Experts mull Hizbullah's post-Soleimani path

By Junaid Salman in Beirut

Hizbullah supporters hold posters of IRGC-QF commander Qassem Soleimani as Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah delivers a speech on a screen in Beirut's southern suburbs on January 5th. [Anwar Amro/AFP]

Hizbullah supporters hold posters of IRGC-QF commander Qassem Soleimani as Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah delivers a speech on a screen in Beirut's southern suburbs on January 5th. [Anwar Amro/AFP]

Iran's regional proxies are still getting to grips with the January 3rd killing of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF) commander Qassem Soleimani, and what it will mean to their operations.

Soleimani, who spoke fluent Arabic, was responsible for overseeing the IRGC's external operations, and had been heavily involved in directing and co-ordinating the actions of Iran-backed militias in the region.

Since his death, these groups have been floundering, and many are questioning what role the largest of them -- Lebanon's Hizbullah -- will play going forward.

In a speech delivered in Beirut, Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah disclosed that Soleimani had visited him shortly before his assassination, and had paid regular visits to Lebanon since his appointment as IRGC-QF commander in 1998.

After Soleimani assumed this position, Nasrallah said, "we no longer needed to send delegations to Iran to request support or assistance, or to explain the circumstances, conditions or difficulties. He came to us, visiting frequently".

"The assistance he provided us was ideological, financial and moral, in addition to constant presence by our side," he said, adding that the IRGC also had provided Hizbullah with "resources, funds, weapons and supplies".

Nasrallah said Soleimani had later asked Hizbullah to play a role in Iraq during the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) incursion.

It is possible that Soleimani's death might lead to an increased role for Hizbullah in Iraq -- the former IRGC-QF commander's main theatre of operations -- experts on Iranian affairs told Al-Mashareq.

Impact on Hizbullah

Unlike his role in Iraq, where he was a commander and decision-maker, Soleimani's relationship with Hizbullah mainly involved co-ordinating efforts, said researcher Mohanad Hage Ali of the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut.

"The question that arises is: Will [Soleimani's] absence reflect on [Hizbullah's] role and function in the region?" he said.

"In other words, will the party have a greater role in regional issues? Should this be the case, it will have repercussions on Lebanon's position, and here lies the danger," he told Al-Mashareq.

He pointed to comments made in Tehran by Hizbullah's second in command, Naim Qassem, after Soleimani's death, in which Qassem suggested that the IRGC-QF leader's assassination entailed new responsibilities for the militia.

"What are these responsibilities?" Hage Ali asked. "This is what we expect the coming days to reveal."

Qassem's comments might be a reference to Hizbullah's role in Iraq, he said, which came to light in reports about a meeting that took place in Beirut to unify and organise Iran-backed Iraqi militias to avenge Soleimani.

"Hizbullah's sharp-toned rhetoric indicates it is playing a growing role," he said.

Iran tries to move on

The impact of Soleimani's absence will be felt by leading figures in the Iranian axis, and will force them to recalculate their actions and positions, military expert Khalil Helou told Al-Mashareq.

For Hizbullah, he suggested, the impact will not extend beyond depleted morale, as the party has gained extensive combat experience in Syria "and no longer needs direct Iranian assistance in the field".

Hizbullah continues to be constrained by financial sanctions imposed on it and on Iran, however, which have limited its resources and restricted the movement of military aid from Iran, he added.

Though Soleimani is dead, the Quds Force will carry on as before, said Qasim Qassir, a specialist in the affairs of extremist groups.

The IRGC and Hizbullah each operate through an institutional framework, he told Al-Mashareq, so the absence of specific individuals, regardless of their elevated status, does not affect the flow of operations.

This is evidenced by the "quick appointment of a successor to Soleimani", he said, noting that in recent meetings, the Iranian National Security Council allocated about $200 million to the Quds Force.

This seems to indicate the Iranian regime seeks to step up its regional activity, Qassir said, adding that he believes the response to Soleimani's killing "will not come by springing Hizbullah field units to action" but will take place in Iraq.

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