Terrorism

Hizbullah withdraws hundreds of fighters from Syria

By Jamal Suleiman in Beirut

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Hizbullah fighters, seen here, have fought alongside the Syrian regime in northern Idlib. [Photo circulated online]

Lebanese Hizbullah has withdrawn hundreds of fighters from Syria, in a move some experts see as a sign of Iran's receding influence in the region.

As Iran's proxies face increasing pressure in Syria, as well as in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, Hizbullah and other Iran-backed militias have scaled back their presence in the war-torn country, experts told Al-Mashareq.

In a September 3rd report citing multiple sources, al-Arabiya news channel said Hizbullah weeks ago began implementing a gradual withdrawal plan from Syria.

More than 2,500 fighters, experts and military commanders are returning to Lebanon from Syria's southern and south-eastern fronts, it said, with some fighters already reporting to bases in Lebanon, in the south along the border.

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Hizbullah has sent tanks like this to fight in Syria. According to media reports, the Lebanese militia has recently withdrawn 2,500 fighters from Syria. [Photo circulated online]

Speaking on condition of anonymity, sources told al-Arabiya that Hizbullah continues to maintain a presence in key locations in Syria, particularly near Homs.

A source who spoke with Al-Mashareq was able to confirm this drawdown.

Hizbullah "began to gradually withdraw its forces from Syria six months ago in a way that signs indicate is conclusive, since those being sent home are experts and military commanders", said the source, who also asked not to be named.

Militiamen are returning to Lebanon via the Hizbullah-controlled al-Zabadani (Jinta) crossing between Lebanon and Syria, and through al-Qusayr in western rural Homs and al-Qalamoun, the source said.

The source told Al-Mashareq that some of the returning Hizbullah elements "are staying home and not working but still receiving their salaries, while others returned to the same work they had before the Syrian war".

Changes in regional landscape

Hizbullah's withdrawal of fighters from Syria comes in the context of a broader retreat of Iran-backed factions in the region.

"If we look at the Syrian arena, we see a significant contraction in military operations in which Iran is taking part," strategy expert Brig. Gen. Khaled Hamade told Al-Mashareq.

Iran is gradually ceding influence to Russia, which is preparing Syria for a political process that excludes Iran-backed militias, Hamade said.

This cannot be isolated from regional shifts, he said, noting that Iran-backed militias in Iraq also face challenges, as Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhemi works to "rapidly restore Iraqi sovereignty and end the proliferation of illegal weapons".

The region "is witnessing clear and fundamental change, in the curtailment of the role of Hizbullah and Iran in Syria, which ultimately will reduce its influence in Lebanon", said researcher and political writer Youssef Diab.

Hizbullah "is under serious pressure, as it stands as an obstacle to Lebanon's receiving of international aid", he told Al-Mashareq.

The party is currently under tremendous international pressure, at a time when Iran's other proxies -- specifically the Houthis (Ansarallah) in Yemen and Iraqi militias also are on the defensive, he said.

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