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Syria’s Civil War Produces a Clear Winner: Hezbollah
The Lebanese militant group, labeled a terror organization by the U.S., has grown stronger through its support of the Assad regime, battling Syrian rebels alongside Russian forces and training local Shiite fighters
Updated April 2, 2017 11:31 p.m. ET
Few wars have seen such a tangle of combatants as Syria’s, from obscure and morphing rebel groups to Russians, Turks, Kurdish and Iraqi militias. From the chaos, one clear winner is emerging.
Returning to his ancestral Syrian town of Qusayr after years away, a man named Mohammed discovered a new militia patrolling the neighborhood. Patches on the men’s camouflage uniforms called them the Islamic Resistance of Syria. Their identity became clearer when he found a notice on his house claiming it for Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group.
“Many houses have been confiscated with notices that they’ve been reserved for this or that family,” Mohammed said.
Hezbollah, founded in the early 1980s to fight Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon, became involved in the civil war next door to protect its patrons in Damascus and a supply line of Iranian weapons. After years of growing engagement, including training thousands of mostly Shiite Muslim fighters and beginning to provide social services, Hezbollah is today stronger, more independent and in command of a new Syrian militia that its officials say is ready to be deployed to other conflicts in the region.
Hezbollah now fights alongside Russian troops, its first alliance with a global power. It was Hezbollah that devised the battlefield plan for Aleppo used by Syrian and Russian forces last year, according to Arab and U.S. officials who monitor the group.
Thanks to money and arms from Tehran, Hezbollah now stands almost on a par with Iran as a protector of President Bashar al-Assad’s government, and as a sponsor of Shiite fighting forces in Syria.
“It’s hard to see people rising through Syrian intelligence or military ranks without the blessing of Hezbollah or the Iranians,” said Andrew Exum, until January a U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East.
With its growing might, this arch-foe of Israel, a group long labeled terrorist by the U.S., has gained a modicum of international recognition. It participated in negotiations sponsored by Russia following the rout of rebels from Aleppo. When China’s special envoy to Syria visited Lebanon in December, he carved out time to see Hezbollah’s foreign-relations chief.
Even before the Syrian civil war, Hezbollah had evolved beyond its guerrilla-group origins into a business and political enterprise that holds positions in Lebanon’s government and runs social programs such as schools and clinics. Now it is poised to capitalize on what many Middle East analysts expect will be an eventual end to the Syrian war that leaves Mr. Assad in power. Syria will have $180 billion of war-reconstruction needs, by a World Bank estimate. Hezbollah has experience at that. After a 2006 conflict with Israel, the group efficiently organized the rebuilding of battered Beirut suburbs.
“Hezbollah is well-positioned to make a lot of money” from Syrian reconstruction, said Matthew Levitt, director of the Washington Institute’s Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, a veteran of the Treasury and State departments.
U.S. and Israeli officials have watched the growth of Hezbollah with concern, worried it could draw on its Syrian recruits to pressure Israel from a new front along the Golan Heights, captured by Israel 50 years ago. In March, Hezbollah announced the formation of a Syria-based “Brigade for the Liberation of the Golan” devoted to wresting the heights back for Syria.
“Israel knows that what has happened in Syria has changed Hezbollah, which has developed from not just defending against Israel, but attacking it,” said a senior official from an alliance of Hezbollah, Syria and Iran. “It has now developed traditional and nontraditional means of war. It fights like a guerrilla army but also like a conventional one.”
Israel hasn’t waited for a Hezbollah attack in the Golan, sending aircraft to strike Iranian shipments of sophisticated arms to Hezbollah.
Premier Benjamin Netanyahu told President Donald Trump during a February U.S. visit that Hezbollah’s expanded arsenal also endangers American warships in nearby waters, said diplomats briefed on the meeting.
The U.S. is well aware of Hezbollah’s expanding capabilities and will continue working closely with partners in the region to address threats the militant group poses, a State Department official said, adding that disrupting Hezbollah’s terrorist and military capabilities was a top U.S. priority.
Hezbollah’s new clout is adding to fears among Gulf states that Iran’s power also is growing, drawing Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to agree to work with Israel. Their focal point is now Yemen, where Mr. Trump has agreed to provide a Saudi-led alliance with stepped-up U.S. military assistance to counter the Houthis, who were trained by Hezbollah and supported by Iran. The Gulf states, in turn, have tentatively agreed to try to bring the Palestinians to the negotiating table with Israel.
Hezbollah’s role has implications for eventual postwar arrangements in Syria, given how its religious influence will likely compete with the secular politics of the Assad regime. Before the war, that government was improving relations with Saudi Arabia and once even considered a peace treaty with Israel. The improved ties have broken down, with the Saudis supporting Syrian rebel groups. Diplomats in the region say any normalization of relations after the war ends, likely with Mr. Assad still in power, will be even more difficult given Hezbollah and Iran’s newfound clout in Syria.
Hezbollah has helped the Assad regime survive partly by propping up its undisciplined military, which is plagued by corruption and defections. In Syrian villages retaken from rebel control, Hezbollah fighters have been seen holding Syrian soldiers by the wrist or collar and forcing them to return appliances or furniture looted from homes.
Syrian civilians say Hezbollah fighters sometimes openly disrespect Syrian troops on battlefronts, a stark change from its previous deference. Cars with blacked-out windows and Lebanese license plates screech up to Syrian checkpoints, the Hezbollah commanders inside refusing to get off their phones during identification checks or to answer questions posed by their Syrian allies.
When Russia and Syria wanted to put priority on retaking Islamic State’s capital of Raqqa last year, Hezbollah, along with Iran, insisted the focus instead be dislodging rebels from Aleppo to force them to the negotiating table, according to Mr. Exum and a Hezbollah official.
The strategy worked. The rebels evacuated Aleppo and agreed to participate in Russian-sponsored political negotiations now taking place in locations outside Syria.
When formed in the 1980s, Hezbollah was trained by Iran’s Quds Force, an arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that manages Iranian clients across the region. Hezbollah gave Lebanon’s disenfranchised Shiite community political power and won its loyalty by providing free schooling and health care in addition to protection.
Militarily, it remained a guerrilla force, better at launching rockets from the bushes than spearheading offensives on urban centers—until Syria’s civil war began in 2011. After wading in to protect its Iranian arms flow, Hezbollah stepped up its military commitment to counter Sunni extremists such as Islamic State, which regards Shiite Muslims such as Hezbollah as infidels. Hezbollah expanded its arsenal by gaining access to Russian and Syrian weapons under the cover of the civil war’s chaos.
Shipments from Iran gave the Lebanese group precise and powerful armaments that it previously lacked, such as Russian-made Yakhont missiles, said a former State Department official.#Cooperation with Russia on the battlefield further increased the flow of weaponry.
“Russian stocks are open to Hezbollah,” said a Hezbollah official who travels frequently to Damascus. “Our fighters eat and sleep alongside theirs and we’re sharing everything, always.” While an end to Syria’s civil war could change the dynamics, Middle East analysts generally think Hezbollah’s expanded access to weapons is secure.
Damascus was once considered a Hezbollah proxy master, but Western diplomats say the Lebanese group is carving out its own zones of influence across Syria by training local fighters. They include Shiites and Alawites, the latter being adherents of a branch of Shiite Islam that includes the Assad family.
Western diplomats estimate the number of these fighters loyal to Hezbollah’s command, which Hezbollah calls al-Ridha Forces, and known locally as “Hezbollah in Syria,” in the tens of thousands. Hezbollah officials say it is lower. Hezbollah’s presence in Syria stretches 250 miles from the northern tip to the south, longer than the length of Lebanon.
Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to both Iraq and Syria, said the autonomy Hezbollah enjoys in Syria arises partly because “Iraq is more important for Iran in many ways than Syria is,” while to Hezbollah, next-door Syria is more important.
Messrs. Crocker and Exum said Hezbollah’s strategy in Syria mirrors the Lebanese group’s involvement in Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion. At that time, Hezbollah provided training inside Iran to Iraqi Shiite militiamen.
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