Hizb Allah’s Role in the Syrian Uprising

Nov 28, 2012

As the civil war in Syria rages on, there is ample evidence pointing to the activities of foreign interests—nation states and non-state actors—opposed to the Ba`athist regime in Damascus.[1] In contrast, recent reports implicating Lebanese Hizb Allah, an avowed Syrian ally, remain murky. Hizb Allah continues to refute charges that it is participating as an active belligerent in the civil war, even as it continues to lend political and moral support to the Syrian government. The deaths of Hizb Allah members in Syria in October 2012 coupled with reports of Hizb Allah activities in border regions along the Syrian-Lebanese frontier, however, have raised a new set of questions about Hizb Allah’s role in the conflict.[2]

This article evaluates the growing number of reports of Hizb Allah’s involvement in Syria and the geopolitical stakes involved for the group amid the ongoing turmoil. It also addresses Hizb Allah’s likely preparations for a post-Ba`athist Syria should the regime fall. The article finds that Hizb Allah’s involvement in Syria encompasses political, humanitarian, intelligence, and operational dimensions.

Rumors and Headlines
Since the start of the Syrian uprising, the political and militant components of the Syrian opposition have accused Hizb Allah of being actively involved in the Ba`athist regime’s violent crackdown against both peaceful and militant dissidents. A longtime ally of Syria, Hizb Allah has remained resolute in its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad throughout the crisis. The prevailing geopolitical conditions dictate that Hizb Allah and Iran will work to ensure the al-Assad regime’s survival.[3]

Along with the intensification of violence across Syria has come a rise in reporting that points to an operational role for Hizb Allah. According to an October 2 videotaped statement issued by the rebel al-Farouq Battalions, Ali Hussein Nassif, a purported Hizb Allah commander, along with two other Hizb Allah operatives, was killed in a series of operations launched by the al-Farouq Battalions and allied insurgent groups near the Syrian city of Qusair, located adjacent to the Syrian-Lebanese border.[4] The details surrounding the death of Nassif and his companions are vague. Some reports claimed that they were killed when the militants detonated a roadside Improvised Explosive Device (IED) near a vehicle they were driving on a road in Qusair.[5] Other reports suggested that they were killed in an ensuing firefight with insurgents after the IED detonated.[6] Another report claimed that Nassif and his colleagues were killed after a rocket attack struck a building in which they were staying.[7] The announcement of Nassif’s death was circulated on social media websites operated by the al-Farouq Battalions and other Syrian insurgent groups. Nassif’s death occurred after earlier reports of the death of Musa Ali Shahimi, another alleged Hizb Allah operative, who was reported to have perished in Syria under unclear circumstances in August.[8] The alleged death of Hussein Abdel Ghani al-Nimr, another reported Hizb Allah member, was said to have occurred in the context of the crisis in Syria shortly following Nassif’s death, but under even murkier circumstances.[9]

Syrian opposition sources also report having inflicted major casualties on Hizb Allah in Syria and of identifying Hizb Allah members in combat.[10] The Free Syrian Army (FSA) claims to have killed 60 Hizb Allah fighters in heavy clashes in Qusair in October that prompted Hizb Allah to request a truce to retrieve the bodies of their fallen comrades.[11]  Members of the Syrian security forces and irregular paramilitary units known as the shabiha (ghosts) captured by FSA militants have issued statements while in captivity claiming that they had received training or direct orders by Hizb Allah and Iran.[12] The FSA also claimed to have detained 13 Hizb Allah members around the opposition stronghold city of Homs, in western Syria.[13] FSA detachments also frequently showcase what they allege is evidence of some of the measures undertaken by Hizb Allah to navigate the battlefield, including its supposed reliance on using ambulances and other civilian vehicles.[14] The FSA claims that Hizb Allah’s presence in Syria numbers well in the thousands, an estimate that overstates the group’s true membership.[15] The FSA’s abduction of Hassan Salim al-Miqdad, a member of the prominent al-Miqdad clan centered in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, in Syria in August adds another layer of intrigue to the Hizb Allah dynamic in Syria. Al-Miqdad’s captors described him as a Hizb Allah member. This incident provoked a wave of retaliatory abductions of 20 Syrians and one Turk by al-Miqdad clan members in the southern outskirts of Beirut.[16]

A sober assessment of the claims repeated by the Syrian opposition regarding Hizb Allah’s activities in Syria finds that many tend to be outlandish and exaggerated. Many of these accounts appear crafted to achieve broader political goals aimed at undermining Hizb Allah’s reputation and further weakening Syria. This tone of reporting also tends to misrepresent the true nature of Hizb Allah’s role in the Syrian crisis.

The Resistance Responds
Hizb Allah has responded to the numerous allegations regarding its activities in Syria. While scoffing at claims that it is fighting alongside Syrian forces, Hizb Allah officials have issued public statements during the funeral ceremonies held for Nassif and other Hizb Allah members in their native Lebanon. Lauding their contributions to the organization, Hizb Allah officials described Nassif and others as having perished while “performing their jihadist duties.”[17]

Hizb Allah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah elaborated on the circumstances surrounding Nassif’s death and the growing reports of Hizb Allah activity in the vicinity of Qusair during a televised statement broadcast by al-Manar television on October 11. Nasrallah labeled the accusations that Hizb Allah has deployed thousands of operatives in Syria and that it is suffering major losses as lies. Underscoring the group’s transparency in dealing with the crisis, he stressed that Hizb Allah has recognized its losses, as evidenced by the publicly held funerals for its fallen members.[18] Nasrallah also rejected reports that Hizb Allah was participating in combat alongside the Ba`athist regime on account that its ally in Damascus did not request its assistance.[19]

Regarding the circumstances surrounding Nassif’s death in Syria, Nasrallah offered an explanation that provides insight into Hizb Allah’s broader approach to the Syrian crisis. He emphasized that members of Hizb Allah were present in 23 villages and 12 farms in the vicinity of Qusair, but only to protect the approximately 30,000 residents of Lebanese origin—Shi`a, Sunni, Christian, and Alawite—who reside there and have come under repeated attacks by the FSA. Nasrallah added that many of the region’s residents have remained in Syria despite the conflict to protect their property. While located in Syrian territory, the residents of these villages identify as Lebanese, according to Nasrallah, with many maintaining familial links to communities in Lebanon’s northern city of Hermel in the Bekaa Valley and surrounding areas. He stressed that while this patchwork of communities is diverse in its politics, many support or are involved in some capacity with Hizb Allah, including its military wing.[20] Nasrallah also refuted claims that Nassif served as a commander for Hizb Allah’s Syria operations. Nassif’s death, Nasrallah declared, stemmed from his activities supporting the besieged Lebanese communities inside Syria around Qusair.[21]

In light of its continued support for the al-Assad regime, Hizb Allah is mindful of its sensitive political position in Lebanon and reputation across the Middle East. As a result, Nasrallah’s retort to the allegations surrounding Hizb Allah’s activities in Syria was couched in a broader narrative of resistance—in this case, its defense of a besieged Lebanese population in Syria—it has honed over the years.[22] Despite Nasrallah’s claims, there is more to Hizb Allah’s presence in Syria.

Evaluating the Evidence
Hizb Allah’s stake in Syria cannot be understood without considering its place in Lebanese politics and wider geopolitical paradigms in the Middle East.[23] As a member of the Resistance Axis, an alliance that includes Syria and Iran, Hizb Allah is party to a larger regional competition between rival alliance blocs. The United States, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies, and Israel, are positioned on one side against Iran, Syria, and Hizb Allah on the other. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, for example, have spearheaded efforts to organize the Syrian opposition to diminish Iran’s regional influence by weakening its alliance network. In Lebanon, the Hizb Allah-led March 8 coalition, which includes the Amal Movement[24] and other political parties aligned with Syria, stands against the March 14 coalition, a U.S.- and Saudi-backed network of political parties that includes former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement and Lebanon’s Salafist current. In an attempt to strengthen its position in Lebanon and weaken its rival Hizb Allah, the March 14 coalition has thrown its support behind the Syrian opposition, inflaming political and sectarian tensions in Lebanon.[25]

In this context, Nasrallah’s admission of a limited Hizb Allah presence in Syria seems to correspond with the group’s traditional thinking and approach. Hizb Allah has a strong interest in ensuring that the al-Assad regime remains in power. The potential fall of the Ba`athist regime would have a profound effect on Hizb Allah on many levels. In military terms, the possible loss of the strategic depth Syrian territory has provided Hizb Allah over the years would, in theory, hamper its ability to operate. The geographic continuity between Lebanon and Syria affords Hizb Allah with a safety zone to operate outside of its Lebanese home. Syria also serves as a logistical land bridge for supplying Hizb Allah with arms and materiel and enabling training and other operational activities. Syria’s alliance with Hizb Allah emboldens the latter’s deterrence posture relative to Israel and its enemies in Lebanon. Syria’s continued support for Hizb Allah also serves as a form of assurance for its allies—Muslim and Christian—in Lebanon’s inherently turbulent body politic.[26]

With the persistent turmoil that continues to shake Syria—raising the possibility of the replacement of the Ba`athist regime with one whose interests would be inimical to Hizb Allah—the prospects of a peaceful transition are remote. The al-Assad regime continues to enjoy support among a cross-section of Syrian society irrespective of religious confession and ethnicity and among millions who fear what a complete breakdown in order would entail. This reality foreshadows enduring violence and chaos, in essence a protracted civil war, should the Ba`athist regime collapse. In this regard, any post-Assad scenario will provide Hizb Allah and its allies inside Syria and around the region with the opportunity to countervail attempts by emergent forces to draw Syria away from its previous stance.

The fall of the Ba`athist regime would certainly take Syria out of the Resistance Axis. This does not mean that Hizb Allah and its allies will stand idle. It is conceivable that Nasrallah’s explanations for Hizb Allah’s activities in Syria reflect this reality. A deployment of Hizb Allah operatives in strategically important areas along the Syrian-Lebanese border, especially in and around villages that are home to communities sympathetic to Hizb Allah or possibly the Ba`athist regime (or apolitical communities opposed to the FSA), ensures the group an operational foothold in Syria in any post-Assad scenario. A Hizb Allah presence in these areas also emboldens the Ba`athist regime, thereby allowing it to devote valuable military resources to other theaters. At the same time, Hizb Allah is also a relatively small organization that has worked hard over the years to foster its reputation as a Lebanese entity that exists to defend Lebanon against Israel. Hizb Allah, therefore, must be careful not to overextend itself in operational as well as political terms, especially as the Ba`athist regime continues to draw the international community’s scorn.

Some predict that the potential collapse of its patron in Damascus will leave Hizb Allah irreparably weakened and vulnerable in the face of its numerous Lebanese and regional foes, especially Israel. Subscribers of this view, however, would be advised to revisit Hizb Allah’s evolution over the years, specifically the period of tensions surrounding the “war of the camps” (1984-89) characterized by the years of open warfare between Hizb Allah and its present-day allies the Amal Movement and Syria during Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990).[27] Hizb Allah has long established itself as an organic Lebanese organization that is able to wield tremendous social, political, economic, and military functions in Lebanon. Hizb Allah will remain relevant in Lebanon and beyond should the Ba`athist regime fall.

Chris Zambelis is an analyst and researcher specializing in Middle East affairs with Helios Global, Inc., a risk management group based in the Washington, D.C., area. The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone.

[1] Karen DeYoung and Liz Sly, “Syrian Rebels Get Influx of Arms with Gulf Neighbors’ Money, U.S. Coordination,” Washington Post, May 15, 2012.

[2] Nicholas Blanford, “Accusations Mount of Hezbollah Fighting in Syria,” Christian Science Monitor, October 15, 2012.

[3] Reports that pro-Ba`athist factions based in Iraq, including numerous Shi`a militias, are operating in Syria on behalf of the Ba`athist regime are appearing with increasing frequency. See Suadad al-Salhy, “Iraqi Shi’ite Militias Fight for Syria’s Assad,” Reuters, October 16, 2012.

[4] “Al Farouk Battalions: The Assassination of Hezbollah Representatives in Syria Ali Hussein Nassif,” available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=FHXCiniwzVc.

[5] “Hezbollah Military Commander ‘Killed in Syria,’” BBC, October 2, 2012.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Tulin Daloglu, “Turkey Held Hostage in Syria,” al-Monitor, October 23, 2012.

[9] “Hezbollah Buries Fighter Killed in Syria ‘Border Area,’” Daily Star [Beirut], October 8, 2012.

[10] A Syrian army officer who defected relayed the following account: “With my own eyes I saw snipers on the top floors of buildings, Iranian snipers, Hezbollah people shooting at the people.” See “More than 8,500 Syrian Refugees in Turkey,” Agence France-Presse, June 14, 2011. Similarly, the commander of an FSA-affiliated detachment offered another firsthand testimony from the front: “They [Hizb Allah] were very professional and tough fighters. You can tell they are superior fighters from the way they move in battle and how they fight.” See Nicholas Blanford, “Hezbollah Role in Syria Grows More Evident,” Daily Star, October 12, 2012.

[11] Paula Astatih, “Syria: FSA Kill 60 Hezbollah Fighters, Retake Town,” al-Sharq al-Awsat, October 12, 2012.

[12] See “The Free Syrian Army Captured 13 of al-Assad’s Thugs in Idlib Province in Syria 15.12.2011,” available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=RnGpA5md6O8.

[13] “FSA Threatens to Take Fight to Hezbollah Stronghold in Beirut,” Daily Star, October 10, 2012.

[14] “Free Syrian Army Captures Hezbollah Terror Ambulance Loaded with Weapons 11-13-11 Homs,” November 23, 2011, available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=M6u3P80VrNU.

[15] An al-Arabiya report claimed that 1,500 members of Hizb Allah are operating in Syria. This report was supposedly based on figures that were described as “leaked” Syrian security files. See “Over a Thousand Hezbollah Agents in Syria,” al-Arabiya, October 7, 2012. Syrian opposition factions have similarly accused Iran of deploying members of its elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to suppress the protests. It is important to note that the veracity of these leaked documents has come under scrutiny, prompting al-Arabiya to issue a formal response. See Faisal J. Abbas, “An Apology on Behalf of Al Arabiya,” al-Arabiya, October 13, 2012. A member of the FSA told the Independent that “thousands” of Hizb Allah fighters had entered Syria and were fighting as part of the Syrian security forces. He also added that he was able to distinguish between members of Hizb Allah and other Syrian soldiers due to the former’s “combat skills” and use of “M16 assault rifles.” See Loveday Morris, “Hezbollah Crosses Syrian Border with Bloody Assault on Assad’s Enemies,” Independent, October 26, 2012. While precise estimates of Hizb Allah’s regular membership vary widely, its core paramilitary wing—excluding its numerous reserve and auxiliary units that are usually mobilized during conflict scenarios—is not likely to number more than a few thousand members. In this context, reports of Hizb Allah forces mobilizing in the hundreds or thousands in Syria as is often repeated by Syrian opposition sources should not be taken seriously. The FSA has an incentive to overestimate Hizb Allah’s presence in Syria.

[16] Hizb Allah has strongly denied any association with Hassan Salim al-Miqdad and the retaliatory abductions conducted in Dahiye by members of the al-Miqdad clan.  Hizb Allah’s political rivals in Lebanon accuse Hizb Allah of executing the abductions in concert with the al-Miqdad clan. It is widely accepted that Hizb Allah maintains friendly relations with many of the most influential tribes and clans in Lebanon, particularly the constellation of predominantly Shi`a families residing in the Bekaa Valley such as the al-Miqdads. The extent of Hizb Allah’s relations with the al-Miqdads and other powerful clans whose influence in Lebanese society precedes Hizb Allah by generations does not, however, translate into a formal alliance, even though Hizb Allah’s rise and influence could not have been realized without their support. Just as important, the interests of the al-Miqdads and Hizb Allah have been known to clash on many issues. For more details about the circumstances behind the wave of abductions in Syria and Lebanon described above and the complexities underlying Hizb Allah’s interaction with the al-Miqdads and other important Lebanese clans, see Mona Harb and Lara Deeb, “Fissures in Hizballah’s Edifice of Control,” Middle East Research and Information Project, October 30, 2012.  Also see Nour Samaha, “Meeting the Clans of Lebanon,” al-Jazira, August 18, 2012.

[17] “Lebanon’s Hizballah Buries Fighters Killed in Syria,” al-Jazira, October 3, 2012.

[18] “Transcript of Televised Speech by Hizballah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah,” al-Manar, October 11, 2012.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Relatedly, Hizb Allah has also organized aid and relief efforts serving Syrian refugees and other affected populations, regardless of their political or religious identification, throughout Lebanon. See “Hizbullah’s Mobile Health Clinics Help Syrian Refugees in Lebanon,” Crescent International [Toronto], October 1, 2012.

[23] Most of the attention regarding the nature of Hizb Allah’s involvement in Syria in support of the Ba`athist regime tends to focus on developments in Syria proper.  Considering Lebanon’s role in facilitating the insurgency in operational, logistical, financial, and personnel terms, it is likely that Hizb Allah is playing a larger than acknowledged role inside Lebanon on behalf of Syria.  Hizb Allah and its allies are almost certainly gathering valuable intelligence on the activities of insurgents on the Lebanese side of the Syrian-Lebanese border and conducting other activities to bolster the Ba`athist regime.

[24] The Amal movement also commands a wide following in the Lebanese Shi`a community.

[25] The crisis in Syria is inflaming sectarian tensions in Lebanon to such a degree that Lebanese Sunnis opposed to Hizb Allah and Syria, including hardline Salafists, are openly expressing a desire to organize professional and highly-capable militias based on the example of Hizb Allah.  See Radwan Mortada, “Exclusive: The Man Behind Hariri’s Secret Army,” al-Akhbar [Beirut], October 25, 2012. Also see Mohammed Zaatari, “Assir Says Suspends Plans for Military Wing,” Daily Star, November 17, 2012. Members of the Future Movement are also ratcheting up political pressure against Hizb Allah by calling for a formal investigation into its activities relating to Syria. See “Judiciary to Probe Hezbollah’s ‘Involvement’ in Syrian Crisis,” Lebanese National News Agency, October 9, 2012. Even the Free Syrian Army has threatened to target Hizb Allah in Beirut. See “FSA Threatens to Take Fight to Hezbollah Stronghold in Beirut,” Daily Star, October 10, 2012.

[26] The predominantly Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) represents a key ally of Hizb Allah within the March 8 coalition. Hizb Allah has also been able to attract support among a broader segment of the Lebanese Christian community that views the group as a necessary bulwark against Israel.

[27] Augustus Richard Norton, Hezbollah: A Short History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007).