The Syrian conflict has permanently altered the character and geography of Hezbollah.
Hezbollah’s intervention in the Syrian Civil War has forever changed the character of the organization. Once rooted in lifting the Shi’a of Lebanon to their rightful place in the Lebanese political system, Hezbollah now fights for the Syrian dictator in what has become a war against the Sunnis. The Lion of Damascus, Hafez al-Assad, ruling Syria from 1971 until 2000, possessed a cunning intelligence that engendered some coherence in Syrian society. Hafez both embraced shared Syrian interests with Iran and entered into an entente with Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Bashar al-Assad, however, has shown none of his father’s intelligence, while inheriting his brutality in full measure.
Political Rebellion to Jihad
The 2011 Ides of March saw the first fruits of the Arab Spring borne in Syria. Assad answered this flowering with thuggery that transformed a political rebellion into a full blown Sunni jihad. The Syrian leader's brutality succeeded only in crushing the middle class reformists, leaving a larger rebel movement dominated by Salafi and other Sunni jihadists. The political revolution against the Ba’athists devolved into a sectarian civil war pitting Assad’s Alawites along with portions of the Syrian Christian, Druze, and Kurdish communities, against the numerous permutations of Syria’s majority Sunni population.
Supporters and opponents of Syria’s Assad are now mobilizing along sectarian lines throughout the region. For example, in June 2013, a conference of Sunni scholar-jurists held in Cairo validated the Qatari based Ikhwan leader Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s fatwa urging all Sunnis with military training to join the jihad against Assad. These developing sectarian fault lines in Syria were accentuated by Shi’a Iran’s direct intervention in Syria with its Revolutionary Guard and the commitment of Hezbollah to buttress Assad’s unreliable Sunni majority army.
Hezbollah’s primary role in the Syrian Civil War looks to be ancillary to the Syrian army in the area of the Shi’a Sayyida Zaynab and Sayyida Sukayna shrines in Damascus, and in securing a broad band of Shi’a populated Syrian villages. These Syrian Shi’a villages form an arc from roughly Zebdani to Qusayr, Masharih al-Qaa, and into the Dabla suburbs of Homs. Hezbollah has also now entered the Syrian Shi’a villages of Nubul and al-Zahraa as they anticipate the battle for nearby Aleppo.
Hezbollah Transformation to a Regional Actor
In consequence of its Syrian intervention, Hezbollah is shifting from a Lebanese national actor with a regional footprint into a regional actor with a national footprint. Hezbollah’s status in Lebanon has been undermined as the Syrian conflict radicalizes Lebanese Sunnis. In Sidon, for example, the followers of Sheikh Ahmad al-Asir’s Jund a-Sham and Ibrahim al-Masri’s al-Jama'ah al-Isalmiyya (Lebanese Muslim Brotherhood branch) confronted Assad’s Lebanese supporters, and essentially opened a Lebanese front in Syria’s Civil War. The situation in Sidon became serious enough that Hezbollah directed the mobilization of its Shi’a partner, Amal, to secure Sidon’s eastern and southern approaches. The Sunni majority in Tripoli under Sheikh al-Shahhal has likewise seen repeated clashes with Tripoli’s Alawites. In the northern Beqaa town of Arsal, a center of Lebanese support for the revolution in Syria, the Sunnis have clashed with both Hezbollah and the Hezbollah-allied Lebanese Armed Forces. The result is that whatever the ultimate outcome of the Syrian Civil War, the character and geography of Hezbollah has been permanently altered.
Hezbollah’s military wing, the Islamic Resistance, historically faced south towards Israel but now it must also look east toward Damascus. The Syrian army can no longer maintain control over the whole of its 360 km Lebanese frontier. Syria’s Hezbollah and Pasdaran trained Jaysh al-Sha’bi (People’s Army) fighting for Assad have only minimal training, and their long-term ability to hold ground against Sunni insurgents is problematic.
Hezbollah may be forced to fashion a "village guard" type militia similar to what it organized in south Lebanon, but now in the Syrian Shi’a villages that border eastern Lebanon. The village guard that Hezbollah organized in south Lebanon and fought Israel during the 2006 Harb Tammūz, generally consisted of part-time or retired Hezbollah fighters, who were expected to do little more than protect their home ground. The Hezbollah fighters’ intimate knowledge of their own villages supported by multiple village weapons bunkers, allowed this village guard to protect their homes, while regular Hezbollah ambush and anti-tank fire teams roamed the interstitial spaces between villages to challenge the invading Israeli Defense Forces. South Lebanon’s bunker and tunnel system was connected by fiber optic communications lines, allowing Hezbollah’s political leadership to coordinate the larger struggle in a coordinated fashion.
Such a "village guard" organization in Syrian Shi’a villages along the Lebanese border will require integration into Hezbollah’s command and control system. It will also require a significant investment by Iran of both time and assets to build a bunker-tunnel system and the associated fiber optic infrastructure. Likewise, in south Lebanon, Hezbollah employed various surveillance technologies to watch the Israel border. Presumably, if Hezbollah uses this tactic in the Syrian Shi’a villages along part of Lebanon’s eastern frontier, we may see similar technologies deployed as sentinels facing the Sunni militias.
Order of Battle
In addition to policing the Syrian-Lebanese frontier, Hezbollah’s Syrian expedition will necessarily alter its order of battle. If the organization does not intend to permanently thin its military deployments in south Lebanon, it will need to increase the number of regular full-time fighters. In the 2006 Harb Tammūz, Hezbollah deployed between 1,000 and 2,000 full-time fighters, in addition to the village guard arrayed in south Lebanon. In the aftermath of that conflict, Hezbollah was forced to recruit more widely to account for some of the hundreds of fighters killed in action. The movement now appears to have positioned the bulk of their full-time fighters in Syria, thus unavoidably depleting assets in south Lebanon and the Beqaa valley.
Most reports suggest Hezbollah has taken a significant number of casualties in places like Qusayr, who cannot easily be replaced. Hezbollah’s need to secure its eastern and northern frontiers will inescapably result in less seasoned, less trained, and less vetted Lebanese Shi’a fighting under the Hezbollah banner. Unlike the aftermath of the Harb Tammūz when Hezbollah recruited beyond the Shi’a community, the sectarian nature of the Syrian conflict will likely limit the organization’s recruitment to the Shi’a and perhaps the Alawite population of Lebanon. Hezbollah is not running out of men, but good, well trained fighters are in shorter supply.
In the medium term, it is reasonable to expect an increase in the number of fighters under the Hezbollah banner, commensurate with the increased responsibility of the party to stabilize the eastern and northern frontiers of Lebanon. Concomitantly, the core of Hezbollah is necessarily weakened, as casualties mount among its seasoned veterans while the organization recruits a greater number of less qualified fighters. Ultimately, this results in a larger organization in absolute terms that is not as strong as the original Hezbollah organization.
The contraction of territories under the control of the Syrian regime, means Assad’s government has less ability to coordinate Iranian arms shipments across Lebanon’s, heretofore, quiet eastern frontier to Hezbollah from Damascus. Without a domestic arms manufacturing capacity, Hezbollah is completely dependent on outside sources of weapons to sustain its military relevance. Iranian arms destined for Hezbollah and transiting Syria, historically flowed across eastern Lebanon and into Hezbollah stocks. When Iran could fly weapons into Damascus, it was a short trip to the Masnaa crossing on the Beirut to Damascus highway and into the Beqaa. Such paved road crossings are significant, as they allow trucks to move heavy weapons such as rockets in some quantity.
The unpaved smuggling routes such as Horsh Sayed Ali and secondary crossing points like Ka’a a near Hermel, while used extensively for smuggling, are not able to handle large quantities of trafficked arms in a timely manner. That overland arms pipeline is now likely to be supplemented, if not replaced, by arms flowing overland from Latakia and then into northern, or perhaps around to eastern, Lebanon.The ability of the new Iranian military center, established in 2011 at the Latakia military airport to import and move arms to Hezbollah from the Mediterranean coast and over to the Beqaa, will be a significant matter in the coming years.
Those routes will be inherently more problematic for Hezbollah. Routes developing from Latakia into the Beqaa are longer, more circuitous, and more subject to interdiction. Except the Aarida crossing point on the coast there are three major paved roads; motorway one, and highways 43 and nine that get close to the 100 km northern Lebanese border (which is a better defined border than Lebanon’s eastern frontier). Highway nine is the sole officially crossing into Lebanon in the north at a couple of points. One of these at the Aboudieh crossing, about 20 km from the coast, is not currently useful to Hezbollah.
Northern Lebanon, now demographically characterized by Christian and Sunni towns and villages, are all at risk of Hezbollah’s infiltration to secure such new arms routes. Syrian highway four that effectively connects Baalbek and Homs in Syria, may also see increased arms smuggling.
Iran’s Deeper Involvement
Observers may, therefore, expect an alteration in Hezbollah’s overland arms supply lines. The quantity of arms moving from Damascus to Hezbollah storehouses in the Beqaa will likely diminish, while new overland routes from the Iranian facility at Latakia airport to the Beqaa will be formed and developed over time. A permanent Pasdaran presence in both Latakia and Damascus should be expected, in addition to a role for the Revolutionary Guard in ongoing training for the Jaysh al-Sha’bi so long as Assad remains in control of some regions of Syria.
The presence of approximately 4,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Syria also suggests a permanent garrisoning of the Pasdaran in Syria and the guards’ possible re-introduction into Shi’a areas of Lebanon, as Hezbollah struggles with the radicalization of Lebanon’s Sunnis.
At the end of the day, Hezbollah is honing the classical Sunni-Shi’a fault lines in Syria, while the Syrian borders drawn by European cartographers fade into history.
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