The Assad regime in Damascus has depended on Lebanon’s Army of God to shore up its weakened troops. But now many Lebanese fighters are refusing to serve.
When we talked to Imad in April, he was committed to supporting Assad’s forces and fueled by a desire to exact revenge on jihadists who beheaded a relative in Lebanon’s army after the soldier was captured in the Lebanese town of Arsal. Now, although he still wants revenge, he has grown weary of the war and frustrated with Syrian government forces.
“I refuse to go back because when we take over a village and hand it to the Syrian army, it gets retaken [by rebel forces],” he says while fiddling with the stove that heats the small room. His decision, made in June, has cost him dearly and since then the school funding for his kids has been cut, his family medical benefits have been taken away, and heating subsidies evaporated.
The last of his six deployments to Syria was in Aleppo, and while he is still willing to fight Israel or serve on the border with Syria, he says, his reservist salary has also stopped.
He says Hezbollah is under increasing pressure since the summer, when casualties increased alongside the needs of the Syrian regime. The organization, whose militia is in fact a powerful parallel army in Lebanon, doesn’t make casualty statistics public, but funerals in its support base in Beirut’s southern suburbs are increasingly common, as is discontent from the families of its fighters in Syria.
The three reservists that The Daily Beast spoke to painted a scene of bloody back and forth combat where casualties mount but little is achieved.
Imad’s loss of benefits, especially for his kids’ schooling, has hit his family hard, but he says at least he is able to rely on the stability of the hashish trade. He thanks God for a good harvest, and while he says sales to Syria were slightly down this fall, ISIS and the Nusra Front are still loyal customers, using smugglers in Arsal so they can get baked on Lebanese blonde.
Imad says he knows of at least 60 other reservists who have decided not to go back to Syria and also had their family benefits cut. “I also know of people who have gone back to fight [in Syria]because of the financial pressure. Only the guys with an alternative say ‘Enough!’”
In a small village in the Lebanon mountains overlooking the Bekaa Valley, Jaffar hobbled to the door of a modest second-floor apartment in his extended family’s triplex. He suffered a severe hip injury when a wall fell on him after a rebel’s rocket struck the Damascus-area house he was holed up in during his final tour in July. Three of the seven fighters he was with were killed and the other four wounded.
Jaffar, who also declines to use his real name because of fear of reprisal, notified his commanders of his desire to no longer serve in Syria, but was required to do a last tour while replacements were organized. “If I refused to continue before my replacement had arrived I would have been investigated and it would have created a hostile relationship,” he says ominously. He sits awkwardly on a chair as the leg connected to his injured hip juts out into the center of the cluttered kitchen.
A Sunni Muslim in his mid-thirties, Jaffar is not the typical member of a movement that champions Shia rights. In 2000 he joined Hezbollah’s Resistance Brigades—the movement’s non-Shia volunteer fighting force—to confront Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon. Since those days he continued to serve, including 15 deployments to Syria, but he doesn’t want to fight a war that he sees no way out of.
“I joined to fight Israel, why should I die in Syria? It’s a lost battle, we have lost thousands,” he says. Jaffar also blames the Syrian army for losing territory taken by Hezbollah, but sees the Russian intervention to prop up Assad as a definitive sign of the inability to militarily win a war that has ballooned into an international proxy conflict. “If the Americans, Russians, and Syrian [government]want a solution, they will find one,” he adds. “It’s a big game in Syria and it’s a misery.”
As he hobbles around his musty and cramped apartment in search of his AK-47 converted into a grenade launcher, it is clear that Jaffar is not in any condition to fight, even if he wanted to. However, because he announced his intention to stop going to Syria, he has lost all his benefits for his family. Since returning from the July deployment, he only gets specific medical support for the injury that brought him home.
“It makes me feel like we are mercenaries,” he says dejectedly about Hezbollah’s treatment of him and others reservists exhausted by the war. “Now there is a problem to get people to go to Syria because they thought it would be a short war, but as it drags on people don’t want to continue,” he explains.
A Hezbollah Special Forces commander in charge of five units fighting across Syria claims there are no orders to cancel benefits to reservists who opt out of fighting in Syria. “Hezbollah is bigger than that,” he says, declining to give his name because he’s not authorized to speak to the media. He denies the organization is under pressure to provide more boots on the ground and refuses to discuss casualty numbers or comment on whether they are increasing.
In Beirut’s largely Shia southern suburbs, Hezbollah’s flags wave and defiant pictures of its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, hang on walls next to posters of martyrs who fell in Syria. The working-class community here is the party’s base, but while residents embrace Hezbollah as their guardians and protectors, there is also a sense of frustration.
Abu Ahmed, who fears retribution if named, brings his young son with him to a meeting with The Daily Beast in the bustling neighborhood of Dahiya. The child is shy and stoic and his father says that the boy cried every night during his multiple tours in Syria. Under pressure from his family to stop fighting and a growing resentment of the war, he stopped going to Syria last year.
“In my case, I love my wife and kids more than I love Syria and Palestine,” says the veteran of campaigns against the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon and the 2006 war with Israel. He joined Hezbollah in the mid-1990s and, now in his forties, he has lost his job and all his family benefits since he refused to return to Syria.
“They used to give me work and now they don’t, I feel like I’ve lost everything,” says Abu Ahmed, trying to control the anger in his voice.
He is not only disillusioned with the war, which he calls “a contest of superpowers,” but has also resigned himself to a cynical sectarian outlook on the region. “Let the Sunnis liberate Palestine,” he says, rejecting the pan-Arab solidarity that inspired him to take up arms in the first place.
Instead, he says he helped his nephews flee Lebanon for Germany after they deserted their units in Syria. Soon, he says, he will also take his family to Germany.
One of Hezbollah’s central arguments for propping up Assad’s brutal regime is that its troops are protecting Lebanon from Sunni jihadists bringing the war home. When The Daily Beast put that position to Abu Ahmed, just a few kilometers from where two ISIS suicide bombers killed 43 people in November, his answer is blunt.
“Let them come over here, I’m leaving.”