Hezbollah’s hot summer between Aleppo’s battle and banking wars
The early days of the summer have been scorching for the Lebanese militant juggernaut Hezbollah
The early days of the summer have been scorching for the Lebanese militant juggernaut Hezbollah. On the battlefront in Syria, casualties for the Iranian backed group have been mounting around Aleppo, while the home-front in Lebanon has been showing financial strains as the new US banking sanctions take effect and target the party’s funding network.
Not surprisingly, Hezbollah has not acknowledged any of these strains, reassuring its supporters that it remains unfazed by the death toll from Syria or the new financial strains in Beirut. The reality, however, shows Hezbollah entangled in a prolonged war of attrition in Syria, while the financial situation has become more dire and raising questions among its supporters.
Russia vs. Iran in Syria?
Three years into Hezbollah's intervention in Syria, the recent weeks have brought some of the highest casualties for the party in the fighting around Aleppo.
Al-Hayat reported on Sunday that Hezbollah lost in one round of the fighting 25 members, the highest figure since Al-Qusair battle in 2013. While the party does not release the total of its losses in Syria, the figure is estimated by The Economist to have reached 1,400 fighters, exceeding its total death toll fighting Israel in the last three decades (1361).
While Hezbollah is spinning this narrative to its supporters by portraying Syria as a strategic battle in “shielding the resistance” and gaining more military and combat expertise, questions on its involvement have become more public within the Shia community in Lebanon and among the parents of the youths being dispatched to Syrian cities and towns to fight on behalf of Assad.
Between the military pressure in Syria and the financial crackdown in Lebanon, Hezbollah is undergoing one of its most tumultuous phasesJoyce Karam
In Aleppo particularly, and according to Al-Hayat, Hezbollah and pro-Iran proxies are growing furious at Russia for lack of air-cover in that battle. Ever since it announced partial air withdrawal from Syria, Russia has been noticeably less involved in providing air cover for the battles that involve Hezbollah, IRGC and Afghani mercenaries. Assad's own meeting with the Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu gave stern optics, was a surprise to the regime, and did not appear to produce the help on Aleppo.
The Aleppo battle is exposing Russian-Iranian differences on Syria, and the collateral damage appears to be mostly inflicted on Hezbollah. Putin described the US settlement proposal for Syria as “acceptable” on Sunday, while Iran's IRGC forces and Hezbollah have upped their militarily involvement in the conflict.
The US for its part has vowed a relentless fight for Aleppo, and the rebel coalition of “Jaish Fateh” which includes al-Qaeda’s Jabhat Nusra has been advancing against the regime and Hezbollah. The Assad coalition has reportedly lost the towns of Khalsa and Zeitans, and is now engaged ugly fight in Hader.
This and the fact that Aleppo is 260 Km from Hezbollah’s operational base on the Lebanese border has made it a logistical nightmare and accentuated its losses.
Hezbollah's headache in Syria is happening in parallel to a financial strain in Lebanon. The Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act signed by US President Barack Obama on December 18th, has put an unprecedented scrutiny into the Lebanese banking system.
Lebanon's Central Bank, against Hezbollah's wishes has decided to implement and adhere to the sanctions, so as to prevent the isolation of the whole financial sector. More than 100 accounts affiliated with Hezbollah have been shut down and Asharq Al-Awsat reported that parliamentarians with the party have been receiving their salaries in cash due to the new restrictions. “BLOM”, One of the banks implementing those restrictions was targeted by a bomb explosion in central Beirut last Sunday.
Aside from the cash flow, the impact of the new sanctions on Hezbollah is being mostly felt in the anxiety it has created among the business community and families affiliated even loosely with the party. The small chance of having their businesses affected by ties to Hezbollah or one of its funders in China or Nigeria or Latin America, is making many Lebanese business leaders reconsider.
These sanctions are unlikely to be lifted anytime soon, nor it is likely that the Lebanese Central Bank will budge to Hezbollah’s demands. The heightened monitoring around the party’s financial network, coupled with new GCC sanctions will increase the isolation of the party without driving it to bankruptcy.
Between the military pressure in Syria and the financial crackdown in Lebanon, Hezbollah is undergoing one of its most tumultuous phases. While it may yet readjust its power play in Lebanon and may choose to redeploy its presence in Syria, its expensive commitments and tightened screws are unlikely to wither away in the near future.
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 US 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