Armored cars, American APCs, Russian tanks and hundreds of soldiers in uniform: this is what Hezbollah's military parade in the Syrian town of Al-Qusayr in November looked like. The impression given by the images that arrived from the event was that this is no longer a terror organization, but rather a full-fledged army, and it seems that the message that Hezbollah's leaders were sending was received loud and clear: We came to Syria in order to win. We are here to stay.
"The military parade sends a three-fold message," political analyst Qassem Kubir says. "An internal Lebanese message, that the fighting alongside the Syrian regime is not up for debate; a message to Israel, that Hezbollah is continuing to develop its military capabilities; and a message to the international community, that the organization and its allies are ready for any development in Syria."
And perhaps this parade holds an additional message, directed within the organization, that tells its fighters they have the important role of protecting the Syrian regime. This led to Hezbollah's massive military and political influence in the country and to the fact the group is considered the leading force in the battles against the rebels and is seen as an active ally that can be trusted.
The Shi'ite organization laid down roots in the Sunni country long before 2011, when riots broke out that eventually led to the ongoing civil war. Hezbollah has been in Syria since before the Arab Spring. It was already there in June 2000, when Basher Assad took power.
"In the years 2000-2003 the Lebanese organization's operatives passed through Syrian Intelligence checkpoints in the Beqqa Valley without being checked," a Syrian officer who defected from the regime said. "In 2005, when the Syrian army withdrew from Lebanon, I started serving in the southern suburbs of Damascus. There I saw Hezbollah flags. Pictures of Hassan Nasrallah waved in Homs as well. Many communities were established in the area under the auspices of the district's governor, Daher Younis, who was close to Tehran. Homs lost its identity."
Homs was marked as an area in which it would be possible to stop the Arab Spring. From testimony of senior Syrian military officials who defected, it has emerged that in 2011, when the winds of change had already arrived in Tunisia and Egypt, a "crisis cell," consisting of some 100 members was established. There it was agreed, among other things, that those who would spill the blood of the Syrians in order to stop the rebellion would be Hezbollah. The organization would focus on the areas of Homs, Tartus and the Syrian Golan - this was the ideological center - Wabal Kusair, Asal al-Warad, Zabdani and Madaya, which had Sunni majorities.
"When the revolution started, you couldn't call what Syria had an army. It was a destroyed army, that wasn't capable of handling tough battles, like the sectarian one or the civil war," Col. Mustafa Ahmed al-Sheich explained. He served as the head of the Free Syrian Army's military council at its beginning, and served, up until his defection, as the head of the chemical weapons branch and as the security officer of the country's northern provinces. "When the army fell apart, Hezbollah was the regime's first savior," he added. "The organization saw the protection of the regime as a matter of life or death - Nasrallah even said so publicly. The Syrian people saw Hezbollah's presence everywhere, spreading the word of Shi'ite Islam in the Iranian fashion."
Why did Hezbollah set out to protect the Syrian regime? In a speech by Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah on "Marty's Day" in May 2015, he explained that it was a matter of defending the border towns of Baalbek and al-Hermel, which have a Shi'ite majority, from what he called the Syrian "takfiri challenge." He was referring to the salafi-jihadi groups, such as the Nusra Front and ISIS, who were active in both Syria and Lebanon. Nasrallah warned that these organizations were being used by Israel and "Arab supporters," including the Saudis, in order to sow discord and sectarianism. However, the danger posed by these groups to Hezbollah, including attacks on its supporters, the assassination of senior Hezbollah member Hassan al-Laqqis and suicide attacks against the Iranian Embassy, as well as other civilian targets in Beirut and the Beqqa Valley, did not begin immediately with the outbreak of the Syrian rebellion.
"When Hezbollah began to intervene in the Syrian crisis in 2011, it was not yet facing the challenge of [danger to] the villages. This did not appear until the end of 2012," claims Bashir Nafa, a modern Arab history scholar. "The transition from a grassroots rebellion to an armed revolution was only at its beginning then. The rebels began to have weapons on a small scale in August 2011, months after the start of the rebellion and after the regime spilled a great deal of the people's blood."
According to Nafa, this was when the first accounts of Hezbollah involvement in the conflict surfaced. In the days prior to the "takfirim," the leadership of the Syrian National Council, who led the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, had close relations with the leaders of Hezbollah.
In the beginning, Hezbollah did not rush to publicly announce its involvement in Syria. It did so gradually. Its exposure increased as the Syrian army lost more territory in fighting.
"Hezbollah envisioned the geo-political situation precisely," says Dr. Nasser al-Laham, the bureau chief of Lebanese television station Al-Mayadeen's offices in the Palestinian Authority and Israel. "When hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees flooded Lebanon and when car bombs began exploding, killing dozens of victims, the Lebanese understood that the Syrian issue was actually a Lebanese issue. At that time, there was a concrete danger of Lebanon's collapse, and this worked in Hezbollah's favor." He added that the group's way of marketing its involvement in Syria to the Lebanese public was by warning against the existential threat posed by the takfiri groups.
While Hezbollah was trying to sell its involvement in Syria to the Lebanese public and the wider Arab world, the rebels themselves began to understand the importance of explaining their moves. In 2013, they made declarations that tried to pose the fighting in Syria as a legitimate struggle against a regime that was murdering its people. Their way of achieving their goals was carried out on multiple levels: Use of television channels to convince the Arab world that the fall of Bashar Assad was nearing; a battle for hearts and minds in Lebanon against Hezbollah and its involvement in Syria; a thorough explanation of the importance of providing them with arms, money and logistic support in order to enlist tens of thousands of fighters from Arab countries to fight the Syrian regime; and public diplomacy aimed at convincing the world of the need to establish a Western-Arab coalition against Hezbollah and the Syrian regime.
According to al-Laham, Israel was the one leading the public relations battle against Hezbollah's involvement in Syria. "You can see that this battle was based on two assumptions that Israel created during the Second Lebanon War in 2006: Personal attacks on Nasrallah that posed him as a military adventurer, and presenting Hezbollah as a Shi'ite organization under Iranian patronage and not as the leader of Arab resistance."
Hezbollah did not let the attacks against it slide and acted to regain its control over Arab hearts and minds by separating the military front from the media discourse. Despite the difficulty, Nasrallah succeeded in preserving good relations with Sunni organizations like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and found allies to stand shoulder to shoulder with in Lebanon: the Druse community led by Walid Jumbalatt; the Christians, led by then-Lebanese president Michel Auon and former president Emile Lahoud, who announced that he was standing by Hezbollah in its fight against Saudi Arabia and Israel.
The love story between Hezbollah and the Assad regime came to an end in May 2013. An investigative report by Kurdi-Iraqi journalist Roshun Kassem, which was published last year in the pro-Saudi Alsharq al-Awasat
, showed that the group decided to separate its forces from those of the Assad regime, and subsequently each group began to fight independently. In conversations with Kassem, commanders who defected from the Syrian army emphasized that Hezbollah was interested in gaining control over Syria "commensurate with its sacrifices." According to the report, Hezbollah believed that Assad was surviving solely because of the support of the Lebanese group's fighters, whereas the regime saw Hezbollah as a unit of the Syrian army's military forces, and under no circumstances could it serve as the boss.
There are those who claim that the Iranian control of Hezbollah was the source of the tensions on the battlefield. According to the hierarchy, Iranian officers give orders to Hezbollah commanders who in turn give orders to Syrian officers and soldiers. This tension even led to a direct clash between the forces in June of last year when the Syrian air force bombed a Hezbollah outpost. According to reports, which were denied by Hezbollah, dozens of fighters were killed and wounded in the attack.
In his book Hezbollah and Pleasure Policy: From Terrorism to Terrorism
, Lebanese author Fadi Akoum broke down the Hezbollah forces fighting in Syria: the conscription forces that had been active in south Lebanon, including the special forces "Al-Nokhba" and Unit 901, which carries out missions outside of Lebanon, as well as Shi'ite militias that support Hezbollah that consisted of young Lebanese members and those from abroad, whose role was to guard the holy sites.
In addition, military units made up of mercenaries enlisted in Lebanon were sent to the front in Syria. "According to Lebanese witnesses who live in the Dahiya neighborhood of Beirut, in the south and in the Bekaa Valley, in 2015 the organization started enlisting non-Sh'ite youths to fight in Syria in exchange for $500 a month and socioeconomic help for their families," Akoum wrote. "Because of the difficult economic situation in Lebanon, many youths joined the group, fought in Syria and in many cases lost their lives, leading Hezbollah to declare them martyrs, as if they were part of the organization and not mercenaries."
Another Hezbollah unit fighting in Syria was the "National Defense Militia," made up of Syrian fighters that joined military training exercises led by Hezbollah or under the command of the Syrian army. This unit is supported by Iran's Revolutionary Guard, is spread throughout Syria, and includes foreign Shi'ite fighters from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Palestinians from refugee camps in Lebanon.
The idea to form an official Hezbollah delegation to Syria did not come to fruition, according to Col. Imad Rahel, one of the senior officers who defected and helped form the Free Syrian Army. He points the finger at Israel, who he says assassinated Mohammad Ali Allah-Dadi , a senior commander in the Revolutionary Guards, and Jihad Mughniyeh, a senior Hezbollah official, in January 2015. "When Samir Kuntar was appointed commander of the Golan sector, Israel assassinated him as well," claims Rahel, who today serves as a military and strategy commentator. "Thus the idea of a Syrian Hezbollah was buried for good."
Iran's involvement in Syria can also be learned about from Iranian media, which published in December 2016 pictures of General Qassem Suleimani, who since 1988 has served as the commander of the Quds Force, responsible for Revolutionary Guard operations outside of Iran's borders. In the picture, Suleimani can be seen touring with Syrian officers in Aleppo, which was reconquered by the Syrian Army the same week. Alongside this, residents of the besieged city issued harsh accusations that Iranian militias supporting Assad's regime repeatedly tried to prevent civilians and opposition fighters from leaving the city.
Unlike Western, Israeli and some Arab intelligence agencies, Nasrallah did not envision the fall of the Assad regime. He set out on a rearguard battle that saved the outdated Syrian army, and he won a number of battles for strategic areas. However, now, everything is dependent on the intervention of world powers in Syria's future, specifically in the future of the Assad regime. It is no longer in Hezbollah's hands - it is no coincidence that the organization kept silent when the Russians announced that they were withdrawing forces from Syria.
At the beginning of the year, the London-based newspaper Al-Arab
reported that Hezbollah is awaiting orders from Iran before it begins to withdraw forces from Syria in accordance with Russian instructions. Leaks from a cease-fire agreement in the works stating that "all of the foreign fighters must withdraw from Syria as a trust-building measure prior to talks between the Syrian regime and rebels," put Hezbollah on alert.
Sources close to the Shi'ite organization claimed that its leadership understood that the Syrian president has no interest in being held hostage by tens of thousands of fighters and by militias from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. They know that Assad will be free from all moral or political obligations to Hezbollah, especially since the one winning the battle in Syria are Putin's forces, not Iran's. The Syrian president wants to rid himself of Iran's militias, who have recently had tensions with the Syrian army on the battlefield.
On New Year's Eve, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced that "all of the foreign fighters will have to leave Syria, and Hezbollah will have to go back to Lebanon." Based on this declaration, it appears that one of the clauses in the Russian-Turkish agreement holds for a withdrawal of all Hezbollah forces from Syrian cities.
"The withdrawal of Hezbollah from Syria will bring on disaster," an editorial in the newspaper Al-Arab
contended. "Tehran will be forced to respond in order to prove that it is a serious player in Syria and that it cannot be ignored."
Despite the fact that the head of Hezbollah's Political Council, Ibrahim Amin a-Sayyed, stated that the Turks would not determine if there would be a Hezbollah presence in Syria, Arab media commentators claim that the decision is in the hands of the ayatollahs in Tehran, who are trying to please the Russians because of their support for the Iranian nuclear deal. They contend that the militias acting on Iran's orders will lead to renewed fighting in Syria by provoking the rebel groups.
It appears that most of the players in Syria - including the Turks, Russians and Assad - believe Hezbollah has played its part and should now go back home.
Since the civil war began, Hezbollah's political and security surroundings have become much more complicated. Despite the fact that it remains the strongest military group in Lebanon, its deep involvement in the Syrian civil war has gradually served to undermine its status in Lebanon and has limited its options and abilities to forcefully deal with its opponents.
"Hezbollah has become a target for Sunnis in Lebanon, who have even now made it to the heart of the capital, Beirut," Jeffrey White of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy said. "Hezbollah's entry into fighting in Syria has caused major tension with the Sunni sector in Lebanon. The organization, who was the darling of the Arab world during its war against the IDF, has turned today into the enemy of the Sunnis for many."
There is no doubt that Hezbollah's activities abroad have caused tensions among Lebanon's Shi'ites, who serve as the group's main pool of recruits. Its support is cracking because of involvement in the war to defend Assad's tyrannical regime. Many Shi'ite voices see the war as an illegitimate one taking Lebanon and the whole Arab world into chaos. These voices can be heard in the opposition press, even in Hezbollah's own stronghold of southern Lebanon.
"What sort of victory is it that comes after a siege, exile and starving of citizens," asked Subhi al-Tufayli, one of the organization's founders and its first secretary-general in an interview with the Turkish news agency Anatolia in which he discussed the reconquering of Aleppo. Tufayli claimed that the group's involvement in Syria serves Israel. "How is the destruction of Syria and the murder of its citizens the way to liberate Jerusalem?" he wondered. "Hezbollah is sacrificing the Shi'ites in Lebanon in order to please Iran."
Hezbollah is dealing with challenges from abroad and at home simultaneously. In Lebanon, which is now more divided than ever between Assad supporters and detractors, the organization is facing chronic instability. The conflict in Syria is putting further strain on Lebanon, with the arrival of Syrian refugees to its territory. By the end of 2016, there number had reached 2.2 million, more than a third of Lebanon's total population.
Lebanese commentators believe that the goal of Hezbollah's positive stance toward its traditional enemies in Lebanon, led by Prime Minister Sa'ad Hariri and Samir Geagea, is meant to prepare the ground for the return of the group's fighters and to regain the legitimacy as a defender of the country.
Despite the problems facing Hezbollah, the group makes sure never to forget the enemy to the south. In its eyes, Israel will always be the last refuge against its dropping status in the Arab world, including the group's being outlawed in the Gulf states and by most of the Arab League countries.
Al-Laham agrees with this assumption, holding that Nasrallah remains aware of the political and public discourse in Israel. "In his speeches he makes sure to focus on the main enemy - Israel," he said. "Every leader in the Arab world who is concerned with winning hearts and gaining support has to present Zionism and Israel as enemy number one."
Hezbollah's obsession with Israel serves to remind the group's supporters, and its opponents, that the principle of resistance is engraved on its flag. In his speeches, his threats and his warlike declarations, Nasrallah is reminding the Arab world that only he can hurt "the entity," as he calls Israel, on its homefront.
And it appears that he is correct. According to a study by the Institute for National Security Studies published this month, Hezbollah poses the most serious conventional threat to Israel. The estimates are that the power of the group, which lost more than 1,000 fighters on the Syrian battlefield, is greater than that of the Syrian army. Perhaps because of this, it is reported occasionally that, according to foreign reports, the Israeli Air Force strikes in Syria in order to prevent weapons transfers to Hezbollah.
The current situation should concern, not only Israel, but also Lebanon. It could be that Nasrallah will withdraw his forces from Syria eventually. However, it is not likely that he will give up easily on the deep roots he has set down there.