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Apr 22, 2014 | 09:20 GMT

4 mins read

Tensions Grow Between Hezbollah and the Syrian Regime

Tensions Grow Between Hezbollah and the Syrian Regime  Read more: Tensions Grow Between Hezbollah and the Syrian Regime
(MAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images)
Summary

Several recent incidents have highlighted the tension that can flare up between Hezbollah fighters and Syrian soldiers, especially those at the local level. But despite occasional acrimony, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime will keep their relationship largely intact because each side depends heavily on the other.

In early April, as rebel forces advanced in the al-Rashidin district of Aleppo, a Syrian Republican Guard officer reportedly killed a Hezbollah unit commander in a dispute over the direction of the battle. In response, the Hezbollah unit tried to withdraw from the front and was reportedly brought back to action only after high-ranking officials from both sides intervened. Several interviews with low-ranking loyalist and Hezbollah fighters have also emphasized the troubled relationship between the organized and religious Hezbollah units and the somewhat unruly Syrian regular army units and paramilitary forces.

On April 14, the Syrian opposition alleged that regime forces killed three of Hezbollah's reporters from Al-Manar TV station as they filmed the takeover of the town of Maaloula. The regime took the perfunctory step of releasing a detailed report that said the rebels were responsible for shooting the TV crew, highlighting the regime's sensitivities to rebel propaganda, which tries to take advantage of tensions between Hezbollah and the Syrian government.

Stratfor sources have also indicated that the regime is increasingly frustrated with Iranian and Hezbollah officials who claim that the Syrian government would not have been able to survive had it not been for their aid. Despite the veracity of these claims, the Syrian regime believes that such statements undermine its position in the country.

Latent Tensions

Ever since the regime launched its April 2013 offensive in Qusair, Hezbollah fighters have been more involved in the war; as many as 5,000 personnel are estimated to be operating in Syria. At the beginning of 2013, the group was largely operating in the Syria-Lebanon border region and in a few key Shiite mosques, such as the Sayyida Zainab shrine in Damascus. Hezbollah operatives can now be found battling alongside regime forces throughout the country, including in Homs, Aleppo, Damascus and its environs and the Qalamoun mountainous region bordering Lebanon.

Tensions Grow Between Hezbollah and the Syrian Regime

Syria

Though incidents of infighting have increased with Hezbollah's expanded role in Syria, there have been latent tensions since the group entered the war. As early as the second battle of Qusair, reports emerged that Hezbollah had suffered serious casualties because it had not coordinated with loyalist forces. In a particularly serious incident during the battle, a Hezbollah unit was reportedly flanked and killed as a neighboring unit of regular Syrian army forces retreated without notifying Hezbollah. Since then, Hezbollah has become wary of trusting regular Syrian army units, and Hezbollah operatives reportedly prefer to work with Iraqi Shiite militias and the minority-dominated National Defense Forces because they boast fewer Sunni conscripts.

Tensions and disputes between Hezbollah and regime forces in the field have steadily amplified as loyalist and Hezbollah forces have scored an increasing number of important victories, especially in the areas bordering Lebanon. With the Homs Gap and the Qalamoun region effectively secure, and with the regime position increasingly solidified, Hezbollah appears to be gradually turning its attention back to Lebanon, where it is working to contain the spread of Sunni jihadist activity. Hezbollah must maintain a secure supply line through Syria to Iran and prevent a Sunni-dominated Syria. However, Hezbollah has little desire to maintain too many units fighting in the farthest reaches of Syria in a perpetual sectarian civil war that only further aggravates tensions with Sunnis back home in Lebanon.

Despite the increased tensions and sometimes violence, it is highly unlikely that Hezbollah's relationship with the Syrian regime will completely deteriorate; each side relies heavily on the other. Hezbollah's survival is linked to the survival of the Syrian regime, whether in the delivery of critical supplies or as a bulwark against the establishment of an anti-Hezbollah jihadist entity on its flank. For its part, the Syrian regime is fully aware that Hezbollah's fighters have been of paramount importance in a number of victories in the Syrian core and has continued to supply heavy weaponry to the group in Lebanon, even at the risk of Israeli airstrikes. The relationship between Hezbollah and the Syrian regime will continue to experience notable clashes at the local level, but as was the case in the Aleppo and Maaloula incidents, high-level officials from both entities will do their best to pacify their fighters quickly.

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