Syria Strike Will Be Pretty Useless Against Assad’s Foreign Legion
Hezbollah is desperate, but also one of the only pro-regime forces that’s not terrible, militarily
It’s not certain whether Pres. Barack Obama will get the endorsement from Congress to launch missile strikes on Syria’s murderous, gassing dictator Bashar Al Assad. But when trying to gauge how effective those strikes will be, it’s worth remembering that Assad also has a foreign legion fighting on his behalf — one that’s dealt with some pretty heavy bombardments before.
It’s no secret Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia, is fully engaged in the Syrian civil war on behalf of Assad’s regime: attacking rebel-held towns, leading inexperienced Syrian troops into battle and training a network of loyalist militias across government-held territory.
Hezbollah’s presence is also a thorny problem for any U.S. intervention against Assad. The militia is well-adapted towards fighting a much larger and more technologically advanced enemy; they’ve spent years fighting Israel, for one. And in this war, its leaders don’t have many options except to dig in, because as far as they’re concerned, their own survival is at stake.
This week Obama reportedly ordered the Pentagon to redraw its targets to focus more directly on Syrian military units, including rocket and artillery sites. The purpose, according to The New York Times, would be “to inflict significant damage on the Syrian military.” Obama later rejected the claim he was redrawing the targets. “That report is inaccurate,” Obama said in Russia on Friday.
But if not, these strikes on Hezbollah could include cruise missiles from the sea and possibly raids by long-range bombers like the stealthy B-2. The attacks would represent a conventional assault against an unconventional foe whose organization and tactics make them largely immune to traditional attacks.
A few months ago, Hezbollah had its first big operation in Syria. The assailants moved into the town of Qusayr from three directions, blasting their way through walls and staying out of sight in order to dodge booby traps and sniper fire. Bespoke 107-millimeter rocket launchers blasted rebel positions from close range. Hezbollah was now fully and openly engaged in the Syrian civil war.
The Battle of Qusayr, which occurred in May and June of this year and ended with a Hezbollah victory over the Farouq Battalions of the Syria Islamic Liberation Front, marked a new stage in the conflict. More than 1,200 Hezbollah fighters led the assault into the city, which sits along a key logistics route snaking out of Lebanon.
Within a day, most of Qusayr was under Hezbollah control, with the rest of the city falling in the next two weeks. “We squashed [the rebels] into the northern part of the town and then pinned them down with sniper fire,” one Hezbollah fighter told Beirut correspondent Nicholas Blanford, who recently recounted the battle in the West Point journal CTC Sentinel.
Hezbollah has long been backed by Assad, and it has its reasons — in a sheer survival sense — for getting involved in the Syrian civil war. For one, its leaders are widely believed to consider an Assad ousting to be an existential threat to their own survival. Hezbollah’s main air and land routes to Iran, a key source of its arms and support, pass through Syria and could be cut were Assad to fall.
Assad also needs Hezbollah. Assad’s army is heavy, slow and based on outdated Soviet doctrine — and isn’t designed to fight a drawn-out insurgency, but a conventional war with Israel. Hezbollah, however, is an odd duck and a hybrid force, combining lightning-fast guerrilla tactics with elements of a professional military organization.
In mid-2011, Assad’s forces quickly became bogged down in urban combat as Syria’s civil uprising turned into armed insurgency. In particular, Assad needed snipers to pin down rebel positions before regular army troops could begin their assaults. Hezbollah snipers, equipped with the medium-range Dragunov rifles and steeled in the 2006 war with Israel, were brought in as support.
As the war progressed, Hezbollah has taken on a growing share of the fighting, leading assaults of their own, like at Qusayr, with mounting casualties. (Dozens of Hezbollah fighters were reportedly killed in the May battle for Qusayr.) And as Assad’s forces are killed, captured or simply quit fighting, Hezbollah troops have found themselves in charge of recruiting, training and supplying loyalist militias that now resemble the rebel forces in more ways than the army. Many of these groups, like the militia Al Jaysh Al Sha’bi — modeled on Iran’s Basij militia — are intended to persist even after Assad falls.
This doesn’t mean Assad is winning the war. Hezbollah is too small a force to conquer Syria. Rather, the militia has stopped Assad from losing, at least in the near term. It’s also making efforts to ensure that some elements of the regime survive even if it’s thrown out of power.
Hezbollah’s strength in Lebanon also relies not solely on arms, but extensive social support networks among sectors of the Shi’a community which has toughened it against attempts to disarm it. Israel’s last extended military offensive against Hezbollah in 2006 was intended to drive the militia out of southern Lebanon. It did, but only temporarily.
Not only that: Israel launched a sustained air and ground war against Hezbollah itself. There’s likely little the Pentagon can do to stop it and its allies in Syria from digging in for the long term, even while the cruise missiles are flying.
“In the event that — after some 100,000 reported deaths in the civil war — Iran, Hezbollah and Syria are unable to definitively defeat the rebels and pacify the country’s Sunni majority, Hezbollah is already establishing local proxies (as it did in Iraq just a few years earlier) through which it can maintain influence and conduct operations to undermine stability in the country in the future,” noted Matthew Levitt and Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, also for CTC Sentinel.
But for Hezbollah’s part, it’s in a Hell of a fix. When commenters in the U.S. say Obama has no good options about what to do in Syria: the same is true for Hezbollah. Officially, both Hezbollah and Iranian leaders say they will support Syria to the hilt. “If this battle with these takfiri terrorists [i.e. Nasrallah’s term for the opposition] requires that I and all of Hezbollah go to Syria, we will go to Syria,” Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah told supporters last month.
A limited strike could provoke Iran and Hezbollah to attack U.S. interests and diplomatic targets in the region. The State Department is worried enough that it ordered nonessential embassy personnel out of Lebanon on Friday. But Hezbollah has tried to keep the war out of its home territory, where it risks provoking further political backlash. If the U.S. attempts to shift the momentum of the war over to the rebels, Nasrallah could consider ordering rocket attacks on Israel from southern Lebanon, but that risks drawing Hezbollah into a two-front war at a time when its troops are needed most in Syria.
Realistically, Hezbollah’s commanders — and its Iranian overseers — do not appear to really know what to do in the event the U.S. attacks Assad. “A final decision is delayed until there is clarity on what Americans will do,” a Hezbollah adviser recently told The Wall Street Journal. Pulling out of Syria probably isn’t one of them.
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