“The conventional army loses if it does not win. The guerrilla wins if he does not lose.” Henry Kissinger’s observation, made during the Vietnam War, should be haunting Hezbollah, the Middle East’s most capable guerrilla force, as it becomes embroiled in an increasingly costly effort to save the Assad regime.
In a meticulously planned operation in October, units linked to the Free Syrian Army in the city of Qusayr near the Lebanon border killed Ali Hussein Nassif, who was quickly exposed as commander of all Hezbollah forces in Syria. His death shed light on the extent of the group’s involvement in the conflict.
Hezbollah’s interest in preserving Bashar al-Assad’s seat of power is well known, and its leader Hassan Nasrallah has spared no effort in reminding the world of his group’s political support for the embattled dictator. For three decades, the Assad dynasty’s support propelled Lebanon’s largely peasant Shiite population into the halls of government, backed by an armed wing whose firepower rivals that of many conventional national armies.
Hezbollah’s military commitment in Syria is no less obvious. Since the conflict’s outset, Hezbollah commanders have joined their counterparts in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in advising the Syrian military in its crackdown on opposition strongholds, in addition to training a reported 60,000-member militia to protect Alawite communities in Syria’s coastal northwest. Thousands of Hezbollah-linked fighters have helped protect roughly 20 Shiite Syrian communities along the Lebanese border from sectarian-motivated attacks by hard-line rebels. Hezbollah is said to have used its arsenal to shell Sunni border communities acting as rebel strongholds.
Reports indicate that Hezbollah recently expanded its actions in Syria to include its most valued resource — its highly trained and strategically irreplaceable special forces units. Hezbollah’s secretive military wing is reportedly composed of 2,000 to 4,000 professional soldiers and thousands of reservists hailing from Shiite villages south of the Litani river and the Bekaa Valley, meant to be called into action to repel a future Israeli invasion. During the 2006 conflict with Israel, the loss of roughly one quarter of Hezbollah’s special forces was assumed to constitute the group’s most severe setback.
Varying reports from Syria suggest that the direct participation of these special forces units in combat zones nationwide has increased, and additional forces may be on the way. Secret contingency plans reportedly agreed upon at the highest levels of the Syrian government and Hezbollah indicate that Hezbollah had reportedly agreed to commit thousands of its most elite soldiers to defend the Assad regime, either from a “foreign invasion” or in the event that “urgent assistance” was needed.
With Syrian rebels consolidating their gains in outlying areas of Aleppo and Damascus, there are indications that Nasrallah has already begun to make good on his pledge. Earlier this month, a Saudi newspaper reported that four Hezbollah units, each consisting of 1,300 fighters, had been dispatched to assist the Syrian military in major cities, while the group’s elite 901 commando unit has reportedly been fighting in the Homs area since July. Most recently, Hezbollah’s reported deployments near Syrian chemical weapons facilities has spurred the Israeli government to threaten military intervention as a response to any potential attempt to transfer those weapons into Hezbollah bunkers in Lebanon.
Whether these moves were meant to protect these key facilities from sensitive sites or transfer their deadly materials, the deployment nonetheless testifies to the reality that these foreign Shiite militiamen have become one of Assad’s most trusted fighting units.
Militarily and politically, Hezbollah has much at stake in the Syrian conflict, but it is risking even more by attempting to save a pariah regime that may not be savable. The group has incurred hundreds of losses against Syrian rebels, including its valued special forces. Hezbollah cannot outmatch rebel manpower, and will need to commit its best fighters and most sophisticated equipment to cut rebel supply lines in the hopes of hindering a Damascus invasion force from gaining traction.
Hezbollah’s arsenal of nearly 70,000 rockets will likely remain pointed at the Israelis, but the squandering of its crucial elite units in Syria could deprive Lebanon’s Shiite community of protection from emboldened sectarian rivals in the wake of Assad’s ousting. Meanwhile, Hezbollah’s assisting of the Assad regime in committing atrocities will put its leaders in the crosshairs of future international criminal tribunals, in addition to those already investigating the group’s involvement in the assassination of the former Lebanon prime minister Rafik Hariri. Such negative attention may just spur the European Union to cave to U.S. pressure to place Hezbollah on its list of terror organizations, risking further isolation of the group’s political wing.
Most threatening however, is Hezbollah’s increasingly blatant violation of Lebanon’s commitment to remain neutral in the Syrian conflict, a pledge made in the hopes of preserving the country’s delicate sectarian balance. Nasrallah’s support for Assad has placed Shiites and other minorities in the future line of fire of Syrian jihadists, many of whom are likely to turn their guns to Lebanon in retribution in the event of Assad’s ousting.
Nasrallah has repeatedly affirmed his belief that the Assad regime will survive. Regardless of whether he is right, his assertions illustrate the fact that this conflict is one that Hezbollah desperately needs to win.
Daniel Nisman and Daniel Brode are intelligence managers for Max Security Solutions, a geo-political risk consulting firm based in Tel Aviv.