As Hezbollah’s military involvement in Syria intensified over the past few months, media reports, official statements, and expert analysis has put forward wildly diverging estimates of the number of Hezbollah fighters deployed in Syria. As is often the case in this type of conflict, there’s a politics to estimating the numbers of any given fighting force. To better understand the function of this numbers game, and to help maintain perspective more generally, it is useful to place it in a broader context.
Assessing the strength of Hezbollah’s deployment in Syria began in the lead up to the battle for Qusayr. The sustained trickle of dead Hezbollah fighters being returned to Lebanon for burial spurred questions about the impact this casualty rate could have on the group’s fighting corps.
As the fighting in Qusayr raged on, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius claimed that while “figures range from 3,000 to 10,000,” France’s intelligence service estimates 3,000 – 4,000 Hezbollah fighters were operating in Syria. It was unclear what sources Fabius was referencing, but it may have been estimates made by Syrian opposition figures. In early May, for instance, the Chief of Staff of the rebel Supreme Military Council, General Salim Idriss, affirmed that Hezbollah had “nearly 10,000” fighters altogether throughout Syria. By the end of that month, Idriss was saying that 7,000 of those fighters were in Qusayr. Another rebel commander maintained that out of 7,000 total fighters in Syria, Hezbollah had 4,000 in Qusayr, 2,000 in the Damascus countryside, and 1,000 in the Latakia countryside. Meanwhile, a Lebanese security source was quoted as saying that Hezbollah had committed 1,700 fighters to Qusayr.
Once Qusayr fell, and everyone thought the regime turned its sights toward Aleppo, another set of numbers emerged. In early June, a Free Syrian Army (FSA) spokesman claimed that Hezbollah was amassing a force of more than 4,000 to attack Aleppo. Interestingly, it wasn’t only the rebel side that was putting out these kinds of figures. For example, at the same time last month, a Hezbollah commander told The Washington Post that the group had “about 2,000… fighters in Aleppo province.”
Given the huge discrepancy in these numbers, questions emerge: are the figures real, or are they mere guesswork? And are they deliberately inflated for propaganda reasons from both camps?
It’s useful then, to read these figures against the backdrop of the Lebanese civil war, which taught that force numbers should always be treated with caution. The Lebanese militias often found it advantageous to publicly inflate their numbers. Take, for example, the case of the Sunni al-Mourabitoun militia. A former Sunni militiaman who fought during the war told me several years ago that although the Mourabitoun would often parade its forces to showcase its military strength, its forces were, at their peak, no more than 100-150 fighters, with the remainder composed of Palestinian stand-ins. And yet, some academic works on the Lebanese war list them as having had five times that amount. Likewise, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party militia at the time is sometimes listed in the literature as having fielded “a few thousand” fighters. In reality, as former SSNP member Yussef Bazzi explained, many were “part-time” fighters – called up at times of general mobilization. The so-called SSNP “regulars,” as the former Sunni militiaman told me, counted only in the hundreds.
While Hezbollah’s case is different, the party is by no means immune to the practice of exaggerating and mythologizing its capabilities. In that regard, it has received help over the years from sympathetic coverage in the media and academia. But does Hezbollah have ten, or seven, or four thousand fighters to commit in Syria? For that matter, can it even deploy 2,000 fighters to just one area alone? In fact, is Hezbollah’s total fighting force anywhere near that large to be able to field such numbers in Syria?
Some analysts, while acknowledging that this was essentially all guesswork, have suggested (without any sourcing) that Hezbollah’s overall fighting force is as large as “20,000-30,000, of which some 25 percent may be full-time active duty personnel.” What is meant by “active duty personnel,” however, remains unclear, as is the nature of the remaining 75 percent of the force as conceived by this analyst. What’s more, the training and tasks of Hezbollah units vary – further qualifying the discussion of the group’s fighting corps. Meanwhile, another source said to have “contact with Hezbollah” opined that the group’s “top frontline forces and rocket and artillery units combined added up to just 4,000.” The total force, the source added, “was about 10,000 fighters.” If we were to accept this number and line it up with the proposed figures for the group’s fighters deployed in Syria, it would mean that Hezbollah has committed either nearly or more than 100 percent of its total manpower to the Syrian front, leaving the domestic Lebanese front and the border with Israel unmanned.
In reality, most of these figures are grossly overinflated. Hezbollah’s deployment in Syria is probably in the hundreds, rather than thousands. In addition, according to a well-informed Lebanese official, the party’s fighting force counts 5,000 members in total. This figure fits almost exactly with the view of Shimon Shapira, a retired Israeli Brigadier General who has focused on the group since its inception. In his view, the group’s total force is between five and six thousand fighters.
But it is not hard to understand why both the FSA and Hezbollah might, at different times, find it useful to exaggerate their numbers. In the case of the Syrian rebels, Gen. Idriss made the reason plain. After claiming that 5,000 Hezbollah fighters were mobilizing to assault Aleppo, Idriss appealed for support “from our friends in the United States, not to leave us alone facing fighters from Hezbollah, Iran, and Iraq alongside regime forces.” Presumably Idriss believed that if the world didn’t move before, it might do so now with Iran massing huge numbers of troops. As for Hezbollah, giving the impression of a mammoth and unstoppable force that is sure to win the war is equally expedient.
Using numbers to project an image of invincibility extends beyond Hezbollah to other outside players active in Syria, whose figures are also often misunderstood. For example, while investigating the Emirati Muslim Brotherhood’s deployment of fighters to Syria, Middle East specialist Joseph Braude came across an instructive case. An affiliate of the group tweeted to his followers that 12,000 fighters from the Gulf were now in the country and would soon return home to “liberate” their homelands. Braude noted that this was actually a reference to the Hadith. The Brotherhood leader cited an excerpt from the Hadith: “and twelve thousand shall not be overcome by smallness of number.”
The figure, in other words, is symbolic. It’s a stock number that was similarly used by the al-Qaeda franchise in Yemen in 2010. Using virtually identically language, it declared: “We have good news for the Islamic nation; an army of 12,000 fighters is being prepared in Aden and Abyan.” This, too, was a reference to a Hadith about an army of 12,000 emerging from Aden and Abyan. Kuwaiti Islamists have used the same number as the slogan of an online fundraising drive for fighters in Syria. Last but not least, the 12,000 figure is regularly cited when describing the size of Jabhat al-Nusra – without awareness of its symbolic nature.
The politics of numbers, therefore, has to be handled critically. In the case of Hezbollah, the issue goes beyond the group’s intervention in Syria. Even as it has every incentive to project an image of colossal power, not merely toward Israel, but also increasingly toward the Lebanese interior, Hezbollah’s vulnerabilities are showing. In a single-day battle with rag-tag forces in Sidon numbering no more than a few dozen, the Shiite group appears to have lost four fighters. It has also made clear that it is now measuring the force size of Sunni armed gangs in various areas in Lebanon. Maybe that’s another reason why the Party of God prefers to let the Lebanese Armed Forces take the lead in fighting its domestic battles.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.