At a recent St Andrews-Georgetown Conference, entitled ‘What the Next Administration needs to know about Terrorism and Counterterrorism’ several academics made strong warnings about the threat emanating from Iran-backed Hezbollah and their growing influence in Iraq and Syria. In particular, Hanin Gaddar, editor of the Lebanon News Website, warned of the growing strength and consolidation of Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria and how they posed a major threat to the US and its allies. In recent concerns and fears over ISIS, one quite often forgets about the existence of a plethora of terrorist groups and the fact that Hezbollah is actively funded and endorsed by Iran, a long-time US adversary, to the West only makes this more worrying.
There has been a long established relationship between Iran and Hezbollah, given that both are comprised of Sh’ia Muslims. According to Martin DeVore, Hezbollah is famed for being a successful and highly trained organization, able to pay its fighters regular salaries. Hezbollah has taken responsibility for both Israeli and US targets including the suicide truck bombings targeting US and French forces in Beirut in 1983 and 1984, and targeting US forces in Afghanistan in 1996. Iran is estimated to provide Hezbollah with between $100 and $200 million dollars a year, a staggering amount which suggests Iran is keen to undermine the potential of an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, using Hezbollah as its proxy. According to Matthew Levitt, ‘Iran also provides Hezbollah less quantifiable financial support through the training and logistical operation support it provides the group.’ The US also classifies Lebanese Hezbollah as its primary beneficiary and in its 2014 country report expressed concern over Iran assisting Iraqi sh’ite militias in the Syrian civil war, providing arms, financing training to the Assad regime.
The US government has already expressed concern that the Quds force, a special operations force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is providing cover for intelligence operations and creating instability in the Middle East. Iranian and Hezbollah involvement in the Syrian Civil War is hardly surprising, as Syria is important strategically in providing a path for Iran to transfer weaponry to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War, demonstrating its close ties to both Iran and Assad’s regime, began with the al-Qusair battle on 19 May 2013. Since then, Hezbollah has not only justified its involvement in the war for the protection of Lebanese villages along the border but has actively supported the Assad regime. The election of Lebanese President Michel Aoun in October 2016 is also significant given that he is not only a former general but also endorsed by Iran.
The entry of Hezbollah into Syria is significant for several reasons. For Iran, losing Assad’s Syria or Hezbollah’s power in Lebanon would weaken its the axis of resistance. The so called ‘axis of resistance’ is an alliance of state and non state actors in the Middle East led by Iran that wishes to confront Western influence in the region. Moreover, the Assad regime has been crucial to Hezbollah interests, with Hezbollah Chief Hassan Nasrallah calling Syria the ‘backbone’ of the organization in a speech in May 2013. The Assad regime has also transferred weaponry and funds from Iran to Hezbollah, so both parties have a strategic interest in the region.
Their involvement, however, raises major security concerns both for the Middle East and the West. In 2013 French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius estimated that 3,000-4,000 Hezbollah fighters were in the region, a staggering amount given the group only has 5,000 active and 15,000 reserve fighters. Their active involvement has helped to create a corridor of influence for Iran that stretches from Tehran to the Mediterranean and gives Iran tremendous power and influence in the region. The corridor stretches through Iraq, including through north and eastern Kurdish regions, to Aleppo and Homs from the powerbase of Tehran. Crucially, this corridor is the same entry point used by Iran to transfer weapons to Hezbollah through Iraq but was also used by the Quds force to target US forces in a guerrilla war when they occupied the country. Such a move, therefore, not only has strategic but symbolic power in challenging US presence. Senior US officials estimate that Hezbollah and other Iranian-linked Shi’ite groups including Asa’ib ahl al-Haq were responsible for 25 per cent of US casualties in Iraq in 2006.
Moreover, Hezbollah and Iran have been responsible for a concerning instance of social engineering in repopulating Sunni areas (that were abandoned due to the war) with Shi’ia families. This is a clear move to create an area of Iranian control that stretches from its own borders to Israel. This will create areas of power that Iran can use for its broader interests. One Senior Lebanese leader speaking to The Guardian claimed, ‘Iran and the regime don’t want any Sunnis between Damascus and Homs and the Lebanese border. This represents a historic shift in populations.’ Such a statement is significant in demonstrating that even if ISIS does indeed dissipate, sectarian conflict in the region will not go away.
Not only is a more powerful and influential Iran more concerning given its endorsement of terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, but crushing a rabid sectarian group, ISIS, with a repressive, sectarian state regime is just as concerning and suggests peace and coexistence in Syria and Iraq will not be possible for a very long time. It is truly a sad state of affairs.