Following a report earlier this month in the British newspaper The Times claiming Hizbollah was withdrawing significant forces from Syria, there was buzz on social media that this could be the beginning of a broader pullout or even a sign of defeat for Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Shia Islamist group. Tablet magazine added: “The shift, if it’s true, could also be viewed in the tenor of ‘our work here is done’.” Yet, these statements expressing hope for a true drawdown in Hizbollah involvement belie many established facts about the group’s involvement in Syria. Any withdrawal is hardly symbolic of the group giving up on its aims in the fight for the control of Syria.
A significant withdrawal would be less of a symbol of defeat than a signal that the heaviest period of publicised involvement inside Syria – a time span roughly lasting from April-September, with particular intensity for Hizbollah in May and early June – has ended and that the war is shifting in other directions. One of the more obvious directions is that the front lines have become far more static and that many key areas are firmly under the control of regime forces.
Often, the claim of “10,000 Hizbollah” fighters active in Syria is cited in articles. Even with clear factual caveats, many observers read this number and believe it equals a constant presence of this number of fighters. As stated by journalists and analysts, these numbers are, in fact, estimates of all of the group’s fighters who may have fought in Syria at any time. Hizbollah has rotated its fighters in and out of Syria for different intervals. According to most informed researchers, the number of fighters in Syria at any given point was around 3,000-5,000. In part, total numbers of deployed Hizbollah members also went up after it was determined that the group’s unused reservists could fight in Syria for some real world combat experience.
It is important to remember that Hizbollah has rarely truly utilised heavy deployments inside Syria. Instead, the group has primarily functioned as a “core-force” of extremely well-trained, equipped and motivated fighters who could act as the sharp tip of a pro-Assad spear. Core forces require smaller numbers, but often give larger less-trained forces a will to fight. During the May-June Battle of Qusayr, Hizbollah’s support for Syrian units was the key which turned the tide of the battle.
Operations involving Iranian-backed Iraqi Shia Islamist organisations have become more public, along with the number of newly announced foreign-manned Shia militia organisations fighting in Syria. The fighters from these groups have undergone extensive training with Hizbollah and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. More importantly, these groups are often under the leadership of Hizbollah field-commanders.
Last year, when these militias were first created, it was small numbers of well-trained Hizbollah who formed core-forces for many of the Iraqi Shia fighters. The less experienced Iraqi fighters would then work with and gain familiarity with combat conditions from their experienced Hizbollah commanders.
More than a year later, these Iraqi units have become battle-hardened and operate throughout Syria. Regions as diverse as Dara’a, Aleppo, Damascus, and their surrounding areas have all witnessed Iraqi Shia Islamist militia deployments.
Another overlooked reading of a potential partial Hizbollah force-reduction could be that the now expanded numbers of allied Iraqi Shia fighters no longer require extensive Hizbollah support. If anything, this should be a more worrying development for those who had assumed that a Hizbollah withdrawal meant the group was suffering in Syria.Nevertheless, Hizbollah still fights alongside these Iraqi units.
Regardless of whether Hizbollah is deploying fewer fighters or withdrawing a number of them, the group has demonstrated a continued combat role inside Syria.
Hizbollah’s involvement in many different fronts within Syria also demonstrates that any force redeployment involves less essential units. Throughout the month of September, a number of engagements were reported on the organisation’s semi-official social media outlets. Some of their actions included attacks in rural areas around Damascus and reportedly an ambush of rebel forces near Ma’aloula.
Funerals for Hizbollah members killed in Syria are also continuing. Imad Ghazali, reportedly a Hizbollah commander, was buried by the group on September 29.
Three days later came the “martyrdom” announcement for Ali Nasir Al Din. In the southern Lebanese town of Deir Kifa, the funeral for another Hizbollah fighter cut down in Syria, Ali Na’ameh Haj Ali, was held less than a week after Al Din’s. On October 12, the “martyrdom” of two more Hizbollah members was announced. If anything, Hizbollah is still very involved in the fighting.
The current geopolitical landscape does not allow for the group to really pull back significant forces from key zones, even if staged over the course of a number of months.
If they did, Syrian rebels could potentially be back at Hizbollah’s doorstep in Lebanon’s Bekka Valley with vengeance on their minds. This reality has not been lost on Hizbollah planners, especially after another car bomb was discovered on October 15 in the Hizbollah dominated southern Beirut suburb known as Dahiyeh. It would be hard for them to shift their forces without being certain that rebel attacks would not resume in earnest.
The war in Syria will continue to wind on and Hizbollah’s involvement in the fighting cannot be discounted. Smaller forces do not necessitate a lesser impact. These forces have already formed a decisive element assisting forces supporting the Assad regime. Hizbollah Secretary General Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah has pledged that Hizbollah will continue to send fighters to Syria until “divine victory” is achieved. Reports of the possibility of a new offensive involving Hizbollah in Qalamoun, Syria only accentuate this commitment. Numbers aside, the fight continues.
Phillip Smyth is a researcher at the University of Maryland. He focuses on Lebanon and Syria and specialises in Shia militias in Syria