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:

  • In Damascus, specifically its south, in Sayyidah Zainab and the surrounding areas, where pro-Iran and Hezbollah militias seized large parts of this region, both by seizing the properties of the displaced and by forcing those who did not leave to sell their properties, with the aim of establishing a "southern suburb" there, similar to the Suburb (Dahiyeh) in Beirut.
  • In the entire area of ​​the border strip from Talkalakh (Tel Kalah) in Rural Homs to Shebaa in Quneitra at a depth of 10-25 kilometres, and the area in-between in the al-Qusayr and western Rif Dimashq (Countryside of/Rural Damascus), where Hezbollah prevents the return of the residents of those areas who have been displaced since 2014, replacing the original inhabitants with families of Iranian-affiliated militias.
  • In the areas of southern Syria, Daraa and Quneitra, and specifically the "Triangle of Death" area that connects the governorates of Daraa, Quneitra and Rif Dimashq, where Hezbollah’s largest camps are concentrated.
  • In the regions of central and northern Syria, Homs, Hama, and rural Idlib, where Hezbollah forces are fighting the Syrian opposition.
  • In the areas west of the Euphrates, Deir ez-Zor, Al Bukamal (Abu Kamal), Mayadin, parts of Raqqa, rural Homs and eastern Damascus, which form the land link with Iraq, where Iran is working to establish a social structure loyal to it by penetrating the Arab clans in that region.

“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:

  • The decision to withdraw from Syria would spare Lebanon and Hezbollah the repercussions of the US Caesar Act, which threatens to impose sanctions on Lebanon, especially its banking sector, which is reeling from the crisis that hit it recently. Hezbollah’s withdrawal from Syria would constitute a card in the hands of Lebanon’s politicians and sympathisers in the face of the US Sanctions Act.
  • With this decision, Hezbollah would demonstrate that it is a Lebanese party that takes into account public opinion in its country, which stresses the need for Lebanon to be neutral vis-à-vis regional conflicts and axes. This call was launched by large sectors of the Lebanese street in its recent movement, and was emphasised by the supreme Christian authority Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rai.
  • Making room for the success of the efforts made by French President Emmanuel Macron in Lebanon to extricate it from the economic crisis. In this context, the French newspaper Le Figaro reported that French President Emmanuel Macron, during his first visit to Lebanon on 6 August 2020, in the aftermath of the Beirut port explosion, approached Hezbollah's Member of Parliament (MP) Mohammad Raad, during their short retreat, saying, "I want to work with you to change Lebanon. But prove that you are Lebanese. We all know that you have an Iranian agenda. Go back to the homeland. Leave Syria and Yemen, and let your mission here be to build the state, because the new state will be for the good of your children". The French newspaper confirmed that Macron's words "did not come out of hope", but rather within the context of an international agreement that the French President was entrusted with marketing in and from Lebanon, where Hezbollah’s greatest military and political influence is located".
  • Hezbollah’s need for a connection with Europe, after it was included on the terrorism lists of most countries there, with the exception of France that only included Hezbollah’s military arm on the terror lists, exempting the political apparatus. Accordingly, Hezbollah has an interest in facilitating the French initiative, and the same applies to France that wants to maintain a relationship with Hezbollah and Iran as well.

"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:

  • Syria is linked to an Iranian geopolitical project, with Lebanese Hezbollah as one of its proxies and part of the "Axis of Resistance and Opposition". Syria is unlikely to be handed over free of charge, neither at this stage nor at future stages. Hezbollah’s withdrawal is linked to the final settlements of the Syrian issue, whose time has not yet come. Relinquishing the Syrian card, which cost the Axis exorbitant prices, seems totally out of the question.
  • Over the years of its participation in the fighting, Hezbollah has established a complete logistical infrastructure in Syria, including camps, training and weapon storage centres, and supply routes. The rugged geography has helped create sites that are difficult to target.
  • The western Qalamoun areas, with their complex terrain, provide a vital depth for Hezbollah in the event of a war with Israel. Hezbollah has dug tunnels therein that ensure the protection of its operatives and soldiers, through which it can reach the Syrian Golan. These areas also constitute a tributary front for the Lebanese fronts, specifically the South and the Beqaa, that helps drain Israel, disperse its power, and weaken its capabilities.
  • Under its current circumstances, Syria constitutes a historic opportunity for Hezbollah, as Hezbollah gets benefits and advantages that it does not get in Lebanon itself, despite all that is said about its political and military control. Syria has become Hezbollah’s feeding channel and its most important financial source, through drug trade from Syria to Arab countries and the world. Hezbollah has huge investments in Syria’s economic projects. Syria is also a road and cache of Hezbollah’s weapons, and it is where dozens of Syrian militias made by Hezbollah and working for it are positioned.
  • Hezbollah is not committed to the affairs of Lebanon and its recovery from its escalating crises. It is therefore not concerned with the slogans of neutrality raised by some actors.
  • The decision to leave Syria is primarily an Iranian strategic decision. Hezbollah cannot leave Syria without Tehran’s order because the latter uses its arms as cards in any future negotiations. Such negotiations with the international actors are not presently on the table, especially that the US is preoccupied with the presidential elections. Hence, Hezbollah’s withdrawal from Syria is currently out of the question.

Conclusion

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.

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