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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

Interview: An In-Depth Look at Hezbollah's Role in the Syrian Civil War with Dr. Jonathan Spye

Hezbollah is an imminent threat to Israel. Over the last four years, the Lebanon-based terrorist group has expanded its reach and experience by fighting alongside Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s army. Joining Near East Report to discuss this issue in greater depth is Dr. Jonathan Spyer, Director of the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs at the IDC, Herzliya.


How has Hezbollah’s fighting in Syria affected its operations in Lebanon and abroad? Well, the fact is that for the last four years, Hezbollah has been centrally engaged in the fight in Syria. The figure which we usually talk about is around 6,000 fighters in the country engaged on behalf Assad regime on any given day. Obviously, they rotate them through—men do two or three months of service. And so it means that has been a central focus and there has not really been much possibility for doing a great deal else. In the sense of international operations, there has been a definite down-turn in that kind of activity on behalf of the movement. With regard to Lebanon itself, there is deep concern in Hezbollah at the efforts of the Syrian Sunni rebel organizations—and most specifically Jabhat al-Nusra and also ISIS itself—to try to take the fight into Lebanon; that is to say, to kind of return the compliment from Hezbollah taking the fight to Syria, to hit Hezbollah in its backyard. And there’s been occasions on which there have been bombings in South Beirut, in Hezbollah’s heartland, and Hezbollah has been deeply concerned to try to put the lid on those in cooperation with the Lebanese Armed Forces. And up until now, at least, it’s largely succeeded in doing so. But basically, what it is, is that the Syrian war is Hezbollah’s central commitment at the moment, overshadowing everything else. It absolutely has to prevent the fall of Assad regime. It is putting a lot of energy and a lot of lives into doing so and that is overshadowing any other element of the movement’s activities at the present time.


What is the power dynamic between Hezbollah and Iran—the terrorist group’s main patron—vis-à-vis Syria?


First of all, with regard to the power dynamic, you know it’s impossible to gauge with absolute accuracy, of course, the exact relationship between the Iranian regime and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps on the one hand, and Hezbollah on the other.


But it does appear to be clear that it was as a result of Iranian pressure that in mid-2013, Hezbollah began to very significantly increase its over-commitments in Syria, because, at that time, the Assad regime was hard-pressed by the rebellion, in danger of falling. And clearly it was an absolutely paramount interest on the part of Iran that Assad should not fall, but, of course, it was also no less a paramount interest of Hezbollah’s that Assad should not fall.


If Assad had fallen, it would have left Hezbollah isolated on the Mediterranean with a very angry Sunni Arab new regime in Syria next door and its allies in Iran and Iraq cut off from it, unable to help it. So it’s an equally cardinal interest on the part of both Iran and Hezbollah for Assad not to fall, and they’re pushing in every possible means to prevent his falling and succeeded so far in doing so.


Is the group receiving financial and military support for its operations from anyone other than Iran?


Iran is Hezbollah’s main sponsor. Hezbollah is a proxy, or client, of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Of course, Hezbollah works closely on the ground in Syria with the forces of the Assad regime and with the forces, or with other Iranian clients, including Iraqi Shia militias, Afghan Shia militias are there now, as well. But basically, the main cardinal state relationship Hezbollah has is with Iran—there’s nothing remotely comparing to that for the movement.


Has Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria damaged its prestige back home in Lebanon, possibly to the benefit of rival organizations?


There has been rumblings of discontent from within traditional circles traditionally associated with Hezbollah. Indeed, Sheikh Tufayli, one of the founders of the movement, was very critical of the engagement in Syria and described Hezbollah men who died in Syria as being not martyrs – not shaheeds. It’s a very radical statement for which he was then kind of very much targeted by Hezbollah’s leadership and made to shut up. There’s that evidence.


There’s evidence also coming out from people we speak to of families of Hezbollah men killed in Syria asking the movement to stay away from the funerals; of families being extremely reluctant to commit their sons to the fight in Syria; of Hezbollah casting the net much wider to recruit those fighters than it did before—recruiting ever-younger men, recruiting men from very poor families sometimes for just quite small amounts of money to get involved in Syria.


There is a sense, yeah, that many, many Lebanese Shia, you know, who have supported Hezbollah traditionally have the feeling today, “Well, we didn’t sign our sons up to Hezbollah for them to go and fight other Muslims in Syria; we signed them up for them to go and fight Israel in the south which we were told was a great threat. So, we’re not quite clear what’s going on here.” Yes, there has clearly been a loss of prestige, and there clearly is some discontent within the movement to raise traditional support.


But that does not mean, however, that Hezbollah is anywhere close to being eclipsed by any other force inside Lebanon, whether it’s Shia, former rivals now allies like Amal, or the opposite numbers, so to speak, in what was once the March 14 movement. Hezbollah remains by far militarily the most powerful movement in the country—no one’s close to being enough to challenge that and that doesn’t look likely to be the case anytime soon.


So yes, some loss of prestige, worrying signs of even some discontent and anger among the movement’s traditional constituency, but no, not yet any real threat to the movement’s continued salience in Lebanon.


How has Hezbollah’s presence in the Syrian Golan affected Israel’s strategic calculus along its northern borders?


It’s clear that the Iranians want Hezbollah to come to control the area immediately east of Quneitra Crossing—that is to say, east of the Golan Heights—with the intention that that line should then form a potential area for guerilla activity into the Golan Heights against Israeli communities; and where it would form an additional tool of pressure on Israel, so to speak, in addition to the very well observed and policed line in South Lebanon, from which it’s much harder for them to attack nowadays.


That’s a clear goal of the Iranian regime and Hezbollah; Israel’s clear goal has been, throughout, to prevent that from being achieved, and Israel’s efforts have taken a variety of forms: forming relationships with certain rebel organizations down in Quneitra and down in provinces in Syria to make sure they’re the ones east of Quneitra, treating Syrian wounded—both civilian and rebel—and also, at times, acting physically to prevent efforts by Hezbollah and the Iranians to get that line in place. Of course, most famously, the killing of Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of the central Hezbollah terrorist Imad Mughniyeh, last year.


So Israel has been clear. It’s clear as to what the Iranians and Hezbollah want to do in that broader area, and Israel is acting to prevent it.


I don’t think, by the way, that it’s likely that Hezbollah or the Iranians are thinking of [an] imminent, large-scale attack on Israel simply because, right now, they are too busy in the Syrian quagmire trying to defend the Assad regime. But certainly it’s a strategic goal to come to dominate that element of the border and that’s why Israel is determined to prevent it. So far, that policy has been pursued with a considerable degree of success on the Israeli part.


What are red lines that could lead Israel to take military action against Hezbollah? How close has Hezbollah come to crossing these lines?


Clearly a red line is, you know, should Hezbollah come close to achieving that goal of establishing dominancy of Quneitra—Israel might have to act to prevent it. Israel already has acted to prevent it but not through open Israeli military incursion. And clearly there’s a very, very strong desire on the Israeli part to do everything possible to avoid having to have a large-scale incursion into Syria.


I think that were it to be a choice between seeing Hezbollah and Iran come to dominate that border or acting to prevent it, Israel would act to prevent it; but for as long as it can act to prevent it without a large-scale commitment of Israeli forces, that’s of course preferable. This is firstly.


Secondly, Israel has clearly already acted on a number of occasions to prevent the transfer of sophisticated weapons systems by the Iranians and by the Assad regime into Lebanon for the use of Hezbollah. And that’s been carried out quite effectively on a number of occasions through air action to interdict those transfers, so we already have the evidence of intervention. And I assume that should similar efforts be made to transfer those weapons systems, we could see, once again, determined Israeli action to prevent it.


How can the United States best help defend Israel against potential threats from Hezbollah?


Well, I think first and foremost with regard to the United States, the issue is to prevent funding of Hezbollah, and we already have the interesting act [the Hizballah International Financing Prevention Act of 2015] passed last December, which is intended to penalize, to put sanctions against people or parties financially assisting Hezbollah. This is one thing, and there’s good movement in that direction.


I think secondly, there needs to be a kind of strategic clarity on the part of the United States policy making community with regard to what Hezbollah is actually up to in Lebanon. Hezbollah is essentially the dominant force in Lebanon today, which means if the United States acts in close cooperation with the Lebanese Armed Forces—the Lebanese army, that is—on the assumption that, well, Hezbollah is just one element, the LAF is separate, that’s kind of a mistake.


Actually, Hezbollah dominates Lebanon, so all aid and assistance, including on the military level, to Lebanon kind of, by the way, also assists Hezbollah. So I think there needs to be efforts made in America to start to look very closely at that and maybe also start to prevent and draw down some of that activity.


This is a very, very different Lebanon now to the Lebanon of Fouad Siniora and the March 14 movement, you know, of the middle part of the last decade when the current relationship was put in place vis-à-vis the United States. I think it’s time to reassess that and start, perhaps, to reduce some of those levels of engagement.


Jonathan Spyer is a journalist, author and Middle East analyst. He is currently the Director of the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs, at the IDC, Herzliya, and the editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA). Also he writes the weekly ‘Behind the Lines’ column at the Jerusalem Post newspaper and is a regular contributor to the Australian newspaper and to Jane’s Intelligence Review.


The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of AIPAC.


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