In Syria, Two Isolated Villages Witnessed Hezbollah’s Rise
Nubul and Zahraa were under siege until militants intervened
Heroic portraits of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad gradually disappear the farther north you drive from Aleppo. The red, white and black colors of the Syrian flag give way to the yellow and green banners of Hezbollah.
For three and a half years, the rural towns of Nubul and Zahraa lay under siege by surrounding villages. While their Sunni neighbors supported the uprising, the two small Shi’ite towns stood on the side of the regime.
The story of Nubul and Zahraa is not only one of two towns that used to live in harmony with their neighbors until a bloody and sectarian conflict ripped them apart. They have also become another example of Hezbollah’s growing power and influence in the Syrian civil war.
In recent years, the Lebanese Shi’ite movement have transformed from a political party and anti-Israel guerilla army into a powerful regional actor that has expanded its field of operations from its base in Lebanon to the battlefields in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
Surrounded by olive groves, fields and war-ravaged villages, I arrive in the loyalist villages of Nubul and Zahraa, north of Aleppo.
In February 2016, a coordinated two-day operation involving the Russian air force, the Syrian Army, Hezbollah and the Iraqi Al Nujaba militia broke the three-and-a-half-year siege of the two villages — to the relief of its inhabitants
“There was a lack of food, medicine and electricity,” 40-year-old local artillery officer Abu Sulayman says. “We were completely cut off from the rest of the world. A lot of people died because we lacked the right medicine and facilities to treat the wounded.”
A thousand people lost their lives during the siege due to fighting, daily mortar and rocket impacts as well as the lack of food and medicine. Around half of the losses were civilians and a hundred of them were children.
When the humanitarian crisis was at its worst, locals began cutting down the precious and hard-to-breed olive trees to use for cooking and heat.
Despite these hardships, according to people in Nubul and Zahraa the worst part of the years under siege is the enmity and hatred it created between the residents and their neighboring towns and villages.
“We used to go to school and play together with the children from the surrounding villages,” says physical education teacher Mohsin Sharbu, 30, who joined one of paramilitary groups to defend his town Nubul during the siege. “We would marry each other across sectarian lines and there was no difference between us. But unfortunately some bad people in both camps managed to stir up people’s sectarian feelings.”
Mohsin is one of around 3,000 local men who joined the ranks of pro-government militias when fighting broke out in the area in 2012.
The sun is setting over Nubul and Zahraa when Abu Sulayman agrees to take us to the front line. The rebel forces still control the areas south of the town and Kurdish YPG forces are in control of the north.
Despite being severely damaged by the war, it’s obvious that this area used to be the high end of town. Today however, the swimming pools are empty and the houses are covered with sandbags and bullet holes. The residents fled long ago. 800 meters from rebel positions, Abu Sulayman halts.
“They blew up a suicide car bomb right here, killing 17 of our men,” he says. “The dirty dog who did it is still inside,” he explains, pointing at the car half-buried by the rubble.
While we are officially in a de-escalation zone, the sound of grasshoppers is regularly interrupted by the heavy artillery rounds and gunshots in the distance.
In May 2017, Russia, Iran and Turkey concluded a deal establishing de-escalation zones in four areas of Syria. However, the reality on the ground seems to tell another story.
“The ceasefire as they call it on television just means that we are holding back a little,” a young soldiers tells me. “In reality there is no ceasefire – the clashes are just running low at the moment and we are not conquering new territory.”
All the men at the front are locals of Syrian origin. But they aren’t dressed in the colors of the Syrian army – instead they wear Hezbollah batches and Shi’ite religious slogans.
Since the start of the conflict, the Syrian regime has outsourced a large part of its military operations from the army to local pro-government militias. It was the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Qasem Sulaymani, who personally coordinated the training and organizing of local militias under the paramilitary National Defense Force in 2012, which today consists of approximately 90.000 soldiers.
“Hezbollah and the Syrian government has established local-based militias as a replacement for recruitment in the army, so fighters can defend their hometowns,” explains Rasmus Jacobsen, founder of the Beirut-based security and consultant agency Atlas Assistance. “That has relieved Hezbollah, the Syrian army and the rest of the pro-Assad coalition, who has instead been able to prioritize larger and more strategic battles.”
Above — in the center of Nubul, a poster hangs on a local sandwich store depicting the leaders of Russia, Syria, Iran and Hezbollah. At top — during the siege, a rocket landed in the yard of this home. A two-year old boy was struck in the head by a fragment but survived. Photos by the author
According to Jacobsen, Hezbollah has taken advantage of the opportunity to secure a more permanent stronghold in Syria once the conflict is over.
“Hezbollah has established a strong local presence and created loyal divisions in Shiite towns in Syria,” he explains.
“In these places, Hezbollah is not only training local militias — they are taking over a lot of government functions and providing basic services in the absence of the state, in the same way that Hezbollah is replacing the Lebanese state in parts of southern Lebanon.”
The Hezbollah movement officially intervened in the Syrian civil war in 2013, when the Assad regime was losing ground to rebel advances. The primary interest of the Hezbollah leadership was to secure its overland supply line to Iran and to keep a sufficiently anti-Israeli administration in power in Syria.
Further, Hezbollah supporters felt threatened by the Sunni militant rebels in Syria and feared that the unrest would spill into Lebanon. The Shi’ite-Islamist political and militant movement from Lebanon, whose raison d’être since its founding during the Lebanese civil war has been resistance against Israel, now found itself on foreign ground in Syria fighting other Islamist militant groups.
Yet Hezbollah has proven itself to be one of the most effective military actors in the Syrian chaos, which has led many observers to conclude that Hezbollah so far is the biggest winner of the conflict.
Jacobsen says the Lebanese movement is more disciplined than are the other armed groups in the Middle East.
However, Hezbollah’s victory hasn’t come without a cost. The movement is known for being secretive, but most estimates put its losses in Syria at a minimum of 1,500 fighters. Some of its highest-ranking commanders have been killed in Israeli air strikes.
Additionally, Hezbollah’s popularity in the Arab world has suffered a severe backlash since 2006, when large parts of the Muslim world celebrated the movement’s war against Israel.
“It is very doubtful that Hezbollah can regain its lost reputation in the Arab world in the foreseeable future considering the opposition against the group in the wider Arab populations and media,” Jacobsen says.
“Over many years, Hezbollah built its reputation as a resistance movement and an organization of principle,” explains Sahar Atrache, formerly an analyst at Crisis Group. “Syria has changed this reality. Paradoxically, Hezbollah’s growing force has rendered it more vulnerable as it has widened the array of its enemies.”
Even with Hezbollah’s deteriorating popularity, its involvement in Syria has made it into a stronger regional power.
“Hezbollah has transformed,” Atrache says. “It has become stronger militarily by expanding its arsenal and gaining battle expertise. Now it has grown into a regional force.”
This expansionist strategy is not limited to Syria. In cooperation with its main ideological and financial sponsor Iran, it has created the Hezbollah brigades in Iraq, and has been accused of assisting and advising the Houthi rebels in their fight against the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
In August 2017, secretary general of Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah appeared on T.V. to announce the Lebanese army’s take-over of Islamic State’s last pocket of territory on Lebanese soil. The deal ultimately marked the end of Hezbollah’s four-year battle to control the mountainous Qalamoun border area.
And in September 2017, Nasrallah declared victory in the Syrian war, describing the ongoing fighting as mere “scattered battles.”
The declaration was not only a show of confidence by the Lebanese movement. It may even mark the beginning of a new phase in its Syria campaign. In the years to come, Hezbollah could consolidate its gains on the ground while preparing for what many analysts consider an inevitable future war with Israel.
As the sun is setting over Nubul and Zahraa, we leave the front line in the back of a pick-up truck. At night, the surrounding fields are a danger zone of kidnappings and surprise attacks from rebels in the neighboring villages.
As with most inhabitants here, the artillery officer Abu Sulayman is pleased that Iran and Hezbollah stepped in to help when the Syrian army was pinned down on other fronts. His main concern is that it may be impossible to reconcile with his neighbors once the war is over.
“I don’t see a future for us here in these towns,” he says. “We are surrounded by enemies. We used to live together in peace, but too much blood has come between us now. I simply don’t see how things can turn back to normal someday. God is the only one who can solve this.”