There was a time when Lebanon was a Syrian protectorate occupied by the Syrian Army. The Syrian war over the past six years, however, has somewhat reversed the roles – transforming Lebanese Hezbollah into a leading military force in Syria. Hezbollah has not only deployed thousands of its forces to fight in Syria, but it has also begun recruiting Syrian nationals.
At first glance, nothing distinguishes Vael Hussein Zaitar and Hassan Sami Noun from other Hezbollah fighters killed in the Lebanese militia’s latest offensive against the Islamic State in Abu Kamal, a border town in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor. However, a closer look at the two individuals’ places of birth, demonstrates that both were Syrian nationals from villages in the outskirts of Homs Province close to the Lebanese border: Zaitar was from Hawik village, and Noun from al-Samaqiat village.
The presence of Syrian nationals among Hezbollah forces is not new: The author has identified 18 Syrian nationals killed in combat in Syria wearing Lebanese Hezbollah’s uniform: six natives of Hawik, three from Zita and the rest from other villages in the suburbs of Homs. They also seem to have fought in Hezbollah units rather than having a Shiite Syrian unit of their own.
However, the casualty rate of Syrian nationals in Hezbollah’s service is increasing.
It is difficult to draw firm conclusions based on limited data. Shiite Syrian nationals may have immigrated to Lebanon in the past and joined the militia inside Lebanon. However, the latest numbers suggest that a greater number of Shiite Syrian nationals opportunistically join the victorious Lebanese Hezbollah. Hezbollah in turn gladly incorporates the Syrian nationals within its ranks in order to make up for more than 1,191 documented losses in combat since September 2012.
This development is bound to have important implications for Hezbollah, as well as for Syria and the broader region.
Once a Shiite militia focused primarily to increase its power in Lebanon and fight Israel, Hezbollah is morphing into an internationalist revolutionary movement recruiting Syrian nationals, and identifying with pan-Shiite revolutionary causes in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
This has significant implications for Syria: As Bashar al-Assad consolidates his grip on power, the central government in Damascus is likely to face armed Syrian nationals on its soil who report to the Lebanese Hezbollah rather than to Syrian authorities. This amounts to Vladimir Lenin’s concept of “dual power,” which will not be tolerable to Assad in the long term but is perhaps appealing to Tehran, which does not mind maintaining Damascus in a state of dependency to the Islamic Republic and its regional allies.