Saturday,23 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1260, (27 August - 2 September 2015 )
Saturday,23 February, 2019
Issue 1260, (27 August - 2 September 2015 )

Ahram Weekly

The Hizbullah franchise

First it was in Lebanon and then it moved to Iraq. Now it is in Syria. Bassel Oudat reports from Damascus on the expanding reach of the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah

Al-Ahram Weekly

Since May 2014, Western sources have speculated about the emergence of a “new Hizbullah,” a local franchise of the Iranian-backed group already present in Lebanon and Iraq.

But only in recent days have activists, commentators and opposition fighters offered proof of the new group’s existence. Insignia found in the possession of dead fighters and the admissions of captured combatants suggest that Iran has once again been extending its influence in the region.

Syria now has its own brand of the Hizbullah militia that Iran has used so effectively as a foreign policy tool in both Lebanon and Iraq. According to Syrian resistance sources, the new group has adopted the same ideology and goals of its prototype, Hizbullah-Lebanon.

Video clips showing prisoners from the group recently arrested by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) are circulating on the Internet. But little is known about it, and Iran has not officially acknowledged its existence.

Last summer, Hussein Hamadani, a former commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), told Fars News, a semi-official Iranian news agency, that Hizbullah-Syria had been created to protect Iranian interests. But the news agency removed the statement from its website almost as soon as it had posted it.

Since then, the Americans and the French have speculated about the presence of Hizbullah in Syria, and the Israelis have claimed that they are certain Iran intends to extend its influence still further in the country.

Writing on 3 June 2014 on the website of the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, an Israeli think tank, Israeli military experts Michael Segall and Shimon Shapira claimed that Iran “has established Hizbullah nuclei in many Gulf States, in Iraq, in Turkey and in other countries.” According to the authors, senior Hizbullah-Lebanon members are training members of the new outfit, and “at times activists are sent to train in Lebanon and Iran.”

Speaking to reporters last summer, Hamadani said that Iran planned to send 130,000 of its popular mobilisation forces to fight in Syria, noting that the war in Syria was “just as crucial” as the Iraq-Iran War of 1980-1988.

Other Iranian commanders then chimed in, with Hussein Salami, an IRGC deputy commander, bragging that Tehran was backing “people’s armies” in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, and adding that these were considerably larger than Lebanon’s Hizbullah.

According to sources in the Syrian resistance, the decision-making in all these outfits is completely in Iranian hands. The opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) says the Syrian branch of Hizbullah now has thousands of combatants, including Iraqis and Syrians using fake Syrian IDs. Some of the combatants only arrived in Syria a few months ago, it says.

Activist Mohamed Al-Sahili, who lives in the coastal area near Latakia in Syria, puts the number of fighters in the Hizbullah-Syria group at 15,000 and says they receive monthly salaries of $100 to $200. They are mostly stationed at strategic points in Shia-dominated areas of the country, including Qoneitera, he says.

Syrian opposition member Said Moqbil believes the number of fighters is much less, however. “The number of the fighters in the Syrian Hizbullah is not yet 5,000,” he said. “But Shia fighters serve in all the pro-regime militia because Iran doesn’t want to gather the Shias in just one,” Moqbil said.

“It wants them to operate in all the militia outfits of the regime in order to act as informers. Iran doesn’t even trust the Alawites and wants to keep an eye on all the pro-regime outfits.”

Many Shias have served in the ranks of the “national defence” militia, and unconfirmed reports suggest that the Iranians have recruited some of these in the new Hizbullah outfit. Wael Dos, an FSA battalion commander stationed in Bosra in southern Syria, believes that hundreds of Shias have joined the new group.

“The Iranians and Lebanon’s Hizbullah have recruited hundreds of Shias in Bosra,” he said. “The Shias used to be an integral part of the fabric of Bosra. But now they have become enemies of the rest of the population. They constitute less than three per cent of the population, and yet they brag in public about their membership of Hizbullah-Syria.

“Now they are fighting the Syrian opposition with a ferocity surpassing even that of Hizbullah-Lebanon. They are supervised by Iranian officers who occasionally fly over the area in helicopters,” he said.

But when it comes to their relations with the Syrian army, the members of Hizbullah-Syria, “who are basically civilians ... give orders to the army,” Dos added.

SHIAS AND ALAWITES: Hizbullah-Syria is a largely Shia outfit. Although it includes Alawites in its ranks, it keeps them in junior positions and could one day dismiss them from the militia altogether, according to opposition sources.

Iran has also arranged for thousands of Shias from Azerbaijan, Afghanistan and Iraq to come to Syria, where they now help the Syrian Republican Guard and the Fourth Armoured Division, both run by Maher Al-Assad, the brother of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, in guarding sensitive areas, including arms depots near Damascus and military bases elsewhere.

According to opposition sources, Iran has started to doubt the ability of Al-Assad to stay in power, and it is taking steps to ensure its continued dominance in Syria even if the president is removed. The sources admit, however, that for all the evidence that Iran has formed a Hizbullah-Syria outfit, no one has yet seen its fighters in battle.

This is “not because Hizbullah-Syria doesn’t exist, but because it operates under a veil of secrecy,” said a commander in the Aleppo-based Abu Amarah Battalions.

 “It is hard to tell the difference between the fighters of Hizbullah-Lebanon, Hizbullah-Iraq and Hizbullah-Syria,” he said.

Nasser Al-Naqri, an opposition member who lives outside Syria, said that some Alawites converted to Shiism before joining Hizbullah. “Hizbullah-Syria includes mostly Syrian Shias and some Alawites who have converted to Shiism,” he said. “It also has some Lebanese Shias who are members or sympathisers of Hizbullah-Lebanon. There are also a few non-Shia Syrians in it.”

According to Al-Naqri, Hizbullah-Syria does not take its orders from the Syrian authorities. “On the contrary, the Syrian army and paramilitary outfits operate under its command,” he said.

Military analyst Ahmed Rahhal said that one of the key commanders in Hizbullah-Syria is Samir Al-Quntar, a Lebanese Druze who was released from an Israeli prison in 2008 and is now believed to be stationed with Hizbullah fighters in Qoneitera, a town close to the Syrian-Israeli border. A few days ago, news reports said that the Israelis fired at a car in which Al-Quntar was riding in southern Syria.

For decades, the Syrian Alawites have lived privileged lives, with access to top jobs in the military, the police and the civil service. The Shias did not enjoy such privileges, and kept a low profile.

After the Syrian Revolution started in 2011 the Shias broke through the glass barrier, rising to the top echelons of the regime’s political and military apparatus. Meanwhile, the proselytising in which Iran has been engaged for years started to pay off.

Syrians who convert to Shiism are generously rewarded with monthly salaries, free medical care and college education in Iran, along with business privileges. Hafez Al-Assad, the late Syrian president and Bashar’s father, allowed the Iranians to proselytise in the country’s coastal areas, including those inhabited by Alawites.

He also permitted the building of husaynat (sing. husayniyah), or social and religious halls run by Shias. Before Hafez Al-Assad came to power, the Shias had no such gathering places.

In the 1980s, Bashar Al-Assad’s uncle, the late Jamil Al-Assad, helped found the Mortada Society, outwardly a charity group that opened branches all over the country, received funding from Iran and favoured the Shias. For the past 20 years, Iranian diplomats, especially the country’s cultural attachés, have promoted proselytising efforts in Syria.

Meanwhile, Syria’s official television has put Shia preachers on air, and Syrian clan leaders have received and accepted invitations to visit Iran. Syrian opposition member Nasser Al-Naqri has often noticed the tensions in Alawite-Shia relations in Syria, commenting that unlike the Shias, the “Alawites have no supreme guide or supreme religious authority. Hafez Al-Assad destroyed the true Alawite scholars when he was in power,” he said.

According to Al-Naqri, Hafez Al-Assad brought in Alawite and Shia scholars from Lebanon, gave them Syrian passports and used them to control the local population. These are the scholars who have urged local people to side with the regime and against the revolution.

“The alliance [between the Alawites and the Shias] is political, not religious. There is little in common between them. What we are seeing is not an alliance between the Shia and Alawite communities, but between Iran and the Syrian regime,” Al-Naqri said. Iran’s proselytising is also not confined to Syria’s Alawites. About two per cent of Sunnis in Syria have converted to Shiism, according to some reports.

IRAN’S GOAL: Over the past three years, Iran has sent elite troops, including members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Al-Quds Force, to Syria. It has also trained thousands of pro-regime militia, mobilised the local Shia community and ordered Lebanon’s Hizbullah to fight alongside the regime.

According to Syrian opposition sources, Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Al-Quds Force, is now Syria’s de facto ruler. But even this does not seem to be enough for Tehran, which wants to ensure its permanent presence in Syria. It has therefore created Hizbullah-Syria, which is now operating in various parts of the country and particularly in the Golan Heights.

Just like in Lebanon, where Hizbullah is using the confrontation with Israel to keep the country on alert, a well-positioned, homegrown version of Hizbullah in Syria will aim to maintain its presence indefinitely on Israel’s borders even if Al-Assad were to fall.

In other words, Iranian involvement in Syria has kept the regime in power so far. But Hizbullah-Syria could keep Iran in Syria forever.

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