Foreign Policy

How the Iran deal, Syrian civil war prepares Hezbollah for future of terror

Hezbollah militants
Hezbollah militants

Surveying the conflict in Syria over the last 6-plus years, it’s not hard to find losing parties in the wreckage.

{mosads}Thousands of innocent children, civilians, doctors, first responders, and journalists fill casualty lists — non-combatant collateral damage. The Syrian Arab Army can’t credibly claim to have “won,” either, as both ISIS and non-ISIS rebel groups are still trying to bring down its regime.


And ISIS itself — belatedly — appears to be losing ground, in no small part thanks to the direct intervention of Russia and Iran.

But one group, Hezbollah, is reaping significant tangible benefits from fighting in Syria. Not that they haven’t been been bloodied. The group has lost an estimated 1,500 fighters since 2011, with more than three times that wounded.

That’s not a small number considering its total force is under 50,000 men, less than half in regular service. Some estimates suggest as many as 10,000 Hezbollah fighters have been deployed to Syria.

But Hezbollah’s blood sacrifice for the Assad regime has been compensated for in other ways.

Predictably, the Iran deal was a boon for the group. Even Secretary of State Kerry publicly admitted that part of the financial windfall from the Iran deal would likely make its way to “terrorist groups” (a thinly veiled reference to Hezbollah) via the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

And though there hasn’t been much open source reporting on how Hezbollah has benefited from monies related to the Iran deal, we do know that the Iranian government increased its most recent defense budget by 90 percent compared to the previous year.

Since Hezbollah may have been receiving as much as $200 million a year from Tehran, and in view of the Islamic Republic’s expectations of Hezbollah’s commitment in Syria, it’s not a stretch to assume that the group has received more money, even if it doesn’t get a larger share of the pie.

Moreover, the Iran deal also de-listed a vast swath of Tehran’s covert procurement network. Much of this was developed to acquire prohibited dual-use items for Iran’s nuclear and missile programs.

Other parts of it, though, such as cargo ships connected to the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines, were also used to ferry weapons and materiel to Hezbollah via Syria. The Iran deal effectively legalized this hitherto illegal network.

Also as part of the deal, the European Union and the U.K. recently lifted sanctions on Bank Saderat, long known by U.S. intelligence and sanctioned for transferring money on behalf of Tehran to Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other nefarious organizations.

Hezbollah is also using new weaponry in Syria. Since the end of its 2006 war with Israel, Iran and Syria had begun to improve Hezbollah’s war fighting capability.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz produced a report in July illustrating Hezbollah’s transformation from an organized but under-resourced terror group into a proper army; this augmentation took place partly before the group’s involvement in Syria.

But a Washington Institute report also assessed that Hezbollah fighters’ access to more advanced Russian surface-to-air and rocket systems in Syria could help them in future conflicts.

And Israel’s interceptions of several shipments of guided missiles, advanced anti-aircraft systems and anti-ship cruise missiles in recent years suggest that the group will have the capacity to use these systems in future engagements.

Furthermore, Syria is providing current combat experience for Hezbollah, whose last large-scale military engagement was a decade ago.

In the intervening years, older fighters have retired and newer ones have joined up. Without the Syrian civil war, many of these new fighters would still be green and untested when the next (inevitable) war with the Jewish State occurs.

In a candid moment, a Hezbollah special forces commander recently admitted to VOA that, “in some ways, Syria is a dress rehearsal for our next war with Israel.”

The new cadre of fighters Hezbollah is bringing in is also professionalizing what was previously an explicitly guerrilla-oriented organization. The fight for Syria against the nominally Sunni “Takfiri” (apostate) ISIS, has been a gift to the Shia Hezbollah, spurring recruitment efforts. Put simply, Hezbollah is not just getting better at fighting, its army is also getting bigger.

Finally, the political fallout from the Obama administration’s often aloof posture toward Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has encouraged Iran and Hezbollah to consolidate political power in Beirut.

Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia announced it would suspend $3 billion in military aid to Lebanon, a move widely interpreted as an exasperated admission by Riyadh that Lebanon was now mostly controlled by Hezbollah.

Previously Hezbollah had acted as a “state within” the Lebanese state, controlling the Israel-facing Southern portion of the country. With the recent election of Michel Aoun as president, however, Hezbollah’s grip on Lebanese democratic institutions is strengthening. Though a Maronite Christian, Aoun has nevertheless been an ally of Hezbollah since at least its 2006 war.

While Israel’s Defense Forces are still vastly superior to Hezbollah in terms of both numbers and training, Hezbollah’s rise certainly won’t be welcomed in Jerusalem.

Israel might be assured of winning the next war, but Hezbollah is in a better position than ever to inflict civilian casualties, raising the stakes on both sides.

The “Party of God” has reaped rewards as a result of its engagement in Syria, making it more dangerous and promising that Hezbollah will remain a concern for policymakers in both Israel and the United States for years to come.

Marc C. Johnson is a consultant and former CIA Operations Officer who has worked extensively on Iran and WMD-proliferation issues. Follow him on Twitter @BlogGuero.

The views of Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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