The leader of the Iranian-backed militant group, Hizbullah, has declared the movement's fighters will remain in Syria as long as Damascus requires military assistance.
Speaking on the occasion of the major Shia feast, Ashoura, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said the Lebanese-based Hizbullah would maintain a presence in Syria "until further notice".
“No one can force us to withdraw from Syria and as long as the Syrian leadership needs us we will stay there,” he said.
He dismissed Israel’s claim that its attacks on Syria are meant to disrupt Iranian arms deliveries to Hizbullah. The Israeli military has admitted it had carried out 200 air and missile strikes on Syrian targets over the past 18 months in order to curb Hizbullah and counter Iran’s presence in Syria.
He said Hizbullah had acquired guided missiles in spite of Israel's efforts to block such weapons and warned Israel if it "imposes war on Lebanon, it will face an unexpected fate".
Nasrallah argued that Israel’s air strike on a Syrian military facility on Monday “had nothing to do with [Iranian] arms transfers to Hizbullah”.
Syrian anti-aircraft fire during this attack brought down a Russian military plane, killing 15 crew members. Russia initially blamed Israel, which held the Syrian military responsible. Russian president Vladimir Putin and Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu defused any hint of a crisis between their countries.
Nasrallah explained Hizbullah’s involvement in Syria by saying Lebanon “cannot be separated from what’s happening in the region [as events there are] critical for the Lebanese people. Had Daesh [the Arab acronym for Islamic State or Isis] seized control of Syria, what would have Lebanon’s fate been?”
Hizbullah became involved in the Syrian conflict in 2011-2012 when it deployed fighters to guard Sayyidah Zeinab, a Shia shrine near Damascus. Hizbullah then provided protection to Syrian border villages inhabited by Lebanese citizens who have lived in Syria since France carved Lebanon out of Syria following the first World War.
Hizbullah's first major military engagement was in 2013 at the Syrian town of al-Qusayr, which had been occupied by anti-government forces, including al-Qaeda's Jabhat al-Nusra. Since then Hizbullah has been drawn deeper and deeper into the Syrian war and become an indispensable ally of Damascus.
Although it is often reported that Iran pushed Hizbullah into the Syrian quagmire, a source close to the movement told The Irish Times that Iran became engaged due to pressure from Hizbullah. This led to the dispatch of Iraqi Shia militiamen belonging to Iran-backed groups.
A US state department survey has said Hizbullah and these militias have been strengthened by extensive battlefield experience and are expanding their influence further afield. Hizbullah is reportedly providing training to Yemen’s Houthi rebels fighting US-supported Saudi-led forces campaigning in that country since March 2015.
Hizbullah is estimated to have 25,000 full-time fighters and an equal number of reservists. Since Hizbullah’s creation in 1982, Iran has provided training, finance and weapons to its members. Several thousand of its fighters have been killed in Syria.
Hizbullah’s political party won 15 seats out of 128 in Lebanon’s May 2018 parliamentary election and is allied with five other parties, giving the bloc a 75-seat majority.
Hizbullah operates a hospital, clinics and welfare services and has a construction arm engaged in the development of deprived Shia regions in Lebanon. It also rebuilds infrastructure and urban areas in Lebanon devastated by war.