Syria, Hezbollah’s Next Lebanon

With its permanent presence in Syria, Hezbollah wants to deliver the message that the borders have collapsed and that there are new rules of engagement, to the detriment of the Sunni countries as well as Israel.

[Manish Rai]

Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the Secretary General of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah [militant organization] and a key ally of the Syrian [dictator Bashal al-Assad‘s regime], said in his recent speech that his group will keep its military presence in Syria until further notice. He said that [the militant organization’s] presence is linked to “the needs and approval” of the Syrian regime. He further added, “No one can force us to leave Syria.”

His statement has clearly showcased that Hezbollah is all set to make Syria it’s second home after Lebanon.

Hezbollah fielded thousands of its fighters fighting alongside the Assad regime forces since the early days of the civil war that erupted in 2011. The Lebanese [militant organization] had entered the Syrian war on Assad’s side well before other Assad’s allies. Hezbollah fought some of the most intense battles of the war for the regime, including battles to takeover the control of East Aleppo, Zabadani and Homs. According to the Britain-based ‘Syrian Observatory for Human Rights,’ more than 1,600 Hezbollah fighters have been killed in Syria during the seven years of Syrian war.

After investing so deeply in the war, Hezbollah has found out that it’s nearly impossible to extricate itself from Syrian arena even after the war ends. The organization has, therefore, started concentrating greater efforts on post-war plans to establish a permanent military presence in Syria.

Hezbollah’s own political objectives in Syria include ensuring the survival of the Assad regime, protecting and expanding its political power and influence, balancing against Israel and the United States (US) by having multiple fronts against Israel, stemming the spread of [the militancy of Salafi brand] and other “takfiri” groups and defending the Shiite (Shia) communities [which are loyal to Hezbollah’s ideological brand]. All these objectives can only be effectively achieved by maintaining a permanent presence in Syria.

Strategically, the [Iranian regime], Hezbollah’s mentor and sponsor, also do not want Hezbollah to leave Syria. Hezbollah is the [Iranian regime’s] most dependable ally in the Middle East, and is considered as the extension of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Hezbollah and the [regime in Iran] have been patronizing the creation of local pro-Iran militias in Syria, consisting of Syrian fighters who primarily report to the Iranian Quds Force, not to the Assad regime. This makes sure that when leaving most of its visible assets in Syria, the [Iranian regime] would leave behind a strong residual local force only loyal to the [regime in] Tehran. Hence, even if its own fighters were forced to leave Syria, [the regime sitting in] Tehran wouldn’t have to worry much about the permanency of its presence in Syria.

What more, the [Iranian regime] will continue to the push for strengthening its foothold in the region, specifically among the Shiite (Shia) communities, by creating parallel entities with the aim of making these entities stronger than the state institutions. This has already been done successfully by the [Iranian regime] in Iraq and Lebanon. These entities will be monitored and supervised by Hezbollah on behalf of the [regime in Iran].

Hezbollah has already started making preparations for its long stay in Syria. Some reports suggest that the militant organization will maintain permanent presence of 3,000 fighters in Syria, even after the organization withdraws from the fighting. The number of bases could vary, but it will end up hosting a significant portion of the pro-Iranian fighters. At the same time, the bases will provide a location for Iranian advisers to secretly operate under cover.

Most notably is the Hezbollah base in Qusayr. After it seized Qusayr (Qusair), a Syrian town near the Lebanese border, in June 2013, Hezbollah has turned the town into a major military base. Qusayr’s Sunni population fled during the battle and is not expected to return. Sources close to the [militant organization] have said that there are long-range missiles at the base. Although satellite imagery does not confirm this, the sources have referred specifically to the presence of different types of Iranian ballistic missiles, including the Shabab-1, Shahab-2 and Fateh-110. Any of these missiles could be used to strike Israel, and Hezbollah has previously been suspected of having them in its arsenal.

Having permanent bases in Syria ensures an important military objective of Hezbollah, that the [the militant organization] can preserve and potentially expand the use of Syrian territory as a logistical route for transporting and storing Iranian missile parts and other military hardware.

With its permanent presence in Syria, Hezbollah wants to deliver the message that the borders have collapsed and that there are new rules of engagement, to the detriment of the Sunni countries as well as Israel. Moreover, Hezbollah wants to portray that it has expanded its operations beyond and has become an important [non-state] power in the Middle East. Perhaps more importantly, it has become one of the key instruments of the [Iranian regime] in building a powerful Shiite (Shia) corridor from Iran to the Mediterranean.

Author Avatar | Oped Column SyndicationManish Rai is a columnist for Middle East and Af-Pak region and Editor of geopolitical news agency Viewsaround.

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