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'A regional power' How fighting Assad's war

transformed Hezbolla
The group has gained extensive battlefield experience in Syria, and it claims it is
prepared for another war with Israel if necessary

Members of the Hezbollah scout movement hold portraits of fighters killed while
fighting in Syria at a religious event in the southern Lebanese city of Nabatieh on 4
October 2017 (AFP)

Ali Harb-Monday 9 October 2017


It was formed as a resistance group against Israel, and operated on the country's
southern borders. But after years of war in Syria, hardened by battle experience
and holding new territory, Hezbollah in 2017 is a wholly different beast.
The Lebanese Shia group's victories in Syria have initiated a new era for its
fighters in which they are not restricted by geography, but fight where they need
to be, their leader has proclaimed.
"Everyone is dealing with Hezbollah as a regional power," a Hezbollah political
official who wished to remain anonymous told Middle East Eye.
Hezbollah, considered a terrorist organisation by Washington, has gained
extensive battlefield experience in Syria, and it claims it is prepared for another
war with Israel if necessary.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah recently warned Israel of "heavy losses" if it
underestimates his organisation's capabilities.
If it weren't for Hezbollah's intervention in Syria, the country would have fallen,
and Nusra and Daesh would have been fighting us in our towns and villages in
Lebanon
- Hezbollah military official
The official said the Iran-backed group's "decisive and essential" role in Syria has
turned it into a major military force in the Middle East.
"That was not our aim when we intervened in Syria," he said. "All we wanted is to
defend the resistance and defend a state that has stood by and supported the
resistance since its inception in 1982 until now.
"The resistance" is what Hezbollah calls itself. The group was founded with Iranian
help primarily to fight the Israeli army in Lebanon. But in Syria, it has taken on a
new enemy - Syrian rebels, whom it accuses of being takfiris, a term referring to
hardliners who proclaim other Muslims to be infidels.
Militarily, the political official said, Hezbollah acquired valuable fighting
experience in war-torn Syria. The group has learned offensive tactics, whereas in
past wars it had been arrayed mostly in a defensive posture against Israeli troops.
The organisation also fought on different types of terrain in Syria, a change from
the hilly battlefield of south Lebanon.
"Now, we have fought in urban settings in al-Qusayr, in the mountains in
Qalamoun and in the desert in Palmyra, and this has given Hezbollah great
military experience," he said.
"We also fought alongside traditional armies, which has given Hezbollah an ability
to develop battle tactics," he continued, adding that Israel is well aware of
Hezbollah's new abilities.
What comes after Syria?
Besides fighting, Hezbollah has consistently called for a political solution to the
conflict in Syria and encouraged dialogue publicly and behind the scenes to end
the war, the official said.
A Syrian flag bandana at a shop in Dahiye that says, 'We love you' -- a nod to
Syria's Bashar al-Assad (MEE/ Ali Harb)
"So how long will we stay in Syria?" he asked. "That boils down to two points.
Since we have intervened in Syria at the request and with the cooperation of the
legitimate government, our exit from Syria will be in cooperation with that
government.
"Secondly, we will leave Syria when the reasons for our intervention disappear -
when Syrian affairs return to normal and when the conspiracy that targeted the
regime in Syria and the resistance in Lebanon and the axis of resistance in the
region fails."
Hezbollah, like the Syrian government, views the war resulting from a 2011
internal uprising as an international plot to destroy the state because of its
alliance with Iran.
Still, the Hezbollah official denies that the group has become a fully fledged cross-
border military power.
Lebanon's mission is to establish a conscious, responsible environment for co-
existence between sects. If Lebanon can't fulfill this mission, the nation has no
meaning
- Rajeh Al Khoury, analyst
While acknowledging that Hezbollah was involved in a limited capacity in training
fighters against the Islamic State (IS) group in Iraq, he said it was not directly
involved in the conflict in Yemen.
But Kassem Kassir, a journalist and the author of the book Hezbollah between
1982 and 2016, said the organisation now must balance its Lebanese presence
with its newly found role outside the country.
"Hezbollah is no longer an internal Lebanese power," Kassir said. He added that
Hezbollah leaders' assertion that the group's fighters will return to Lebanon after
the war is an oversimplification.
He said the group was grappling with a new reality in becoming a regional power,
though the dynamics of its role going forward are still unclear. "Hezbollah after
the Syrian war is not the same and will not be the same as before the Syrian war,"
Kassir said.
'We will be where we need to be'
Before Hezbollah fully committed to the Syrian civil war, the party gave cautious
rationales for its intervention.
It began with a need to protect border communities under threat by hardline
militants. Then it was about protecting Shia shrines, especially the Sayyida Zeinab
mosque in Damascus, from fundamentalist rebels who vowed to destroy them.
About two months after Hezbollah's first public involvement in the war, in the
battle of Qusayr in May 2013, Nasrallah pledged to fight across Syria and beyond
to pursue his group's objectives.
His words in a June 2013 speech stretched the militant organisation's area of
operation: "We will be where we need to be," he said.
The quote became a sort of motto of what seems to be a new Hezbollah that is
not confined within Lebanon's borders. It now appears on posters across
Hezbollah's strongholds and has even been turned into a song.
As Hezbollah became more visibly involved in the Syrian war,
indiscriminate bomb attacks began targeting the mainly Shia southern Beirut
suburbs, known as Dahiye.
The bombings, claimed by al-Qaeda and IS, were condemned across the Lebanese
political spectrum. However, they ignited a chicken-or-egg debate about the
motive behind them.
While Hezbollah critics accused the group of making Lebanon a target for Syrian
militants, the party maintained that its fighters safeguarded the country from
what was an inevitable confrontation with militants on Lebanese soil.
A Hezbollah military source, who requested anonymity, reiterated that argument
to MEE.
"If it weren't for Hezbollah's intervention in Syria, the country would have fallen,
and Nusra and Daesh would have been fighting us in our towns and villages in
Lebanon," he said, referring to IS and al-Qaeda's branch in Syria, which now
operates under the name of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
Lebanon's Shia
The argument that IS was destined to violate Lebanon is often used by local
leaders and imams in Shia areas.
The military source cited attacks by IS across European capitals that he said were
supportive of the Syrian opposition.
The rise of IS also serves as justification for Hezbollah's casualties in Syria.
The group has lost hundreds of fighters in the war. There is no official count of its
losses but they are estimated to be between 1,300 and 1,500, the military source
said.
Hezbollah was able to increase recruitment during the war using the same
philosophy of martyrdom that it employed in the fight against Israel.
Pictures of fighters killed in battle over the past three years are reverently
displayed across Dahiye, often with a background of Sayyida Zeinab's shrine in
Damascus.
Both Kassem and the military source said that while the loss of fighters in Syria
had obvious painful effects on Lebanese Shia society, it had not swayed public
opinion against the group.
The military source claimed that foreign and local media had tried to contact
families of fallen fighters to get them to publicly criticise Hezbollah, but to no
avail.
Kassem agreed that there is little sign of immediate family members of those
killed in Syria blaming Hezbollah for their losses.
He said the group has maintained a direct relationship with its supporters and
even praised it for taking care of the families of dead fighters.
A poster of Nasrallah in South Beirut that says, "We will be where we need to be."
(MEE/ Ali Harb)
The organisation has also used theology to glorify the deaths.
For example, at the funeral of a 17-year-old fighter killed in Syria earlier this year,
the group's deputy chief Naim Qassem linked his death to the concept of fate,
which is predestined by God and therefore unchangeable.
Shia society has become gradually more supportive of Hezbollah's war efforts as
the danger of militant groups in Syria became more real, Kassem said.
"After these groups, especially Daesh and Nusra, started showing their true faces,
there were only a few opponents to Hezbollah's role in Syria left," Kassem told
MEE.
The military source said 95 percent of Shia in Lebanon have full confidence in
Hezbollah's leadership and in Nasrallah personally, while conceding that the
group was never going to win over some Shia dissenters.
He described them as the "Shia of the embassy", a derogatory term stemming
from US diplomatic cables made public by Wikileaks that revealed meetings
between anti-Hezbollah Shia activists and the US ambassador in Lebanon.
Rajeh al-Khoury, a veteran political analyst who writes for the Annahar
newspaper, said the Syria intervention had not hurt the organisational
homogeneity of Hezbollah.
He said it is an ideological party, and that Nasrallah has publicly committed to the
strategic leadership of Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei via Wilayat al-Faqih, a
theological concept that gives the Iranian ayatollah political custodianship over
his followers.
When fighters join Hezbollah, they know that they are a part of this larger system,
so internal dissent is not likely, he said.

Pictures of fighters killed in battle over the past three years are reverently
displayed across Dahiye (MEE/ Ali Harb)
Still, Hussein Itany, a Beirut-based communications specialist, said there is more
than religion and ideology to Hezbollah's ability to minimise opposition within its
base.
"They're betting on a winning horse," Itany said of the Lebanese Shia community.
"Everything Hezbollah has promised, they delivered. If they say something will
happen, it does. If they say it won't, it doesn't."
Sectarian tensions
The Hezbollah political official said, however, that there has been an ongoing
effort to use of sectarianism to undermine the group.
Hezbollah, he added, also operates from a political standpoint, citing the group's
relationship with resistance movements in Palestine.
But there is no denying that Hezbollah's involvement in Syria has been largely
perceived through a sectarian lens.
Hezbollah's main political opponents in Lebanon are Sunni. Its patrons in Iran are
Shia. Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is from Syria's Alawite community, while
most rebels and their regional backers are Sunni.
Unfortunately, because we were weak, neutrality was imposed on us. Hezbollah,
because it was strong, did not respect the policy of neutrality and sent thousands
of fighters to Syria
- Ashraf Rifi, former justice minister
Furthermore, Sunni politicians have told MEE that they feel frustrated by
Hezbollah's dominance over Lebanon's strategic affairs.
Khoury said Lebanon is witnessing deep and dangerous sectarian divisions that
reflect the state of the Arab world. He added that the sectarian standoff is also
what gave birth to IS.
Hezbollah's role in Syria has intensified sectarian tensions in the country and the
region, he said.
"At the beginning of the war, Sayyed Hassan [Nasrallah] used to say there were
legitimate demands of the Syrian people that the regime must consider," Khoury
told MEE. "He doesn't say that anymore."
Lebanese divisions
When Hezbollah went to war in Syria, large sections of the political establishment
in Lebanon were vocal in supporting of the rebels there.
The Syrian government had even accused Lebanese politicians of arming
opposition groups that it described as "terrorists."
Ashraf Rifi, a former justice minister and a vocal Sunni opponent of Hezbollah,
said the Lebanese government had established a policy of neutrality to protect
the country from a spillover of the war.
"Unfortunately, because we were weak, neutrality was imposed on us. Hezbollah,
because it was strong, did not respect the policy of neutrality and sent thousands
of fighters to Syria," Rifi told MEE.
Read more
'A feeling of defeat': Lebanon's Sunnis frustrated in face of Hezbollah power
Khoury said the balance of power in Lebanon has been tilted in favour of
Hezbollah, which will inevitably diminish the role of the state.
He referred to September clashes between IS militants and the Lebanese army
near the Syrian border, when Hezbollah took the initiative in the fighting and
struck a deal to evacuate the militants.
"There's fear over rebuilding the role of the state," Khoury said.
He added that establishing a capable government in Lebanon would require
Hezbollah to come under the umbrella of the state, without unilaterally dragging
the country into regional wars.
"Lebanon's mission is to establish a conscious, responsible environment for co-
existence between sects. If Lebanon can't fulfill this mission, the nation has no
meaning," he said.

Posted by Thavam