The Syrian army’s victories against ISIS forces in the eastern province and the Euphrates valley have won high praise in Western, Middle Eastern, Russian and Iranian media as well as from Russian and Iranian generals.
But the scarcity of Syrian government troops in those battles has not rated a mention, although this explains why Hizballah has been carrying the brunt of Bashar Assad’s Russian-backed campaign to recover eastern Syrian from the grip of the Islamic State.
That campaign suffered a serious blow on Oct. 2, with the unforeseen death of Ali al-Asheq, commander of the Hizballah’s Intervention Unit, the “Al Amin Brigade,” DEBKA Weekly’s military sources disclose. His vehicle struck an ISIS land mine near Deir ez-Zour,
The campaign against ISIS has been carried forward by a mixed army, of which Hizballah is the spearhead:
- Hizballah makes up 70-75 percent of the mixed army serving the Assad regime. According to intelligence estimates, 4,000 Hizballah combat troops are engaged in the fighting, while 1,000 are assigned to artillery units and support tasks, including ordnance and transport. Our sources report that the Al Amin Brigade, which lost its commander this week, was Hizballah’s core fighting unit on the eastern front.
Hizballah’s armed militia is not built on the lines of a regular army’s standard battalions, brigades and divisions. It has four regular corps which break down into platoons.
- Attached to the Hizballah forces are 8 battalions of the Afghan and Pakistani Shiite militias imported by Tehran to fight for Bashar Assad.
- They are under the command of a small group of Iranian Revolutionary Guards officers.
- The few Syrian troops fighting there are leftovers of the 17th Division, which was heavily eroded by years of combat. The only fully-functioning Syrian contingent still intact on this front is the tank unit of the 4th armored division, known as the Elite Tiger Force.
- Several Russian army officers are active on this front, some of them as high-ranking as colonels and generals (two of whom paid the price of this high-risk operation last week.) Among them are Russian special operations (Spetsnaz) officers, who fight alongside Hizballah, as well as spotters who mark out targets for Russian air strikes.
Putin’s preference for the Shiite Hizballah terrorist militia to front the war on the Sunni Islamic State terrorists underlines his choice of the Shiite option for his Syrian venture.
But time may be running out for the Lebanese Hizballah’s contribution to his plans.
- a) In 2012, when Tehran launched its Lebanese proxy into the Syrian war in support of the Assad regime, Hizballah’s Hassan Nasrallah never imagined that four years later, they would still be stuck in the fighting and, worse still, the warfront would have moved to a distance of 1,000 kilometers from their homes in Beirut.
The Lebanese Shiite community is burning with resentment of Nasrallah’s war strategy (“to protect our homes”) – all the more since the battlefront has moved to 1,000 kilometers from Beirut.
- b) The casualty toll is very high – 4,000 dead and more than 10,000 injured – excruciating for a small army of no more than 17,000 to 20,000 fighting men. The flow of coffins homeward from the war front is constant. The dozens which arrived this week were buried under cover of dark to avoid popular notice. But there was no way to conceal the death of al-Asheq at the faraway eastern Syrian front against the Islamic State.
- c) No longer able to withstand the anti-war outcry by his people, Nassrallah is trying to organize, a controlled withdrawal of Hizballah troops from Assad’s war, without it being acknowledged.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources learn that Nasrallah this week ordered his troops to start exiting Aleppo and Hama, towns with large Sunni populations. He also notified the Russian command and the government in Damascus that no more Hizballah troops will be crossing the Euphrates into eastern Syria, advancing any further towards the Iraqi border or taking part in the operations planned to liberate Abu Kamal and Al Qa’im from ISIS occupation.
Aside from the pressing need to cut down on casualties, the Hizballah chief does not want his Shiite troops to continue to be involved in the conquest of large Sunni cities.
This decision has given the Russian and Syrian high commands pause. In order to sustain their campaign to clear ISIS out of eastern Syria, they will have to find replacements for the Hizballah fighters.