BEIRUT — Lebanese Hezbollah field commanders with troops fighting in Syria tell The Daily Beast they are receiving heavy weapons directly from Russia with no strings attached. The commanders say there is a relationship of complete coordination between the Assad regime in Damascus, Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia. At the same time they say the direct interdependence between Russia and Hezbollah is increasing.
The United States and the European Union have both listed Hezbollah as a terrorist organization with global reach and accuse it of serving Tehran’s interests. But there is more to it than that. Organized, trained, funded, and armed by Iran with Syrian help after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, it initially gained fame for suicide bombings hitting Israeli, French, and American targets there, including the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut where 241 American servicemen were killed in 1983.
Over the years Hezbollah grew to be a parallel army in Lebanon, stronger than the national military, and for years it was regarded in much of the Arab world as the avant-garde of the fight against Israeli occupation of Lebanese territory. It also developed into the most powerful political party in the fractured Lebanese parliamentary system. But its reputation as a nationalist force has been tarnished since it began fighting in Syria to defend the Assad regime, and as The Daily Beast reported in December, some of its soldiers have refused to go back.
The Daily Beast met the commanders on separate occasions at the end of December and the beginning of this year in Dahiya, a majority Shia working-class southern suburb of Beirut. They declined to use their real names because they are not authorized to speak to the media, but both say Hezbollah is directly receiving long-range tactical missiles, laser guided rockets, and anti-tank weapons from Russia.
“We are strategic allies in the Middle East right now—the Russians are our allies and give us weapons,” said one of the Hezbollah officers who chose to call himself Commander Bakr. He is in charge of five units in Syria, around 200 troops. (He chuckled when he said his nom de guerre, mocking Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-appointed “caliph” of the so-called Islamic State.)
As someone who has led units fighting from Latakia to Idlib province, around Damascus, and in the Qalamon Mountains that border Lebanon, Commander Bakr says that the Russian airstrikes have changed the course of the ground war, where Hezbollah, supported by Iran, has taken the lead.
“Around Latakia was very difficult for us,” he said, but when Moscow’s bombing campaign started in September, “the intervention of the Russians made it much easier.” Bakr said that the Russians rely on Hezbollah for intelligence and target selection. “Without their air force we can’t advance and they couldn’t give us air support without our information from the ground,” he said with evident pride. The Russians had also put Special Forces on the ground in the Latakia district, he said, especially around the airport used by Russian planes.
Russian officials did not respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment about having troops on the ground in Syria or their relationship with Hezbollah. The organization’s main office refused to comment.
Bakr said that Russia has been increasing its support for his armed movement since 2012. Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, met with Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut in 2014 to discuss regional developments. Last November, Bogdanov issued a statement making clear that Russia does not consider the organization a terrorist group.
“We maintain contacts and relations with them because we do not consider them a terrorist organization,” Bogdanov said at the time, according to the Interfax news agency.
“Assir,” a Hezbollah recruiter and trainer in Lebanon who also commands a Special Forces unit that fights across Syria, says the Russians are increasingly impressed with Hezbollah and rely on it, rather than the Syrian military, to guard Russian arms depots inside Syria. And to hear Assir tell the story, Hezbollah has extensive access to what’s inside those depots.
“Hezbollah is teaching the Syrian army how to use many of these new weapons,” says Assir. He maintains that Moscow hasn’t placed any restriction on how Hezbollah can use the Russian arms in its possession, including against Israel if the organization deems it necessary. “When it comes to Israel, Hezbollah doesn’t take directions from anyone,” he says emphatically. But it is not clear that he is in a senior enough position to know what secret agreements have been made.
Both commanders joined Hezbollah during Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon, which lasted until 2000, and rose through the ranks as the armed wing of the Party of God transformed from a local resistance force to a regional military actor. Now they say that the group born in the chaos of Lebanon’s civil war has become the most effective force helping Assad cling to power. They say the organization, whose original raison d’être was to represent the Shia community in Lebanon, is using its heavy support from Iran to expand its involvement into sectarian conflicts across the region, from Yemen to Iraq.
Bakr says he was personally involved in a Hezbollah training mission in Iraq with one of the local Shia militias, Kata’ib Hezbollah, in 2014, and with the Houthis in Yemen in 2015. Assir says there have been Hezbollah training programs in Lebanon for elite Syrian forces, the Houthis, and Iraqi Shia forces.
Despite this expansion of involvement in regional conflicts and the flow of high-powered Russian weapons, Bakr and Assir insist that Hezbollah doesn’t actually need to use Russian weapons if conflict breaks out with Israel. They say they are fully prepared to withstand an invasion on the southern border with the Iranian arms in their arsenal.
Still, tensions are increasing as Israeli assassinations of Hezbollah commanders in Syria are met with retaliatory attacks on Israeli soldiers stationed on the border with Lebanon. In January 2015 Hezbollah responded to an Israeli strike that killed six of its fighters in Syria with a rocket attack that killed two Israeli soldiers in the Shebaa Farms area, a sliver of disputed territory between Syria, Israel, and Lebanon which Hezbollah claims is Lebanese.
Last Tuesday the same pattern was repeated as Hezbollah detonated an IED in response to Israel’s evident assassination of its high-profile recovered prisoner turned commander, Samir Kuntar.
Both retaliatory attacks were met with a day of localized shelling and although Israel and Hezbollah currently maintain a practice of what happens in Shebaa stays in Shebaa, the situation can easily spin out of control. That was seen during Israel’s 2014 war in Gaza, where a cycle of rapid escalation with Palestinian fighters led by Hamas quickly turned into a drawn-out war. It also happened in Lebanon in 2006.
And if such a war began again? The Russian “alliance” might well be put to the test.