Hizballah between an Iranian Rock (Save Damascus) and a Saudi Hard Place (Quit Syria)
The Lebanese Hizballah chief Hassan Nasrallah has halted the militia’s withdrawal from Syria under new orders from his boss, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) Al Qods chief, Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Those orders are to redeploy as back-up for an all-out Syrian army offensive to retake the Damascus suburbs held by Syrian rebels.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report that Hizballah had in the past month repatriated just 2,000 of its troops to bases in Lebanon, leaving 4,500 waiting in Syria for their recall home.
Under their new orders, they are streaming toward Damascus to join the international legion mustered by Tehran across the Shiite world.
This Shiite foreign legion is drawn from the following radical organizations:
1. The Iraqi Badr Brigade headed by the anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
2. Asaib Ahl al-Haqq-AAh, a 2,000-3,000-strong militia which splintered away from the Iraqi Badr Brigade in 2006, with the support of Al Qods and the Lebanese Hizballah.
3. Kataib Hizballah-KH, an elite 400-man cadre of experienced Iraqi Shiite fighters, which reports directly to Al Qods chiefs.
4. Kataib Sayyed al-Shuhada-KSS, a 200-man force led by Abu Mustafa al-Sheibani, an Iraqi Shiite employed by Al Qods since the late ‘80s.
5. An affiliate of the Iraqi Badr Brigade called the Liwa al-Youm al-Mawud, the Promised Day Brigades. This group has soaked up many of the hardened, Iran-supported cadres who harassed the American army in Iraq.
Al Qods chief spreads his wings
Gen. Soleimani has mustered more than 8,000 Shiite volunteers to fight for the Assad regime under his personal command. His remit as Al Qods Brigades chief has expanded to the command of all Iranian forces active in the Middle East and their surrogates, such as Hizballah and Iraqi Shiite militias. His sway over coming events in the Syrian arena gains from the Assad regime’s shortcomings:
– The Syrian army is not strong enough to mount an all-out offensive against the Syrian rebel forces holding out in the Damascus (See a previous item on the state of the war in Damascus) without help from Hizballah and Iraqi Shiite allies.
– Neither President Bashar Assad nor the Syrian army chiefs in Damascus are competent to issue orders to either of those allies. They come under Gen. Soleimani’s direct command. But before he can exercise his authority over the thousands of Hizballah fighters, he must first obtain a mandate from their leader, Hassan Nasrallah, who must issue a directive to Hizballah’s field officers to obey the al Qods chief.
This presents another headache, which is why Nasrallah was dreading this phone call from Gen. Soleimani. He knows that the Iranian command system is guided less by tactical and strategic military considerations than by a bureaucracy engaged in a precarious Shiite balancing act in the Middle East, in which he is loth to get entangled.
Nasrallah faces opposition over heavy Hizballah losses in Syria
But the Hizballah leader also knew that when the phone rang, he would have to stand to attention and do what he is told, or else the commander of Iran’s Middle East forces would give him short shrift and arrange his removal by an internal Hizballah coup.
Nasrallah is very reluctant to send his fighting units back into the flames of another major Syrian battle, especially over Damascus, but the decision is out of his hands. It is up to his bosses in Tehran.
His reluctance stems from two considerations. Hizballah has sustained heavy battle losses since joining the Syrian army’s campaign against rebel forces in the summer.
Our military sources report the Lebanese Shiite group has lost 250 dead and more than 700 injured, of whom 100 remain in critical condition.
While their families are constrained from parading those losses in public, the Hizballah rank and file is in shock at their scale. In closed meetings, Nasrallah faces harsh criticism for embroiling its fighting strength in a conflict unrelated to its interests and objectives. The critics, many of them bereaved relatives, accuse their leader of betraying the organization’s primary goal of “resistance against the Zionist enemy” by fighting fellow-Arabs in a foreign Arab country.
Nasrallah struggles for foothold on a slippery slope
Nasrallah also fears that by placing an international Shiite legion at the disposal of Assad’s assault on Damascus, Tehran is plucking the engagement out of the realm of the Syrian civil war and making it the first major Shiite-Sunni battle for control of an Arab capital.
This contest would have a profound effect on Hizballah’s situation at home and could bring Sunni-Shiite rivalries in Lebanon to another breaking point.
And that is not all: While keeping one sharp eye on Tehran, Nasrallah is training the other on Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia may reluctantly consent to supporting the Geneva II conference for a Syrian political solution in November – but at a cost: Riyadh is trying to install a biddable Lebanese government in Beirut in order to force Hizballah to remove itself from Syria.
There is talk in the Lebanese capital that the Saudis are maneuvering to get this government in place for Lebanon’s Independence Day on November 22, which more or less coincides with the date set for Geneva II. This government would start out by forcing Hizballah to quit Syria and leave Assad to his own devices – which is Riyadh’s main objective.
Nasrallah is afraid he will soon be struggling between an Iranian rock and a Saudi hard place.