Syrian War Takes Rising Toll on Hezbollah
The powerful Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia is suffering mounting battlefield casualties in neighboring Syria, as Tehran’s most important proxy plunges ever deeper into a potential quagmire.
With Hezbollah increasingly shouldering the burden of the war on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the Lebanese militia faces the risk of overextending itself and puncturing its carefully cultivated image as an invincible fighting force, according to U.S. and Mideast officials.
Hezbollah units are now spearheading the fight against opposition rebel groups while the faltering Syrian army plays a supporting role. Although the militia is highly secretive about the size of its footprint in Syria, Western officials and analysts believe it has roughly 6,000 to 8,000 fighters on the ground there.
The group also refuses to discuss its losses in Syria, but the numbers are substantial and on the rise. Since Hezbollah began taking part in full-fledged combat in Syria in 2013, officials and outside analysts estimate that roughly 700 to 1,000 fighters have been killed or wounded in battle, a substantial loss for the group.
The casualties in Syria could soon approach the tally from the militia’s 1985-2000 war with Israel in southern Lebanon, in which 1,248 Hezbollah fighters were killed and at least a thousand wounded.
“There’s no question the Syrian conflict is taking a toll on Hezbollah,” a U.S. intelligence official told Foreign Policy, echoing the assessments of several Mideast officials.
But the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Hezbollah remains a resilient force. The militia has built up a vast arsenal of 40,000 rockets and missiles in Lebanon, including anti-ship and Scud missiles as well as surveillance drones.
The militia’s experience in previous conflicts and “continued backing from Tehran underscore its ability to weather adversity,” the official said.
And Tehran could soon have more money and weaponry to relay to the group. If world powers and Iran clinch an agreement on the country’s disputed nuclear program, Tehran would see relief from punitive economic sanctions, which could free up more funds for the fight in Syria, analysts said.
Iran would also be able to maintain, or increase, the roughly $6 billion it sends each year to Assad.
But it was unclear Thursday if marathon negotiations on a nuclear deal would produce a final agreement. During a break in the talks in Vienna, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that crucial issues remain unresolved and that difficult decisions have to be confronted.
“One way or the other, those decisions must be taken very soon,” Kerry said.
For now, funerals are commonplace for Hezbollah militants killed in Syria, and local papers sometimes publish death notices honoring fallen “martyrs” in the war. Pro-Hezbollah websites recently mourned the death of a militia commander, Jamil Hussein Faqih, who reportedly was killed as he led Hezbollah militants near Idlib.
The casualty toll does not represent a crippling blow for the militia, but it does underscore the rising costs of an open-ended campaign for a regime that is gradually losing ground.
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