Despite reports that the cease-fire agreement reached on July 7 between the United States, Russia and Jordan in southwestern Syria would keep Hezbollah and Iranian forces away from border territories with Israel and Jordan, it is becoming clear that this agreement doesn’t appear to constitute a significant setback for Hezbollah.
With its deployment of several thousand fighters in Syria, Hezbollah has played a major role as an infantry force. The movement’s ground forces coordinated closely with Russian warplanes in defeating the rebels in Aleppo in December 2016.
And as this Hezbollah-Russian coordination proved effective, it is unlikely that the cease-fire agreement will lead Moscow to get tough on Hezbollah. According to media reports, a high-ranking Russian military official recently met with Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut to discuss the role Hezbollah would take in the next phase of the Syrian war.
A Hezbollah official who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity to discuss his party’s stance toward the cease-fire agreement said that the movement supports “any chances for reconciliation or a cease-fire or political solution wherever possible.”
The official noted that even if Hezbollah were not present near the Golan Heights, it still retains a capability to strike at the Israeli front from Syria if tensions were to flare between the two rivals. “Borders do not prevent the launching of attacks,” he said, adding that the movement “has missiles with a range that could target Israel [from Syrian territory] without Hezbollah having to be physically present near the border area.”
This Hezbollah stance toward the cease-fire agreement that encompasses the areas of Daraa, Quneitra and Suwayda, stands in sharp contrast to that of its archenemy Israel. Following a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris July 16, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly stated to reporters that Israel opposes the cease-fire agreement on the grounds that it “perpetuates Iranian presence” in Syria.
Meanwhile, the Israeli daily Haaretz quoted a senior Israeli official as saying that the cease-fire agreement in its current form “is very bad” and “doesn't take almost any of Israel's security interests [into account] and creates a disturbing reality in southern Syria.”
The senior Israeli official, also complained that the agreement "doesn’t include a single explicit word about Iran, Hezbollah or the Shiite militias in Syria."
This disparity between Hezbollah’s somewhat positive stance toward the cease-fire deal on the one hand, and Israel’s complete negative stance toward it on the other, may very well be summed up in a single factor: Russian reluctance to put pressure on Hezbollah.
In an interview with Al-Monitor, Sergey Strokan, a journalist for the Russian daily Kommersant, said that Russia will not put pressure on Hezbollah “despite the very good ties between Russia and Israel.”
Further explaining this point, Strokan added, “Hezbollah is of critical importance for Russia when it comes to boots on the ground [in Syria] that the Russian warplanes are supporting from the air.”
According to Strokan, Russia would also be reluctant to pressure Hezbollah as this could jeopardize the Astana process, which was launched in January between Russia, Turkey and Iran, whereby these countries hold periodic talks in the Kazakh capital, with the aim of reaching a settlement for the Syrian crisis.
“Losing Hezbollah would mean for Russia also losing Iran in the Astana process,” he said, emphasizing that Moscow is keen on continuing this process with Turkey and Iran.
At the same time, the Hezbollah official acknowledged that the cease-fire agreement has a drawback for the movement: an American presence on the ground in Syria. Coinciding with the announcement of the cease-fire deal, reports have emerged about the US military establishing new facilities throughout the Middle East, including two new facilities on both sides of the Syrian-Jordanian border.
“We do not want any American presence on the ground in Syria,” the Hezbollah official said, adding that the movement is “realistic and knows that the United States — as a superpower — will have leverage and influence in Syria.”
However, just how much the US presence in Syria will pose a problem for Hezbollah is a topic open for debate. The US military has in recent months targeted what it referred to as pro-Syrian regime “Iranian-backed” forces, which it said advanced toward a US base in the area of Tanf near the Syrian border with Jordan.
But the US military has also sought to convey a message in no uncertain terms that it does not intend to embark on a broad campaign against the Syrian army or its allies, like Hezbollah.
During a testimony to Congress June 13, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis said that the targeting of the “Iranian-backed forces” near Tanf was simply “self-defense” aimed at protecting US forces stationed in Syria.
The US Central Command also released a statement June 6 in which it said that the US-led coalition against the Islamic State (IS) “does not seek to fight Syrian regime or pro-regime forces but remains ready to defend themselves if pro-regime forces refuse to vacate the deconfliction zone,” a zone surrounding the Tanf US base.
Speaking to Al-Monitor, Joshua Landis, the publisher of the blog Syria Comment, underscored that the US military wants to keep its mission in Syria focused solely on fighting IS. He said, “Trump has granted increasing authority to the generals.” Further elaborating that “the generals are against going into any secondary wars in Syria other than fighting IS.”
This reluctance to wage secondary wars, however, is also likely to apply to Hezbollah itself and its approach toward the US military presence in Syria. The movement has more than enough on its plate as it continues assisting the Syrian government in taking back territories in Deir ez-Zor and Palmyra, where there is a significant IS presence.
At the same time, Hezbollah also faces the ongoing danger of a possible war with Israel on the Lebanese southern front, and may soon be participating in an operation to clear militants from the outskirts of the Lebanese village of Arsal, on the eastern mountain range border area with Syria.
With all this on its plate, it is highly unlikely that Hezbollah will broaden its mission in Syria to target the American troops stationed in that country.