BEIRUT, Lebanon — The world first began to learn of the pivotal military role played in Syria by Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia when gossip spread about secretive funerals for its fighters killed shoring up the regime of President Bashar al Assad. The Lebanese and international media weren’t allowed to attend the first few dozen burials, and Hezbollah officials would say nothing about them. But over the last year many analysts have credited the Hezbollah shock troops with turning the tide of the Syrian war in Assad’s favor.
In Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley on Wednesday there was another discreet funeral, but this time for a Hezbollah commander killed in Iraq.
Hezbollah has not announced that it has sent militiamen and military advisers to Iraq. And the extent of the group’s involvement is far from clear. Could they shore up the regime of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki against the threat of the Islamic State and the Caliph Ibrahim (formerly known as ISIS)? Can Maliki, relying on this Iranian-backed militia, continue to ignore American pressure for him to reform his sectarian government? How will U.S. soldiers recently deployed to Iraq as advisers operate alongside another set of advisers, ostensibly on the same side, who belong to an organization officially branded as terrorist by the U.S. government?
For its part, Hezbollah is giving away little information. In a rare public appearance last week, its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, focused on Gaza and devoted only a few brief words to Iraq, bemoaning that country’s entry “into a dark tunnel in the name of Islam, unfortunately.”
There was no fiery pledge to help Iraq’s Shia militias turn the tide against the jihadist-led Sunni insurgency or assist the Iraqi army to retake the large swath of Iraq now controlled by the Islamic State. And there was no mention of Hezbollah fighters or trainers being present in Iraq. Nasrallah still clings to the idea he can present himself as a pan-Islamic figure rather than what he clearly is: an Iranian-backed sectarian leader in the Shia-Sunni duel to the death that is tearing apart the Middle East.
Lebanese Shia sources confirmed to The Daily Beast an initial Reuters report that the commander buried was Ibrahim al-Haj and that he was killed near Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which was seized by the jihadists of the so-called caliphate in June. He wasn’t a frontline fighter but a technical trainer and is thought to have been close to Nasrallah. His funeral took place in el Qilya, a small village spread out on the slopes of mountains just above the Bekaa Valley.
Despite the reluctance of Hezbollah spokesmen to talk about Iraq now, there have been indications for some time that the organization might be on the verge of entering the war there.
In June, Lebanese media quoted Nasrallah as saying that Hezbollah would defend holy Shia shrines in Iraq—Najaf and Karbala being among the holiest—against jihadist desecration and destruction. He said he would sacrifice more “martyrs” in Iraq than Syria, if necessary.
And since those remarks, the Islamic State has done everything it could to provoke a Hezbollah entry, destroying dozens of Shia sites in and around Mosul, including a mosque believed to house the remains of Jonah, a prophet revered by Jews and Christians as well as Muslims. IS also has carried out mass executions of captured Iraqi Shia Muslims, whom the jihadists consider apostates.
But the consensus among analysts and Hezbollah-watchers has been that Nasrallah can ill afford to dispatch large numbers of frontline fighters to Iraq because Hezbollah already is stretched thin trying to fulfill fighting and defensive roles in both Lebanon and Syria.
For the last few weeks Hezbollah has been engaged in fierce clashes with Syrian Sunni insurgents in remote Lebanese border regions neighboring Syria. The insurgents have been using the mountainous terrain near the Bekaa as bases for attacks on both the Syrian army and on Hezbollah forces. More than 3,000 Sunni insurgents are estimated to be involved. And Hezbollah is having a hard time with them.
In one ambush in late July, 11 Hezbollah fighters were killed, according to Lebanese security sources. That is a high death toll for Hezbollah in a skirmish inside Lebanon on its home territory. The sources say one of the reasons rests with the inexperience of the Shia militiamen involved in the counter-insurgency operation along the Lebanese border. “They were C-team fighters,” says a Lebanese military intelligence officer. “Hezbollah’s B-team is in the south of Lebanon, maintaining their defensive positions in case of Israeli attack. The A-team is in Syria.” Estimates vary about how many Hezbollah fighters are in Syria helping to prop up Assad’s regime, which is dominated by the Alawite sect of Shia Islam, but the numbers range from 3,000 to more than 5,000.
The fighting in Syria is taking its toll. More than 500 Hezbollah fighters have been killed since March 2011 in Syria, according to a tally kept by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based opposition group that relies on activists on the ground for its information. As a result, elite units are being eroded. And the demand for more Hezbollah fighters in Syria is rising because Shia volunteers from Iraq who had been fighting in support of Assad have now gone back to their home country to fight there.
Even so, several hundred Hezbollah militiamen have been sent to Iraq, say Shia and military sources in Lebanon. Estimates vary with the lowest at 250 and the highest topping 500. That sounds small, but the buildup of Hezbollah forces in Syria was gradual, too.
In the meantime, the Obama administration has sent some 242 U.S. military advisers to help Maliki’s military.
The fact that Ibrahim al-Haj was killed near Mosul is significant. Until his death in a skirmish near the front lines, Hezbollah militiamen were thought mainly to be based out of Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, focusing on assessments of the capabilities of the Iraqi forces and of the Sunni insurgents (much as the Americans are doing). Training of Iraqi Shia volunteers was also thought to be more Baghdad-based. This senior commander’s death suggests that Hezbollah trainers and advisers are now taking up more forward-leaning and assertive roles much closer to the front where the fighting against the caliphate is underway.