Hezbollah’s Military Involvement in Syria and its Wider Regional Role
The fall of Aleppo in December emphasized the prominent role played by Lebanese Hezbollah in the Syrian war. Since 2013, Hezbollah fighters have operated across the border alongside the Syrian army and forces loyal to the regime of President Bashar Assad. Hezbollah’s importance is twofold: first, it has enabled the regime to wrestle back areas from rebel control, and second, it has significantly increased the effectiveness of pro-regime forces.
The war in Syria, which was triggered by the March 2011 peaceful protests against the regime of President Assad, was perceived as a dangerous threat by Hezbollah and its backer Iran, as it endangered the strategic alliance that Hezbollah had with Assad. Syria is, after all, an important part in the supply chain linking Iran to Hezbollah. Syria’s fall into the hands of a Sunni majority, which would make the nation less inclined to work with Iran, would also deprive Iran of its foothold (through Lebanon) on the Mediterranean and its access on the Arab-Israeli front line. These reasons can explain Hezbollah’s current sizable involvement in Syria.
Anti-Hezbollah activist Lokman Slim believes the organization has deployed from 7,000 to 9,000 fighters and lost over 2,500 militants there. Hezbollah has deployed several divisions in Syria offering military capabilities that the Assad regime lacked. These include guerilla-style combat, light infantry, reconnaissance, and sniper fire. Hezbollah has also provided training to various groups, with one commander interviewed by this author boasting his organization had trained some 120,000 fighters, a figure that the author could not confirm. The beginning of 2012 witnessed only limited activity by Hezbollah, which was believed to have sent experts to help crack down on the revolution and protect strategic Lebanese border areas as well as Shiite shrines located around Damascus. Yet in 2013, Hezbollah’s role in Syria expanded significantly, with Lebanese militants taking a direct combat role and operating openly in larger numbers in the launch of the ground assault on Qusayr, a Sunni town in the Homs province close to the Lebanon border. After the victory at Qusayr, which was can be labeled a turning point in Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, the organization acted in support of the regime elsewhere in Syria, in Homs, Damascus, and Aleppo. Around Damascus, the capture of Zabadani in 2016 can be considered another inflection point in Hezbollah’s military role across the border, one that helped in securing the regime’s seat in the capital. The fall of Aleppo in 2016 to pro-regime forces, which were assisted by various militias, including Hezbollah, finally consecrated the organization’s offensive capabilities.
These various battles underline Hezbollah’s three-pronged role in Syria: Hezbollah’s advisory role in battle; its direct embedding with the Syrian army, which had been stretched thin by years of fighting, in the form of a light infantry force; and finally, the organization’s training capabilities involving paramilitary forces. While the war in Syria has definitely neutralized the Israeli battle front in Lebanon, Hezbollah has also gained from the war. The militant group has witnessed an evolution in its mode of operations, moving from an organization that operated mostly as a guerilla force to nearly as a conventional army. It has turned into an effective fighting force for Iran, capable of waging hybrid warfare in other war theaters besides Syria. These gains have not yet been outweighed by the organization’s increased weaknesses: significant but manageable losses within the organization’s fighting ranks, the loss of a number of top commanders in Syria, increased financial pressure on the organization at a time when funding appears to be in decline, and possible divisions within its ranks concerning its future role in Syria.