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After Aleppo victory, what's next for Hezbollah?

With recent military victories in the Syrian war, Hezbollah has consolidated its political power and influence in Lebanon as well as in the greater region.
Lebanese Hezbollah supporters carry a replica of Hezbollah emblem during a religious procession to mark Ashura in Beirut's southern suburbs, Lebanon October 12, 2016. REUTERS/Aziz Taher - RTSRWQ6

The capture of Aleppo by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russia and Hezbollah, has given a boost to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Shiite movement's deepening involvement in the Syrian war since 2013 had led to a narrowed margin of maneuver at home, as political and social pressures increased on it. The battle for and victory in Aleppo Dec. 22 has reinforced Hezbollah’s “winning” narrative vis-a-vis its political opponents and among its popular base and will potentially help justify future battles the organization might wage in Syria.

“Hezbollah’s capture of Aleppo shows that its fight alongside the regime of Assad was the right thing to do,” Abdallah Younes, a Shiite resident of the Bekaa Valley, told Al-Monitor. Hezbollah’s decision to send thousands of fighters to support Assad resulted in heavy fallout in the Bekaa and elsewhere in Lebanon, for which the Lebanese criticized the organization. The fertile Bekaa, on the border with Syria in eastern Lebanon, has been on the front line of the Syrian war since 2013. Syrian rebels have repeatedly shelled the region, which has also been the target of several terror attacks. In 2014, Jabhat al-Nusra carried out suicide attacks in the area. Hezbollah and the Lebanese army have also clashed with Islamic State (IS) fighters in the mountainous Qalamoun area, east of the Bekaa. IS was behind several attacks in the Bekaa, including one on the Christian village of Qaa in June 2016.

The intense fighting in the Syrian war has pitted a mostly Sunni insurgency against pro-Assad regime forces bolstered by Hezbollah and other Shiite forces in the form or troops from Iran and Popular Mobilization Units fighters from Iraq. Syrian government forces and their allies have also received Russian air coverage since Sept. 30, 2015. The conflict is today increasingly seen as a sectarian proxy war between two axes: one pro-Shiite (consisting of Iran, Hezbollah, Syria and Russia) and the other Sunni dominated (including Gulf countries and Turkey). Nonetheless, Ankara changed its position after reaching a deal in September with Russia that allowed it to launch attacks on its Syrian Kurdish nemeses under the banner of Operation Euphrates Shield.

Meanwhile on the Lebanese political scene, Hezbollah has been backed by the Christian Free Patriotic Movement, led by Michel Aoun, and the Shiite Amal movement and pitted against a coalition of the Sunni Future Movement, headed by Saad Hariri, Christian Lebanese Forces and the Druze Progressive Party. A clear power shift on the battlefield in favor of the Iranian, Shiite axis in Syria in the weeks prior to the fall of Aleppo translated in Lebanon into the Oct. 31 election of Hezbollah’s preferred presidential candidate, Aoun, and the formation of a government headed by Hariri as prime minister.

“The Aleppo victory put an end to the party’s local struggle and helped create a shift in the political equation,” Brahim Beyram, a Lebanese journalist and analyst who covers Hezbollah for an-Nahar, told Al-Monitor. Sources close to Hariri who spoke to Al-Monitor said that the imminent fall of Aleppo and the tilt in the political outcome in Syria in favor of the regime were among the factors that facilitated the political deal in Lebanon. Hariri, already weakened by the financial scandal of his company Oger being on the verge of bankruptcy, believed that if Aleppo fell, it would mean a clear shift in power to Hezbollah and its allies, so he agreed to form a government when Aoun selected him to do so.

“People are more optimistic. Hezbollah has been able to turn the tide in Syria and in Lebanon. This will definitely stifle the criticism, though limited, faced by the organization locally,” Hassan, a Dahieh resident who declined to reveal his full name, told Al-Monitor.

Hezbollah has lost between 1,500 to 2,000 fighters in Syria, and 5,000 others have been wounded or injured, according to sources close to the party with whom Al-Monitor spoke. Hezbollah has lost important symbolic and military figures in the Syrian war. Jihad Mughniyeh, son of Hezbollah operations chief Imad Mughniyeh, who was assassinated in 2008 in Damascus, was killed in an Israeli attack in southern Syria in January 2015. In December 2015, Hezbollah commander Samir Kuntar, who was working on developing a new brigade in the Golan region, was also killed. Hezbollah star commander Mustafa Badreddine was killed in May 2016 in a mysterious explosion in Syria. Hundreds of Hezbollah fighters were killed in Zabadani and in Homs. More than 200 died in Aleppo alone, Beyram said.

“People were starting to complain about the number of martyrs in Syria, as well as about corruption allegations surrounding some commanders deployed there,” a source close to Hezbollah's mid-level leadership told Al-Monitor. Hezbollah as a political party controls a third of the Lebanese parliament and government. It had been accused of corruption involving the trash scandal that triggered protests in 2016 and faced allegations of maintaining illegal internet transmission stations that benefited local political figures. “The war in Syria has made a lot of people rich through trafficking of all sorts. The Hezbollah leadership knows about it, but can’t do much,” the source asserted.

Recent victories in Syria will not only allow Hezbollah to consolidate its popular base in Lebanon, but will also provide it more space to maneuver on the battlefields of Syria. According to a Hezbollah fighter who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “All opposition front lines are in a state of weakness and up for grabs.”

The fighter believes, nonetheless, that some areas, such as the Ghouta suburb in Damascus and southern Syria, may be handed over after a reconciliation deal is reached with the opposition. “The next battle will most probably take place in Idlib,” he remarked.

According to Beyram, Hezbollah will now focus on areas on the outskirts of Damascus, such as Wadi Barada, which sits along the road leading to the Syrian capital, and are considered strategic by the party. “Wadi Barada is located on the other side of the Qalamoun Mountains, a region that Hezbollah wants secured because of its geographical [proximity] to its Bekaa bastion,” Beyram explained.

As the main offensive force in Syria, Hezbollah has become a major player in shaping that country's future. Its involvement in Syria has also provided the organization with a platform from which to project regional influence, such as in Iraq and Yemen, where, Hezbollah sources told Al-Monitor, the organization has deployed experts.

Hezbollah increasingly faces an ideological dichotomy given its evolution from a pan-Arab resistance movement focused on fighting Israel to a sectarian militia helping advance Iran’s controversial agenda across the Arab world. It has become one of the biggest mass parties in the Middle East, boasting thousands of members and hundreds of thousands of mostly Lebanese Shiite supporters. With Hezbollah's power comes responsibility, and its Iranian agenda may not necessarily be in the best interest of its Lebanese popular base, which lives surrounded by Sunnis.