Hezbollah is worried and sending intercessors
Russia expels Hezbollah of middle Eastern criminal markets and of regional policy
Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah with supporters
A metal gate in a stone wall surrounding a two floor home is what separates Lebanese and Syrian territories in the Lebanese border town of Qaa. The small, Christian border town that was target to six ISIS suicide bombers on a warm June day of 2016 is just one small example of the dozens of border towns scattered along the porous Lebanese-Syrian border.
Today, two years later, the town of Qaa has risen from the ashes of those horrific terrorist attacks and resumed the quiet rural life with farmers tending to their fruit orchards.
It is a different story however when it comes to the neighboring border town of Al Qasr. Due to the interlaced geography of the area, Al Qasr happens to be situated on both Lebanese and Syria territories, and that is the root of the ongoing friction between the residents of this town and the 11th division of the Syrian Arab army.
The source of friction dates back to the first week of June of this year when Russian armed forces deployed in the rural towns of Homs province in western Syria on the border with Lebanon. A deployment that was not welcomed by Hezbollah units already deployed in that area for the better part of the last five years, ever since they occupied the strategic town of Qusair and drove out its inhabitants before establishing a substantial military base there.
Hezbollah, the Shia Islamic organization was founded in 1982 in Lebanon as a military resistance movement against Israeli occupation. It has ever since received weapons, training and funding from the Islamic republic of Iran. Since its foundation, Hezbollah has grown into a state within a state and has actively participated in the Syrian war by sending fighters to support the Syrian president Bashar Assad alongside other Shia fighters from Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.
For reasons still unknown, Russian forces withdrew from the area after only two days of deployment and were replaced by units from the 11th division of the Syrian Arab Army. A move that reduced tensions and restored calm to the area after a dramatic escalation.
According to sources on the ground, soldiers of the 11th division started laying barbed wire and anti-personnel land mines along the border in a step meant to put an end to any and all smuggling activities. That step was not welcomed by Hezbollah militants and Shia residents of that area alike. Smuggling has long been the primary source of income for those living along the Syrian-Lebanese border, and this move threatened to disrupt their livelihood. The goods smuggled over the border are weapons and drugs. Weapons come into Lebanon from Iran via Syrian and Iraqi territories and drugs cross over the opposite way, and since drugs are a 175 million dollars a year business, and the Lebanese Hashih is considered the best and most expensive in European and Arab markets. The “Lebanese Red” is the most sought after and most expensive sort in the cafes of Amsterdam for example.
This is why one can understand the reason that the residents then indirectly delivered a message through an intermediary,” Hajj” Muhammad Jaafar, the leader of the “Homeland Shield” militias, or “Der’ Al Watan” a Lebanese Shia armed group operating in Syria under the umbrella of the Russian armed forces, receiving weapons, funds and logistical support from the Russian forces operating in Syria. The message that he delivered to the Russian forces was that their presence is not welcome and that any attempts to close the smuggling routes will have grave repercussions. Their official explanation was that there are 15 thousand Lebanese who owned land on the Syrian side and they lived and worked there in farming that land, therefore any step to close the border will contradict a status quo and an unspoken agreement that have prevailed since the 1970s and the start of the Lebanese civil war. This unspoken agreement simply allows free, unhindered crossing through these illegal routes for residents of those areas, and to them, any changes in this status quo is a direct threat to their livelihood since the only legal border crossing is in the town of Qaa, which is situated 30 km away from Al Qasr, and that is a major disruption to their daily work routines. Not to mention the underlying economic factor represented in the very low prices in Syria compared to Lebanon, where one can purchase a day’s needs of for two thousand Syrian Lira, the equivalent of three US dollars, whereas buying the same products in Lebanon cost no less than $20. Dairy products, such as milk, cheese and yogurt are also substantially cheaper in Syria and not only is it profitable to buy those products there, it has even become a source of income to bring them across the border and sell them at Lebanese prices. Even medical services cost substantially less than they do in Lebanon. A procedure or even a doctor’s visit can easily cost 10 to 15 times more, which makes it understandable why the residents of these areas, who are mostly farmers, find it more convenient and cheaper to resort to Syrian medical facilities. But everyone involved understands the real underlying reasons. That all this noise was about sustaining open smuggling routes between Lebanon and Syria.
There is however another, more subtle and clandestine reason for Hezbollah’s objection to closing these routes. To Hezbollah, this is a political message aimed to achieve two goals. The first is reassure Israel that all weapons smuggling routes from Syria to Lebanon will be controlled and closed under strict Russian supervision, and that Iran will not be allowed to pass weapons to Hezbollah, including the much feared Iranian long range missile that can reach the depth of the Israeli territories. The second goal is to stop Hezbollah from transporting drugs from Lebanon to markets in Turkey, Jordan, Egypt and the gulf via Syria, thus putting a financial stranglehold on the already financially strained Shia population of the Bekaa valley, the same Shia that constitute the backbone of Hezbollah’s fighting force. A move that has the potential of causing turmoil within the rank and file.
The local residents of Al Qasr are becoming more vocal in their opposition to the new measures and are threatening to take things further.
“The Russians are in fact implementing a blockade on us. They want to strangle us and the Syrians are colluding with them. If the Syrian government in Damascus does not swiftly resolve this situation, we will take matters into our own hands and resist those who are trying to strangle us”.
Says 42 year old Mahdi Jaafar (a pseudonym), a lifelong inhabitant of Al Qasr and a Hezbollah supporter and fighter. “We have spilled our blood and given the lives of our children to fight terrorism. Our martyrs are hundreds of times more than what the Russians have lost, and if they think they can besiege us in this manner, they are mistaken.”
These threats are not without basis. There has been a precedent of direct contact between Hezbollah and Russians back in 1986 when Hezbollah, an organization that by then had made a reputation for itself through kidnapping foreigners as a means of sending political messages, kidnapped four soviet diplomats near the Soviet embassy in Beirut. An event that was reported at the time by the western media outlets such as the LA times and the Guardian to name a few, and was recently mentioned by US CIA case officer and operative, Robert B Baer in his book, The Perfect Kill published: 21 laws for assassins in 2013.
It was later known that the man who inspired the kidnapping was the Shia Muslim Scholar, and the spiritual leader of Hezbollah, Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah.
One of the diplomats (Arkady Katkov) who was wounded during the kidnapping was later executed and his body was dumped in the Beirut football stadium. This terrorist act did not go unpunished and members of the spetsnaz “Alpha” group arrived in Beirut, kidnapped a relative of one of the terrorists, castrated him and then shot him in the head, after which they dismembered the body and started sending pieces to the Hezbollah official who ordered the kidnapping. A message that Hezbollah swiftly received and understood, resulting in the almost immediate release on the remaining three diplomats. That incident has not been forgotten. Neither by Hezbollah nor the Russians.
Looking at the above, it’s understandable that this state of frustration is not new within the ranks of Hezbollah.
Both Hezbollah and their Iranian backers are experiencing rising tensions as a potential compromise in the region becomes clearer. Repeated visits by Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu to Moscow have only elevated tensions as it is becoming clearer that Israelis have given reassurances to the Kremlin that they will not attempt to destabilize the Assad regime as long as the Iranian presence in the region is kept in check and even potentially neutralized.
Despite ongoing diplomatic efforts, devastating Israeli aerial bombing of Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria is an ongoing operation, with four separate incidents recorded on the 3rd, 8th, 11th and 23rd of this month.
Wadih El Hayek,