As world focuses on Daesh, Hezbollah carries out Iran’s dirty work

Members of Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah movement stand at attention during the funeral of a fighter – Image Credit: AFP

Gulfnews September 2, 2017 – Beirut: For three decades, Hezbollah maintained a singular focus as a Lebanese military group fighting Israel. It built a network of bunkers and tunnels near Lebanon’s southern border, trained thousands of committed fighters to battle Israel’s army and built up an arsenal of rockets capable of striking far across the Jewish state.

But as the Middle East has changed, with conflicts often having nothing to do with Israel flaring up around the region, Hezbollah has changed, too.

It has rapidly expanded its realm of operations. It has sent legions of fighters to Syria. It has sent trainers to Iraq. It has backed rebels in Yemen. And it has helped organise a battalion of militants from Afghanistan that can fight almost anywhere.

As a result, Hezbollah is not just a power unto itself, but is one of the most important instruments in the drive for regional supremacy by its sponsor: Iran.

Hezbollah is involved in nearly every fight that matters to Iran and, more significantly, has helped recruit, train and arm an array of new militant groups that are also advancing Iran’s agenda.

In Syria, the militias have played a major role in propping up President Bashar Al Assad, an important Iranian ally. In Iraq, they are battling the Daesh group and promoting Iranian interests. In Yemen, they have taken over the capital city and dragged Saudi Arabia, an Iranian foe, into a costly quagmire.

In Lebanon, they broadcast pro-Iranian news and build forces to fight Israel.

The allied militias are increasingly collaborating across borders. In April, members of a Qatari royal hunting party kidnapped by militants in Iraq were released as part of a deal involving Hezbollah in Syria. In southern Syria, Iranian-backed forces are pushing to connect with their counterparts in Iraq. And in the battle for Aleppo in 2016 — a turning point in the Syrian war — Iranian-supported militants hailed from so many countries their diversity amazed even those involved.

“On the front lines, there were lots of nationalities,” said Hamza Mohammad, an Iraqi militiaman who was trained by Hezbollah and fought in Aleppo. “Hezbollah was there, Afghans, Pakistanis, Iraqis — everyone was there, with Iranian participation to lead the battle.”

The roots of that network go back to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, when Iran called on Hezbollah to help organise Iraqi Shiite militias that in the coming years killed hundreds of US troops and many more Iraqis.

Recent wars have allowed Iran to revive and expand the web, and some of the groups Hezbollah trained in Iraq are returning the favour by sending fighters to Syria.

More than just a political alliance, Hezbollah, whose name is Arabic for Party of God, and its allies have deep ideological ties to Iran. Most endorse vilayat-e-faqih, the concept that Iran’s supreme leader is both the highest political power in the country and the paramount religious authority. They also trumpet their goal of combating US and Israeli interests, while arguing that they fill gaps left by weak governments and fight Sunni terrorists such as Al Qaida and the Daesh.

Shaikh Naim Qasim, Hezbollah’s deputy secretary-general, proudly acknowledged his organisation’s efforts to pass its rich militant experience to other Iranian-aligned forces.

“Every group anywhere in the world that works as we work, with our ideas, is a win for the party,” he said. “It is natural: All who are in accordance with us in any place in the world, that is a win for us because they are part of our axis and a win for everyone in our axis.”

The consequences are clear far from Hezbollah’s home turf.

In recent years, much of the world has focused on the Sunni terrorists who have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join the Daesh. But less attention has been paid as Iran fired up its own operation, recruiting, training and deploying fighters from across the Shiite world.

At the heart of that effort, Hezbollah has taken on increasingly senior roles in ventures once reserved for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps — the force that helped create Hezbollah itself.

In Iraq, Iran has redeployed militias originally formed to battle US troops to fight the Daesh. It has also recruited Afghan refugees to fight for a militia called the Fatemiyoun Brigade. And it has organised a huge airlift of fighters to fight for Al Assad in Syria. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps provides the infrastructure, while commanders from Iran and Hezbollah focus on training and logistics.

Officers from Iran coordinated the ground forces with the Syrian military and the Russian air force while Hezbollah provided Arabic-speaking field commanders, the fighters said.

Iraqi militia leaders defended their role in Syria, saying they went to protect holy sites and fight terrorists at the request of the Syrian government.

“If anyone asks why we went to Syria, ask them what allowed the Americans to occupy countries,” said Hashim Al Musawi, a spokesman for an Iraqi militia active in Syria. “We didn’t sneak in, we entered through the door.”

While Hezbollah has extended its regional reach, it has made its greatest foreign investments — and paid the highest costs — in Syria, and its intervention there has reshaped the group.

Its leaders have portrayed the war as a conspiracy by Israel, the United States and Saudi Arabia to use extremists to destroy Syria and weaken the pro-Iranian axis in the region. This, in their view, makes their intervention an extension of the “resistance” against Israel.

Hezbollah went to Syria aware that if Assad fell, it would lose its only Arab state sponsor and the weapons pipeline from Iran. So Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary-general, consulted with officials in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and they made a commitment to back Assad, according to Iranian officials and analysts close to the group.

Since then, Hezbollah has deployed as many as 8,000 fighters to Syria at any one time, analysts say. Now, with the immediate threat to Assad gone, many suspect that Hezbollah will maintain a permanent presence in Syria. It has organised Hezbollah-style militias among Syrians, evacuated border communities it considered a threat to Lebanon and established a branch of its Mahdi Scouts, a long-term investment in the cultivation of fighters.

Hezbollah’s success has multiplied its enemies. The more it grows, the more they want to destroy it.

“If you wait for the Iranian project to mature and take hold, you will see that this ragtag militia has become a competent military with ideological leadership and with what I would call a social support system,” said Anwar Gargash, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs in the United Arab Emirates, which is part of the coalition fighting Iranian-aligned rebels in Yemen. “The Iranians have done it before.”

—New York Times News Service