Rus­sians pres­sure Syria’s As­sad to break ties with Hezbol­lah

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY AS­SAD HANNA AND JA­COB WIRTSCHAFTER

ISTANBUL | The Lebanese Shi­ite mili­tia Hezbol­lah and the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment have en­joyed a close, fruit­ful re­la­tion­ship for nearly 40 years. But six years into the Syr­ian civil war, there are signs that bat­tle fa­tigue and di­verg­ing strate­gic vi­sions are fray­ing their al­liance.

Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad is com­ing un­der in­creas­ing pres­sure from pro-Rus­sian fac­tions in his rul­ing cir­cle to dump proIra­nian Hezbol­lah, as a U.S.-Rus­sia ac­cord to es­tab­lish a de-es­ca­la­tion zone in south­ern Syria gets un­der­way this week.

It’s a dif­fer­ent kind of proxy war play­ing out in Syria: In­stead of Sunni ver­sus Shi­ite, or the U.S. ver­sus Rus­sia, it’s Rus­sia ver­sus Iran.

“There is a pro-Moscow fac­tion that wants Syria to be sec­u­lar and in­cludes of­fi­cers who trained in Rus­sia,” said Ay­man Ab­del Nour, pub­lisher of the largest an­tiAs­sad Syr­ian news por­tal and leader of the coun­try’s ex­iled Chris­tian com­mu­nity based in Dubai, United Arab Emi­rates. “Those who sup­port Iran are peo­ple bought by the Ira­ni­ans or [who] reached their po­si­tions of power with Ira­nian help.”

In­ci­dents of ri­valry and strain be­tween Hezbol­lah forces and Syr­ian gov­ern­ment al­lies have been in­creas­ing since June 2016, when they openly clashed dur­ing what was sup­posed to be a joint op­er­a­tion in the Aleppo coun­try­side.

Hezbol­lah has balked at im­ple­ment­ing Rus­sian-bro­kered cease-fire agree­ments, such as one in De­cem­ber in Aleppo, and oc­ca­sional fire­fights have bro­ken out be­tween the two forces in the north­west­ern sub­urbs of Da­m­as­cus on the road from the cap­i­tal to Beirut.

Mean­while, the Rus­sian De­fense Min­istry has or­dered aerial bomb­ings of Shi­ite mili­tia po­si­tions when Iran-backed forces in­ter­fered with plans to evac­u­ate civil­ians to safe ar­eas.

“The Hezbol­lah mes­sage has been: ‘Don’t think you can make a deal with­out us. We are on the ground, and we con­trol what’s go­ing on,’” said Ah­mad Har­dan, a 20-year-old am­bu­lance driver from Aleppo de­tained by Lebanese Shi­ite fight­ers as he and his fam­ily fled their home.

“They took all the young men from the cars and drove us to the op­po­site side of the road. All those who tried to re­sist were killed,” Mr. Har­dan said. “But sud­denly there were Rus­sian fighter jets in the sky, the Hezbol­lah troops started shoot­ing in the air, and then they let the evac­u­a­tion pro­ceed.”

The sit­u­a­tion is new for the two long­time Mid­dle East al­lies. Hezbol­lah and the As­sad regime have been close since the mid-1980s, when Mr. As­sad’s fa­ther, Hafez, be­came a pa­tron of the Lebanese Shi­ite fac­tion. He al­lowed Syria to be the tran­sit point for Ira­nian weapons as Hezbol­lah armed it­self against Is­rael and its do­mes­tic ri­vals in Le­banon.

The power dy­namic re­versed as the Syr­ian civil war turned into a sec­tar­ian blood­bath, with many Rus­sian-trained Sunni of­fi­cers de­sert­ing to the rebel side. Mr. As­sad turned to Hezbol­lah for ide­o­log­i­cally mo­ti­vated and bat­tle-tested re­in­force­ments.

‘An Ira­nian pawn’

But over the years, Hezbol­lah’s role has been shrink­ing in Syria’s war, which be­gan in 2011.

Nawar Oliver, an an­a­lyst at the Is­tan­bul­based Om­ran Cen­ter for Strate­gic Stud­ies, said Hezbol­lah’s es­ti­mated 10,000-mem­ber force in Syria is just one com­po­nent that in­cludes a 70,000-strong con­tin­gent of lo­cal Shi­ite mili­tias de­ployed with Iraqi, Afghan and Pak­istani fight­ers.

“The num­ber de­creased from an apex of about 15,000 to 20,000 be­cause Hezbol­lah started re­cruit­ing and fund­ing lo­cal Shi­ite mili­tias in or­der to pull back some of their troops from Syria,” said Mr. Oliver, point­ing to more than 1,000 Lebanese bat­tle ca­su­al­ties and a de­sire to pre­pare for a likely con­flict on the Is­rael-Le­banon bor­der.

Moscow wants Mr. As­sad to change the ar­range­ment with Hezbol­lah and other Ira­nian-funded Shi­ite mili­tias that give Tehran nom­i­nal con­trol of the coun­try in ex­change for lit­tle di­rect su­per­vi­sion by the regime’s of­fi­cer corps.

“The Rus­sians have been pres­sur­ing the Syr­ian regime to in­te­grate the mili­tias it cre­ated since the in­cep­tion of the up­ris­ing into its armed forces,” said Hi­lal Khashan, a politics pro­fes­sor at the Amer­i­can Univer­sity of Beirut.

Com­mand and con­trol func­tions over Hezbol­lah fight­ers are di­rected by an of­fi­cer corps drawn from Iran’s Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps.

“Hezbol­lah op­er­ates in Syria sim­ply as an Ira­nian pawn,” Mr. Khashan said. “It uses Hezbol­lah as part of its scheme to es­tab­lish a ground cor­ri­dor from Iran to Le­banon. This is not some­thing that sits well with the Rus­sians, who are keen on lim­it­ing Tehran’s pre­pon­der­ance. Rus­sia will not al­low Ira­nian in­flu­ence in Syria to be­come sim­i­lar to Iraq.”

Ja­cob Wirtschafter re­ported from Cairo.

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