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memri
January 3, 2017 No.
1295

The Significance, Ramifications, And Messages Of Hizbullah's Show Of Military Force In Al-Qusayr, Syria

On November 13, 2016, Hizbullah marked its annual Martyr Day by holding its first military parade in a Syrian town, Al-Qusayr, which Hizbullah took over in 2013 following a long and bloody battle with rebel forces, and which has since become the main symbol of the organization's involvement in the Syria war alongside the Assad regime. The parade featured hundreds of fighters in military uniforms, tanks, U.S.-made M113 armored personnel carriers, cannon, machine guns, and an armored regiment. Also marching was the Al-Radwan division, comprising some 10,000 fighters from Hizbullah's "intervention forces" and "special forces" fighting in Syria, which constitute the spearhead of the organization in the country.[1]

By holding this parade at this time and at this location, Hizbullah was informing its rivals, locally and in the region – that is, political players in Lebanon, the Syrian rebels and their Arab supporters, and the West and Israel – that it is now a powerful cross-border military force that can control areas outside Lebanon's borders. The parade did indeed cause a tremendous stir among Hizbullah supporters, as well as among the organization's opponents.

This paper will review the significance and ramifications of the parade in Al-Qusayr and the messages that it sent.

    
Photos from the parade. Arabipress.org, November 13, 2016; Addiyar.com, November 14, 2016


Photos from the parade.  Nn-lb.com, November 13, 2016

Hizbullah Underlines Its Presence On Syrian Soil

Hizbullah's holding the parade on Syrian soil, particularly in Al-Qusayr, is a symbolic yet highly significant act showing the organization's control of part of Syrian territory. Al-Qusayr is the jewel in the crown of Hizbullah's  military involvement in Syria and is seared into the memories of the Syrian rebels as an arena in which they were defeated by Hizbullah in 2013 after a bitter battle that lasted weeks and involved many losses on both sides. Moreover, Al-Qusayr is also Hizbullah's gateway into Syria. After capturing it from the rebels, Hizbullah emptied it of its residents and turned it into a center for its headquarters and into a staging area for its fighters arriving from Lebanon, from which they leave for other battle fronts in Syria.

Also, holding the parade on Syrian soil as opposed to Lebanese soil is a blatant attempt by Hizbullah to highlight its presence in Syria and signal that this presence has become a known, established and certain fact. It may also reflect Hizbullah's view of Al-Qusayr and its surroundings as its own military territory, and not as Syrian territory – with no consideration whatsoever for Syria's sovereignty or for Lebanon's position on this. [2] Hizbullah deputy secretary general Na'im Qassem hinted at this when he said, several days after the parade: "We are in Syria, and we do not need to give any explanation or justification for this. We stand alongside the Syrian army and the Syrian state."[3]

Qassem's statements were backed up by statements by Lebanese Army Gen. (ret.) Amin Hatit, who is close to Hizbullah: "Hizbullah's presence in Syria is something basic... As far as we are concerned, there is no difference between Al-Qusayr and South [Lebanon]."[4]

By holding it on its Martyr Day, Hizbullah also intended the parade to convey a message to the Shi'ite public in Lebanon, which supports Hizbullah and is the source of its political power and its fighters, that despite its losses Hizbullah has remained strong. For Lebanese Shi'ites, many of whom have been killed and wounded in the past four years of Hizbullah's fighting in Syria, and particularly in the ongoing battle for Aleppo, the parade was meant to boost morale and signal that the losses had not been in vain but had only further strengthened the organization and made it possible for it to become a regional power.

Hizbullah's Transition From A Resistance Force To A Quasi-Regular Army

Hizbullah's demonstration of its military strength by parading hundreds of its soldiers with tanks, cannon, machine guns, and so on also reflected its wish to send the message that it was now a well-trained and well-armed force, with new units, resembling an experienced regular army, and was no longer a resistance militia waging guerilla warfare against Israel.

This upgrade of its military and deterrence capabilities is the result of its military experience in Syria fighting the anti-regime rebels. In this context, Lebanese daily newspapers quoted Na'im Qassem making statements about Hizbullah's military capability. The Lebanese Al-Mudun daily quoted Qassem as saying: "Hizbullah has added expertise, fighting capability, and military capabilities. This force is becoming more powerful and more developed, into something greater than resistance and less than a regular army."[5] The Al-Safir daily quoted him as saying: "Now we have a trained army and the resistance is no longer based on methods of guerilla warfare. We are better armed and better trained, and we have advanced professional knowledge."[6] It should be noted that an official Hizbullah communique denied that Qassem had called Hizbullah an army.[7]

It appears that Hizbullah's show of strength at this time was because of achievements in the field by both it and its camp, the resistance axis. These achievements included the strengthening of Hizbullah, the Syrian army, and the militias that have been operating alongside the Syrian army since the beginning of Russia's military involvement in Syria over a year ago along with the upsurge in the political status of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in the Arab world and in the West, and the bolstering of Iran's regional and international status because of its increased military presence in Iraq and Syria and in the wake of the nuclear agreement and the election of the Hizbullah ally Michel Aoun to the Lebanese presidency.

Hizbullah As A Cross-Border Regional Force

Alongside the messages it sent locally, the parade was aimed at letting the region know that Hizbullah is a cross-border military force that is not bound by any particular territory and does not recognize the Syria-Lebanon border, or other borders between Middle East states, set by the Sykes-Picot agreement.

Hizbullah and its sponsor, Iran, which itself is striving to spread its Islamic Revolution and "Rule of the Jurisprudent" doctrine, do not consider geographic borders to be significant, and are deepening their penetration of many countries in the region. This approach is expressed by the military involvement of Iran and its agents in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and by Hizbullah's complete military control of part of Syrian soil, including the Al-Qusayr region.  

The military parade sent a message not only to the rebels in Syria, but also to their sponsors in the Arab and Muslim world – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey – underlining that the resistance axis in Syria has the upper hand, and that Hizbullah will not hesitate to show its power anywhere it needs to in order to subjugate its opponents. On this matter, Lebanese Army Gen. (ret.) Amin Hatit said: "Had Hizbullah wanted to send a message to Lebanon, it would have held the demonstration there, not in Syria, and what it did in Al-Qusayr is a message to the region."[8]

In an interview with the Iranian website Tasnim, which is close to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Qassem said: "If we want to look [at this] realistically, we see that Hizbullah has become a regional power. The way in which Hizbullah is confronting both the Zionist enemy and the takfiriyyoun [i.e. the Salafi-jihadi organizations]... shows that the organization is a regional power, and the changes in the region are proof of that."[9]

Also, Nasser Qandil, editor of the pro-Syria Lebanese daily Al-Bina and an Assad associate, wrote in a November 16, 2016 article titled "Hizbullah – The New Middle East Army" that the organization is a cross-border force and that the borders between countries mean nothing to it. He stated that Hizbullah has become the "Middle East Army" because of its military capabilities and because it is a military force that crosses borders, and that it has achieved this by virtue of the popular organizations in the region that assist it, which comprise approximately a million fighters spread across the Middle East. These forces share its wars and its positions, and see Hizbullah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah as a leader "with special status and as a source of authority for the wars in the Middle East." He added that in actuality Hizbullah "has torn up Sykes-Picot" by transforming the areas of Syria that border Lebanon's east and northeast into a "direct and vital continuation of the resistance."

In this context, Qandil added that as Israel's military strength and Saudi Arabia's economic and political strength were waning, and as Al-Qaeda was failing, and as the U.S. was more preoccupied with domestic affairs and Russia was concerned about neutralizing other regional forces such as Turkey, "Hizbullah and the network of its allies is developing, becoming like a soft-[power] state that lives in the bosom of several countries. [Hizbullah] is not a rival [to the states on whose soil it exists], but complements them, living and developing at their consent as a deterrent force and as added strategic value. Thus, this force is becoming the most important fact emerging with the beginning of the 21st century... and no force in existence can threaten the growth of this new army of the Middle East that is deployed from Lebanon to Afghanistan, and from Aleppo to Bab Al-Mandeb."[10]

 

Hizbullah As An Independent Force Operating Outside Lebanese Laws And Institutions

The Al-Qusayr military parade has great significance also vis-à-vis Lebanon. Hizbullah's control in the Al-Qusayr region erases the Lebanon-Syria border and creates a single large, contiguous swath of territory from Syria to the northern Beqa'a, one of its strongholds in Lebanon, without the Lebanese government's agreement and under harsh criticism from various political elements in that country.[11]

By holding the parade, Hizbullah has again proven, to Lebanon and to the entire world, that it is not subject to Lebanon's laws and institutions, but that it operates according to its own interests and the interests of Iran and the resistance axis. As far as it is concerned, its presence in Syria depends solely on it, not on any decision by the Lebanese state. On this, Qassem said: "We stand alongside the Syrian army and the Syrian state, and without our intervention in Syria, the terrorists would enter every place in Lebanon. The issue of our involvement in Syria is no longer under discussion by Lebanese circles."[12]

This message was discordant to Hizbullah's opponents within Lebanon, who expressed harsh criticism of the Al-Qusayr parade. Ashraf Rifi, justice minister in Lebanon's interim government, a bitter enemy of Hizbullah, said that this parade sends a message threatening Lebanon's sovereignty. He tweeted: "Hizbullah has blatantly shown its military strength in occupied Syria... What will 'the strong president' [Michel Aoun] say about the armed militia that has become an army that is participating in the occupation of Syria, and dividing and killing its people?" He added that "Lebanon is in danger" and called on all the forces opposing the Iranian sponsorship of Lebanon to act together "to save Lebanon that Hizbullah has exploited with shari'a backing and has turned into a platform in service of Iran's plans."[13]

Other criticism came from Ali Al-Husseini, in his column in the Lebanese daily Al-Mustaqbal, associated with the March 14 Forces: "It is odd that this parade was held at the same time as preparations were being carried out by the Lebanese army for [Lebanon's November 22] Independence Day... The message to Lebanon is that Hizbullah is an independent force that is not subjugate to the laws of the Lebanese state and does not want [Lebanon] to be independent... Hizbullah has established itself as an occupier and has declared Al-Qusayr and other regions [in Syria] to be under its control and its aegis from now on, and declared that negotiation on them in the future will be only with [Hizbullah] and according to its conditions."[14]

 

Hizbullah As A Deterrent Force In Lebanon's Internal Politics

Hizbullah's parade, which also came several weeks after its ally Michel Aoun was elected Lebanon's president,[15] and at the height of consultations for the establishment of a new government headed by Sa'ad Al-Hariri, head of the Al-Mustaqbal stream, was also a way of flexing its muscles at various forces in Lebanon's political arena, particularly at President Aoun and his party which are still considered Hizbullah allies. This show of strength was aimed at reiterating that the organization had military power and that it would not agree to any changes to the political balance of power that were not in its favor, and would also not allow its weapons to be touched.

While Aoun's election was considered a victory for Hizbullah and for the March 8 Forces that it heads, there is, according to reports in the Lebanese media, great apprehension in Hizbullah and in the March 8 Forces that Aoun will end his sweeping support for the resistance, and will moderate his stance, compromise, and lean more towards the center than he has in the past, and will show neutrality towards both the March 14 Forces and the March 8 Forces.

The cooperation between Aoun (who represents the majority of Christians in the country after forming an alliance with the Christian Lebanese Forces party led by Samir Geagea) and Al-Hariri (who represents the majority of Sunnis) – cooperation which led to Aoun's election and to the appointment of Al-Hariri to establish the next government – is also of concern to the Shi'ite Hizbullah. Its main fear stems from the possibility of shifts in the political power balance in the country, because Aoun's alliance with Hizbullah foe Geagea has created a powerful, cohesive Christian group that has shared out the government portfolios among its members, at the expense of the other Christian parties who belong to the March 8 Forces – and Aoun is likely to prioritize this powerful Christian group over his alliance with Hizbullah and his support for the resistance.

These apprehensions also increased following visits by Saudi and Qatari emissaries to Aoun, following which the latter promised that Saudi Arabia will be the first stop on his visits to Arab countries, and in light of his statement, as part of his wish to establish Lebanon as an independent actor, that Lebanon under his leadership would "adopt an independent policy and will not be subjugated to anyone."[16]

 

Hizbullah As An Anti-Israel Deterrent Force From Both Lebanese And Syrian Territory

Hizbullah also used the parade to convey a message about its position on a war against Israel. In light of its military involvement in Syria fighting the rebels alongside the Assad regime, Hizbullah was accused by elements in and out of Lebanon of abandoning the path of resistance against Israel, and of having become an accessory to the Iranian plan to eliminate the Sunni presence in Syria. In response, with the parade, Hizbullah sought to clarify that establishing its might in Syria was part of the plan of the resistance that serves its war against Israel and intensifies its anti-Israel deterrence. On this topic, Na'im Qassem said that upgrading Hizbullah's capabilities and transforming it into a real military force "is sufficient to deter the Israeli enemy."[17]

That the parade was an attempt by Hizbullah to demonstrate its strength to Israel was also expressed by the fact that the main element marching in it was from the Al Radwan division, revealed here for the first time. According to a Lebanese source,[18] this division was thought up by the late Hizbullah chief of staff 'Imad Mughniyeh, who was assassinated in 2008, and comprises some 10,000 fighters trained at Hizbullah bases specifically built for this purpose in Al-Qusayr. The division was initially established to invade Israel's Galilee during the next conflict there, but is right now fighting the rebels in Syria and gaining combat experience, and Hizbullah considers it its spearhead in Syria. Having fighters from this division marching in the parade is a message to Israel that the Al-Radwan division, which it considers a deterring force against Israel, is complete and ready for action against it at a moment's notice.

'Abdallah Kamah wrote on the Lebanese website Alhadathnews.net: "At a time when the warriors of the Al-Radwan [division] are fighting and gaining combat experience in Syria, they see the Galilee as their strategic goal. In order to achieve this goal, we must prepare for a war [with Israel], which 'Imad Mughniyeh had said 'would be different from those that came before it.' This difference opens the door to adopt new [combat] methods, because this campaign will not be the same as in the past, when it was conducted according to a scenario where the enemy invades and the resistance ambushes and charges, or fires rockets from groves and using mobile, manually-operated, ground-based launchers. Moreover, the next war, as Hizbullah showed yesterday, will be more offensive than defensive, and will include armored vehicles entering the occupied Upper Galilee."[19] It should be mentioned in this context that in a February 2011 speech marking the third anniversary of Mughniyeh's assassination, Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah threatened Israel, and warned that in the next conflict he would order his men to take over the Galilee.[20]

Moreover, by holding the parade on Syrian soil, Hizbullah challenged Israel's opposition to the establishment of Hizbullah forces in Syria, specifically in the Golan Heights. Increasing its presence in the Syrian Golan is part of the organization's plan to expand the arena of conflict with Israel from southern Lebanon to the Golan Heights, and transform them into a single front that transcends political borders. Back in January 2016, Nasrallah stated that Hizbullah will no longer recognize either the rules of combat with Israel or the separation between the South Lebanon and Golan Heights fronts.[21] In May 2016, Ibrahim Al-Amin, head of the board of directors of the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, which is close to Hizbullah, stated that the organization had established a resistance infrastructure in the Syrian Golan Heights with the help of local residents.[22]

In an article published a few days after the parade, the political editor of the Lebanese daily Al-Safir implied that that one of the reasons Hizbullah is establishing itself in Syria is to open an additional front against Israel in the Golan Heights: "The weapons displayed by Hizbullah [at the parade] are weapons that [regular] armies have, and this is a clear message to Israel that the arena for every future campaign will absolutely not be limited to certain Lebanese borders and to a local population that either does or does not support [the resistance], but will rather be an arena that is more energetic, deeper, and broader – strategically, geographically, and militarily."[23]

*Yael Yehoshua is Vice President for Research and Director of MEMRI Israel

 

 

[1] For more on the military parade, see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6677, Special Dispatch No. 6677, Hizbullah Military Parade In Syrian Town Of Al-Qusayr: Tanks, Cannon, And Machine Guns, November 14, 2016. It should be noted that the Lebanese army denied claims that the M113 APCs and other military equipment in the parade belonged to it. Al-Nahar (Lebanon), November 15, 2016.

[2] Al-Mudun (Lebanon), November 16, 2016.

[3] Al-Safir (Lebanon), November 16, 2016.

[4] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), November 14, 2016.

[5] Al-Mudun (Lebanon), November 16, 2016.

[6] Al-Safir (Lebanon), November 16, 2016.

[7] Alahednews.com, November 16, 2016.

[8] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), November 14, 2016.

[9] Tasnim (Iran), November 22, 2016.

[10] Al-Bina (Lebanon), November 16, 2016.

[11] For more on Lebanese criticism of Hizbullah's involvement in the fighting in Syria, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 980, Lebanon Openly Enters Fighting In Syria, June 13, 2013; Special Dispatch No. 6383, Lebanese Writer: Hizbullah Is No Longer A Resistance Organization, But An Occupier And Target For Resistance, April 12, 2016; Inquiry & Analysis No. 1147, Lebanese Elements Furious Over Hizbullah's Activity In Golan, Shebaa Farms, Critical Of Nasrallah's Statements About Uniting Lebanese, Syrian Resistance Fronts, March 11, 2016.

[12] Al-Safir (Lebanon), November 16, 2016.

[13] Twitter.com/Ashraf_Rifi, November 14, 2016.

[14] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), November 15, 2016.

[16] Al-Safir (Lebanon), November 12, 2016; Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), November 26, 2016.

[17] Al-Mudun (Lebanon), November 16, 2016.

[18] For example, Alhadathnews.net, November 15, 2016.

[19] Alhadathnews.net, November 15, 2016.

[20] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 17, 2011. See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6051, The Emergence Of 'Galilee Force' – Palestinian Forces Fighting Alongside Syrian Regime, May 20, 2015.

[22] For more on Hizbullah's activity in the Golan, see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6039, Board Chairman Of Pro-Hizbullah Lebanese Daily: Hizbullah Has Established Resistance Infrastructure In Syrian Golan In Cooperation With Locals, April 30, 2015.

[23] Al-Safir (Lebanon), November 16, 2016.