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Hezbollah’s Crucible of War
Joining Syria’s civil war has made Hezbollah much more powerful, but much less popular, in the Middle East.
BEIRUT — It was around 9 a.m. on July 12, 2006, and Katyusha rockets from Lebanon had crashed into northern Israel. As Israeli soldiers assessed the scene, a team of Hezbollah fighters slithered through the first wire fence, then the second wire fence, and ran up the road where two Israeli army Humvees were positioned.
The team fired an anti-tank missile at one of the Humvees, destroying it and killing three Israeli soldiers. They grabbed two other Israeli soldiers and doused the Humvee in petrol, setting it alight before dragging the two soldiers back into Lebanese territory. A second Humvee was hit by an improvised explosive device as it attempted to cross the border, killing all four Israeli soldiers on board.
This marked the beginning of a bloody 33-day war. An Israeli aerial assault targeted south Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley, and the southern suburbs of Beirut, areas Israel has designated as Hezbollah strongholds. The Israelis then launched a land invasion into southern Lebanon with the stated aim of disarming the movement. Hezbollah, for its part, launched hundreds of rockets across the border into Israel. Around 1,300 Lebanese were killed, mostly civilians, and 165 Israelis lost their lives, 121 of whom were soldiers.
The 2006 war was a pivotal moment for Hezbollah. The Lebanese Shiite group was celebrated across the Arab world as the region’s only force able to defeat Israel; it was riding high on a wave of popular support, and a reputation as a defender of the rights of the oppressed.
But 10 years on, much has changed for Hezbollah. Once treated as a Lebanese national resistance movement, it is now widely seen as the elite arm of a regional Shiite axis composed of Iran and Syria, with a military and political presence that stretches from Damascus, to Baghdad, to Sanaa.
Yet Hezbollah’s rise as a regional player has come at a cost for the movement. It has lost a considerable number of fighters and top-level commanders in its battles across Syria. Its popular support on the Arab streets has also waned as it has come to be seen ever more as a Shiite sectarian party. It also faces increasing pressure from powerful countries in the region. All of which are leading many observers to ask: As the group continues to grow, can it survive its new challenges and responsibilities?
Sitting in a restaurant in Beirut’s southern suburbs, a veteran Hezbollah fighter explained in detail the military and tactical experience the group has recently gained. This fighter is in his mid-40s and participated both in the 2006 Lebanon war and the current conflict in Syria, before an injury on the battlefield in Syria forced him out of active duty.
“The 2006 war was conducted on only two types of terrain: that of the south and that of the Bekaa,” he said, referring to the rolling hills and mountains of the south and the plains of the Bekaa Valley. Syria’s war, however, has exposed the group to the varied landscapes of that country, which has enabled Hezbollah to significantly expand its military capabilities. In the process, it has been transformed from a primarily defensive guerrilla group to one that more resembles a conventional army.
“For example, in Syria we have fought in mountain ranges that are higher than Lebanon, where we have had to learn completely new strategies and equipment, as our previous equipment would not work at such high altitude,” he said. “We have fought on coastal fronts, on desert fronts, and on urban fronts. Even the urban fronts differ between big cities and smaller towns.”
While the 2006 war was fought on Hezbollah’s home turf, amid a largely supportive population, Syria has forced the movement to adapt to fighting in unfamiliar places with hostile populations. “In 2006, we were fighting defensively in areas that we know very well,” the fighter said. “In Syria, we are entering areas where the local population can be hostile to us, and against fighters who know the terrain better than us. We have conducted offensive battles.”
Others close to Hezbollah echoed this account. For the first time, Hezbollah has run offensive operations — and intends to transfer the skills learned in Syria to any future confrontation with Israel.
“For Israel, they started to see the experience we were gaining and are now concerned that the experience, especially inside cities and urban environments, would be used against them,” said one source familiar with Hezbollah’s operations in Syria.
And Israel may have reason to be concerned. Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has made it clear that in any future confrontation, it would attempt to invade northern Israel. In order to do so, it would involve the very skills it has gained in Syria — fighting in an unfamiliar area where local residents are hostile to its presence.
Furthermore, it would involve a high level of command-and-control capabilities of precisely the type that Hezbollah has developed in Syria. Although in 2006 the movement deployed small cells of fighters who could continue fighting for days and weeks without the need to wait for instructions from their leadership, now the movement deploys larger formations of soldiers on multiple fronts, across hundreds of miles, and maintains a constant flow of information and supplies to its commanders in the field.
“Hezbollah has always been an insurgency group, and they’re now really learning very well counterinsurgency,” said Matthew Levitt, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence. “This enables them to be able to engage in a whole host of other different types of skills and maneuvers that would be useful to them in combat in Israel.”
Levitt is more doubtful of Hezbollah’s claim that it could actually hold Israeli territory in any future confrontation. “The security measures up there [in northern Israel] are actually quite sophisticated, so I don’t think Hezbollah would be able to do it, or hold it, but imagine the psychological impact for an Israeli community if that happened, even if it failed,” he said.
Hezbollah is also said to have acquired far more sophisticated weaponry than it wielded against Israel 10 years ago. Today, the group has heavy artillery, aerial drones, and a large number of jeeps with recoilless rifles in its possession — along with about 120,000 rockets, according to Israel’s estimates, which is almost a tenfold increase over its supply in 2006. The missiles in its arsenal today are far more powerful: It possesses the Iranian Fateh-110 tactical ballistic missile and its Syrian variant, the M-600. Numerous reports also claim it is in possession of the Yakhont coastal missile and has mobile air defense systems such as the Russian 9K33 Osa system.
The number of Lebanese fighters that Hezbollah counts in its ranks has also grown exponentially. In 2006, Hezbollah had a core of roughly 2,000 dedicated, full-time fighters in addition to about 10,000 reservists with basic training. Its involvement in Syria has provided the group with the opportunity to expand its core, and those with basic training have been hardened by years of fighting in Syria.
Numerous Hezbollah sources have stated that the group witnessed a huge influx of applicants in the aftermath of 2006, and then again in the aftermath of its involvement in Syria.
Hezbollah’s youth organization, the Imam al-Mahdi Scouts, held a recent graduation ceremony for 70,000 scouts, said multiple sources. “I couldn’t believe my eyes!” said one observer who attended the ceremony. “And as Sayyed Nasrallah said at the event, ‘We don’t have a problem getting people involved in Hezbollah, our problem is where to put them.’”
The same source confirmed that Hezbollah now operates in Lebanon up to seven training camps simultaneously to accommodate the number of new fighters and new techniques the organization has acquired.
Hezbollah, however, has also suffered high-profile losses over the last 10 years, most significantly after its foray into wider regional conflicts. Although there are no official figures for the group’s death toll in Syria, estimates range from 800 to 1,200 fighters killed over the last three years. Top commanders Fawzi Ayyoub, Jihad Mughniyeh, Mohammed Ahmed Issa, Ghassan Fakih, Fadi al-Jazzar, Ali Fayad, Samir Kantar, and Mustafa Badreddine have all been killed since Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria. The assassination of Imad Mughniyah in 2008, the main mastermind behind most of Hezbollah’s operations against Israel, was also a huge blow to the party.
“It is painful to them that they have lost more people, including many more senior people, in their war against fellow Muslims than all of the wars and battles against Israel,” Levitt said.
Ali Fadlallah, a professor of politics at the American University of Beirut and an expert on Hezbollah, said Hezbollah is willing to bear the losses because it sees the Syrian war as an existential issue.
“Hezbollah thinks of its role in Syria as an obligation, necessary to protect its weapons route and its political role,” he said. “And, as a result, it is paying a big price, including the deaths of key figures.”
Sources close to Hezbollah have played down the impact of the losses. According to the veteran fighter, the losses incurred in Syria do not “equate to even 10 percent of the death toll calculated by the party for such a war.”
“No war comes without sacrifices,” another source said. “Our organization after Hajj Imad Mughniyah is much bigger than it was before 2006, and so we are constantly restructuring.”
“Each martyrdom offers a new opportunity, and there is always new blood [coming in].”
Politics and Identity
Hezbollah’s success on the battlefield, however, has not been duplicated in politics. It has lost much of the broad-based appeal it enjoyed, both in Lebanon and the broader region, in the aftermath of the 2006 war. Its selective participation in the conflicts in the region — Iraq, Syria, Yemen — has reinforced the notion that it is a military and political force “strictly for the Shia.”
“While Hezbollah defines itself as a national actor with regional impacts, today it is seen as a model for the Shia because of its political and military success in the region,” said Hossam Matar, a Lebanese political analyst close to the party.
As the Syrian uprising took an increasingly sectarian character, Hezbollah’s entry came to be seen as an intervention on behalf of the country’s Alawite minority against its Sunni majority. That message was loudly and widely spread by the Gulf-state publications and broadcasters who dominate the Arab media landscape. As a result, many Arabs who previously supported Hezbollah began to see it through the prism of Sunni-Shiite sectarianism. This skepticism even extended to Hezbollah’s rhetoric supporting the Palestinian cause and the fight against Israel.
While Hezbollah and its supporters acknowledge the issue, they seek to minimize it. The movement continually states it is fighting takfiris, not Sunnis in Syria, and has urged Arabs to ignore what it deems propaganda by Saudi media.
“This [shift] is largely because the campaign by the others to portray Hezbollah as a sectarian party has been successful, and because we are witnessing a sectarian struggle in the region, Hezbollah will appear to be more Shia, and this is not by choice,” Matar said.
The perception of Hezbollah as the Middle East’s leading Shiite sectarian group has also led to increased diplomatic pressure on the party. Historically, the Arab Gulf states have always had a tumultuous relationship with Hezbollah; the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005, and its aftermath, was a notable low point. But following Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria and then its vocal opposition to the Saudi-led war in Yemen, the Gulf states became outright aggressive against the group, designating it as a terrorist organization and deporting Lebanese Shiites residing in the Gulf Cooperation Council. Remittances from Lebanese working in the Gulf are a primary source of income for many residing in Lebanon and help maintain the stability of the country’s financial system.
“I don’t think the Israelis will ever be as anti-Hezbollah as the Gulfies are right now, and that has real ramifications for them,” Levitt said.
But, despite the mounting pressure against it, Hezbollah seems to feel bolstered by its newly acquired international role.
“When [Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail] Bogdanov visits Lebanon, he’s not coming to talk to the politicians, but to Hezbollah about Hezbollah’s role,” said a source close to Hezbollah. “He is dealing with Hezbollah as a regional actor.”
As Matar pointed out, Iran’s relationship with Hezbollah has also changed due to its close connection with Arab Shiites in the region. “Hezbollah can now advise Iran on Arab issues, which in turn has granted Hezbollah a larger role in the region.”
In 2006, Hezbollah was a small military organization with one theater of operations and a singular mission. Ten years later, it has expanded exponentially into multiple theaters with diverse responsibilities, demands, and challenges. It has grown into a regional political actor with influence on par with some nation states. But it has also alienated a large segment of the Arab population.
“They are gaining power across the region, especially in terms of the ‘resistance axis,’” said Fadlallah, referring to a regional alliance consisting of Hezbollah, Iran, and Syria. “If Hezbollah can win this battle, it will win the region.”
Matar said regardless of how much Hezbollah has grown, the group doesn’t make a regional commitment without considering its impact on its primary mission — its resistance to Israel. “When it engages regionally, it always has Israel at the forefront of its calculations,” he said. “And it allocates its resources accordingly.”
Those close to Hezbollah celebrate its new reach across the region and lament the lack of broad support among Arabs and the mounting regional and international pressure on it. But they also insist the Israeli “file” remains its priority. All its other activities are described as a means to gain experience to accomplish its ultimate end.
“What we took to Syria when we entered was some developed weapons and thousands of fighters,” one source said. “But what we have in south Lebanon now is a lot of new surprises for the Israelis.”
MAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images