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Iranian-backed Hezbollah forces are now leading the ground offensive in Syria on behalf of embattled President Bashar al-Assad, according to regional experts.
Hezbollah in recent days has massed a force of some 2,000 Iranian-trained fighters near key Syrian cities and has assumed control over the pro-Assad charge against rebel fighters.
Hezbollah’s emergence on the front lines of the Syrian civil war is a sign that Tehran is fully committed to protecting Assad and carving out a safe haven for him should his government topple.
However, Hezbollah has already suffered major casualties in around 10 days of fighting, exposing the vulnerability of a force largely comprised of young men with limited battlefield experience.
“It doesn’t look good” for Hezbollah said Tony Badran, a research fellow who focuses on Syria at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Hezbollah has convinced many observers that their Iranian-trained “elite” fighters are a force to be reckoned with, a reputation now at risk.
Anywhere from 80 to 200 Hezbollah fighters have already been killed in action in Syria over the past week, exposing a major lack of operational preparation, Badran said.
“If it was intended to showcase Hezbollah’s power it’s not doing that,” he said. “It’s showcasing their vulnerabilities. It’s showing a lot of problems in the fighting force.”
Hezbollah forces are believed to have been stationed in Syria since at least 2012 despite the terror group’s official denials, experts said.
The brigades are comprised of mid-level operational commanders and younger troops who were trained in Iran in the wake of Hezbollah’s 2006 war against Israel.
Shimon Shapira, an Israeli military expert and researcher, has reported that “there are several hundred Hezbollah fighters in Syria, ‘most of them from the elite units,’” according to a recent article authored by Badran.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was ordered to commit a large number of forces to Syria following an April meeting with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
These forces are like “shock troops,” paving the battleground for other pro-Assad fighters, Badran said.
“They’re acting as the storm troopers doing the initial assaults” on rebel factions in Syrian towns across the country, including Homs, Damascus, and Aleppo, Badran said.
The goal is to carve out a contiguous area of land near Lebanon from which Assad can hide should rebel forces gain the upper hand.
Former Bush administration national security adviser Elliott Abrams warned that Iran is succeeding in its goal of creating a pro-Assad haven in Syria.
“It is not so shocking that we are not grasping the reality facing us in Syria,” Abrams recently wrote in the Weekly Standard. “That reality is a humiliating defeat of the United States at the hands of Iran and Hezbollah, aided by Russia, in a manner that destabilizes and weakens all our allies and our influence in the Middle East, emboldens our worst enemies, and has a significant geopolitical impact.”
“There is a corridor [Hezbollah] needs to control” in order to protect Assad and Iranian interests, said Badran, who dubbed the area an “IRGC island” in reference to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
However, Hezbollah’s persistent problems on the battlefield could jeopardize Iran’s pro-Assad plan.
Forces that have been dubbed as “elite” are turning out to be incompetent fighters, experts said.
“A Lebanese source who follows the group closely says that a company of 200 Hezbollah fighters attempted the initial assault [on the town of al-Qusayr] but ran into the hidden explosive devices, resulting in the high death toll,” Badran wrote in his recent dispatch.
“Already, prior to the latest onslaught on al-Qusayr, Hezbollah’s former secretary general, Subhi Tofeyli, stated that the group had lost 138 members in Syria,” the report noted.
“They don’t have combat experience,” Badran said in an interview. “There are a lot of kids who don’t know how to behave under the stress of combat.”
Hezbollah forces have traditionally operated in a defensive capacity, waging guerilla warfare against Israel, and do not appear to be prepared to wage an offensive war against rebels in Syria.
“If this is what they can deliver, you have a problem,” Badran said. “It puts a big dent in their deterrence and propaganda.”
Still, Hezbollah’s emergence as a leading pro-Assad faction marks a significant development in Syria’s years-long civil war.
“The shape of the Syrian regime as a result of this intervention suggests the nature of the regime has changed,” Badran said.
Once highly self-reliant, Assad’s regime is becoming “just another IRGC island,” Badran said.
This could potentially complicate matters for U.S. policy makers as they map the landscape for a post-war Syria.
Meanwhile, there are new signs that some Syrian rebels are attempting to take on Hezbollah directly.
Two missiles reportedly struck the terror group’s headquarters in Lebanon over the weekend, and more attacks are expected.
The State Department on Wednesday told Hezbollah to immediately withdraw its fighters from Syria, Reuters reported.