By Manish Rai
Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the Secretary General of Hezbollah, who is also a key Damascus ally, said in his recent speech that his group will keep its military presence in Syria until further notice. Nasrallah quoted that Hezbollah’s presence is linked to “The needs and approval” of the Syrian government.
He further added that “No one can force us to leave Syria”. His statement clearly showcases that Hezbollah is all set to make Syria it’s second home after Lebanon. Hezbollah has fielded thousands of its fighters, fighting alongside the Syrian government forces since the early days of the 2011, civil war. The Lebanese militia was on the side of President Assad in the Syrian war, well before any other ally of Assad regime.
Moreover, Hezbollah fought some of the most intense battles of the war for the Damascus like- East Aleppo, Zabadani and Homs. According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, during the seven years of war more than 1,600 Hezbollah fighters have been killed in Syria. After investing so deeply in the Syrian war, Hezbollah found out that it’s nearly impossible to extricate itself from the Syrian arena even after the end of the war. The organisation has started focusing on post-war plans to establish a permanent military presence in Syria.
Hezbollah’s own political objectives in Syria include ensuring the survival of the Assad regime, protecting and expanding its political power and influence; establishing a balance against Israel and the United States by having multiple fronts against the Jewish state, stemming the spread of Sunni Salafi-jihadist and other ‘takfiri’ groups and defending Shia communities.
All these objectives can only be effectively achieved by maintaining a permanent presence in Syria. Moreover, Hezbollah’s mentor and sponsor Iran also did not want to see Hezbollah leave Syria. The party is now not only the Islamic Republic’s most dependable ally in the Middle East, but is also considered as an extension of the Iran Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
Iran and Hezbollah also helped to create local pro-Iran groups, consisting of Syrian fighters who primarily report to the Iranian Quds Force, not to the Syrian regime. Iran wants to make sure that its presence in Syria is permanent, and if their own foreign fighters are forced to leave, they want to leave behind a strong residual local force only loyal to Tehran.
Iran continues to strengthen its foothold in Syria and the Levant, (especially among the Shia communities) by creating parallel entities with the aim of making them stronger than the state institution. This has already being done successfully by Iranians in Iraq and Lebanon. These entities will be monitored and supervised by Hezbollah on behalf of Iran.
Hezbollah has already started making preparations for its long stay in Syria. Some reports suggest that the group will maintain a permanent presence of 3,000 fighters in Syria, even after active fighting stops. The number of bases could vary but are estimated to host a significant portion of the pro-Iranian fighters. At the same time, the bases provide a location for Iranian advisors as well to secretly operate under cover. Most notably is the Hezbollah base in Qusayr.
The party has turned Qusayr, a Syrian town near the Lebanese border that it seized in June 2013, into a major military base. Its Sunni population fled during the battle and is not expected to return. Sources close to the group have said there are long-range missiles at the base. Although satellite imagery does not confirm this, the sources have referred specifically to the presence of different types of Iranian ballistic missiles, including the Shabab-1, Shahab-2 and Fateh-110.
Any of these missiles can be used to strike Israel, and Hezbollah has previously been suspected of having them in its arsenal. By having permanent bases in Syria Hezbollah can achieve an important military objective which includes preserving and potentially expanding the use of Syrian territory as a logistical route for transporting and storing Iranian missile parts and other military hardware. Hezbollah aspires to become a vanguard of Shia faith, for that it has to become a multinational organisation with bases spread across various countries of the region.
By remaining permanently in Syria, the message that Hezbollah wants to deliver is that the borders have collapsed and that there are new rules of engagement, to the detriment of Israel and the Sunni Arab states.
Moreover, Hezbollah wants to convey that it has expanded its operations and is no longer merely a Lebanese militia, and that it has become an important power in the Middle East. Perhaps more importantly, it has become one of the key instruments of Iran in building a powerful Shiite corridor from Iran to the Mediterranean.
Author is a columnist for Middle-East and Af-Pak region and Editor of geo-political news agency Views Around. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org