The top leaders of the Lebanese Shiite Hizballah have fallen out sharply over the group’s continued participation in the Syrian war. This is just one sign of the sinking morale on the warfront.
Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, the group’s most visible leader, has been challenged by Mostafa Bader Al-Din, commander of Hizballah forces in Syria.
The row flared, DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources report, when Al-Din informed Nasrallah that he cannot accept any more reinforcements from Lebanon and if they are sent over anyway, he will refuse to send them to any of the Syrian fronts.
Al-Din enjoys high prestige as the first cousin of the iconic Hizballah terrorist chief, the late Imad Mughniyeh, who masterminded the groups’ most spectacular terror operations, including the assassination of former Lebanese President Rafiq Hariri, in 2005, before he was killed by Israel in February 2008.
Al-Din owes further distinction to being one of three Hizballah commanders slapped with US sanctions. On July 21, the US Treasury Department named Al-Din, along with his lieutenants Ibrahim Aqil and Fu’ad Shukr, as leaders of the organization’s operations in Syria.
His views therefore carry weight in high Hizballah circles.
No cannon fodder for Russian commanders
The Hizballah commander put his foot down because he is convinced that the average war deaths of six-10 fighters a day are too heavy a burden for the organization to continue bearing. Morale among the troops is moreover plummeting, the men questioning why they were risking life and limb for the sake of propping up the Assad regime and preserving Iran’s influence in Damascus.
The row is close to a mutiny. Hizballah’s field commander and Nasrallah are no longer on speaking terms, our sources report, and communicate through loyal couriers. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Al Qods Brigades and his country’s forces on the Syrian and Iraqi fronts, has tried his hand at mediating the quarrel, so far without success.
Al-Din is not alone in casting doubt on the political and military logic of Hizballah’s combat role in Syria. Since the Russian military buildup began in the last week of September, the organization’s elite clans at the heart of its ruling and religious establishment, are asking why Hizballah fighters, including many of their own kin, should be cannon fodder for Russian commanders.
The pressure has mounted in the last fortnight, when dozens of fighters died in the fighting around Hama, Homs, and Aleppo. Top Hizballah officers said that, while they could see the point of fighting to prevent the Assad regime’s collapse, they could not accept sacrificing their sons to boost Russian President Vladimir Putin prestige and influence in the Middle East.
Hizballah sons go abroad to evade the Syrian war draft
A culture of draft-dodging has set in. Our sources report that many Lebanese families are sending their induction-age sons abroad to avoid the Syrian war draft. They are shelling out tens of thousands of dollars to bribe Lebanese officials and Hizballah commanders for documents permitting them to depart Lebanon via Beirut’s international airport.
To stem the draft-dodging epidemic, Nasrallah ordered a 50,000-dollars cash payment to the bereaved families of every Hizballah fighter fallen in battle in Syria, starting this month. Large sums are also compensating injured men, graded according to the gravity of their injuries.
While rich Lebanese Shiites go abroad, Hizballah and Iran face an even more dangerous, eventual challenge to their regimes.
The increasing number of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commanders killed in the battles around Aleppo is casting the combat competence of this elite corps and the Hizballah in a poor light. Last week alone, 22 Iranian servicemen fell in battle.
Social networks pan Tehran for opening the Syrian door to Russia
On underground news sites and some social networks in Iran and Lebanon, people are asking openly why neither has managed to defeat the rebels in Syria despite more than three years of active participation in the war.
At the same time, whenever Israel refers to its military option for preventing Iran acquiring a nuclear bomb and the US refuses to rule out its military option, Iranian leaders respond with such threats as: “Iran is capable of hitting any US military target worldwide in 10 days,” and “Iran can destroy Israel in a single day.”
These threats are sounding more and more hollow at a time that voices in Tehran, as in Beirut, are raising doubts about the motivation of Iranian troops, even IRGC servicemen famous for their discipline and indoctrination, for laying down their lives in Syria, which is for them a foreign land.
Social networks in Iran and Lebanon are these days full of criticism for Tehran’s acquiescence to Russian military intervention in Syria. It is being panned as a bad blunder and sign of military weakness, which allows the Kremlin to wrest the dominant role in Syria from Iran and win a podium from which to hand out its dictates to the region. By opening the door wide to Russia, Iran is also accused of betraying its goal of transforming Syria into the main front in the next war against Israel, just as the Hizballah used South Lebanon.
Russia will block Iran’s goal to destroy Israel
These critics point to Russia’s strategic interests in the region as conflicting with those of Iran, especially Moscow’s perception of normal ties with Israel as a key diplomatic asset for restoring Russia to superpower status.
Some quote President Vladimir Putin as promising Binyamin Netanyahu not to permit Syria to become a base for attacks or terror against Israel.
That being so, they argue, the Russians will never let Iran achieve its goal of destroying Israel.
These views are never voiced openly in Iran, only anonymously on Farsi-language websites based outside the country. Even though IRGC Gen. Soleimani made two trips to Moscow, to maximize coordination between the Russian military and the IRGC in Syria, the Aleppo operation turned out to be amateurish and uncoordinated, it is being said.
The heavy Iranian death toll in Syria and the standoff in Aleppo have raised questions about the credibility of IRGC boasts every few weeks in the past two years of “successful tests” of new advanced weapon systems, mostly missiles and smart bombs.
Soleimani’s “heroic” image built up for 2017 presidential race
The Syrian war was supposed to have been the perfect testing ground for sophisticated new hardware, but no Western or Middle East intelligence agency has detected the use of any such weapons on the Syrian battleground.
This popular skepticism of the much vaunted IRGC’s “achievements” in Syria combines with a raft of disclosures of financial corruption at the top of this elite corpse and its continued gobbling up of Iran’s most important branches of the national economy.
There are also sneering references to the IRGC’s strategic “genius” Gen. Qassem Soleimani, charging that he is nothing but the product of official media spin for building him up him as the favorite in the 2017 presidential elections.
According to the latest predictions in Iran, the country’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will not allow incumbent President Hassan Rouhani to serve a second term. He has tabbed “war hero” Soleimani as the ideal president, not only for the Iranian masses but also for the hard-liners.