“The Russians have made it clear to the Israelis there are certain areas [the Israelis] cannot operate in, especially around Latakia.”
Twirling his cigarette between his fingers, Ali (not his real name) took a long drag before smiling and said: “We were comfortable before they even came into the field, and we’re still comfortable.”
A mid-level fighter with the Lebanese Shia party Hezbollah, Ali has been in a number of battles in neighboring Syria for the last few years. Sitting in a coffee shop in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, he discussed Russia’s recent foray into the battlefield, albeit through the skies. “Look, don’t misunderstand the situation; we’ve been comfortable for a while,” he said, somewhat cockily. “With or without the Russians we would continue. But true, the Russians coming in has definitely sped up the process.”
Since Russia officially announced its involvement in Syria at the end of September, the government and its allies shifted from a predominantly defensive position to an offensive one. In the last month and a half, they have made gains in Latakia, Aleppo, and are pushing towards Palmyra City and Jisr Al Shoghor in Idlib – areas lost earlier this year to opposition groups and Daesh.
Russia’s involvement in Syria is multi-faceted; not only does it share a historical strategic relationship with the Syrian government, and has naval bases in Tartous and Latakia, but it also fears that the continuing radicalization and expansion of extremist groups will eventually come to its doors.
“I would argue that Moscow has already expanded its influence in the Middle East significantly, at least its bases in Syria are indicative of that,” said Yury Barmin, an analyst on Russia’s Middle Eastern policy. “There is a question however, for how long the Latakia and Tartous bases are going to remain in Syria and what is going to happen to them if Assad falls?”
“I wouldn’t discard fighting extremism as one of Russia’s objectives, after all Russia is starting to really feel this extremist pressure in the North Caucasus.”
As it is evident Russia’s decision to participate in Syria is a move to strengthen its position in the region, the extent to which others, namely Hezbollah, can directly benefit from its new ally, is less evident.
While the Russian foreign ministry states that it does not consider Hezbollah to be a terrorist organization; rather, it is a legitimate political and social force in Lebanon, and that it maintains contact with the party. Moscow has stopped short at admitting direct coordination with Hezbollah in Syria. In fact Russian sources have denied any contact between the Russian army and the Lebanese party, saying the Russians only deal with official state actors.
Coordinating directly with non-state actors like Hezbollah would put Russia in an uncomfortable position with the international community.
Yet several Lebanese sources close to what is considered the ‘axis of resistance’ – Syria, Hezbollah, Iran – with intimate knowledge of ground operations, have confirmed that Russia and Hezbollah do coordinate directly.
“The Russians have an operations room with the Syrian army, and the Syrian army coordinates between Hezbollah and the Russians,” said one source, who refused to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter. “But from time to time there has been direct coordination. It is done on a case by case basis.”
This has also been confirmed by another source who detailed the coordination has so far taken place in the areas of Sahl el Ghab, Latakia, and the Damascus suburbs.
“In these areas there were several meetings between Russian generals and high ranking Hezbollah commanders,” he said.
The same source also said Russia’s coordination with Hezbollah predates its official involvement in Syria, as it participated “for a few days” in the Zabadani battles along the Lebanese-Syrian mountainous terrain. “Russia used the Zabadani battles as a sort of live training ground for some of its select elite forces, where Hezbollah was the main fighting force alongside the Syrian army,” he said.
According to Barmin, it is important for Moscow not to demonstrate any relations with Hezbollah. “Communication between Russian forces in Syria and Hezbollah command is very strong,” he said, “they basically coordinate their actions on the ground, yet Russia doesn’t want everyone else to see it.”
“The reason is that Moscow knows that its amicable ties with the group will have a negative impact on its relations with a number of countries, first of all with Israel.”
Following Russia’s involvement in Syria’s skies, an agreement based on aerospace coordination was made with the Israelis. But this coordination with the Israelis does not seem to faze Hezbollah. “Yes, they have an agreement with the Israelis, as they do with the Brits in Cyprus, with the Americans, and with the Turks,” said one source who wished to remain anonymous. “This does not affect us on the ground.”
It is also clear that Russia’s involvement in Syria’s skies could have an added benefit for Hezbollah and its movement of weapons.
“The Russians have made it clear to the Israelis there are certain areas [the Israelis] cannot operate in, especially around Latakia, as these are the areas the Russians are operating in,” he said. “This could indirectly help Hezbollah increase its procurement of weaponry in that area, thanks to Russian cover.”
Russia’s involvement has also seen an increase of Hezbollah fighters on the ground. Sources close to the party confirm that approximately 2,000 fighters have been added to the battlefield, specifically in the areas around Aleppo and Idlib, in the immediate aftermath of Russian airstrikes, adding more foot soldiers to the thousands already present there.
“For example, before Russia’s [involvement] there were around 200 fighters in Aleppo and Idlib, predominantly advisors,” said one source. “Now there are between 1,500 and 2,000.”
Following Daesh’s terrorist attack that left 43 dead in Beirut’s Southern Suburbs last Thursday, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah vowed to “seek new fronts with Daesh,” in Syria, a move suggesting that the party would further increase its troops there.
Yet some assert the continuing addition of fighters to the field is more of an indication of the lack of control over the battle. Coupled with the mounting death toll, Hezbollah’s participation is now a strain on its resources.
“Hezbollah in four years of fighting has lost roughly the same number (1,200 or so) that it lost fighting Israel in South Lebanon from 1982 to 2000,” said Andrew Tabler, a fellow focusing on Syria and US policy in the Levant at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This is nothing to sneeze at.”
“Due to the regime’s limited manpower, and especially trained manpower, Hezbollah forces will likely be in combat in Syria for years – now with Russian air support,” he said.
The battlefield also saw a surge of Iranian soldiers, as well as other militias from Iraq and Afghanistan during the last month.
“I think we may see even more non-state actors in Syria now that Russia is involved,” said Barmin. “The Russian operation in one sense legitimizes Iran’s presence in Syria… Iran brings with it a number of actors, such as Hezbollah.”
“But I have also seen reports about private defense companies from Russia recruiting people to fight alongside Assad.”
Yet despite this boost, analysts question whether or not the strategic interests of all these allies of Syria will remain in line with each other in the long term.
“Regarding the long-term implications, both Hezbollah and the Russians are fighting for the same cause and against the same enemy, so this is likely to bring them closer,” explained Hossam Matar, a Lebanese political analyst and researcher.
“Hezbollah is well aware that Russia maintains relations with Saudi Arabia and Israel, and even at a strategic level it recognizes Russia may have different strategic interests,” he said.
For Barmin, there are already differences in how Hezbollah-Iran view the outcome in Syria and how the Russians view it.
“Russia doesn’t necessarily need Assad in power […] in the long term, while for Tehran it is paramount,” he said. “But the two realize that if there is a rift between them, Assad will fall, so they try to save these discussions for later when there is a certain level of stability in Syria.”