mercredi 2 avril 2014

Hezbollah in Syria-Interview : E.J. Magnier (english text)

 English text, translated in french on Alliance Géostratégique.

E.J. Magnier is a Political Risk Analyst and a war zone correspondent with over 32 years' experience covering the Middle East and acquiring in-depth experience, robust contacts and political knowledge in Syria, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, shia Islamists, Libya and Sudan. Specialized in political assessments, strategic planning and thorough insight in political networks in the Middle East and Europe. On Twitter : .Blog :

1) Mr Magnier, thanks for answering our questions. First, can you say, in your opinion, why the Hezbollah is currently intervening in the Syrian civil war, aside the regime ?

Hezbollah is a Shia organisation operating mainly in Lebanon, a country with two borders: Israel and Syria. Since 1985, the date Hezbollah declared its momentum, a state of enmity was created between Hezbollah and Israel, following the Israeli invasion to Lebanon in 1982. Since, multiple bloody battles were registered between both Hezbollah and Israel. Due to the military struggle, Hezbollah needs military training and supply on regular basis. This supply, due to heavy military warfare requirement, needs to be transported from abroad either by sea or by air.

As long as Syrian forces where in Lebanon, the re-supply was regular since Hezbollah did not play a domestic political role. Following the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon in 2005 and the 2006 war with Israel, the international community has created a tight control over air and sea shipment, particularly on the weapons supply to Hezbollah via its mentor, Iran.

President Bachar al-Assad is well known for his support to Hezbollah, which has not been the case of his late father Hafez. In fact, in 2006, he opened his military warehouses providing advanced weapons, particularly anti-Tank missiles, and was allowing regular shipment from Iran to Hezbollah via Damascus airport. These were then transported by land into Lebanon.

When the Syrian revolution has started three years ago, Hezbollah did not take part of the battle. In fact, President Assad refused any involvement of foreign allies troops or fighters because he considered himself capable of dealing with what he has called “his internal problem”. Secretary General of Hezbollah Sayed Hasan NUSRALLAH enjoyed a close relationship with Assad and advised him, in many occasion, to have a moderate approach toward the uprising. Nusrallah doesn’t have influence over Assad’s domestic affairs.

Throughout the Syrian war, Syrian revolution Leaders declared in many occasion that the relationship with Hezbollah would no longer be the same as it is with Assad. Some of these declared their will to have best ties with Israel and the United States, both declared enemies of Hezbollah and vice versa. Moreover, the arrival of Jihadists extremists changed radically the rule of the game: These have declared and did actually destroy several Shia holy shrines and threatened to destroy Sayeda Zainab’ most holy Shia shrine in Damascus Ghouta. This is when Hezbollah sent tens of officers to contribute in protecting Sayyeda Zainab shrine.

In May 2013, Assad was loosing the battle. Syrian Army was tired and many has defected to the “other side”. The opposition fighters, supported by Jihadists, were very close to Damascus city center Sahat al-Abbaseen in Jobar. This is when Assad called for help. Nusrallah travelled secretly to Iran for one main reason.

Nusrallah is a religious figure but doesn’t enjoy a high religious level to decree a Fatwa that puts him religiously responsible for the decision he wants to undertake. Moreover, it is normal that he seeks the adequate military support if he engages into a battle without visibility of timetable and possible high number of human looses. As he believes in Shia Welayat-al-Fakih and his Marjaa (religious reference) is the Iranian Leader Sayed Ali Kaminei, he needed the religious permission to engage and to morally cover the possible inevitable looses of lives Hezbollah would suffer in Syria if the military engagement would be on a larger scale.

To Kaminei, Syria represents: 
  1. The lungs of Hezbollah were all weapons and fighters transit to and from Iran.
  2. It is the only exit border and breathing space for Hezbollah.
  3. If Assad fails and a hostile government would be established on the Lebanese borders, Hezbollah would be next on the West/Jihadists target list.
  4. Prior 2006 war, Hezbollah feared the ripple of the Iraq sectarian war between Shia and Sunni. Serious measures were taken to protect Hezbollah stronghold for fear of extremists with the emerging of possible suicide attacks in Lebanon. The 2006 only postponed the inevitable.
  5. The growing strength of Jihadists extremists and Al-Qaeda in Syria meant to Hezbollah that Lebanon would no longer be a land of Nusra (passage and support for Jihadists leaving to Iraq as it was the case between 2005 to 2010) but a land of Jihad. This means Al-Qaeda would start operating from inside Lebanon against the Shia.
  6. Quseyr was a city inhabited by Christians and Shia mainly ( Jihadists were doing their best to see these leaving, which means another direct danger not only to the Shia (these are considered by Al-Qaeda Sunni Jihadists as heretics) but also to the Lebanese borders. Hezbollah was becoming corner in Lebanon. Talkalakh, Quseyr and Qalamoun mountains formed an arch around the Syrian Lebanese borders providing logistics to rebels in Syria and surrounding Shia stronghold in the Bekaa valley.
  7. Same reasons (above) for Qalamoun. In addition, car bombs were sent to Lebanon from this area situated on the Lebanese-Syrian borders. Moreover, Qalamoun represent an essential logistic and military cache for Hezbollah in its war against Israel.

When asked, this is what Hezbollah says about its presence in Syria: “Hezbollah doesn’t consider itself as a foreign force in Syria. Hezbollah is in Syria under on official request of the Syrian President, recognized by 192 nations forming the UN (Geneva 2) who have accepted to sit, negotiate and discuss a way out of the Syrian war. Such a worldwide recognition gives Assad some legitimacy as a representative of a part of the Syrian people. We shall leave the day we are asked to do so”.

2) Have you an idea -even roughly- of the numbers of Hezbollah fighters engaged in Syria currently ? What is the trend of the Hezbollah's contribution (in numbers) since the victory at Qusayr, in June 2013 ?

Several thousands Hezbollah Special Forces fighters have participated to the Qalamoun battle due to the large military operational area and topography. Others are still deployed in various places around Syria. The Qalamoun battle consisted in controlling the various sensitive hills and mountains, the tens of caves – where rebels were well equipped and protected as the announcement of this battle has been made several months ago - and the valley between cities. Hezbollah’s main task was also to keep the control of occupied area - once these are rebels free - with static positions all along the tens of kilometers representing the borders between Lebanon and Syria. It was important to prevent the return of the rebels as it has happened in early years and very recently in Al Ghouta. Moreover, the different cities in Qalamoun needed to be partially surrounded at the start of the battle, leaving a “way out” for rebels. Occupying land and controlling geography was more important to Hezbollah than killing rebels and suffer casualties. All that required manpower and well trained forces with solid ideology to stay put. Having done that, the attack against the cities was easier. As an example, the surrounding hills and Rima Farms took over a month to control. Yabrud took 48 hours to fall.

3) It seems to me the Hezbollah has played a very important role in the battle of Qalamoun, and especially in February-March 2014, until the conquest of Yabroud. Can you confirm that ?

Of course. Hezbollah was the leading unit, the planner, the arrow head and the attacking force. SAA was present with its artillery, tanks and provided air support. Hezbollah came also with its own made rockets to “open the road” to its infantry. It was not only an important role but was THE main attacking force.

4) How is the Hezbollah operating on the ground, military speaking? Are fighters integrated into units of Syrian Army or NDF, or with Hezbollahis (iraqi militias) ? Are they autonomous ? Are they commanding others formations like SAA units or NDF, Hezbollahis ? What are their tactics, their equipment (Is SAA furnishing heavy weapons, tanks, artillery, rocket launchers... ?)

Hezbollah has a central command and a joint military operational room along with the SAA command to coordinate troops movement on the ground. In Qalamoun, Hezbollah did not have any Iraqi or NDF militia among its rank, which is not the case, is other parts of Syria. Hezbollah is fully equipped. The infantry brings its own logistics support and ammunition with it. Hezbollah has invented a new rocket called Vulcano “Burcan”, used for frontal attack, with a large modified warhead. The air force and heavy artillery is always provided by SAA.

As far as it concerns the tactics, Hezbollah is a non-regular-organized organization. Which means that it is trained like any regular army, enjoys compartmental-units like any intelligence service but has guerrilla units that moves in secrecy and trained as Special Forces in comparison to a regular army.

5) To finish, two more questions. What are the casualties ? A source close to Hezbollah announces in March more than 500 killed since the beginning of the Hezbollah. Is it credible ? And finally, is the Hezbollah invovlment limited to the border areas, Qalamouns, west of Homs and so on, or is the Hezbollah playing an also important role in other offensives or fightings in Syria ?

Hezbollah did not announce the number of its casualties but did not hide the death of its officers. Nonetheless, there are still corps detained by the rebels or buried in unknown location. The recently published figures go around 340. My sources tell me that your figures are credible since the beginning of the war in Syria until today, with a much higher number of wounded.
If Hezbollah is playing another role in Syria? The answer is yes. Hezbollah is in Damascus and rif-Dimashq, in Homs and around Aleppo. On its way to Quneitra, Hezbollah did not go to the North or the South of Syria… yet.

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