For over a week now, the Syrian town of Qusayr in Homs Province has seen some of the heaviest fighting in the two-year conflict. The struggle for Qusayr, says besieged President Bashar al-Assad, “is the main battle” in all of Syria. Lying adjacent to a highway linking Homs to the north and Damascus to the south, Qusayr is only a few miles from the Lebanese border and is thus a strategically vital node for both the regime and the rebels.
For the rebels, it’s part of a western supply route linked to Tripoli in northern Lebanon, where the rebels have enjoyed support since the uprising began in March 2011. For the Assad regime, Qusayr links Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon to the Alawite homeland on the Mediterranean coast, where Assad and his supporters will likely seek safe haven should they lose Damascus. In order to retake Qusayr from the rebels who have held it almost a year, the regime has ordered air strikes and called in reinforcements from Hezbollah as well as Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps forces.
Earlier reports suggested that Assad and allies had pushed the rebels out, but opposition activists say this is regime propaganda. "It's not true what the regime is claiming," said one Qusayr-based activist. "They're saying this to raise the morale of the fighters, because the rebels are giving them a beating." Indeed, Hezbollah itself seems to be absorbing heavy casualties, with 46 reportedly killed in Qusayr over the last week. Other sources claim that given the number of funerals in southern Lebanon and other Hezbollah-controlled regions over the last few days, the death toll may be closer to 100.
As Tony Badran, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes in NOW Lebanon, “If the casualty rate stays this high even for another week, it could prove devastating.” Badran explains that many of those killed in the first day of fighting were ambushed during the initial assault and “cut down by landmines and IED’s prepared by the Syrian rebels.” The rebels, writes Badran, “received assistance from certain Palestinian factions in planning the defense of the town.” Unconfirmed reports suggest that those Palestinian factions may include Hamas. In other words, two militias trained and armed by Iran—one Sunni, one Shia—may now be shooting at each other, with the side that the Islamic Republic has invested in most heavily losing.
At this point, it’s perhaps most accurate to describe the war not in terms of the Sunni-majority opposition vs. Assad, but the rebels vs. a large Iranian-trained and supplied force, including Assad’s military, his paramilitary gangs, Hezbollah, IRGC units, the popular militias, as well as Iranian-backed organizations from Iraq, like Asaib ahl al-Haq and Kitaeb Hezbollah. As Elliott Abrams writes in this week's issue, the supreme leader "wants to win and he understands that whether he wins or loses is immensely important." Indeed, given the amount of resources Tehran has now poured into winning Syria, it’s no longer Assad’s regime, but Iran’s. If Assad was once Iran’s junior partner, he’s now simply an Iranian protégé, and not necessarily the most important one fighting in Syria. That would probably be Hezbollah, which is why Qusayr is a key battlefield. Even if Assad doesn’t survive, key remnants of the regime will, and therefore holding that corridor between the Alawite coastal region and Hezbollah-held areas of Lebanon is a vital Iranian interest. What matters to Iran is not Assad, but the territory.
As Badran explains, it was Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei and Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani who ordered Hezbollah general secretary Hassan Nasrallah to send fighters to defend Iran’s vital interests in Syria. However, Hezbollah’s performance to date suggests that the Iranians may be holding a much weaker hand than they let on. If the Party of God is trounced by the Syrian rebels, what does that say of Hezbollah’s ability to make war on Israel?
One issue of course is that Hezbollah is not accustomed to this kind of combat. Typically the party of God fights guerilla wars on its own terrain, where it not only knows every inch of the territory, but is also able to melt into the civilian population whose support it can count on. With Qusayr, Hezbollah finds itself on unfamiliar ground and having trouble mounting an offensive, as this sound recording of Hezbollah fighters at Qusayr in apparent disarray shows.
Hezbollah has come under heavy criticism throughout the Middle East, especially in Lebanon and even its own Shia community, for making war on Syrians and thereby showing that the banner of resistance against Israel was merely a ruse. With Qusayr, Hezbollah has dropped all pretense of “resistance” and is instead an occupying force—and one subject to the same sorts of tactics, including ambushes, it normally employs against Israel. Hezbollah’s failures as an expeditionary force are a significant problem, as Badran explains, because the organization has let on that in the next round with the IDF it will go on the offensive and infiltrate northern Israel. Qusayr may well give Iran second thoughts about taking the fight to the enemy.
Indeed, Tehran may need to reconsider its regional strategy in its entirety. How much of an asset is Hezbollah in protecting Iran’s nuclear program? If the United States or Israel were to strike its nuclear facilities now, it’s doubtful Hezbollah would be able to fight on two fronts at once. The other issue is the quality and number of Hezbollah fighters. The July 2006 war with Israel cost Hezbollah between 500-600 dead, Badran writes, leaving them with a depleted force of experienced fighters. Pictures of the Hezbollah members killed in Qusayr show that most of the dead are too young to have been of fighting age in 2006. Rather, they’re recruits, “elite” by Hezbollah standards, but effectively cannon fodder. Sources explain that families of the dead are starting to grumble, wondering why their boys are being sent off to die in Syria. After all, if the purpose of Hezbollah is to defend Lebanon from Israel, wouldn’t sending fighters to Syria make the home-front more vulnerable to the depredations of the Zionists? That’s perhaps why Hezbollah is reluctant to send more experienced fighters to Syria—though there have already been some older members, perhaps commanders, killed—since it means risking losing battle-hardened units for the next round with Israel.
Hezbollah just doesn’t have any good options right now, unless they’re able to turn things around on the battlefield. If they don’t, Iran is in a bind. All that money and time Tehran has invested in exporting Khomeini’s revolution may come to nothing in the end. After all, the point of the Islamic resistance was to jump the Sunni-Shia divide, as well as the Arab-Persian one. As long as Iran could herd the Muslim Middle East into one big fold of resistance against Israel and the West, it could dream of overturning a millennium of Middle East history dominated by the Sunnis. That’s coming to look more and more like a millennial fantasy.