With its ascendancy in Syria, the Islamic Republic is seeking to consolidate its position against Israel and the US
Eleven years have gone by since the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War, which began with the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. It ended 34 days later with a trumpet blast from Hezbollah, which had lost approximately 700 of its troops.
But those losses were a small thing in light of the deaths of 164 Israelis, which constituted part of “the God-given victory” — at least according to the enormous billboards that were placed throughout Lebanon to establish the narrative that many people there, and throughout the Middle East, believed.
Those were the glory days of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who portrayed himself as having faced down the strongest army in the region, striking the State of Israel. Nasrallah was the most admired Arab leader at the time, both within Lebanon and outside, and among Sunnis and Shi’ites alike.
He remains one of the most prominent leaders in the Middle East, but his status among the various Arab countries has declined drastically. Many people, including in Lebanon (except for his Shi’ite supporters), see Nasrallah as a puppet of Iran, rushing to obey the orders of his masters in Tehran. The Arab television networks that were so quick to embrace him following his “victory” over the Israelis, now excoriate him and accuse him and his associates of nothing less than crimes against humanity.
Nasrallah is the main reason for Hezbollah’s participation in the Syrian civil war. While there are quite a few benefits to this, there are disadvantages as well.
After the Islamic State terror group’s defeat in Iraq and the American military’s admission that it is operating in Raqqa, IS’s capital in Syria, Nasrallah has become a critically important part of the victors’ camp, and as such, he gets a share of the spoils.
Although Hezbollah and Syrian President Bashar Assad’s army have retaken large parts of Syria (with help from the Russians), the former is in no hurry to bring its troops back to Lebanon. This has broad significance. Hezbollah’s transitory military positions throughout Syria have become temporary, and the temporary outposts are in the process of becoming permanent, with soldiers’ barracks, prefabricated structures, and everything that indicates an established position or a transition to a permanent presence on the ground.
Nasrallah and his organization are turning Syria into Hezbollah’s backyard as part of Iran’s campaign to create a Shi’ite crescent between Tehran and the Mediterranean Sea. For Israel, this means that Hezbollah, together with Iran, will be able to set up a local Shi’ite army in Syria or on the Syrian Golan Heights — an army that will operate against Israeli targets without making Lebanon pay the price.
Even as decision-makers in Israel proclaim a policy that “Lebanon will pay” for any escalation by Hezbollah, the organization itself could try to draw the fire away from Lebanon and use Syria as the preparation ground for its terror attacks, allowing Hezbollah to have it both ways. The advantages do not end there, though: Hezbollah will have access to, and acquire ownership of, advanced weapons and intelligence formerly in the possession of the Syrian army. It will gain technological equipment, weapons that “violate the balance of power,” and pretty much everything else.
Still, belonging to the winning camp carries with it a heavy, and even a very heavy, price. This has to do not only with the loss of public popularity, but also with the fact that its public, the Shi’ites, must pay so dearly in blood for the saving of Assad. The number of fallen Hezbollah troops is estimated at 1,800 to 2,000. A Syrian journalist published photographs this week of two Lebanese teenagers, about 15 years old, who were killed in battle in Syria as they fought in Hezbollah’s ranks. Approximately 6,000 Hezbollah troops have been wounded.
In other words, Hezbollah’s fighting force has been severely compromised. An army that has lost approximately one-third of its combat troops and must provide financial assistance to its wounded and the families of its fallen naturally loses enormous sums of money in addition to support. It will take Hezbollah years to recover from the injuries it suffered in the battles in Syria, and at the moment it is likely not all that eager for an escalation with Israel.
The battle for regional hegemony
An escalation with Israel is not a matter of the highest priority for Hezbollah. For now, its leaders view the struggle of the Shi’ite-Russian axis against the Sunnis in the Middle East and mainly against the United States and its allies as the critical fight.
Hezbollah realizes that it is just one more militia working in the Iranians’ service in the real war over the division of areas of influence belonging to what is left of Syria. The battle, or race, is against the Americans, not against Israel; this may be the reason why Hezbollah has established itself in Syria.
Two completely separate fronts have been operating in the Syrian sector for approximately two years now. One belongs to the Syrian army in the western part of the country, together with its allies from Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. The focus there was on the “ordinary” Syrian opposition — in other words, from the al-Qaeda linked Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly known as al-Nusra Front) to more moderate groups.
The second front is in the eastern part of the country under the leadership of the US and its allies against IS. The Assad regime’s deployment in the western part of Syria and along the route connecting Damascus and Homs with the coastline freed up resources and energy to deal with the takeover by the US’ allies of territories in the eastern portion. The Americans, for their part, are helping various Arab tribes in the southeast who are organized in the Free Syrian Army near the Deir ez-Zor region, and the Kurds and other Arab troops organized under the umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces.
The latter groups, who are the ones leading the battle in Raqqa together with the US special forces there, have succeeded in encircling IS’s capital. But the Americans already know what the catch is: By fighting against Islamic State, they are enabling the axis of Russia, Assad, Iran, and Hezbollah to gain strength, establish their control, and even have the leisure to fight the US and the moderate Syrian opposition for territory that IS will be giving up in the future.
The American military effort, for all practical purposes, is paving the way for the Iranians to take control over the area with close Russian assistance. This is why the Iranians are trying to move Shi’ite militias into this area of Syria — the southeastern portion — to prepare for a possible confrontation with the Free Syrian Army.
Iran is already treating Syria like its 15th province (the 14th being Bahrain). It keeps about 15,000 Shi’ite troops from Afghanistan and Pakistan there. Approximately 8,000 combat soldiers of Hezbollah and several hundred military advisors from the Revolutionary Guards are also deployed in Syria.
Iran recently received Assad’s consent, in principle, to its request to build a seaport of its own on the coast, like the seaport that the Russians maintain there. The port is to be Iranian in every way, with no possibility for the Syrians to operate.
The Iranians are currently invested in real-estate projects in Syria as well as in the phosphates industry and communications networks, and are expected to make a great deal of money from Syria’s reconstruction.
They have also been running Shi’ite militias close to the border with Jordan and Israel, on the Syrian Golan Heights, and in the Daraa district, though not on a massive scale. This is not because they wanted it this way, but mainly because the current focus, as stated, is on competing with the Americans rather than with Israel. Paradoxically, the cease-fire that went into effect last week on the Syrian Golan Heights and in Daraa and As-Suwayda will help the Shi’ite axis far more than its opponents.