How the mighty have fallen

Hezbollah’s resources and reputation have been sapped by its entanglement in the Syrian conflict.

Hezbollah Supporters 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Hezbollah Supporters 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
Hezbollah was riding high after its war with Israel in the summer of 2006. Having fought the IDF to a draw while managing to fire more than 4,000 rockets into northern Israel, the Lebanese terror militia was cresting on a wave of popularity in the Middle East. Polls showed its defiant leader, Hassan Nasrallah was the most admired leader on the Sunni Arab street, despite his Shi’ite background.
However, Hezbollah’s standing has been taking hits ever since and the bubble appears to have burst with its recent decision to intervene in the bloody civil war next door in Syria in support of embattled dictator Bashar Assad.
In the years since the Second Lebanon War, a UN probe has linked the group to the 2005 assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri and the West has increasingly isolated it for its involvement in international terrorism and the global narcotics trade.
But the biggest blow to the image of Hezbollah and Nasrallah has come with its ill-advised foray into the Syrian imbroglio. Analysts say it was only natural that Hezbollah would side with the Assad loyalists, considering its connection to the Shi’ite community. But Syria was also a key pillar in the strategic axis with Hezbollah and Iran, and the main conduit for Iranian weapons bound for the Shi’ite militia’s stronghold in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. So to preserve its own arms supply route, Hezbollah leaders decided – in concert with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps – to support the besieged Assad, leading to a gradual escalation of its involvement in Syria.
“For Iran and Hezbollah, the preservation of Bashar Assad’s regime is of supreme strategic importance,” noted the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center in a recent assessment on the conflict. “Syria is Iran’s greatest ‘resistance camp’ ally, providing it with a firm foothold in the heart of the Middle East as well as political and military influence. Syria also plays a vital role in Hezbollah’s military buildup, helping it to construct offensive and deterrent capabilities against Israel. For Iran and Hezbollah, the fall of the Syrian regime would be a disaster.”
So despite the risks, when his masters in Tehran gave the order, Nasrallah had little choice but to send thousands of his best forces into the Syrian conflagration. Calculations on the number of Hezbollah militiamen sent into Syria run as high as half of the group’s estimated 20,000 troops.
At first, Hezbollah justified its armed presence in Syria as an effort to protect mosques and other Shi’ite holy sites. But its engagement seriously deepened with the recent showdown in the border town of Qusair, Syria’s main gateway to the Bekaa Valley. According to Israeli estimates, Hezbollah may have recaptured the town for Assad, potentially turning the tide in his favor, but it also lost around 200 troops in the intense fighting.
According to Mideast scholar Aaron Reese, the battle for Qusair also was “a turning point” in the Sunni-Shi’ite confrontation.
“The intervention of this prominent Shi‘a militant group has heightened the ‘sectarianization’ of the conflict,” Reese concluded in a report published last month by the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. “The worsening violence and increasing polarization caused the fighting to spill over into Lebanon,” he explained, with armed Salafist elements spurred on by radical clerics to lash out against Hezbollah.
The Palestinian terror group Hamas, which had closely aligned with Hezbollah in their mutual struggle against Israel, has now publicly denounced it. Bahrain and the Gulf Cooperation Council have both passed resolutions declaring Hezbollah to be a terrorist organization, a step even the European Union has yet to take.
Hezbollah has also has taken its licks on the battlefield. Though a closely guarded secret, the estimated casualty count runs as high as 1,000 soldiers killed and many more wounded in the past two years. The exact casualty count is “a big secret,” according to Dr. Mordechai Kedar, a Middle East expert at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “They’re not talking about it.”
“Every report about this is suspiciously one-sided,” Kedar recently told The Jerusalem Post. “The rebels wish to exaggerate Hezbollah’s casualty count, and Hezbollah seeks to lower it. We don’t have the real numbers.”
Funerals for Hezbollah militiamen killed in Syria were held in Lebanon at night and in secret for most of 2011 and 2012, in order to keep up morale among the group’s supporters and avoid awkward questions. However, the death toll has risen so dramatically in recent months that there is no longer any way to hide the painful truth.
In early July, the widely read Arabic newspaper Asharq Al-Aqsat reported that families of slain Hezbollah fighters have petitioned the leadership to scale back or even end Hezbollah’s entanglement in Syria. The paper quoted a Hezbollah source saying the petitioners included parents of fighters who said they had been proud to send their sons to fight against Israel but that it was “shameful” to be fighting fellow Muslims on behalf of the Assad regime.
Hezbollah’s participation in the Syrian conflict has also led to clashes between it and Sunni Lebanese supporters of the rebels inside Lebanon itself, leading to dozens of casualties. On July 9, a car bombing in the Bir al- Abed neighborhood in Beirut, in the heart of Hezbollah territory, provided a stark reminder of the Shi’ite group’s diminished standing.
Even Nasrallah has been openly mocked by Sunni officials and the Arab media. He is ridiculed as a puppet of Iran and head of the “Party of Satan.”
“I can’t say how [Hezbollah losses in Syria] precisely affects their operational capabilities,” gauged Kedar, who served for 25 years in IDF Military Intelligence. “But they are losing legitimacy, even among their own Shi’ite sect. If the Syrian regime survives, Hezbollah will come out very big. They’ll earn a lot, because the regime will owe them its survival. If the regime falls, Hezbollah will fall with it.”