To Al-Qusayr Time: Hezbolla In Syria Between Intervention And Reduction Of Forces
In late April 2013, during the ongoing battles in al-Qusayr in the western countryside of Homs, Hezbollah’s secretary general Hassan Nasrallah appeared on Hezbollah’s TV station al Manar to deliver a speech. The general secretary promised not to let the Lebanese in al-Qusayr countryside be exposed to attacks, acknowledging for the first time his fighters’ involvement in the ongoing battles in Lebanon’s border city for the defense of the Shia shrine of Sayyida Zeinab near Damascus.
Hassan Nasrallah continued his speech, saying “ attacks against these villages increased and we had confirmed information that large numbers of gunmen were preparing to control these towns, and it was very normal for the Syrian army, popular committees and the residents to advance and offer them help”.
Al-Qusayr is Hezbollah’s gateway to intervention in Syria alongside the Syrian regime against the “Free Army” factions, formed in response to the repression and killing the non violent demonstrators, and in the past years Hezbollah turned al-Qusayr into its main base and starting point for its military operations which expanded to the rest of the Syrian areas, particularly the border areas with Lebanon.
After al-Qusayr fell to Hezbollah forces, the party held a military parade for its troops in al-Qusayr. Additionally, Hezbollah led the first military intervention controlling over Yabroud, Rankous, Qara, Flita and the entire Syrian border with Lebanon. Further, Hezbollah continued to expand its influence in the remaining Syrian areas in Homs, Southern Syria, and Aleppo, in which it played an instrumental role in battles that ended with taking over eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo in late 2016.
After announcing Hezbollah’s official intervention in Syria, Nasrallah’s made many statements and gave various speeches, in all of which he mentioned his forces’ involvement alongside the regime’s forces in Syria against the opposition factions, most recently in July 12, 2019 where Nasrallah talked about reducing the number of his party troops after six-year from the alQusayr battle( the intervention’s gateway), considering this step is compatible with the present situation for “there is no need to be there in large numbers, as long as there are no practical necessities for that.”
Hezbollah’s announcement of reducing its forces in Syria coincides with the Syrian regime’s declaration of returning the first batch of internally displaced persons to their houses in al-Qusayr after nearly seven years of displacement and talking about service restoration in order to bring the city to what it was before 2011.
Russia Dimming Sparkle
Hassan Nasrallah announced the reduction of Hezbollah’s forces in Syria in an interview with al-Manar on the annual commemoration of the July 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, pointing out “the Syrian regime is recovering greatly, reimplementing its authority, there is no turning back in Syria,” adding “we are still in all the areas, where we were before, but we had reduced the forces based on the needs of the current situation.”
Hezbollah’s first military involvement in Syria was pompous and promoted as a military partner, assisting the Syrian regime in demonstrators’ suppression and containing the military attacks and operation initiated by the factions of the “Free Syrian Army” in its early formation. Hezbollah’s first military parade held in the Syrian city, al-Qusayr proved the significant role of the party in Syria, conveying a message to its supporters, followers and members that it still exists and has an impact on the ground despite the losses.
The considerable resonance of Hezbollah’s party followed by the battle of al-Qusayr started to vanish with the Russian military intervention in Syria in September 2015. The Russian military intervention entirely changed the field data and the conduct of military operations through the entry of warplanes to the battlefields and formation of militias to fight alongside the Syrian army, headed by Tiger Forces, under the command of the Brigadier General of Assad’s forces Suheil al- Hassan.
Besides, the western approach and its imposed sanctions against Iran to reduce Iranian influence in the Middle East played a role in weakening Hezbollah, which relies heavily upon Tehran’s financial and military support and to which the party represents a military arm in Lebanon.
Since restoring control over the eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo, Moscow has tended to diminish the Iranian and militia role on Syrian soils through deploying Russian units in Assad controlled areas.
Russia managed to diminish this role basically in Aleppo city via deploying tens of Russian police units and training Assad fighters to remove mines after establishing a number of military engineering centers. Hezbollah has lately withdrawn from eastern Ghouta, in rural Damascus, southern Syria in Daraa and from Quneitra, near Israel.
The Russian newspaper Izvesta reported in March 2017 that the Russian reconciliation centers in Syria are in the process of transforming into basic tools to conduct the withdrawal of foreign armed groups from Syria, including Hezbollah.
Izvesta indicated that Russia has started removing all the foreign troops from Syria, including Hezbollah party in a step to “ significantly cut off the severe sectarian contradictions ” in Syria. This step is essential as a key task to end what Moscow calls “civil war”.
Why cutting down forces?
Hassan Nasrallah, in an interview with al-Manar TV, said that the Syrian regime is recovering greatly and implementing its authority, and “it has no need for us at present”. Nasrallah asserted that reducing the number of party troops in Syria is related to security tactical reasons, denying any role linked to U.S sanctions on his group and to fiscal austerity.
Further, Nasrallah indicated that his troops are redeployed and placed, saying that “the troops who were there before will return when needed”.
The reasons behind cutting down Hezbollah forces can be read from a financial angle against the backdrop of reducing Iranian financial support since the U.S sanctions affected significantly its budget.
The recent sanctions were reimposed against Iran on 10 July, 2019, where United States Treasury Department imposed new economic sanctions on three Hezbollah leaders and released a statement, stating that U.S Treasury Department included prominent people in sanction list: Mohummed Raad, the president of the Hezbollah’s Loyalty to the Resistance Bloc, MP Amin Shri, Wafiq Safa, the head of Hezbollah’s Liaison and Coordination Unit.
The other reason for the reduction of the party’s forces in Syria is the increasing efforts of Israel and America to limit the Iranian role in Syria, and the repercussions of the Israeli airstrikes, which continue to the meantime, targeting Iranian military positions scattered in several areas of Syria.
In this regard, Hezbollah got struck in May 2018. The Dabaa military airport, west of Homs, was attacked by Israeli planes for the first time since the beginning of targeting Iranian sites and its militias in Syria.
According to media reports from the city of al-Qusayr, the raids targeted the Dabaa airport and its surroundings, as well as a gathering center for the Lebanese Hezbollah party in Tell al- Nabi Mend (Kadesh).