Tensions between Assad’s military and Hezbollah have erupted into clashes between the two groups

by omouggos

Hezbollah forces in Syria (image from Alquds.co.uk)

As you may already know, the civil war raging in Syria involves the forces of Bashar al-Assad and his allies Russia, Iran and Hezbollah against a motley array of rebel group, many or most of which are fanatical Islamists, and their backers the US, Turkey and the Arab Gulf Coast states. Without the assistance of Russia, which provides significant material and air support, and Iran and Hezbollah, which provides thousands of ground troops and advisers, Assad already would have met a fate similar to that of Gadaffi in Libya. As Qassem Soleimani has boasted, “If the Islamic Republic [Iran] did not help the Syrian government’s resistance, today Daesh [ISIL] would be ruling all over the country.”[1]

Thanks to foreign intervention, particularly that of Russia’s, Assad is currently safe in power and in fact his position has been greatly improved relative to that of the opposition. However, it seems likely that if this assistance were to completely cease, today or in the near future, then  once again Assad’s survival would be precarious. Due to the importance of Assad’s alliance, its continued maintenance and stability is a matter of some consequence for the outcome of the Syrian Civil War. For this reason it is of great interest that significant tensions are becoming evident within this alliance.

Initially there was a reported divergence in the aims of Russia and those of Assad and Iran. Apparently Russia was open to a possible future federalization of Syria [2] and to negotiating a ceasefire with the rebel groups and their backers.[3] On the other hand Assad and Iran were intent on further military action with the aim of a complete reconquering of Syrian territory and were against federalization.[4] Assad expressed his views on the situation in the Lebanese daily Al-Akbar:[5]

“There is no chance of [reaching] political solution with this opposition. With terrorism there is no solution other than confrontation and victory. The real chance [for a solution] lies in defeating the forces of terrorism militarily and in promoting the rationale of [internal] ceasefires in Syria.

We will defend every grain of Syrian soil, for it is the property of the Syrian people. Partitioning Syria is not an option and is not subject to discussion. This is imaginary and pointless talk.”

Assad’s desire to retake all of Syria was characterized by Russia’s UN envoy Vitaly Churkin as “not in accord with the diplomatic efforts that Russia is making.”[6] While working on a ceasefire agreement with the US Putin expressed concern over Syria’s commitment to such a deal stating, “I would like to hope that the Syrian leadership and all our partners in the region and beyond it, will support the algorithm of actions selected by representatives of Russia and the United States.”[7]

Undoubtedly Assad and Putin did not see eye to eye and some have argued that this falling out of sorts, motivated Putin to abruptly and unexpectedly withdraw from Syria. There are also other tensions that may have been apposite in Putin’s decision. According to Walid Shoebat Russia became angry with Iran when the latter violated an agreement between the two countries by transferring Russian weapons to Hezbollah which Iran agreed not to do.[8] Orkhan Jemal speculated that since Iran refused to agree to the Doha oil freeze proposal, which the Russians and Saudis were promoting, that Russia became unhappy with them.[9] However it should be realized that the Russian withdrawal has been greatly overstated. Russian airstrike are still occurring and have played an important role in the recent retaking of Palmyra and al-Qarytain from ISIL.[10] The Syrian regime’s current push into Raqqa province and their fight for Aleppo is also being supported by Russian airpower.[11]

Ultimately it is difficult for outside observers to accurately know the state of the trinitarian relationship between Assad, Putin and Iran. While it is clear that disagreements exist within this partnership it is also clear that for all intents and purposes Russia is still supporting Assad. Such disagreements between Russia and Assad, which could possibly lead to the disintegration of the Syrian alliance, should not be overly surprising, as Putin’s support for Assad and Iran is not absolute and axiomatic, and we must never forget that Putin is a very pragmatic person who subscribes to the Trumpian-like ideology of ‘Russia first’.

It should be remember how Lavrov described Russia’s relationship with Syria, “Assad is not our ally, by the way. Yes, we support him in the fight against terrorism and in preserving the Syrian state. But he is not an ally like Turkey is the ally of the United States.”[12] As such it appears that Putin’s relationship with Assad is pragmatic and if he no longer views this relationship or that with Iran as conducive to furthering Russia’s geopolitical interests, then Russia’s support to these countries will be axed if necessary.

But what is surprising is that tensions appear to be emerging between Assad and Hezbollah. The latter is a Lebanese Shiite paramilitary group that is a proxy army of Iran. Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War Hezbollah has played an important role in various battles helping to back up and augment Assad’s forces with thousands of fanatical fighters.[13] This assistance has been costly for Hezbollah, who are estimated to have had at least 865 fighter killed, with some estimates as high as 3,000 killed.[14] Not only are rank and file Hezbollah fighters being killed in large numbers, important commanders, such as Abu Jaafar have also fallen in combat.[15]

One would think that given the sacrifices made by Hezbollah and their utility to Assad, that both would be on agreeable terms with one another, but instead tensions are boiling over. MEMRI has relayed reports in the Arab media that Hezbollah and Syrian regime forces are battling each other  in Aleppo province (at Tel Al-Maysat, Al-Bureij, Nubl and Al-Zaharaa).[15] It appears Hezbollah forces were angry that Assad’s army withdrew from “from positions that Hizbullah had won in very costly battles.” Conversely it is also reported that Hezbollah “members refused to obey the orders of the [Syrian] liaison officer and insisted on running the battle independently of the regime forces.” These tensions first escalated into fisticuffs between Hezbollah and Syrian forces and then erupted into full out battles involving airstrikes with both sides sustaining significant casualties.

One pro-regime journalist Sharif Shhade posted on facebook, “National sovereignty is a red line. The decision always rests with the Syrian [military] brass. … Sons of Hizbullah, you have come to help us, not to control us. Please rethink your position,” while another Kinana Allouche posted “You [Hezbollah] are here to assist it [Syria] against terrorism and not to control it. The Syrian army stood by you in your war against Israel. Do not toy with us. Stop doing harm.” Such appeals by pro-regime journalists indicates that the tension between the regime and Hezbollah are real and not propaganda by anti-regime forces.

For now it seems that the incidences occurring in Aleppo province are isolated, as Hezbollah is still providing useful assistance to the regime, as evinced by their prominent role in the battle for the strategically important region of Deir-ez-Zor.[16] Maybe the infighting between the regime and Hezbollah is just an unimportant and interesting example of the fluidity and uncertainty of relations in the Middle East, even between apparently strong allies. Nonetheless, there is reason to believe that the cohesion of the so called Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis of resistance may be starting to fray and this could have profound consequences in the outcome of the Syrian Civil War.

O Mouggos


[1] http://www.presstv.ir/Detail/2016/05/23/467091/soleimani-iran-syria-daesh

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OCy8TPFQPOg

[3] See my post Why is Putin agreeing to a ceasefire in Syria.

[4] http://www.presstv.ir/Detail/2016/04/12/460396/Syria-Assad-Damascus-Russia-federalization/

[5] http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/9102.htm

[6] http://news.yahoo.com/russia-warns-assad-vow-retake-syria-080119489.html

[7] http://sputniknews.com/middleeast/20160222/1035184257/putin-syria-ceasefire.html

[8] http://shoebat.com/2016/05/18/christian-orthodox-russia-turns-its-back-on-muslim-iran-refusing-to-arm-them-against-israel/

[9] http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/9128.htm

[10] http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/04/syrian-army-captures-isil-held-town-homs-160403131645820.html

[11] http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/06/syrian-russian-planes-bombard-isil-held-town-160619111349144.html , http://www.presstv.ir/Detail/2016/06/06/469257/russia-lavrov-air-support-vows , http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/syrian-regime-backed-by-russia-set-for-new-aleppo-attack.aspx?pageID=238&nID=97581&NewsCatID=352

[12] http://sputniknews.com/politics/20160504/1039060941/assad-russia-ally-lavrov.html

[13] http://www.understandingwar.org/report/hezbollah-syria

[14] http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/hezbollah-fatalities-in-the-syrian-war , https://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/2016/06/17/Assad-s-defeat-spells-the-end-of-Hezbollah.html

[15] http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2016/04/05/Hezbollah-leader-Abu-Jaafar-killed-in-Syria.html

[16]  http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/9267.htm

[17] http://www.debka.com/article/25490/First-Palestinians-in-Syria-war—under-Hizballah-