebanese army to expel Isis and Nusra militants hiding out in caves on the outskirtsof the Lebanese town of Arsal – just a few kilometres west of Qalamoun. So much, so uncontroversial. But the rejoinder is significant; if the armed forces didn’t take that option, he hinted in an interview on 16 May, then Hezbollah itself would do the job itself.

“If the Lebanese state accepts the occupation of its territories and approves that armed groups attack its army … then the Lebanese people will not accept that. The people will assume their responsibilities if the state fails to act,” Nasrallah said.

These words have poured fuel on the fire of an already incendiary sectarian disposition inside Lebanon. Last August, Syrian Jihadists assaulted the largely Sunni town of Arsal near the north-eastern border with Syria, killing a number of Lebanese security personnel and taking more than 20 hostage. These individuals, reportedly held by (Al-Qaeda-linked) Nusra militiamen, are being used as bargaining chips.

If, as Nasrallah intimated, Hezbollah would take on the Jihadists in Arsal and the outskirts – where a number of the Syrians fleeing Hezbollah fighters are reputed to have holed up – it could yield far reaching consequences for the tenuous domestic sectarian balance.

Although Hezbollah’s fighting in Syria on the Bashar Assad regime’s behalf has been hugely controversial in Beirut – Lebanese Sunnis bridle at the extensive cross-border effort to save a regime that it sees as responsible for the murder of its former prime minister Rafik Hariri 10 years ago – it would be even more toxic if Hezbollah were to take up arms on Lebanese turf.

For many Lebanese, this rekindles bitter memories of the group’s show of strength on the streets in Beirut in January 2008, when militiamen for the first time took up arms against fellow Lebanese, after the government had attempted to dismantle its private communication networks.

Nasrallah’s call in the wake of the Qalamoun operation was also an implicit challenge to the mandate of the Lebanese armed forces, with which Hezbollah is not meant to be in conflict.

Baathists vulnerable

For now though, that problem is secondary to the more immediate existential challenge faced by Hezbollah’s ally in Damascus.  Having wrested back the initiative in the long war against Syria’s rebels, the Baathist regime has seen its momentum reversed in recent weeks. Losing a second provincial capital in Idlib, including an air base, as well as the strategic northern town of Jisr al-Shughur – which protected the western coastal towns where the Alawites are strongest – its vulnerability has been amplified. The loss of Palmyra, which provided a connection to the eastern city of Deir ez-Zour wehre Assad troops have been hemmed in by Isis at a military base, is doubly traumatic.

With Isis at the gates of the ancient Roman city, Assad is growing increasingly reliant on external support, whether in the form of Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Iraqi Shia militias, or most evidently, Hezbollah. Without the Shia group’s experience, prowess and sheer manpower, it is scarcely likely that the Assad it could have survived thus far. It was Hezbollah that in June 2013 secured the strategic battle for Qusair, which secured a passage of territory running from Damascusthrough Homs.

Informed parties are gloomy about Bashar’s prospects. In the view of a spokesman of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), quoted in an Israeli daily, “Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s ability to protect the Syrian regime has dramatically declined, making the Israeli military command more cautious of a sudden fall of the Syrian regime which will let battle-hardened jihadist groups rule near the Israeli border”.

Isis’ advances in Iraq, where it took the western Sunni town of Ramadi in mid-May, have also undermined the Assad regime’s survival chances. Many of the Iraqi Shia militias that have been fighting in Syria will now be called back home to take up arms against the Jihadists in Anbar province. That leaves Assad even more reliant on Hezbollah.

The Qalamoun battle will therefore be critical for Assad, and it is reliant on Hezbollah pinning back the Jihadists and thereby helping to ensure that the Syrian regime is in control of at least one of its borders.

The overriding aim is to extend the Syrian army’s control over the Syria-Lebanon border regions while annexing eastern areas where the Syrian army has a presence to those in the west, where Hezbollah is strong.

Whether this is enough to hold the line is another matter. Across much of the regionally informed twittersphere, it is now de rigeur to read the imminent death rites of the Assad regime. For many it’s not a matter of if, but of when, he is toppled.

Jihadists storming the gates of Damascus?

Clearly, Assad’s armed forces are under severe strain and the latest economic news is bleak. The black market exchange rate slipped to S£284:$1 on 20 May, despite Iran’s fresh promise of financial support to Damascus.

For Hezbollah, the prospect of seeing the Assad regime fracture  – and with it the nexus with Iran that has handed it such power and influencein Lebanon – would be too damaging to countenance. To that extent, the group will throw every effort into halting the advance of the Takfiris.

Such an effort though will stretch finite resources. The group has had to cast its recruitment net far wider in the past year, which has weakened its operational capabilities. Many Lebanese Shia are unwilling to fight in what they see as Syria’s war. Hezbollah is keenly aware that ideology is not a substantial enough motivator for its troops. It must therefore continue to pay them well, if they are to take the fight to the Syrian Jihadists.

That means increasing the financial flows it sources domestically in Lebanon, and tapping alterative – mainly Iranian – sources of funding.

But if it has to, it will do it.Nasrallah, according to the Hezbollah sympathetic Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar, has made it a policy imperative that the Assad regime should not fall.

For many Lebanese Sunnis, the prospect of Assad’s demise, and the diminution of Hezbollah’s influence on the body politic cannot come soon enough. But if the price of this “victory” is the sight of Jihadists storming the gates of Damascus, it will be a hollow one for most Lebanese and Syrians alike. 

James is a specialist in Middle East North Africa region, covering politics and economics. He works for a number of organisations, including Transparency International, African Development Bank, Sasakawa Africa Association, Interpal, the Economist Intelligence Unit, Gulf States Newsletter and Middle East Economic Digest (MEED).

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