Written by Igor Pejic exclusively for SouthFront
Hezbollah (Party of God) is a prominent Shiite Muslim political and militant organization with a rather bad reputation in the West. Hezbollah’s roots began in the Lebanon civil war which started during the 1970s and lasted for about fifteen years, in what started as a resistance to Israeli invasion in 1982. Today it is a military force that plays a crucial role in the fight against Salafism and Islamic State in Syria. Hezbollah emerged in Lebanon, a very diverse country which accommodates Shia, Sunni and Christian people into a generally stable society. Although the name Hezbollah is automatically associated with a terrorist organization, beside the military wing the organization has its own political, parliamentary and executive assembly. After the civil war Hezbollah became active in the political sphere of civil society winning a couple of seats in the Lebanese Parliament, in 2009 national election their presence in Parliament has been extended to ten seats. Situated in Shiite-dominated areas, including parts of Beirut, southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley, Hezbollah remains one of the crucial security factors in the country.
Hezbollah’s active presence in Syria began in mid 2013, when Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the organization, pledged his forces to help Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah’s long time ally. In order to understand this move from Hezbollah and its role in Syria it is important to understand history and relations between Syria, Iran and Hezbollah. Syria provided crucial support to Hezbollah alongside Iran, it served as a corridor for supplies brought to Lebanon from Iran and other supporters of Hezbollah. With the ongoing chaos in the country and the growing threat of Islamic State this very important corridor could be lost. This situation is not something Hezbollah will stand idle and let it pass since it can threaten their position in Lebanese society. Since the start of the conflict in Syria, Hezbollah was present on some level in Syrian military providing logistic and training support for the troops. Bad reputation in the West towards Hezbollah and Iran was further fueled when they expressed supports towards Syrian government.
After 2013. involvement deepened. The experience of Hezbollah soldiers and commanders was implemented in direct conflict versus the extremists and rebels across Syria. Although numerous, Syrian troops lack the experience in urban fighting and in mountainous areas like Qalamoun region, which is between Syria and Lebanon. This is where Hezbollah is most effective. Light infantry tactics, vast experience and training granted from Quds force (Iranian special division of the Revolutionary Guard) to some members of Hezbollah make this organization a very important asset in the Syrian fight against jihadists. There are no clear numbers on how many units are on the ground in Syria though, it’s being speculated in between 4000 and 5000 soldiers taking place in various parts of Syrian infantry. These troops had crucial roles in fights for Damascus and Homs, when supported by Syrian artillery and armor they managed to take back some of the suburbs held by rebels.
The primary trait of Hezbollah is constant adaptation to new surroundings and making use of any tools and weapons on their disposal. This was tested in battles across Qalamoun region, mountain area between Lebanon and Syria, an important strategic point for both sides. Major highway that runs through this area is of much importance to Hezbollah since it links strongholds in the east of Lebanon to Hezbollah forces in Syria. After the offensive in May/June this year rebels have been driven out of almost every major town in this region. Retreating to less accessible terrain rebels have resorted to hit and run, and guerrilla style of combat marking this as an important victory for SAA and Hezbollah. With the support of Russian air strikes and Iranian further involvement in Syria Hezbollah will probably continue its ground operation with the SAA.
Since the Hezbollah engagement in Syria more Salafist attacks are recorded on Shia Muslim, and strongholds of Hezbollah in Beirut and other areas. Large refugee camp Ain al-Hilweh near the city of Siden, that has swollen after the escalating refugee crisis in Syria, had already produced some groups that have committed some of the attacks against members of Hezbollah as a response to Hezbollah activities in Syria. Nevertheless blade of Hezbollah onslaught in Syria against extremists has two edges. Killing jihadists doesn’t leave a good echo in the region within the Sunni population. Sectarian divides in Lebanon are taking their toll and the tides of war are always on the rise, threaten to spill over to neighboring countries.