Is Syria's long war wearing down key Assad backer Hezbollah?

Under Sheikh Nasrallah, Hezbollah rode to the defense of its ally Syria. But the Shiite group that was founded to confront Israel is paying a high price in lives and prestige.

Mohammed Zaatari/AP
Hezbollah supporters listened to Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah speak from a secret location on a TV screen in Wadi al-Hujair, Lebanon, Aug. 14.

A huge roar erupted from the 100,000 cheering Hezbollah supporters as the Shiite organization’s beaming leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, dressed in a customary brown cloak and black turban, stepped onto a stage decorated in the red, white, and green Lebanese national flag and yellow party banners.

It was May 26, 2000, and Sheikh Nasrallah was in the southern Lebanese town of Bint Jbeil, a few miles north of the Israeli border, to mark a stunning and unprecedented military achievement. His group of several hundred lightly armed resistance fighters had pushed the Israeli army out of south Lebanon, ending an occupation that had begun 22 years earlier.

The last Israeli troops had left their posts in south Lebanon just two days before.

“Blessed is the victory that has placed the entire nation at the threshold of an era of future victories and placed Israel at the threshold of future defeats,” the triumphant Nasrallah told the crowd, smiling through his thick black beard. Behind him appeared the figure 1,276, representing the number of Hezbollah fighters killed in south Lebanon since Israel invaded in 1982 to push Palestinian militants away from its border.

Since that heady moment 15 years ago, Hezbollah has strengthened enormously and come to dominate Lebanon’s fractious political arena. But it also faces daunting domestic and regional challenges – most particularly, navigating the war in neighboring Syria.

Today Nasrallah is still the leader of Hezbollah – his beard now longer and steely gray – but is rarely seen in public. The threat of assassination by a vengeful Israel forces him to deliver his speeches by video.

While the struggle against Israel remains a key component of Nasrallah’s frequent addresses, Hezbollah’s critical intervention in Syria’s war and its battle against Sunni jihadists have come to overshadow the older conflict.

Pivotal role in defending Assad

In a military commitment that dwarfs the south Lebanon resistance campaign two decades ago, thousands of Hezbollah cadres have fought on Syria’s bloody battlefields – from Aleppo’s battered ruins in the north to the rugged Qalamoun Mountains near Damascus and the basalt-studded Golan plateau in the south.

Hezbollah, backed by regional power Iran, has played an essential role in helping keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power as his forces have battled an uprising for more than four years. Russia, too, has stepped in more forcefully to prop up Mr. Assad in a conflict that has claimed some 250,000 lives and forced millions of Syrians into exile. The human tide has overwhelmed the capacity of Syria’s neighbors to absorb refugees and is now testing that of Europe.

But the move has put a strain on Hezbollah, which has paid a price in lives and prestige, with many analysts saying the toll in three years in Syria must have exceeded the 1,276 from 18 years spent battling Israel’s occupation.

In 2006, after Hezbollah fought the Israeli army to a costly standstill, the Shiite leader nevertheless topped popularity polls in the Arab world. Today, however, he is reviled by most Sunni Muslims, his party vilified as “Hizbu Shaitan,” meaning Party of the Devil, a twist on “Hezbollah,” which means Party of God.

Lebanon’s Shiite community generally continues to support Hezbollah’s actions in Syria. The threat posed by Sunni extremists, such as the self-described Islamic State (IS), does much to keep the community rallied around the yellow banner of Hezbollah and the protection given by its formidable army.

Yet signs of unease and dissent are growing. Hezbollah’s usually resilient base is beginning to feel the burden of a war now in its fifth year that has claimed the lives of a quarter million people and shows no sign of ending. Some are wearily asking – albeit in muted tones for now – where Nasrallah, a leader in whom they traditionally place absolute trust, is taking Hezbollah, the Shiite community, and Lebanon.

“We are with the resistance [Hezbollah], and we have faith in Nasrallah when he promises us victory in Syria. But how much longer is it going to take and how many more of our sons will die before victory?” asks Umm Ali, mother of a Hezbollah fighter killed in Syria in 2013.

Whether or not to intervene

The decision to intervene in Syria was not taken lightly. Although Hezbollah is a Shiite organization, Nasrallah has always promoted unity with Sunnis, believing Muslims should unite against Israel. But dispatching his fighters into Syria against a mainly Sunni opposition to help preserve the Alawite minority rule of Assad was bound to alienate Sunnis across the region. It would also tarnish Hezbollah’s image as a champion of oppressed peoples and risk dragging Syria’s war onto Lebanese soil.

On the other hand, if the Assad regime were to fall it would sever the geographical links between Iran and its protégé Hezbollah and rupture the regional anti-Israel “axis of resistance.” Hezbollah might also have to contend with a hostile Sunni regime in Syria and an emboldened Sunni community in Lebanon. For Hezbollah and Iran, the motivations for interceding in Syria outweighed the potential blowback.

“It was Nasrallah’s decision to send his fighters into Syria ... after extensive consultations with the Iranians,” says Randa Slim, a Hezbollah expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “In all matters of the Levant, including Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, as far as Iranian decisionmakers are concerned, Nasrallah’s counsel is second only to that of the supreme leader” of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The first Hezbollah combatants slipped covertly into Syria in 2012, deploying initially to parts of Damascus and among some Shiite villages just north of the Lebanese border. Hezbollah at first denied the presence of any fighters in Syria. But as the months passed, Nasrallah articulated a narrative intended to persuade the party’s base as to the necessity of intervention.

Assad’s Syria, he said, is the “backbone of resistance,” and its demise would end the cause of Palestine. Furthermore, Nasrallah warned, the opposition in Syria was composed of “Takfiris,” extremist Sunnis who view as apostates all those who do not share their strict interpretation of Islam.

The extremists were a threat not only to Hezbollah, but all Lebanon, he said in a May 2013 speech in which finally he admitted his fighters were in Syria. His critics argue, however, that intervening in Syria exposed Lebanon and the Shiites to retribution by vengeful Sunnis.

“Nasrallah has taken the Shiites to dangerous places.... He started a war with our neighbors that we will feel for generations,” says Sheikh Sobhi Tufayli, a founder of Hezbollah and its first secretary-general, who was expelled in 1998 and is today a bitter critic of Nasrallah and the party leadership.

An expectation to fight Israel

In the winding streets of Shiite villages in the hills of south Lebanon, pictures of Hezbollah “martyrs” abound. Some are sun-
faded black-and-white portraits of fighters with thick beards and 1980s-style haircuts, killed while battling Israelis long ago. But they are outnumbered today by the profusion of fresh, brightly colored memorials to a new generation of fighters who died in Syria.

Most of these young men would have joined Hezbollah with the expectation of fighting Israel rather than Sunni rebels in Syria. But since the 2006 war – which claimed the lives of some 1,100 Lebanese civilians, 165 Israeli soldiers and civilians, and between 200 and 700 Hezbollah fighters – the Lebanese-Israeli border has experienced its longest period of calm in half a century.

United Nations peacekeepers patrol the narrow lanes in their white armored vehicles while farmers quietly tend their tobacco fields and orange and olive groves. Nevertheless, preparations for conflict between these two enemies continue unabated.

In 2000, Hezbollah’s largest rocket had a range of 12 miles, just far enough to threaten a narrow band of northern Israel. In 2006 it fired some 4,000 rockets at targets across northern Israel. Today, it is armed with a variety of guided missiles that can sink warships, shoot down jets, and deliver more than 1,000 pounds of high explosive against pinpoint targets in Tel Aviv.

In the next war, the Israeli army predicted in January, Hezbollah will fire 1,000 to 1,500 rockets a day and the number of people killed daily would be in double or even triple digits.

Military camps dot the wooded flanks of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley where the huge influx of Hezbollah recruits over the past nine years have received basic training. Some later travel to Iran for advanced training in multiple disciplines, from firing artillery rockets and antitank missiles to learning parachuting skills and underwater sabotage, according to sources close to Hezbollah.

Warily watching southern front

Crucially, the war in Syria has provided an opportunity for a new generation of recruits to gain combat experience in environments ranging from rugged mountains to city streets.

“Hezbollah is Israel’s most challenging enemy and our main reference point for some 30 years now,” Ronen Cohen, a former military intelligence officer, told Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper in August.

Despite its military commitment in Syria, Hezbollah continues to closely watch Lebanon’s southern front, wary that Israel may seek to take advantage of the organization’s presence in Syria to attack it in Lebanon.

“We have not abandoned this front, and we will not abandon it,” Nasrallah said in a speech in May marking the 15th anniversary of the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. “We continue to be active on the front with Israel, and other issues [such as Syria] are not distracting us.”

Still, for Hezbollah’s cadres, Syria is the immediate focus.

“We are fighting each other to see who can go to Syria first. We are stronger than ever,” says Abu Khalil, a Hezbollah veteran who has served more than 20 tours in Syria.

Abu Khalil, who battled Israeli troops in the 1990s and in 2006, has no qualms about continuing to fight in Syria’s grueling war. He unquestioningly subscribes to the party line that Assad’s survival is essential to maintain “resistance” against Israel and to protect Lebanon from the Takfiri threat. “It’s not easy, but God is with us,” he says.

However, not all Hezbollah fighters share his view. Some say they have had enough of the war and are looking to leave Hezbollah.

‘There are people who want to quit’

Hezbollah’s tight internal discipline weighs against such sentiment being aired in public. But one fighter with more than a decade’s experience admits that he wants to leave, having tired of watching his friends die in Syria and angry at the corruption he says he sees around him. Hezbollah once had an enviable reputation for financial probity, but in recent years, as it swelled in size, it has been marred by allegations of internal corruption.

“It’s not only me. There are people who want to quit who have had enough of it,” the veteran fighter says, speaking on condition of anonymity. He adds that he knew of some fighters who had returned from a tour in Syria and immediately departed Lebanon, joining the stream of refugees heading into Europe. “The Syrians have to fight for themselves. Why should I have to go to Syria and fight?” he says. “They [Syrian refugees] come over here with their wives and kids, and have more kids, and I’m over there fighting for them?”

It is difficult to assess the depth of such sentiment within Hezbollah’s ranks and among its support base. However, it does not appear to be sufficiently strong to pose a potential challenge to Nasrallah’s leadership of the party. He appears to have the continuing confidence of Iran, and if there are qualms expressed in the upper ranks of Hezbollah, they are not leaking into the public arena.

But as the war grinds on, Hezbollah’s supporters inevitably will ponder how much longer the party will remain in Syria.

“If IS was to remain ensconced in its strongholds in Syria for the next five to 10 years, does this mean Hezbollah continuing to send fighters to Syria for the next 10 years?” asks Ms. Slim, the Hezbollah expert. “Still, these are rumblings that have not jelled yet into a bottom-up force that could force Hezbollah to change its current course of action.”

Abu Khalil admits many of his friends have been killed in Syria. He calls them “martyrs,” but says their deaths serve as inspiration for his continued commitment to the struggle.

“We thrive on the blood of our martyrs,” he says. “When you begin this line of work, you begin the path that leads to martyrdom,  God willing.”

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