Last week, Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah gave a televised speech on Al-Manar on the anniversary of the assassination of the group’s commander, Mustafa Badreddine. In addition to his usual anti-Israel and anti-Saudi diatribes, Nasrallah announced the withdrawal of Hezbollah’s forces from the Lebanese-Syrian border and the hand-over of their positions to the Lebanese army. Their mission – to repel the threat of Sunni militias to Hezbollah’s Baalbek and Beqaa Valley strongholds – had been accomplished, he announced. But there is more to the story: Hezbollah’s forces were not demobilized, they were merely redeployed. It appears that Hezbollah has repositioned its men for the ongoing battles in Syria.
Hezbollah’s jihadists have supplied crucial manpower for Bashar al Assad’s regime. The Syrian army is currently engaged in a large-scale military operation in the eastern Syrian desert, with the goal of reaching the Syrian-Iraqi border, and they are in need of reinforcements to fortify their current positions, as well as to aid in their eastward push. Assad’s allies in Hezbollah have been inserting additional fighters into the Syrian battlefield and reorganizing their positions in Lebanon to facilitate the movement of additional fighters and equipment across the border.
Indeed, reports indicate that the withdrawal trumpeted by Nasrallah was in fact a redeployment along the Lebanese border. A high-ranking Lebanese Army official told the Lebanese pro-Western al-Joumhouria that “there are no Hezbollah positions in Arsal or Ra’s Baalbek,” Lebanese towns near the Syrian border where the group was formerly present. The Lebanese Army “alone is deployed in these areas and is expanding its deployment on [Lebanon’s] eastern border.” This dovetails with recent reports in Al-Joumhouria of the Army intensifying its operations against the Islamic State and the group formerly known as Al Nusrah Front in those towns.
The official also denied claims that Hezbollah had targeted Nusrah commanders from the Lebanese town of Arsal, noting that any such attacks would have been launched from the organization’s Syrian positions and not from within Lebanon. This coincides with Daily Star and Al-Masdar News (pro-Assad regime outlet) reporting on continued “heavy clashes” between the Shiite group and Sunni militants on the Syrian side of the border in the immediate days after Nasrallah’s speech.
However, Hezbollah appears to have held on to positions south of those two towns. “Security sources” told Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Al-Mustaqbal newspaper on May 18 that “Hezbollah’s withdrawal from the Eastern Mountains [of Lebanon] was incomplete, and the group retained a number of positions and bases,” which it has possessed since the early 1990s.
According to Al-Mustaqbal, Hezbollah has pulled out of the Lebanese border towns of al-Tofail, and “the outskirts of the towns of Ham, Maaraboun, al-Tayba, al-Khudur, and al-Nahleh.” But the group remains in positions considered “sensitive and strategic” by the party’s leadership in the countryside of the Lebanese border town Brital, northward to the outskirts of Baalbek and Nahleh. These fortified positions were built for the group by Iranian engineers above tunnels that reportedly extend into Syria and are stocked with advanced equipment.
Both the London-based pro-Saudi Asharq Al-Awsat and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights seem to confirm that Hezbollah merely redeployed on the Lebanese-Syrian border. The Shiite jihadists withdrew from some positions to fortify others in Lebanon and Syria that operate as Hezbollah’s “artery for the deployment of its forces and weapons into Syria.” Now, many of the fighters seem to have been redeployed into Syria, where they are reinforcing various military operations by the Assad regime.
Both the IRGC-affiliated Fars News and the pro-Iranian regime ABNA reported that Hezbollah sent “12 regiments with 1,000 fighters to Homs, Dara’a, and Quneitra” to help Assad retake Deir Ezzor from the Islamic State, buttress regime positions south of Damascus, and prepare for an “imminent large-scale” operation to dislodge the Islamic State in central Syria. Fars News claimed that an additional “3,000 [Hezbollah] forces” were moved towards al-Tanf to reinforce the Assad regime’s operations in Syria’s eastern desert. Most of those forces, the IRGC outlet said, “had earlier been station in al-Zabadani, Madhaya and Sarqaya,” but others came from “al-Tofail, Brital, Ham and Ma’araboun,” – the same Lebanese border towns recently vacated by Hezbollah.
Al-Mustaqbal’s report gave a more detailed, if slightly different, account of Hezbollah’s redeployment. The group’s elite “Radwan” force, and other special forces, were fully withdrawn from Syria and replaced with its “Badr” force, which spread out in Aleppo’s eastern and northern countryside. Hezbollah’s “Aziz” unit was withdrawn from the outskirts of Palmyra and temporarily replaced with “Al-Qaem” unit.
Meanwhile, the “Radwan” force was put on “high alert” and sent to southern Lebanon, deploying from the Litani to the Shebaa Farms on the border with Israel – in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701. Hezbollah’s IRGC-trained “Al-Jalil” unit – tasked with carrying out attacks within the Galilee in a future war with Israel – remained in place in its south Lebanon positons. Hezbollah’s “Nasr” unit, which answers directly to Nasrallah via a deputy identified as Al-Hajj Dhul Fiqar – remained in reserves.