Hezbol­lah’s vul­ner­a­bil­ity in Syria: Open ex­po­sure to many en­e­mies

Pakistan Observer - - INTERNATIONAL - [Joyce Karam is the Wash­ing­ton Bureau Chief for Al-Hayat News­pa­per, an In­ter­na­tional Ara­bic Daily based in Lon­don. She has cov­ered Amer­i­can pol­i­tics ex­ten­sively since 2004 with fo­cus on U.S. pol­icy to­wards the Mid­dle East. Prior to that, she worked as a J

JOYCE KARAM S the guess­ing game con­tin­ues on how and who might have killed Hezbol­lah’s enig­matic mil­i­tary leader Mustafa Bad­dredine in Syria last week, the series of hy­poth­e­sis around his death il­lus­trate the party’s big­gest vul­ner­a­bil­ity in the con­flict: op­er­at­ing in plain sight and in the midst of en­e­mies. Hezbol­lah’s in­volve­ment in the Syr­ian war of­fi­cially en­tered its fourth year this month, and while the party talks rou­tinely about the mil­i­tary ex­per­tise and strate­gic ter­ri­to­rial gains it has se­cured in the con­flict, Syria has also been a costly un­der­tak­ing for the party on the mil­i­tary, in­tel­li­gence and fi­nan­cial fronts.

Hezbol­lah does not de­clare its ca­su­al­ties in the con­flict, but es­ti­mates point out to a fig­ure be­tween 800 and 1000 losses since 2013 in Syria. Such num­ber stands out as be­ing rel­a­tively high when con­trasted with Hezbol­lah’s losses of 1361 fight­ers in its whole three-decade-long war against Is­rael in­clud­ing the July 2006 war (68 to­tal).

But be­yond the toll on its foot sol­diers, re­cruits and fi­nances, Syria’s most costly bur­den on Hezbol­lah has been the losses in its se­nior rank­ing lead­er­ship and key op­er­a­tional strate­gists in the party. From Fawzi Ay­oub in 2014 to Bad­dredine in 2016, Hezbol­lah has lost 10 se­nior lead­ers in the Syr­ian war, among them names that have been associated with party’s ide­o­log­i­cal rise

Aand strug­gle such as Samir Kun­tar and Ji­had Imad Mough­niyeh both killed in 2015. The losses in Hezbol­lah se­nior ranks high­light the bat­tle and se­cu­rity chal­lenges that have ac­com­pa­nied its Syria in­volve­ment. Fight­ing away from its home base, and against the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion, the Syr­ian war is bring­ing forth a set of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties to Hezbol­lah, with­out the op­tion of achiev­ing its ob­jec­tives or abil­ity to with­draw in the near fu­ture.

What­ever is the con­flict’s out­come and the af­ter­math of the Bad­dredine killing, Syria has al­ready changed the im­age, tra­jec­tory and prow­ess of Hezbol­lah

Ge­o­graph­i­cally, se­cur­ing Syria against a wide­spread lo­cal in­sur­gency is prov­ing to be an un­prac­ti­cal and am­bi­tious task for Hezbol­lah, Iran and the As­sad regime. Both Samir Kun­tar and Bad­dredine were killed in Da­m­as­cus, in­side what Hezbol­lah and As­sad as­sumed to be a se­cure en­clave. How­ever, bat­tles be­tween the regime and the rebels have gone on for years in Da­m­as­cus sub­urbs, at a prox­im­ity of 20-30 km from where Bad­dredine was al­legedly killed.

Even in the best case sce­nario for the As­sad regime if it takes con­trol of all of the Da­m­as­cus sub­urbs (some­thing it has failed to do in the last four years), the Syr­ian cap­i­tal will never be as se­cure of a fortress for Hezbol­lah as is Beirut’s Dahiye. The Le­banese armed group does not have the power con­trols or lo­cal sup­port in Syria that it en­joys within the in­tel­li­gence, mil­i­tary and se­cu­rity struc­tures in­side Le­banon.

This cre­ates a ma­jor vul­ner­a­bil­ity and dilemma for Hezbol­lah in dis­patch­ing a se­nior leader such as Badred­dine to a war zone where he was op­er­a­tionally needed but un­der greater threat.

Ad­di­tion­ally, the cost of tak­ing out Bad­dredine in an open and pro­tracted war like the one that Hezbol­lah is in­volved in in­side Syria is much lower than reignit­ing the Le­banese front, that has been fairly sta­ble since 2006. More im­por­tantly, the com­plex­ity and mul­ti­ple lay­ers of the Syr­ian con­flict, the di­vides some­times within the regime and the rebel camps, as well as the in­volve­ment of mul­ti­ple re­gional ac­tors, make in­tel­li­gence breaches and in­fil­tra­tions all the more likely. Hezbol­lah’s many en­e­mies In Syria, Hezbol­lah is con­fronted by a very long list of en­e­mies, even longer than that chal­leng­ing the As­sad regime who main­tains its own in­tel­li­gence struc­ture and base of sup­port­ers. The same can­not be said about Hezbol­lah who is fight­ing on a for­eign turf and has to rely on the regime for lo­gis­ti­cal and in­tel­li­gence sup­port es­pe­cially in ar­eas far from the Le­banese bor­der. To­day, the Syr­ian rebels, Jab­hat Nusra, ISIS, Is­raeli, Turk­ish, Arab, Euro­pean and US in­tel­li­gence are all are present in Syria and have a stake in tak­ing out Bad­dredine.

The­o­ries of in­fil­tra­tion within Hezbol­lah have also sur­faced af­ter the Baderd­dine killing. The In­de­pen­dent re­ported that “more than one mourner at Badred­dine’s fu­neral voiced sus­pi­cion that Hezbol­lah has been in­fil­trated by spies.”

This is a pos­si­bil­ity given that Bad­dredine and Kun­tar are not the type of fight­ers that Hezbol­lah would send alone to the bat­tle­front. They op­er­ate un­der very tight se­cu­rity, sur­rounded by body­guards, and with no me­dia ex­po­sure. The many nar­ra­tives from pro-Hezbol­lah me­dia that fol­lowed the Bad­dredine as­sas­si­na­tion, blam­ing Is­rael then the “Tak­firis”, re­flect the sense of dis­ar­ray fol­low­ing the op­er­a­tion, and the in­tel­li­gence blow it rep­re­sents in go­ing af­ter the party.

To­day, Hezbol­lah’s dilemma in Syria is in what it sees as a strate­gic bat­tle to fight de­spite the ris­ing cost and ex­po­sure to its en­e­mies. The Syr­ian land­scape and na­ture of the con­flict are help­ing Hezbol­lah grow and ex­pand ter­ri­to­rial con­trol, but the party is also more laid bare to its ri­vals, try­ing to bal­ance out its losses and its in­ter­ests in the longer run in Syria.

There is a sense of irony in Hezbol­lah’s in­volve­ment in Syria, in that the party that largely chose to stay away from the Le­banese war for 15 years has en­gulfed it­self in a vi­cious cir­cle of proxy, in­ter­nal and very costly con­flict out­side its home turf. What­ever is the con­flict’s out­come and the af­ter­math of the Bad­dredine killing, Syria has al­ready changed the im­age, tra­jec­tory and prow­ess of Hezbol­lah. —Cour­tesy: AA

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