Hezbollah steps up recruiting as Syria losses mount

Bassem Mroue
Associated Press

Beirut — At tightly guarded facilities in south Lebanon, men as young as 17 undergo training by the Shiite guerrilla group Hezbollah on weapons and anti-insurgent tactics before being sent to Syria to fight alongside President Bashar Assad’s forces.

Hezbollah has been conducting a large recruitment drive, a sign of how the war in Syria has become perhaps the most intense conflict the group has waged. Its losses in Syria — now more than 1,000 killed — are approaching the toll incurred by the group in 18 years of fighting the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon in the 1980s and 1990s. That conflict earned Hezbollah its reputation as Lebanon’s strongest armed force.

The recruitment, drawing from Lebanon’s Shiite community, is even more important now as Hezbollah expands its involvement in Syria, engaging in battles deep inside the country and trying to take back rebel-held territory.

“Hezbollah is both battle-weary and battle-hardened,” said Bilal Saab, a resident senior fellow for Middle East Security at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. “Hezbollah has lost many men in Syria, but it has also acquired new skills. It is overstretched, but it can operate in multiple terrains.”

With strong financial and military backing from Iran, Hezbollah has been able to step up its role in Syria even while maintaining the political domination in Lebanon that it has held for several years.

“Hezbollah is not weaker than the time they joined the war in Syria,” said Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese general.

About 3,000 Hezbollah fighters are in Syria, roughly 15 percent of the group’s main fighting force, said Jaber, who heads the Middle East Center for Studies and Political Research in Beirut and closely follows Hezbollah. It also has about 30,000 fighters it could mobilize if needed.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 1,005 Hezbollah fighters have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011, compared with 1,276 killed fighting the Israeli occupation, which ended in 2000. During the 34-day war between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006, 1,200 people were killed in Lebanon. Lebanon says most of those killed were civilians, while Israel says 600 of the dead were Hezbollah militants.

The group recruits from Lebanon’s Shiite population, believed to make up about a third of the country’s 4.5 million people. It finds no shortage of volunteers, since Shiites have rallied around Hezbollah even more than in the past, seeing it as the community’s protector amid a wave of bombings and suicide attacks by Sunni radicals against mainly Shiite areas in Lebanon since 2013.

Hezbollah’s leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, has depicted the war in Syria as a fight against Sunni extremists whom he called an “existential threat.”

Sunni militants fighting for the Islamic State group and al-Qaida’s branch in Syria known as the Nusra Front consider Shiites to be heretics, referring to them by the derogatory term “rawafid,” or “rejectionists,” and openly call for the destruction of Shiite shrines.

Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV often shows video encouraging Shiites to join the fight against “takfiris,” a term for Sunni extremists meaning “those who declare others infidels.”

In May, Nasrallah said in a speech that Hezbollah could “declare general mobilization to all people. I say we might fight everywhere.”

Several south Lebanon residents whose relatives are fighting in Syria or have undergone training told The Associated Press that an intense recruitment campaign has been underway. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about Hezbollah’s operations, which are kept largely secret.

Fighters in the past were prepared for more conventional warfare against Israel, but today they are trained for street battles and counterinsurgent tactics to deal with rebels, the residents said.