On 13 September 2020, the President of the Free Patriotic Movement in Lebanon Gebran Bassil stated that Hezbollah has begun to think of returning from Syria, calling on the Lebanese to embrace and support this decision. This announcement sparked mixed reactions about its accuracy, seriousness, and whether it was merely a political manoeuvre with specific goals. It is noteworthy that Bassil's announcement coincided with information circulated by some media outlets, according to which Hezbollah began to implement a gradual withdrawal plan from Syria weeks ago, specifically from the southern and southeastern fronts, where it withdrew more than 2,500 fighters, including military experts and commanders. This news remains unconfirmed, and there is no evidence that it has taken place, nor has Hezbollah issued a clear indication in this regard. What then is the truth of the matter?
Hezbollah’s deployment map in Syria
Hezbollah is present in many Syrian regions, according to the following formation:
“Theoretical" reasons for declaring the withdrawal
In theory, the news of Hezbollah’s withdrawal from Syria could be believable as many factors converge to drive the Hezbollah decision-maker to make a decision to withdraw under the circumstances, considering that the political returns of such a “rational” decision would be in the interests of Lebanon which is undergoing its worst crisis at the current stage, in addition to other expected benefits for Hezbollah because of this decision, including:
"Practical" restrictions to withdrawal
Syria is not just an arena where Hezbollah has fought an adversary and – having ended its mission – it is time for it to return to its bases east or west of the Litani River. The relationship between Syria and Hezbollah is a complex one that cannot be easily severed. That relationship limits Hezbollah’s ability to undertake a complete withdrawal from the Syrian field, for several reasons, the most important of which are the following:
It may be naive to believe that Hezbollah is currently considering leaving Syria, given the strategic advantages that Syria provides it with. On the contrary, neutral reports indicate that Hezbollah has recently sent forces to four Syrian governorates, namely Daraa, Quneitra, Rif Dimashq, and Deir ez-Zor. In recent years, Hezbollah has endured thousands of Israeli strikes, relying on its assessment that it is achieving a long-term, deep and strategic presence in Syria and, therefore, would not be easily ready to concede a gain for which it has paid exorbitant prices to satisfy the wishes of some Lebanese actors or meet the delusions and wishes of the French President.
Gebran Bassil most likely wanted from his statements regarding Hezbollah’s withdrawal from Syria to ease the pressure on his own party (the Free Patriotic Movement), an ally of Hezbollah, by the Christian community, following the statements of Patriarch al-Rai calling for neutrality, as well as send messages to the international community to ease the pressure on Lebanon, and perhaps split the Franco-US alliance.
In any case, it did not take long before a Hezbollah official denied this news, saying that "there is nothing new in Syria that calls for changing Hezbollah’s position". Besides, the French initiative is locked in a stalemate as a result of Hezbollah's failure to adhere to its requirements.
EPC | 20 Oct 2020
Malik al-Hafez | 13 Oct 2020
Ahmed Diab | 11 Oct 2020