Hezbollah has ‘about 7,000 fighters’ in Syria, US says

Bashar al Assad’s regime has long been allied with Iran. But a newly released report by the State Department underscores the degree to which Iran and its terrorist proxies have expanded their footprint in Syria during the war.

“There are reportedly about 7,000 Hezbollah fighters in Syria,” according to State’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2016, which also noted that “several senior Hezbollah military commanders and hundreds of fighters have died in the Syrian conflict.”

The US government says that Hezbollah’s buildup in Syria fulfills a promise made by the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah. Indeed, Nasrallah said in 2016 that “he planned to send extra Hezbollah militants to fight alongside Syrian government forces in the besieged city of Aleppo.”

And Nasrallah did just that, as Hezbollah’s fighters joined Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iranian-sponsored Shiite militias and Russian forces during the battle for Aleppo. This pro-Assad coalition helped recapture the city. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Array of pro-Syrian government forces advances in Aleppo.]

“Iran views the Assad regime in Syria as a crucial ally and Syria and Iraq as crucial routes to supply weapons to Hezbollah, Iran’s primary terrorist partner,” State says, echoing similar language that was included in previous reports. “Iran has facilitated and coerced, through financial or residency enticements, primarily Shia fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan to participate in the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown in Syria.” Iranian forces have also “directly backed militia operations in Syria with armored vehicles, artillery, and drones.”

The Iranian regime “provides the majority of financial support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and has trained thousands of its fighters at camps in Iran.” The Assad regime has benefitted from this largesse, while also providing its own “political and weapons support” to the organization. The Syrian government’s “speeches and press statements” often express the regime’s approval of Hezbollah.

Iran’s proxies make for uncomfortable bedfellows in Iraq, where they are participating in the war against the Islamic State. One of these groups is Kata’ib Hezbollah.

“In 2016,” according to Foggy Bottom, Kata’ib Hezbollah “continued to fight ISIS by joining the Iraqi Army in the Battle of Mosul.” The group “ultimately advanced farther west of Mosul to clear the Syria/Iraq border, while other Iranian‑backed Shia militias continued fighting closer to the city.”

Kata’ib Hezbollah was designated a foreign terrorist organization by the US government in 2009. Described as “a radical Shia Islamist group with an anti-Western outlook and violent extremist ideology” by State, the organization repeatedly attacked US, Iraqi and Coalition forces prior to the American withdrawal from Iraq in 2011. Kata’ib Hezbollah also “threatened the lives of Iraqi politicians and civilians supporting the legitimate political process in Iraq,” Country Reports for Terrorism 2016 notes.

But now, under the guise of fighting the Islamic State, Kata’ib Hezbollah has helped to advance Iran’s interests in Iraq. State confirms, again, that “Iranian-supported Shia militias in Iraq have committed serious human rights abuses against primarily Sunni civilians.”

Of course, Iran’s terrorist proxies, especially Hezbollah, are also a key part of the Iranian regime’s anti-Israeli plans. The Shiite terror group “carried out several attacks against Israeli Defense Forces in 2016 along the Lebanese border with Israel.”

Israel has struck Hezbollah’s forces inside Syria on multiple occasions. According to Haaretz, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was overheard at a meeting saying that Israel had targeted Hezbollah “dozens of times.”

[For more, see FDD’s Long War Journal report, Hezbollah is preparing Syria as second battlefield against Israel.]

Hezbollah’s external operations wing, the Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO), conducted a wave of terror plots around the globe in 2012. The Department of Justice recently announced that two IJO operatives had been arrested in the US after they were tasked with performing surveillance on US and Israeli targets, among other missions. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Analysis: 2 US cases provide unique window into Iran’s global terror network.]

*Hezbollah is used throughout this piece, but the State Department’s report spells the group’s name as Hizballah.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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