Hezbollah emerging as the dominant militant group in the Middle East
Of the many, many players in the Syrian conflict, one that has not received much coverage in the Western press is Hezbollah
Of the many, many players in the Syrian conflict, one that has not received much coverage in the Western press is Hezbollah. This oversight was laid bare a few days ago when a tape emerged of a Hezbollah fighter complaining that they were left to fight alone in the battles of recent days in Aleppo: “They (fellow pro-regime fighters) all left us, the Iranian, Afghans and Syrians… all of them left us”, the fighter was reporting to his superiors.
The significance of this is easy to overlook. Among the many groups rampaging through Syria and northern Iraq, it would be surprising if a group like Hezbollah would not be involved.
The Assad family and their Alawite governments have been long-time allies of the group, and they dutifully came to the rescue when called upon. And even if they hadn’t been called upon, it is reasonable to expect that such a group would be keen to throw its weight around in this kind of conflict, which is taking place so close to their Lebanese heartlands.
But what is remarkable about Hezbollah’s involvement is precisely what the leaked tape gave away: they are not just another militia running around and shooting at people of the opposite Muslim sect. In many ways, they are as significant a fighting force in the conflict as Assad’s own army. They have certainly been more significant in the fight for Aleppo in the last few days, but this is far from unique.
In the aftermath of the Syrian conflict, Hezbollah are more like a standing army, capable not just of insurgency, but also counter-insurgencyDr. Azeem Ibrahim
When the forces of the Assad regime were on the brink of collapse, it was not just the Russians who were instrumental in turning things around. They brought superior technology and firepower, but did not bring significant man-power. The man-power came primarily from Hezbollah.
And the war has been good for the organisation, too. In playing such a significant role in the conflict on the Shiite side, it has established itself as perhaps the dominant militant group this side of the Euphrates. It has received a massive boost in funding, recruits, and, of course, military hardware, not least from their Iranian backers. And the experience the group has gained fighting in the varied theatres of Syria is perhaps even more valuable.
Why should we in the West care about the fate of this particular group, in the fluid power-politics of the region? Because of their history with and intent towards Israel and other Sunni countries. Hezbollah came to the forefront of public consciousness after the 2006 war they had with Israel.
Although their initial attack was fought off by the vastly superior Israeli army, the conflict only ended with a virtual standstill. In the aftermath of that conflict, they were hailed as the only force in the Middle East capable to stand up to Israel. That lent it much weight in the Arab world.
But back then, they were a minnow insurgency group. In the aftermath of the Syrian conflict, they are more like a standing army, capable not just of insurgency, but also counter-insurgency. Capable to take, and even hold hostile territory. They have much greater numbers, much better equipment, and much more experience of fighting in virtually all the kinds of terrains you can find in the region.
That is why Israel and other Arab countries are watching, worried. Constrained as it is by the geopolitical realities of the Middle East, they can do nothing but watch as Hezbollah is growing in strength on its northern border. But they know that, like in the past, they would have no qualms about starting a conflict with Israel or interfering in another Arab country if they believed they cloud withstand the retaliation.
Plus, having manoeuvred itself into this dominant position, Hezbollah will be under pressure from its political base to particularly move against Israel again at some point in the future. So long as they will be engaged in Syria, that will not be an issue. But when that conflict finally subsides, Israel may well be next.
Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim