The Lebanon-based Hezbollah terrorist group has been one of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s staunchest allies as he battles dozens of rebel groups bent on overthrowing his government. But now, after taking part in a number of key battles on behalf of the regime, it seems Hezbollah’s support may be coming to an end.
According to Arabic media outlets, Hezbollah is withdrawing roughly 1,200 troops from Syria. The fighters were sent in to help Assad retake the city of Qusair, near the border with Lebanon, which they did in early June. They were accused of murdering women and children during the fighting, which exacted a heavy toll on both sides.
Hebollah then redirected its efforts towards Homs, to help Assad’s troops retake that area, and intended to move on afterward to Aleppo.
However, instead of quickly retaking the area, the Hezbollah and Syrian soldiers, and their Iranian advisors, found themselves increasingly trapped in endless bloody skirmishes in the region. Not only did they not retake land from the rebels, but they found themselves suffering heavy losses.
The losses lead to increasing division within Hezbollah, with many criticizing the group’s head, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, for spending Hezbollah lives in a foreign country. Nasrallah's own brother Khader was among the dead.
Hezbollah has seen a rapid fall in its popularity among the largely Sunni Muslim Arab world, where it used to enjoy widespread support in spite of its identity as a Shi'ite Muslim group and its alignment with Iran, as a result of its perceived successes in fighting arch-foe Israel.
But taking up arms on behalf of Bashar al-Assad (who is a member of the Alawite sect (an offshoot of Shia Islam) against the majority Sunni Muslim rebels angered many of its former supporters, many of whom now derogatively refer to the group as Hezbul-Shaytan (Party of Satan) as opposed to Hezbollah (Party of God).
Nasrallah also faced pressure due to recent attacks on Shi'ite Muslim strongholds in Lebanon, attacks that were apparently carried out in revenge for Hezbollah’s support for Assad. With many of Hezbollah’s combatants stationed in Syria, the group has found itself increasingly unable to secure its traditional supporters at home.
According to the reports, the Hezbollah troops returning to Lebanon will not immediately resume their old positions near Israel’s northern border. They may be stationed across Lebanon instead, possibly in an attempt to reconsolidate the group's grip over its traditional strongholds.
However, despite the withdrawal many Hezbollah troops will still remain in Syria, including 550 who were recently sent to the Damascus area.
Those who have been called back to Lebanon will apparently be replaced by Iranian “volunteers” from the ranks of the Revolutionary Guards, reports say, as part of the increasingly direct involvement of Iranian troops fighting on the ground in Syria on behalf of Assad.
A recent report revealed the key role payed by Iranian forces on the Syrian battlefield.