Under pressure, Hizbullah retrenches Syria operation

By Junaid Salman in Beirut


Magnets bearing the portraits of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah, are offered for sale in the old city of Damascus on March 12th. [Louai Beshara/AFP]

Financial pressure as a result of international sanctions on Iran and Hizbullah has been a contributing factor in the Lebanese militia's decision to draw down its forces in Syria, experts and analysts told Al-Mashareq.

But Hizbullah also is facing pressure in other areas, they said, pointing to tensions in Syria between its backer Iran and fellow regime ally Russia and its recent escalation with Israel.

Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah on July 12th announced the militia would be reducing the number of its forces in Syria while maintaining a presence throughout the country.

Although Nasrallah attributed the draw down to the extension of Syrian regime control over much of the country, the militia's financial situation also played a key role in the decision, along with other pressures, analysts said.

"There is no doubt that the sanctions on Iran have impacted the country and its arms in the region, especially those that are active in Syria and Lebanon," journalist Ali al-Amin told Al-Mashareq.

Sanctions imposed on Hizbullah have impacted its popular base as well as its fighters, he said, noting that its dwindling resources are forcing it to curtail the social services it once provided.

Financial and political pressure

Hizbullah is "organically linked to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) through the Quds Force, and hence will be affected by the decline in the IRGC’s financial resources", military expert Khalil Helou told Al-Mashareq.

There are reports that Hizbullah has withdrawn many fighters from Syria for financial reasons, and because Russia is now directing field operations, he said.

The financial hardship the party is facing and the decline in Iranian funding are reflected in the visible donation campaigns across southern Lebanon, he added.

"There is talk of party members' salaries having been reduced and a decline in the social benefits the party provides to its supporters," Helou said.

"There is more than one reason why [Hizbullah] repositioned its fighters in Syria," said Mona Alami, nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East.

From the perspective of Hizbullah and the Syrian regime, she told Al-Mashareq, "the situation there has improved compared to the past, and there is no longer a need for a large number of fighters".

Additionally, she said, "the party is under tremendous financial pressure because of the sanctions, manifested in the reduction of the expenses and salaries paid to its fighters".

There is also a political dimension to Hizbullah's drawdown in Syria, Alami added, pointing to a "clear Russian decision to curb Iran's activities in Syria, although the party will not give up areas in Syria it considers to be strategic".

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