Hezbollah transforming to a juggernaut in Syria

While Hezbollah is losing manpower and assets in Syria, it is also expanding its foothold...

Joyce Karam

Published: Updated:

Conventional wisdom that Syria will turn out to be “Hezbollah’s mini-Vietnam”, and that the Iranian backed Lebanese armed group could encounter its gradual collapse in the conflict, is proving to be misguided three years into its involvement. While Hezbollah is losing manpower and assets in Syria, it is also expanding its foothold and leverage across the country and gaining military expertise.

One of the most intriguing stories from Palmyra after ISIS lost the city late March, was a New York Times photo essay from the 2000-year-old ruins. The story's significance was not just in the headline or the photos documenting the archeological and cultural damage incurred by ISIS, but also in how it came about.

It was eye catching that Hezbollah – a designated terrorist organization by the United States- escorted and guided the New York Times tour to the ancient ruins. This image encapsulates where Hezbollah stands today in Syria, overshadowing the regime and the opposition, and running its own show in Syrian territory.

Tactical and strategic advantages

Back in May 2013 when Hezbollah officially declared its entry to the Syrian war, a US official told me that "there is a silver lining over here", mainly in having two terrorist organizations bleed and fight each other in Syria. The official was referring to Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah.

Three years later, however, this silver lining is heavily tainted by the fact that Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda and the more notorious terrorist organization ISIS control large swaths of land and operate at large in Syria.

The notion that a safe haven will help bleed out terrorist organizations is a dangerous and naive myth that has backfired on the West in the long term. Some of the Brussels and Paris attackers spent time with ISIS in Syria, while Hezbollah is now a juggernaut with offensive capabilities and territorial gains across the country.

The notion that a safe haven will help bleed out terrorist organizations is a dangerous and naive myth that has backfired on the West in the long term

Joyce Karam

A visiting Israeli scholar told a Washington audience recently that the strategic picture is shifting regionally in Iran’s favor, and that Hezbollah has gained the upper hand in Syria without losing its stronghold on Lebanon.

This upper hand started in 2013 when Hezbollah tipped the balance in the conflict, helping the Assad regime retake the town of Al-Qusair and moving from there to Homs and to the South, while securing Damascus, training paramilitaries and then expanding presence to Aleppo in 2015.

Even with an estimate of more than 1200 fighters dead and reports about a serious financial crisis, Hezbollah's territorial gains in Syria have granted it direct access and supervision over some of the weaponry supply routes to its home base in Lebanon.

Tactically and as Nadav Pollak and Muni Katz illustrate here, Hezbollah is adding offensive capability and gaining firsthand fighting experience on foreign territory and against a military insurgency. It is almost a reversed role for a party that fought Israel defensively from its home turf in the 1990s and in a full blown war in 2006.

On the weaponry front, regional analyst Elijah Magnier recently reported that Hezbollah has acquired surface-to-air missile capability. Hezbollah's Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah regularly speaks of acquiring more sophisticated weaponry since 2006.

Changed rhetoric & perception

Hezbollah's own rhetoric and regional perception has also changed following its intervention in Syria. While the wrath in the Arab street against the party for supporting Assad, has completely shattered the party's image in 2006 as leading the fight against Israel, it has not affected its calculus.

Hezbollah who is now active in 3 military fronts outside Lebanon: Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, is promising a long involvement regionally. Nasrallah said in a recent interview that his party “will not withdraw from Syria even if the Iranians decide to do so.” The rhetoric channels this regional expansion, attempts at shoring up its base to win these conflicts while securing its military capability and playing politics in Lebanon.

Israeli media now portrays Hezbollah as “an army in every sense”, with an estimate of “45,000 fighters, including 21,000 standing forces, and more than 100,000 increasingly accurate rockets and missiles of which several thousands are mid and long range.”

Geopolitically as well, Hezbollah has improved its relations with Russia. A high level source in Beirut tells me that "Moscow and Hezbollah are coordinating very closely the military action plan in Syria." Russia's air cover was crucial in the Palmyra battle and in the fighting around Aleppo, both of which involved Hezbollah’s ground troops.

Even culturally, the Hezbollah effect is more visible in Syria. The Shiite Ashoura rallies have gradually grown in numbers in Damascus, and talk about Sunni-Shia population swaps between Hezbollah and the rebels now takes place openly in Syria.

For a party that entered the Syrian war to protect the "axis of resistance", it is slowly taking over this axis and replacing the Assad regime with its own troops and spheres of control inside Syria. This dynamic is an asset for Hezbollah whose sole objective is to gain presence and influence, operating with impunity as a non-state actor, without being burdened by the Vietnam playbook.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Bureau Chief for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.