The elusive militia leader said his group will maintain a presence in the country
What Nasrallah's latest speech reveals about Hezbollah's balancing act in Syria
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has said that his group will maintain a presence in Syria for now, but that some fighters will return home to Lebanon as fighting subsides.
"We will stay there until further notice," Nasrallah said in a televised address on Wednesday night. "The quietness of the fronts and fewer threats... will naturally affect the current numbers.”
Nasrallah’s comments reflect his organisation’s changing role in Syria, as the uprising against the Syrian government has largely been quelled.
The Lebanese militant group and political party has been a key ally of President Bashar Al Assad in Syria’s civil war, and its intervention was a major factor in the regime’s survival.
Hezbollah began sending fighters and advisors to bolster the Syrian government early on in the conflict. The group’s involvement was a poorly guarded secret for some time, but as casualties piled up and funerals became a regular occurrence, it became impossible to hide.
In May 2013, Nasrallah publicly conceded that Hezbollah — which was founded to resist Israel’s occupation of Lebanon — was fighting in Syria. “It is our battle, and we are up to it,” he said, as his forces were engaged in heavy fighting for the city of Qusayr, just over the border.
“Hezbollah’s participation was important in the consolidating what was left of the Syrian army, and reversing the loss of morale and leadership,” said Heiko Wimmen, Lebanon project director at Crisis Group.
But now that Assad has recaptured much of the country from rebels, Hezbollah’s role in Syria is taking on a much broader scope.
“There is a regional strategic struggle over the position of Iran and its allies going on. Hezbollah has unique capacities that are quite valuable for the pro-Iranian camp,” said Mr Wimmen. “From their perspective, these capacities are needed in Syria. It would not make any senses to bring them back to Lebanon, where deterrence against Israel is secured.”
Hezbollah initially saw the fight across the border as a threat to its own survival. For years, Syria has been a conduit through which the group has received arms from Iran. The removal of Assad would have cut off a key supply line. To fight Israel, the argument went, Hezbollah must fight in Syria.
“Hezbollah is also using its stronger influence in Syria to go after the group's and Iran's ideological foe: Israel,” said Phillip Smyth, a fellow at the Washington Institute and a researcher on Shia armed groups.
“Syria is a major section in what will be the ‘next war,’ a potential regional war pitting Iran's proxy groups against Israel.”
Hezbollah has lost 1,665 fighters in Syria, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and spent significant political capital propping up Assad.
“The war has caused the group to heavily recruit among the youth and keep other fighters in regular rotational fighting. That has certainly caused some strain,” said Mr Smyth.
“Furthermore, the group has had push other efforts to keep money flowing to the battlefield. This has forced them to cut in other areas of employment and in certain services they use as a means to retain support,” he added.
The group’s involvement has caused problems with other communities in Lebanon, too. Its involvement added to the perception among many Lebanese Sunnis that the war in Syria was a sectarian undertaking: the crushing of a Sunni revolution by a Shia government and its Shia allies. Sunni militancy grew as a result, and sectarian violence linked to the Syrian war spilled over into Lebanon.
Hezbollah’s unchallenged military strength allowed it to weather those challenges, and it emerged from the Syrian conflict arguably stronger than it has ever been. The war gave its fighters valuable battlefield experience, and the group claims it has been able to build up its arsenal with more advanced weaponry.
This strength has brought with it new challenges, however, which are likely to shape the course of the next few years in Syria.
Israel has repeatedly launched attacks against Hezbollah and Iranian targets in Syria to thwart the delivery of advanced weaponry to the group – it has carried out more than 200 strikes over the past 18 months.
Speaking on Thursday, Nasrallah said "attempts in Syria to block the way towards this capability" have failed.
He claimed Israeli strikes in Syria to prevent the group from acquiring precise missiles were ineffective.
"I tell (Israel) no matter what it did to cut the route, it is over. It has already been achieved," he said, adding that Hezbollah "now possesses precision missiles and non-precision and weapons capabilities" that it did not before.
Nasrallah didn't offer specifics on the precision weapons, but his comments prompted a direct reply from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later on Thursday.
“I suggest that he think not twice but twenty times,” he said, “because if he confronts us he will get a crushing blow that he cannot even imagine.”