A miles-long convoy of 200 trucks began rolling out of the Hizballah and Syrian positions around the strategic town of Zabadani, 30 km west of Damascus, early Thursday, Aug. 13. Their exit, after failing to break the Syrian rebels’ grip on the town in weeks of fierce fighting, marked the Lebanese Hizballah’s first retreat from a major Syrian battleground, debkafile’s military and intelligence sources report.
They were the first of the 8,000 Hizballah troops fighting in Syria for three years to quit and return home to Lebanon. The withdrawal followed the instructions given by the visiting Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif after he met Hizballah chief Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut Tuesday and President Bashar Assad in Damascus the next day.
It was deemed unavoidable in the light of the Hizballah army’s failure to break through the defenses thrown up by the rebels barricaded in Zabadani, led by the radical Islamist Ahrar al-Sham. Even the elite Radwan Force, designed to conquer the Israeli Galilee, which Nasrallah deployed there two weeks ago made no headway.
According to our military sources, the Hizballah convoy is removing from Syria around 1,000 fighters,and masses of hardware including armored personnel carriers, various types of rockets, heavy artillery (in picture) and crates of ammo.
Extending the 48-hour ceasefire for Zabadani and two other Syrian villages up until Saturday, Aug. 15 – ostensibly for the evacuation of wounded rebels from Zabadani and the supply of food and water to the beleaguered town – was arranged to give Hizballah enough time to organize its withdrawal.
Hizballah’s combat performance on other Syrian warfronts, such as the Qalamoun Mountains on the Lebanese border and the southern town of Deraa, has not been too brilliant either. Most military experts give it a rating of medium minus.
Whether or not Iran’s Lebanese proxy goes on to pull all its forces out of the Syrian war depends very much on the behind-the-scenes decisions reached by the US, Russia and Iran in their latest joint initiative for winding down the Syrian war.
Without going into explanations, Zarif gave it straight to Nasrallah and Assad: Just as you trusted Iran before, trust us this time too to look after your interests in the decisions the big powers are making for ending the Syrian war.
The Hizballah leader has no choice but to obey his masters in Tehran. Assad has more options and his response is yet to come. In more than four years of fighting a full-scale war, the Syrian ruler has proved wily and durable enough to consistently turn military failings into political strengths.
US Secretary of State John Kerry gave the Iranian foreign minister's efforts a hearty vote of confidence when, on Aug. 11, he announced to reporters: “I just got a message today from my counterpart from Iran. He’s in Beirut meeting with government officials there. You know where he was last weekend? He was in Kuwait and Qatar. He is reaching out to those countries. Are we going to turn our backs on the possibility that Rouhani and Zarif might in fact want to try a different approach?”
Kerry typically concealed more than he gave away:
1. Zarif’s trips were not in pursuit of any “different approach” but a mission to seek out an agreed solution to the Syrian war.
2. He was entrusted this mission jointly by Washington and Moscow, which Kerry is shy to admit, because it would confirm the Obama administration’s election of Iran to the rank of top regional power.
3. He omitted to mention Zarif’s long conversation with Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah, which hardly attested to Tehran’s “different approach.”