BEIRUT: Hezbollah Secretary-General Hasan Nasrallah’s announcement that the party will withdraw from its positions on the Lebanese side of the eastern border has raised questions over the party’s motives and future designs for the region. “The terrain along the Lebanese-Syrian border is very difficult. It would require a lot of men and the Army is not equipped for that,” an analyst close to the party told The Daily Star.
“But after the ‘four-towns’ agreement, the tension and the pressure is gone so the Army can assume these posts and not have to worry about anything except the pocket around the outskirts of Arsal.”
The so-called four-towns agreement saw rebel groups leave the Syrian towns of Zabadani and Madaya, which they previously held. Their relocation to the north of Syria left almost all of the Syrian side of the Lebanese-Syrian border under Hezbollah’s control. The rugged border region between Lebanon and Syria near Arsal still has significant pockets of militant forces that the Army, and until now Hezbollah, have targeted daily with artillery and airstrikes.
“We can also notice the timing of Nasrallah’s announcement. It coincides with the Astana [peace] talks,” the analyst added, referring to an internationally brokered plan that enforces a limited cease-fire and set up de-escalation zones that was agreed in the Kazakh capital in early May.
A new round of talks will also begin on May 16 in the Swiss city of Geneva. “It is obvious that the rebels’ fighting capabilities have diminished. Hezbollah realizes this and wants to decrease pressure on its own men and seize this momentum,” the analyst said.
Tactically speaking the decision also offers Hezbollah’s units much needed respite. Since the start of its involvement in Syria, the party has racked up a colossal casualty figure – reportedly larger than in all previous battles.
Hezbollah’s units are participating across the Syrian theater, with troops battling from Palmyra all the way to the countryside around Aleppo.
As well as its significant footprint in Syria, Hezbollah also maintains the resources and men stationed in south Lebanon to keep a watchful eye on Israeli troop movements and deter against incursions or escalation by their historical foe.
As well as the strategic interest, the move also carries a political message. “Hezbollah also seeks to enforce a nationalistic sentiment,” the analyst said. “Retreating from the border and granting it to the official state body charged with security plays to their favor.”
Hezbollah’s withdrawal is also a dual-faceted signal both internally and externally, another analyst that is familiar with the party’s methodology said.
“The internal message is aimed at the parties that used to attack and criticize Hezbollah’s participation in the Syrian civil war. The party is saying we were right to enter the war and you were wrong.”
The analyst pointed to Nasrallah’s statement during his speech Thursday when he said that the “mission was accomplished.”
“As for the external message, Hezbollah is telling the Americans and their allies that this is how you fight terrorism,” the analyst added.
“This is how you do it and not the petty approach that had been used elsewhere.”
Hezbollah may be also be signaling its support for American arms shipments and support to the Lebanese Army – especially the Land Border Regiments. The Army commander, Gen. Joseph Aoun, will be heading to Washington soon and is expected to call for increased support in the battle against terrorism. By having sole control of the border he would be better placed to push for advanced arms and munitions and the Americans may be more willing to assist with Hezbollah nominally out of the picture.
Yet the common consensus among analysts, a sentiment also voiced by a Lebanese military expert, considered that “Hezbollah no longer needs to be there.”
“There is now significant military protection to the Lebanese-Syrian border as the Army spreads on the Lebanese side and with Hezbollah present on the Syrian side. Militants can no longer sneak into the border,” the expert told The Daily Star.
“The discharging of 2,000 Hezbollah fighters [from the border] would allow Hezbollah to use them somewhere else, most likely to reinforce the front with Israel,” he added. “Politically and internally it has created a method for the state to return to its duties ... especially after the locals from Tfail were allowed to return to their villages under Hezbollah’s patronage. There is even talk of allowing the Internal Security Forces to enter the village.”
Surrounded on three sides by Syrian soil, Tfail is located east of Brital and has become a strategically important station for Hezbollah’s military operations in the Qalamoun Mountains.
Yet in a dark warning, a senior rebel commander that heads a faction of the Free Syrian Army told The Daily Star that although Hezbollah may have secured the border for the time being, their leaving jeopardizes that control.
“What they did with this move was to strike two birds with one stone,” the commander said, on condition of anonymity. “By moving their troops they are shifting resources and offering their men some relief as they are stretched thin. But as the Lebanese Army advances to take their positions, they will become entangled in any conflict that breaks out. The border is secure for now but this cannot last indefinitely.”