Is Hizballah withdrawing from Syria?

Is Hizballah withdrawing from Syria?
4 min read
15 March, 2016
Analysis: Following Russia's announcement it is withdrawing the main part of its forces in Syria, what implications does this carry for Hizballah's own intervention alongside Assad there?
Members of Hizballah carry the coffin of a fighter killed in Syria in 2015 [Anadolu]

Reports have emerged suggesting Hizballah is in the process of withdrawing hundreds of its fighters from Syria. It follows another surprise announcement that Russia will begin to withdraw the bulk of its forces from the country.

Janoubia, an anti-Hizballah website, claimed that hundreds of Hizballah members returned to their homes in Beirut's Dahiyeh district, yesterday.

The website claimed their information was confirmed by "sources close to the party", and that the Hizballah fighters' return was "sudden and without previous warning".

Some have interpreted this as an organised withdrawal while others suggest a rout, as the militants know they can no longer rely on Russian air support in their fight against Syrian rebels.

"According to a source with a long history of credible reporting from the Levant, Hizballah is repositioning its troops in Syria near the country's border with Lebanon," said global intel site Stratfor.

The source claimed that Iran has told Hizballah to cut back its military presence in Syria and consolidate its forces to creating a buffer zone on the Lebanon-Syria border. This would mean Hizballah maintaining a permanent presence on the Syrian side of the border, Stratfor's source added.

Although he was not able confirm the source's claims, news of Hizballah troop movements "aligns with recent open source reporting from the area" it read.
Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Russia's move to begin withdrawing from Syria should be seen as a "positive sign for the ceasefire".

Hizballah withdrawal unlikely

Unconfirmed reports and speculations notwithstanding, several factors make an immediate and full Hizballah withdrawal from Syria unlikely.

First of all, Hizballah's involvement in Syria's war is different in both its rationale and nature from Russia's intervention.

Hizballah's presence in Syria is a massive, existential undertaking. A collapse of the regime in Syria - Hizballah's lifeline for decades - could translate into a collapse of the Shia party's power in Lebanon and beyond.

Hizballah's calculus is also closely linked to minoritarian concerns.

Its intervention in Syria and beyond has a sectarian motive, in that Hizballah sees itself fighting back not only against jihadists who are deeply hostile to Shia Muslims, but also against Sunni empowerment in Syria.

This would mean that once dominant Sunni groups could claw back power in not only Syria, but also Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, where Iranian-backed Shia factions have been on the ascendency.

The Iranian-backed militant group sent thousands of fighters to back Bashar al-Assad's badly weakened regime during the early stages of the war, after a wave of defections in the army and air force.

Hizballah have yet to issue a statement about Russia's withdrawal or clarified rumours about its own reported "pull-out" from Syria. 

However, Hizballah and Damascus' main ally Iran put out a statement welcoming Russia's withdrawal. 

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Moscow's move was a "positive sign for the ceasefire", yet that does not mean Tehran or Hizballah will follow suit.

In truth, it may well be the contrary: the vacuum left behind by Russia's downsizing could soon be filled by the regime's Shia allies.

The vacuum left behind by Russia's downsizing of its contingents in Syria may have to be filled by others of the regime's allies.

Iranian-Russian divergence

Even if Iran and Hizballah want to facilitate a political settlement in Geneva, a withdrawal at this point will no doubt be viewed as a sign of weakness after the regime's opponents were seen celebrating Russia's partial withdrawal.

Another issue here is the reported divergence between Iran and Russia over Syria. The two powers - despite being allies - have very different goals in the war.

"Following Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov's last visit to Tehran, statements made by Iranian officials seemed to indicate that there was some gap between the Iranian and Russian positions [vis-à-vis Syria]," said Randa Slim in an interview on Tuesday.

That is not to mention the purported disagreement between Moscow and Damascus that some analysts have said could be behind Putin's latest move.

"There has been a growing exasperation in Moscow with Assad. He has proven to be the kind of ally who is too costly to maintain in the long-term, given his grandiose ambition," Slim said.

Logistically, withdrawing hundreds if not thousands of fighters from Syria would raise many questions for Hizballah

Redeployment?

Logistically, withdrawing hundreds if not thousands of fighters from Syria would raise many questions about Hizballah's real power. In light of the regime's manpower shortage, who would hold the positions currently held by Hizballah in Syria?

Politically, a full withdrawal would be a hard sell to Hizballah's supporters, who have lost blood and money in a war their leadership has said for years is to protect Shia Muslims from the "jihadi hoardes". 

However, it is possible Hizballah would capitalise on the current lull in the fighting to consolidate its gains closer to home.

Reports in local Lebanese press indicate the group is preparing for a major operation in the border region between Lebanon and Syria, to end once and for all Syrian rebel and jihadi presence there.

The sources quoted in the reports said Hizballah's previous focus on battles inside Syria prevented it from doing so, but now both military and weather conditions are more favourable for such an offensive.

Most likely, Hizballah, as the main foreign force in Syria today, will remain present in Syria for the time being, at least until some kind of a final political settlement is reached.