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Rabih Haddad

Hezbollah’s top secret casualties

When it became obvious that the Assad regime and its Lebanese ally would not score a swift victory in Syria, the Shiite party devised means to conceal its losses

Mourners and Hezbollah fighters pray over the coffin of Shiite militant Ali al-Hadi Wahbi, killed in fighting with ISIS in Syria, during his funeral ceremony on 2y March 2015. (AFP/STR)

Thus far there are no official numbers for Hezbollah fatalities in Syria. In the progression from the secret burial of fighters who died carrying out their jihadist duties, to the announcement of fighting alongside the Syrian regime and open declaration of fatalities, and finally to the holding of public funerals for them, Hezbollah has kept the number of its losses secret. There has been no clear and honest explanation for the silence on these numbers. Logic leads us to two possible explanations: the party either does not want to reveal the magnitude of the losses it has incurred defending the Syrian regime, or it does not want to reveal the enormity of the figures compared to the number of fighters killed in the open conflict with the Israeli enemy. Perhaps both explanations are true.

 

The party has used many excuses to justify its intervention in the Syrian theater. Here, too, certain factors have led to a progressively changing stance. With regard to the aforementioned two reasons, the party may have thought that the battle would not become drawn out, and that the number of losses would not grow. After the number of losses exceeded expectations, bigger justifications had to be found for the conflict. Because the losses have been huge, there has had to be an expansion of the conspiracy the party claims it is facing: takfiris, Zionists and certain states have come together to strike down the resistance and its project.

 

There can be no doubt that the numbers issue is a dilemma for the party, especially when it comes to comparison between its involvement in Syria and confrontation of the Israeli enemy. In pro-Hezbollah circles, words are being whispered about great losses, and it is not just numbers and figures that are being discussed. The party’s image, which it has spent the last 30 years promoting, has been called into question. Some people have gone even further and said that the size of losses in Syria exceeds the total losses incurred by the party since the beginning of its conflict with the enemy in 1982. The moral loss lies in the fact that the party has involved itself in the killing of Syrians and forced them to leave their villages and towns, as happened in Qusayr. At first, pro-Hezbollah areas were enthusiastic, but as the party’s campaign dragged on and the costs grew, uneasiness began to appear openly, and could perhaps be succinctly expressed as a twofold question: “Whatever made us go there? What is our issue with them?”

 

Returning to the numbers game, in the battle of Qusayr alone the party lost 130 fighters—the same number of fighters who died in the 2006 War. Hezbollah’s Qalamoun war cost the party 400 men when it was launched in 2013. It should be noted here that the battle for Qalamoun has been going on for around two years, and the party is incurring heavy losses there. Anti-regime militants have taken the reigns and are carrying out operations focused on the party’s positions. This has caused the number of Hezbollah losses to rise sharply, exceeding 1,000 fatalities, sources close to the party told Al-Modon.

 

 

Turning off the counter

 

At the beginning of Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria, it was clear that the party was holding funerals and mourning the dead. Their rivals greatly inflated the figures, but regardless of the true number, it became clear that each of Lebanon’s pro-Hezbollah villages had shed blood for the party in its Syrian battle. As the death toll increased, the party seemed evermore disposed toward silence. Despite the fact that, in one way or another, the party has joined fighting on three separate fronts in recent months—in southern, northern and eastern Syria—counting casualties has stopped and the figures have disappeared. The deactivation of Hezbollah’s ‘counter’ has been accompanied by the silence of party leadership. There have been no convincing comments or admissions regarding the cost: “there is no war without sacrifices, and the resistance’s public knows that,” party supporters have been told.

 

 

Tombs in Syria

 

In addition to the vagueness of the figures, new facts have begun to emerge. Hezbollah has built tombs for its fighters at certain locations where fighting has taken place—the ones with religious significance, to be precise. Sources told Al-Modon that Hezbollah buried a number of its fighters (20-25), as stipulated in their wills, in the Damascus suburb of Sayyeda Zeinab. The funeral for the men was attended by their families, who were taken to Sayyeda Zeinab by military escort and protected by the party.

 

 

Death certificates

 

Notwithstanding this, the question remains as to how the party is concealing the figures. In Lebanon, when someone’s death is announced, it must be formalized by a written statement from the mukhtar responsible for the deceased’s neighborhood. Therefore, it should be easy to refer to the civil register and discover the number of Hezbollah members killed in Syria. The death certificate should be accompanied by a medical report stating the cause of death, but this has not happened. Sources told Al-Modon that the party has taken various steps to this end: it has enlisted five mukhtars in south Lebanon, five in the Bekaa Valley, and five in Dahiyeh—all of them party affiliates whose task is to take care of the paperwork for fighters killed in Syria. And what do they mention as the cause of death? According to the sources, every certificate indicates that the death was the result of an accident. In some of the documents it was a car accident, in others a different kind of accident. When Al-Modon called mukhtars in the hometowns of a number of Hezbollah fighters who died in Syria, they all said they were not involved in keeping records on the dead men and that special committees had been formed to deal with the matter. That is all they would say, preferring not to talk about the subject because it is “dangerous.”

 

 

One martyr is better than the other

 

These procedures are of no comfort to people living in pro-Hezbollah communities. A logic of ‘this martyr with semneh, that martyr with oil’ has prevailed and a number of families have expressed resentment at the secrecy. The central question for them is this: as the party is fighting the Israeli project in Syria, why isn’t it boasting about the people killed there in the same way it boasted about the people fighting the enemy in Lebanon? However, there are some things that bring them cheer. Firstly, they become martyr families. This means they gain privileges and receive the highest level of attention and care. Then there is the matter of money: according to Al-Modon’s source, each family that loses a son in Syria receives substantial compensation.

 

This article was originally published by Al-Modon and has been translated from the Arabic by Ullin Hope.

Mourners and Hezbollah fighters pray over the coffin of Shiite militant Ali al-Hadi Wahbi, killed in fighting with ISIS in Syria, during his funeral ceremony on 2y March 2015. (AFP/STR)

There have been no convincing comments or admissions regarding the cost: ‘there is no war without sacrifices, and the resistance’s public knows that,’ party supporters have been told.”