Tony Badran

Hezbollah slips in Qusayr

The Party of God's elite forces are increasingly struggling against the FSA

battle of qusayr

It’s been five days since Hezbollah and Assad regime forces launched their joint offensive on the town of al-Qusayr in the Homs countryside. Hezbollah and regime media were quick to claim major advances, confidently predicting that the town would fall swiftly. These pronouncements have proven premature.


The attack on al-Qusayr has been long in the making. Assad’s forces, limited in manpower, are now acting more in concert with irregular sectarian militias trained by Iran. But the string of tactical gains in the Homs countryside, starting in April and leading to the current battle in al-Qusayr, is tied directly to Hezbollah’s lead role in spearheading ground operations.


As it became clear that the Syrian opposition was putting up fierce resistance, Hezbollah began adjusting its story about the battle for al-Qusayr. The group was now making it known that it was sending in reinforcements from its elite units, and that the fighting might last at least another week. More troublesome for Hezbollah, however, was the news about the severe losses its units were sustaining, with casualty numbers ranging from 30 to 40 dead after the first day of fighting alone. By Tuesday, Syrian activists in al-Qusayr were claiming another 25 dead Hezbollah fighters. This, of course, is not counting those who had been killed prior to the latest assault, going back to last year. The number and make-up of the casualties raise some interesting questions about Hezbollah’s fighting force post-2006.


It is generally estimated that Hezbollah lost 500-600 soldiers during the July 2006 war with Israel. Not only was that a high percentage of its regular fighting force — thought to be anywhere around 2,000 men at the time — but also, it represented a loss of operational memory, as many of those fighters had gained combat experience against Israel and its proxy (the South Lebanon Army) in southern Lebanon. Some observers at the time maintained that many of Hezbollah’s best fighters “never saw action” in 2006, as local village fighters, and not Hezbollah “regulars,” handled much of the defense. But this was mainly party propaganda attempting to put a brave face on what was by any measure a major blow to the resistance.


It’s been reported since that, after the war ended, Hezbollah embarked on a major recruitment effort, and sent new recruits to Iran for training in order to rebuild its elite units. These new members, however, have not seen actual combat. Judging from the death notices of Hezbollah fighters in al-Qusayr and Damascus, many of them seem to be in their early to mid-20s. In other words, these are fighters unlikely to have participated in the fighting in 2006, and who are part of the post-2006 recruitment drive.


Accompanying these untested fighters are older experienced fighters and unit commanders, several of whom have been killed as well, as obvious from the various posters of the fallen released by the group. Last year, for example, one such senior military commander, Ali Nassif (Abu Abbas), was killed near al-Qusayr. 


Shimon Shapira, an authority on Hezbollah and a retired Brigadier General now at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, thinks that there are several hundred Hezbollah fighters in Syria, “most of them from the elite units.” This description fits with what some local sources in Dahiyeh have told NOW Arabic about the Hezbollah soldiers in Syria. However, these sources applied that description to the young fighters who are trained but not battle tested. Shapira explains that these younger soldiers “are well trained, some of them in Iran, and are considered elite in Hezbollah standards” – the operative words here being “Hezbollah standards.” In other words, as noted earlier in reference to the 2006 war, while there has been a tendency, carefully nurtured by Hezbollah, to mythologize the outfit's elite fighters, their capabilities should be kept in perspective.


What, then, does it mean that Hezbollah is now sending “elite” units to reinforce its fighters in al-Qusayr? Does it mean more of the same younger, untested fighters? Or does it mean sending even more of the experienced, if older, soldiers? Each option exposes a different set of vulnerabilities. A high casualty rate of newly trained “elite” fighters, recruited to replace those killed in 2006, means a waste of precious time and resources. The loss of even more battle-hardened soldiers, on top of the 500-600 from 2006, means further loss of operational memory and combat experience in the party’s fighting corps.


If the casualty rate stays this high even for another week, it could prove devastating. For instance, according to a party official who spoke to the Kuwaiti al-Rai, many of those killed on the first day in al-Qusayr were cut down by landmines and IED’s prepared by the Syrian rebels. A Lebanese source who follows the group closely says that a company of 200 Hezbollah fighters attempted the initial assault but ran into the hidden explosive devices, resulting in the high death toll. The source reveals that the Syrians received assistance from certain Palestinian factions in planning the defense of the town.


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. Shapira believes that “from the hundreds” they have deployed, “they have lost over 200. Some are commanders, over 30-35 years of age.” As many as 65 – ten percent of the total lost in the 2006 war – were killed in just two days of fighting.


There's another key issue to consider: Even if in the end Hezbollah manages to take the town, it remains unclear who would hold it. Indeed, this has been a problem for the Assad regime throughout the two-year conflict: Assad forces can capture ground from the rebels but they don’t have enough manpower to hold it. The likelihood, then, of a renewed Hezbollah engagement in al-Qusayr further down the road is likely – provided the rebels continue to receive steady shipments of ammunition and are able to secure supply lines.


The severity of this overall picture explains why Hezbollah’s chief Hassan Nasrallah had to travel to Tehran and meet with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani. There, he was reportedly told to go all in, regardless of the cost. It was Iran's call. After all, not only were these fighters trained in Iran, but also they were prepared in order to serve in the next ground war with Israel. In fact, over the last three years, Hezbollah has been putting out leaks in the media about its intention to have its commando infantry units go on the offensive and take the fight to northern Israel in any future conflict.


By publicly taking the lead in the assault operations in Syria, Hezbollah was to show its military capability to decisively and swiftly win battles – first in al-Qusayr, then on other fronts in the country. The problem for Iran, however, is that, regardless what happens next in al-Qusayr, the performance of Hezbollah’s elite forces is signaling the opposite of the message Iran sought to communicate.


As more of the group’s elite units are called up from Lebanon to reinforce their comrades in Syria, Iran has to be concerned about more than just seeing its strategic weapons caches blown up by Israel. It also has to be worried about how Hezbollah’s vulnerabilities are being exposed not by the IDF, but by Syrian rebels that the Party of God was supposed to dispatch easily. If the Iranians have overestimated Hezbollah’s capabilities against an adversary like the Free Syrian Army, one wonders what else about their power they’ve misjudged.


Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.


Read this article in Arabic

A screen shot shows the battle of Qusayr. (Image via AFP)

"In Iran, Nasrallah was reportedly told to go all in, regardless of the cost. It was Iran's call."

  • Vendetta

    What Hezbollah's casualty rate means is that they are actually taking up a serious offensive, in contrast with most Syrian units, rebel and regime, that prefer to bombard each other from far off and shy away from serious close-quarters assaults. Hezbollah has achieved decisive victory and while it took a little longer than they forecast, it was still delivered quickly, when compared to the glacial pace of other battles, such as the one that's been going on in Aleppo for two years. The high casualties in a short period of time came from Hezbollah fighters actually rooting Syrian rebels out house-by-house, not just standing off at a distance and trying to shell them out like the Syrian Army. And you are seriously low-balling the number of fighters Hezbollah has at its disposal, and ignoring the fact that Hezbollah actually going into action and achieving victory will bolster its support and draw a new wave of recruits. And the very title of the piece is misleading; the idea that Hezbollah's fighters are outmatched by the FSA is laughable.

    June 6, 2013

  • Ali Ameem

    I remember the announcement from 'Al Qaedah' in 2006 when Isreal launched it's all out offensive on Hezbollah 'We are not far behind Hezbollah in pursuing Isreal !' 8 years later they are still not 'far behind'. That's because when Seyyed Hassan Nasrallah responded to their 2006 announcement by publicly denouncing them and saying 'we have got nothing to do with Al Qaeda', their response was to announce, 2 weeks afterward, that 'all Shi'as are Kafir'. Whilst Khamenai is criticised in Iran for seemingly showing more support for the Palestinians than Iran itself, the Arab community is busy attacking pro Iranian Arabs like a pack of Hyenas, almost as if they don't want them to get to the golden prize first, which is Jerusalem. This reminds me much of the scenario during the Caliphate of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the fourth Sunni Caliph, the 1st Shi'ah Imam. Having been the 1st male to accept Islam and having successfully lead and won the battles against the 1st Jewish Armies to oppose Mohammed; the same Muslim community turned against him 40 years later at The Battle of Siffeen. Once again. If the prize in the Muslim World is Isreal, Seyyed Hassan Nasrallah is/was the closest to it. And that's exactly the reason why he has to be pulled down.

    June 5, 2013

  • njava

    @BEIRUTI you are right about Hezbollah that they are meant for defense and that presently, they are fighting on alien land but you must remember that this Militia has broken Jaws of World's most powerful army, TWICE, which is not less than a disaster for Crushing the Morale of a Regular Army. To rebuild the Morale of lost hearted army a war with Defenseless Palestinians was fought, which ended as 'another war lost'. Then we observed a change in tactics with much realistic approach i.e. Israel can win No war against Hezbollah unless its supply route i.e. Syria is cut-off. Considering incapability of Israeli army, the task to engage Syria in War, was assigned to CIA's Cannibal Brigade known as Taliban after renaming as Free Syrian Army & National Coalition Army (FSA/ NCA). The responsibility of arranging Funds & Arms were assigned to European Union (excluding the main ally Germany, who realised this game and has quit fighting for securing US & Israel's Interests with funds of German tax payers). The only but the most important part which you've missed in your analysis is, that Hezbollah has nothing to loose because by the fall of Assad's Regime, Hezbollah will be Self-Terminated. Therefore, rest assured they will fight their best, regardless of the results.

    May 30, 2013

  • Vlad Tepes

    Pretty dumb of Hezbollah to not account for booby traps. Though the enemy is nothing but a bunch of stupid terrorists you should still take the necessary precautions against a dug in enemy. Well, on the bright side, if you're losing fighters because of booby traps and not because their is a lack of training then maybe there's hope after all.

    May 25, 2013

  • Enough nonsense


    May 24, 2013

  • Beiruti

    Ironically, Hezbollah as a military force is much like the Crusader force that held the City of Jerusalem. They ultimately lost Jerusalem because of the brilliant tactics of Salah el Din who drew the Christian armies out of their defensive positions to the plains north of Jerusalem and cut them to pieces. Then Jerusalem was easy to sieze as its defensive army was no more. The FSA has likewise drawn Hezbollah out of its fortress in South Lebanon and the Bekaa to the open plains of Qaisyr. The Hezbollah are no longer fighting to defend their homes on familiar ground known better to them than to the aggression. Rather, they are now the aggressor fighing on foreign soil.

    May 23, 2013

  • Beiruti

    As much as Hezbollah would like to think of itself as a national armed force, it is still a militia and one that was created not for offensive military purposes, but more as a home defense force deployed to defend its home ground against offensive Israeli military operations. Hezbollah is not built to invade Israel or hold Israeli ground, and neither is it built for such operations in Syria. Hezbollah is much like the Southern Army in the American Civil War. An excellent home guard force, but when it attempted offensive military operations such as Gettysburg, or Antietam, it was a disaster. Why? No industrial base, limited population and so, no ability to recover quickly from losses of war material and men. Hezbollah faces the same in Syria. It has a limited pool of human resources from which to draw replacement forces and must rely on Iran for resupply of war material. Iran's economy is down and the resupply lines from Iran to Hezbollah held Lebanon are long and not secure.

    May 23, 2013

  • Beiruti

    Wishful thinking Saucy. The 2006 War ended just as Israel regained its equilibrum after having lost the air war and was sending in the ground units. But for Siniora negotiating and end to the fighting through the UN and a new UN Resolution, the fight would have lasted longer and the losses sustained by Hezbollah would have topped the 200-300 reported here. Back in 2006 there was severe international pressure on to end the War and the GWB Administration took a big hit for wanting to prolong the fight so as to "degrade" the Hezbollah militia further, but things had to come to an end. There is no such international pressure this time that would cause the fighting to stop so as to spare Hezbollah its losses. All of the talk the last time of a "Divine Victory" was then, as it is now, an attempt to put a good face on what was a grim situation not just for Hezbollah but for all Lebanon especially the Shiites of the South. Without the international pressure to end the fighting in Qaisyr, Hezbollah is caught in an open ended engagement where its losses are potentially unlimited. This is the difference between now and 2006.

    May 23, 2013

  • Saucy

    The reason SHN travelled to iran is to negotiate the price per fighter his party could eventually suffer losing in Syria. Rumors have it that it has been agreed that as much $1,000,000 per fighter would be paid in compensation by iran. SHN s no fool. Iran can spare tens of thousands of fighters of the hundreds of thousands it has, cheaper. But that could spur a no fly zone and International intervention which Syria and Iran have been spared of so far. 200-300 or even ten thousand deaths will not affect the popular Shi'ite backing the party has in Lebanon. To think otherwise is to misunderstand the Shi'ism practiced by the Ayatollah of Iran. Should Assad go down savagely, which obviously he will not, SHN will easily scare his sheeple in loud speeches that the enemy is now even closer and that the resistance is more vital than ever before. Should there be a negotiated settlement, with Assad remaining in Syria, which is more likely, it will be another "divine" victory for the resistance. It is a win-win situation for SHN and his party. He is no fool.

    May 23, 2013