Syria: A Second Home for Hezbollah
Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary-General of Lebanon’s Iran backed Hezbollah, and a key Damascus ally as well said in his recent speech that his group will keep its military presence in Syria until further notice. Nasrallah stated that Hezbollah’s presence is linked to “The needs and approval” of the Syrian government. He further added that “No one can force us to leave Syria.” His statement has clearly showcased that Hezbollah is set to make Syria its second home after Lebanon.
Hezbollah fielded thousands of its fighters fighting alongside the Syrian government forces since the early days of the civil war that erupted in 2011. The Lebanese militia entered the Syrian war on side of President Assad well before any other ally of the Assad regime. Moreover, Hezbollah fought some of the most intense battles of the war. During the seven years of war, more than 1,600 Hezbollah fighters have been killed in Syria, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. After investing so deeply in the Syrian war Hezbollah has realized that it’s nearly impossible to extricate itself from Syria. The organisation has started concentrating its 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, stemming the spread of Sunni Salafi-jihadist and other “takfiri” groups and defending Shia communities. All these objectives can only be effectively achieved by maintaining a permanent presence in Syria. Strategically Hezbollah’s mentor and sponsor, Iran, also does not want to see Hezbollah leave Syria. The party is now not only the Islamic Republic’s most dependable ally in the Middle East but is rather considered to be an extension of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Iran and Hezbollah also helped create local pro-Iran groups, which consist of Syrian fighters who primarily report to the Iranian Quds Force, not to the Syrian regime.
Iran wants to make sure that its presence in Syria is permanent and if their own foreign fighters were forced to leave, they would leave behind a strong residual local force only loyal to Tehran. Iran will continue to strengthen its foothold in Syria and the Levant, among Shia communities specifically, by creating parallel entities with the aim of making them stronger than the state institution has already done successfully by Iranians in Iraq and Lebanon. These entities will be monitored and supervised by Hezbollah on behalf of Iran.
Hezbollah has already started making preparations for its long stay in Syria. Some reports suggest that the group will maintain a permanent presence of 3,000 fighters in Syria even after active fighting ends. The number of bases could vary but will end up hosting a significant portion of the pro-Iranian fighters. At the same time, the bases will provide a location for Iranian advisors to secretly operate under cover. Most notably is the Hezbollah base in Qusayr. The party has turned Qusayr, a Syrian town near the Lebanese border that it seized in June 2013, into a major military base. Its Sunni population fled during the battle and is not expected to return. Sources close to the group have said 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. By having permanent bases in Syria, Hezbollah achieves an important military objective which includes preserving and potentially expanding the use of Syrian territory as a logistical route for transporting and storing Iranian missile parts and other military hardware. Hezbollah aspires to become a vanguard of the Shia faith and has become a multinational organisation with bases spread across various countries of the region starting with its transnational expansion. Syria is its best option.
By remaining permanently in Syria, the message that Hezbollah is delivering is that the borders have collapsed and that there are new rules of engagement which are to the detriment of Israel and the Sunni Arab states. Moreover, Hezbollah wants to convey that it is no longer merely a Lebanese militia but has become an important power in the Middle East. Perhaps more importantly, it has become one of the key instruments which will allow Iran to build a powerful Shiite corridor from Iran to the Mediterranean.