Can Hezbollah Sustain Assad and Itself?

As Sunni fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS) poured south into Iraq last month, a statement from Asaib Ahl al-Haq, one of the major Iraqi Shia militias battling rebel groups in Syria, announced it was withdrawing fighters to deal with this threat.

That’s bad news for Bashar al-Assad, whose regime relies heavily on the support of these paramilitary auxiliaries. The loss of these fighters will likely see Damascus seek further support from Hezbollah, leaving the Lebanese group facing a deadly dilemma—as every resource committed to the regional struggle potentially undermines domestic security. 

Drawn to the conflict in Syria as it took a more sectarian turn during 2013, large numbers of Shia militiamen have travelled from Iraq to fight alongside the government. Unlike many of the Sunni foreign fighters, these Shia units are well trained and equipped, and often have experience of both asymmetric and small-unit warfare, something highlighted by Phillip Smyth of the University of Maryland.

Their skill and experience, not to mention their numbers, have played a significant part in enabling the regime to slowly gain the upper hand in the past year, but now recent estimates by analysts at the Five Dimensions Consultancy, in Dubai, have suggested that the heavy fighting in Iraq could see up to 25,000 returned home.

The withdrawal of these veteran fighters will leave the Syrian government concerned over the potential decline in security in areas where they have been based. The Daily Star of Beirut has already quoted residents of a Damascus neighborhood where Iraqi militants have been battling rebel units as saying they have already noticed numbers dropping, and this will only be exacerbated as Sunni jihadists push further into Iraq.

With ISIS growing in strength across the region, and shipping captured matériel back to its units in Syria, the government cannot let its efforts against the rebels slacken now. Parts of Damascus and western Syria are already defended by Hezbollah units, and the government will now hope that a significant part of the shortfall could be made up by a greater commitment from the Lebanese group.

This appears to be confirmed by a military intelligence source in the country who has recently told Five Dimensions that Hezbollah is believed to have begun a recruitment drive in its South Beirut strongholds. While accurate numbers are difficult to confirm, the source has suggested that the group is seeking a further 3,000 fighters to send to Syria in addition to the 15,000 already deployed there.

In addition, Hezbollah’s leader has openly stated that the party would do all it could to protect Shiite shrines in Iraq from ISIS, claiming, “We are ready to sacrifice martyrs in Iraq five times more than what we sacrificed in Syria, in order to protect shrines, because they are much more important.” Echoing the rhetoric used to justify intervention in Syria, this signals a continuing commitment to the regional conflict the group is engaged in alongside the governments in Damascus and Tehran.

However, the extent to which the group can afford to commit more men to the fight across Syria and Iraq without damaging its security in Lebanon should be questioned. In September 2013, as the organization mobilized in response to threatened Western airstrikes on Syria, it was reported that regular fighters in the Bekaa Valley were leaving their posts, and in the Lebanese capital of Beirut, experienced men at security checkpoints had been replaced by teenagers. 

This evidence of decreasing manpower comes at the same time as Iranian funding for the group appears to be on the wane, with both Hezbollah’s military and social service wings forced to cut costs. The group is already facing a financial challenge after pledging to support the families of up to 500 fighters killed in Syria, and the added costs of further recruitment and training will not be easy to absorb.  

This suggests that any increase in the group’s Syrian presence will be detrimental to its strength at home, yet Hezbollah simply cannot afford domestic weakness now. The suicide-bombing that struck south Beirut suburb of Tayyouneh on June 24th has reiterated the threat facing Shia districts in the city, and when taken alongside the premature detonation of a bomber in a West Beirut hotel on June 25th, shows that Sunni militants continue to seek opportunities to carry out attacks.  

As such, Hezbollah’s leadership now faces an unpalatable choice. It has sacrificed too much to abandon a regional struggle it sees as existential, and must continue to stand by President Assad. However, every man dispatched to Damascus is one less to defend the group’s strongholds in Beirut’s Dahiyeh neighborhood, and with it its reputation. Finding the right balance will be exceptionally difficult.

Rupert Sutton is a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, where he focuses on the risks emanating from sectarian conflict and Islamist militant groups in the Levantine region.

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