March 27, 2024

IntelBrief: Hezbollah Active on All Fronts of the Mideast Crisis

AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov

Bottom Line Up Front:

  • Lebanese Hezbollah is the lynchpin of Iran’s “Axis of Resistance” and the cornerstone of its effort to forge a “unity of fronts” against Israel.
  • Hezbollah not only directly challenges Israel across the Lebanon border but also advises and supports other Iranian allies, including the Houthi movement in Yemen and Iran-backed militias in Iraq.
  • Since the October 7 Hamas attack, Israel has stepped up strikes against Hezbollah not only in Lebanon but also in Syria.
  • In concert with Iran, Hezbollah is trying to lower tensions with Arab states of the Persian Gulf that have sought to counter Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon.

Lebanese Hezbollah, formed in the early 1980s by Lebanese Shia disciples of the leader of Iran’s Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, is Iran’s closest “Axis of Resistance” partner and a key instrument through which Iran projects power throughout the region. In the context of the ongoing Mideast crisis spawned by the October 7 attacks on Israel, Hezbollah is able to put pressure on Israel not only on the Lebanese border, but also through its involvement in advising and training Iran’s other allies in the region. Since deploying to Syria in 2013 to help the regime of President Bashar al-Assad combat a nationwide armed uprising, Hezbollah has maintained an extensive presence in Syria – not only to assist the beleaguered Syrian army but also to implement Iran’s “unity of fronts” strategy to encircle Israel with hostile forces. Had the Syria uprising succeeded in ousting Assad, Iran’s main Arab governmental ally, from power, Iran’s weapons supply line to Hezbollah would have been severed.

Due to Hezbollah’s indispensability to Iran, Iranian leaders have urged the group to avoid significant escalation on the Israel-Lebanon border and not provoke Israel to unleash an all-out strike campaign to destroy the group’s military infrastructure in Lebanon. Tehran’s key liaison to Hezbollah, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qods Force (IRGC-QF) commander Esmail Qaani, has made at least three known visits to Beirut since the October 7 Hamas attack, reportedly urging the group’s leaders not to drag the group and Iran into an all-out conflict with Israel and, possibly also, the United States. Hezbollah is so integral to Iran’s national security strategy that Iranian leaders would undoubtedly be compelled to defend Hezbollah in the event of another major war with Israel, particularly if it appeared Hezbollah was on the verge of defeat. For its part, Israel has been escalating its attacks on Hezbollah positions over the past two months and threatening to ramp up its strikes further in order to compel Hezbollah to pull its elite forces away from the Israel-Lebanon frontier. Israel insists Hezbollah pull back to reassure the 80,000 Israeli citizens displaced from northern towns that it is safe for them to return to their homes.

Yet, despite Hezbollah’s relatively cautious responses to Israel across the Lebanon border, the group’s involvement throughout the region has put the group in the retaliatory crosshairs of both Israel and the United States beyond Lebanon’s borders. Since the October 7 crisis erupted, Israel has not only escalated its attacks on Hezbollah in Lebanon, but also against the group and its IRGC-QF patrons in Syria. Addressing Israel’s policy on striking Hezbollah in Syria, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said on February 3: "Everywhere Hezbollah is, we shall be. We will take action everywhere required in the Middle East." From the outbreak of the Gaza war until early February, the IDF had struck more than 50 targets in Syria linked to Hezbollah. Hezbollah has said that, as of mid-March, at least 20 of its fighters had been killed in Syria since October 7. On March 19, Israel launched missiles at several military targets outside Damascus in what regional intelligence and Syrian sources said were stepped up strikes on Hezbollah fortifications there. An unnamed Syrian source told journalists: "These latest raids are clearly targeting Hezbollah's infrastructure in Syria, especially its elaborate fortifications along the Lebanese-Syrian border."

Hezbollah’s close relations with another Iranian ally, the Houthi movement in Yemen, has exposed the group to U.S.-led strikes intended to degrade the Houthi missile and armed drone arsenal and deter its attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea. The Houthi-Hezbollah relationship long predates the October 7 Hamas attack, as Hezbollah reportedly deployed some of its commanders to Yemen to train and support the Houthis for their war against the Saudi-led Arab coalition fighting the Houthis alongside Yemen’s internationally recognized government. The Arab coalition intervened in Yemen in early 2015. Hezbollah militia members have imparted to the Houthis long experience fielding Iran-supplied rockets, ballistic missiles, armed drones, and other weaponry. In the context of the October 7 Mideast crisis, regional and Iranian sources of Reuters reported that commanders of the IRGC-QF and Hezbollah were “on the ground in Yemen” helping to direct and oversee Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping. On February 27, U.S. Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee of the U.S. Congress that “credible public reports suggest a significant number of Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah operatives are supporting Houthi attacks from inside Yemen.” As expected, Hezbollah has paid a price for its involvement in the Houthi attacks on commercial shipping. During January 12-20, U.S. and U.K. strikes on Houthi facilities in Yemen resulted in 75 dead, including three IRGC operatives and six Hezbollah militia members, according to Sky News Arabia, citing Yemeni sources. The report added the IRGC and Hezbollah operatives were killed in various separate operations and locations targeted hit by the U.S. and U.K. strikes.

Further east, Hezbollah has been providing assistance to the pro-Iranian Shia militias in Iraq, including the powerful Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), which is referred to in many media outlets as “Iraqi Hezbollah.” KH and other Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria, which also field Iran-supplied weaponry, attacked U.S. bases in the two countries more than 180 times from October 19 until February. In early January, Sheikh Mohammad Hussein Al-Kawtharani, Lebanese Hezbollah’s primary liaison to Iraq, visited Baghdad to coordinate an escalation in operations against the U.S. military presence in the country, according to Amwaj media. The visit began Kawtharani’s first extended stay in Iraq in two years, and notably preceded a speech by Secretary-General of Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah that outlined the group’s intended responses to Israel’s late December airstrikes that killed senior Hamas and IRGC-QF commanders in Beirut and Damascus. In late January, a KH attack killed three U.S. military personnel at a remote base on the Jordanian side of the border with both Iraq and Syria. In retaliation, on February 3, the United States conducted a large-scale airstrike on militia installations in both countries. However, unlike in Syria and Yemen, there have not been reports of any Lebanese Hezbollah members being killed by the several U.S. retaliatory strikes against Iraqi and Syrian militia facilities.

At the same time, Hezbollah has benefitted from some regional trends that have eased pressure on the group within the Lebanese political system. For many years, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and other Sunni Arab-led powers have sought to undermine Hezbollah within Lebanon by funding and assisting Lebanon’s Sunni leaders. However, questioning the U.S. commitment to the region, the UAE began re-engaging Tehran in 2019, and Saudi Arabia re-established ties with Iran in early 2023. Along with that rapprochement, both Gulf states have largely abandoned efforts to undermine Hezbollah within Lebanon. The Gulf states have also welcomed the Assad regime – an ally of both Hezbollah and Iran – back into the Arab fold. Post-October 7, regional sentiment in support of the Palestinians suffering under the Israeli offensive in Gaza has spurred new engagement between Hezbollah and the Gulf states. On March 19, a senior Hezbollah official, Wafiq Safa, made a landmark trip to the UAE to facilitate the release of more than a dozen Lebanese nationals detained there. The visit, conducted at the invitation of UAE leaders, appeared to signal a shift away from the hostility that has long-defined relations between Hezbollah and the UAE. Still, improved relations between Hezbollah and major U.S.-allied Arab powers will likely not halt Israeli efforts to degrade the group’s capabilities, nor will they necessarily prevent the group from suffering losses at the hands of U.S. strikes on the Axis of Resistance parties across the region.