icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Whatsapp Youtube
Lebanon’s Hizbollah Turns Eastward to Syria
Lebanon’s Hizbollah Turns Eastward to Syria
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Virus Fears Spread at Camps for ISIS Families in Syria’s North East
Virus Fears Spread at Camps for ISIS Families in Syria’s North East

Lebanon’s Hizbollah Turns Eastward to Syria

Hizbollah’s intervention in Syria strengthens the Assad regime but transforms the Shiite movement as it redefines the enemy and itself within the confines of an increasingly sectarian struggle.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

Executive Summary

The Lebanese Shiite armed movement Hizbollah has gone all-in for Syrian President Bashar Assad. It has shown it will back his regime by any means necessary, despite doubts about its capacity to win a decisive victory and regardless of the risks to the movement’s own moral standing and cross-sectarian appeal. As it is drawn ever-deeper into its neighbour’s civil war that seems poised to endure for years, it finds itself increasingly distracted from its original anti-Israel focus and risking a profound reshaping of its identity.

Hizbollah’s original military objectives in Syria were clear: to save a regime it sees as a vital ally and distance Sunni jihadis from its borders and neighbourhoods. Its contributions have been crucial. Its forces reversed the regime’s flagging momentum and enabled it to gain the relative advantage it enjoys today. Its fight against the Syrian opposition, which it has cast in harsh sectarian terms, has shored up its support base. But the long-term costs – for both Hizbollah and the region – of involvement in a sectarian, zero-sum war could be as steep as the short-term benefits are significant.

The movement welcomed the initial “Arab Spring” uprisings directed at its foes. But it drew a line at Syria, and as Bashar Assad’s grip slipped, it came to see its own survival as a function of his. His fall would have deprived it of a vital ally and an important supply route for weapons from Iran; moreover, with the Syrian uprising having morphed into a regional proxy war, Assad’s fall would have recalibrated the regional balance of power to Hizbollah’s detriment. As al-Qaeda offshoots or affiliates emerged within rebel ranks, the Shiite movement, like its constituency, came to see the civil war as existential.

Allegations of Hizbollah’s military involvement in Syria surfaced in mid-2012, after armed opposition groups made notable gains in the south and east; surrounded Damascus, thus potentially endangering the regime; and took control of key border zones that connected the rebels with Sunni enclaves on the Lebanese side. After months of rumoured support, Hizbollah in May 2013 publicly took the lead in evicting rebels from the border town of Qusayr. Its fall in June boosted the regime and encouraged the Shiite group to extend its fight to the Qalamoun Mountains and beyond.

Its full-fledged military intervention steered Hizbollah into unchartered territory. From its perspective, it had little choice; subsequent events have confirmed to the movement that it took the right turn. Its military campaign has been successful, bolstering Assad’s position, and though dozens of Shiites in Lebanon have been killed in a wave of unprecedented al-Qaeda-inspired suicide bomb attacks since Qusayr, the movement is convinced that more would have died had it not distanced the Syrian rebels from Lebanon’s borders. These retaliatory attacks also benefited the movement by cementing its base, through seeming confirmation that Syrian rebels are Sunni extremists who all along have had Lebanon’s Shiites in their crosshairs.

In the longer term however, Hizbollah’s involvement in Syria threatens the movement and is problematic for Lebanon and the Arab world more broadly. It has deepened the regional sectarian divide, fuelled the very extremism it purports to combat and eroded the movement’s legitimacy among constituencies that previously were supportive. By framing its fight as a preemptive attack on takfiris – those who declare other Muslims to be apostates – Hizbollah has tarred all shades of the opposition, and indeed sometimes all Sunnis, with the same radicalising brush. It has exaggerated, and thereby exacerbated, the sectarianism of the Syrian opposition as well as its own domestic opponents. Once widely respected across the political and confessional spectrum, Hizbollah (literally “The Party of God”) now often is referred to as “The Party of Satan”. The warm popular embrace that for the movement was tantamount to strategic depth has diminished, along with its reputation for moral probity. Ironically, shoring up its eastern front has made Hizbollah more vulnerable.

These developments bode poorly for Lebanon, the well-being of which is dependent on the relations between its political blocs and confessional groups. The sectarian clashes the country experienced in 2013 and early 2014 have been brought under control by what is known as “the security plan”, but the respite is likely temporary. With Lebanon’s Sunnis frustrated, Shiites eager not to lose the gains of the past decades and smaller confessional groups caught in the middle, the year’s escalation is only a foretaste of what could ensue if the security agreement breaks down. In a country that has long lamented its political paralysis, many are hoping for just such a standstill – as a best-case scenario.

Some among Hizbollah’s regional and wider international critics, allied with its rivals, might see a silver lining in these developments: Hizbollah is mired in what seems to be an endless war in Syria, fighting a determined and radical enemy, and is distracted from its traditional focus on Israel. But the same vortex is pulling in both Hizbollah and its enemies, with no prospect of escape for either. Nor will the critics relish the spread of the Shiite jihadism that the Syrian war is nurturing.

What is necessary for the sake of not only Lebanon but also the entire region – reducing sectarian rhetoric, withdrawing and expelling all foreign fighters from Syria – is highly unlikely to occur. Hizbollah believes in its current strategy, and its enemies are determined to fight what they perceive as a Shiite occupation force. So long as the Syrian conflict remains a black hole, the Shiite armed group will be caught in its gravity, itself transformed no less than its involvement transforms the conflict as a whole.

Beirut/Brussels, 27 May 2014

A general view of al-Hol camp in al-Hasakeh governorate, Syria, 8 August 2019. AFP/Delil SOULEIMAN

Virus Fears Spread at Camps for ISIS Families in Syria’s North East

Disease has long been a daily concern at al-Hol, a detention camp in north-eastern Syria for families of ISIS militants, but now each death raises anxiety about COVID-19. With repatriations on hold, the UN and other international bodies must step up medical and humanitarian aid.

When someone dies at al-Hol, a detention camp in north-eastern Syria that holds mostly women and children related to ISIS militants, the blame turns rapidly to COVID-19. Fears are mounting about the illness, even though there are no confirmed cases, and even though untimely death is already common, due to harsh living conditions and other infectious diseases that kill dozens of people on average each month.

Scary rumours started spreading in al-Hol early in March, when a three-year-old child and a seventy-five-year old woman, both Russian citizens, died. It was definitely COVID-19, some women maintained. Others said the child had died of tuberculosis and the woman of a heart attack. As camp authorities instructed residents to stay in their tents and shops in the camp’s market began to shut, women started stockpiling food and water. When guards dug a perimeter trench, one frightened woman blurted out that they were readying mass graves. A deep disquiet arose as well in Roj, a smaller detention camp close to the Iraqi border. Women in both camps began calling and texting relatives abroad if they felt sick, frantically recounting their symptoms. “We’re having conversations about how we expect to die here”, one wrote.

Crisis Group has been unable to visit the camps under present conditions. But from telephone calls and WhatsApp/Telegram messages with camp residents and their relatives as well as with UN officials and humanitarian organisation staffers, a vivid sense of panic emerges.

As in all displacement camps in Iraq and Syria, people live without clean water, adequate food or reliable medical services – much less soap, hand sanitisers or protective gear. Al-Hol and Roj hold 66,000 and 4,000 women and children, respectively, most of them relatives of ISIS militants but some former affiliates of the group themselves. The majority are either Syrians or Iraqis, with the numbers roughly split, and around 13,500 are from other countries. Their hazy legal status as neither combatants nor civilians, and the stigma attached to them, discourages some UN aid bodies from providing any service at all. It also puts doctors and guards in the position of looking after women whom they view as unrepentant ISIS militants.

Should this virus hit places like al-Hol, we risk being in a position where we are just going to watch people die.

As of now, there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in either camp, though there are no testing kits, either. But with a key border crossing from Iraq, Faysh Khabour, closed because of the virus, cutting off aid supplies, and medical capacity in the region direly limited, the outlook is bleak. “They already have a hard time isolating tuberculosis cases, so forget social distancing”, Fabrizio Carboni, regional director for the Near and Middle East at the International Committee of the Red Cross, told Crisis Group. “Should this virus hit places like al-Hol, or much of north east Syria, we risk being in a position where we are just going to watch people, the most vulnerable, die”.

Winter scene from al-Hol camp in north-eastern Syria in March 2020. This photograph was shared with support group members by a camp resident who wished to remain anonymous.

Since the last ISIS strongholds in Syria fell in early 2019, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led militia that partnered with the U.S.-led coalition, has largely been left to deal with tens of thousands of ISIS detainees and affiliated family members. Many of the detainees’ home countries refuse to take them back. In addition to al-Hol and Roj, which mostly house women and children, the SDF struggles to guard, care for and feed thousands of men and boys crammed into makeshift prisons. It receives some U.S. funding, but its resources are woefully lacking. The anti-ISIS coalition has been slow to deliver extra support – more training for guards and new equipment – that it promised for overseeing detainees. Humanitarian workers describe these sites as ridden with tuberculosis and perilously overcrowded, with one speaking of “dramatic mortality rates”.

Following ISIS’s defeat the authorities inherited a fragile health system and destroyed infrastructure.

On 30 March, ISIS detainees rioted and overran a prison in Hassakeh city, ripping off doors and taking control of one floor of the facility. It took nearly a day for the SDF to quell the uprising and determine that no one had escaped. The militants had been compelled to break out, SDF authorities later said, partly by fear of contracting the virus in such cramped quarters. The prospect that something similar could happen at al-Hol, where tensions flared regularly between militant women and camp guards even in pre-pandemic times, worries Western officials, as well as the Autonomous Administration of north-eastern Syria, the political entity that governs the SDF-protected region.

The strain of guarding so many detainees is overwhelming the Autonomous Administration. Badran Çiya Kurd, one of its senior officials, told Crisis Group that it must look after not just camps like al-Hol but also a native population of over five million (a recent UN estimate cites three million), as well as a million internally displaced Syrians. Following ISIS’s defeat, he said, the authorities inherited a fragile health system and destroyed infrastructure, the overhaul of which required massive international support just to meet the population’s basic needs, let alone ward off a pandemic. The camps, he continued, would be hardest hit, because of overcrowding and lack of facilities and preparedness: “Any spreading of the virus will lead to unprecedented catastrophe”. Much of the north east’s population relies on daily jobs to get by, forcing workers to choose between self-isolation measures and survival. The area has also suffered from Turkey cutting the water supply it controls from Allouk station, a step emanating from disputes between Ankara and the SDF over the exchange of water and electricity between regions the two respectively control. The water is now flowing again, but it has yet to reach civilians in a number of areas. The loss of the Yaroubia border crossing with Iraq earlier in the year (a January UN resolution failed to re-authorise its use), Çiya Kurd said, was now causing intense hardship, reducing the movement of humanitarian aid into the area, in a manner now compounded by the recent COVID-related closure of Faysh Khabour.

As camp managers struggled in late March to get a doctor into Roj, citing increasing demand for medics in the area, women took to selling each other goods at inflated prices as anxiety grew in both camps. Huddled on the dirt floor in her six square meters tent in with her four children, a 31-year-old French woman texted from al-Hol to her mother back home that she feared they’d had their last full meal for a while. A Syrian woman wrote that she felt ill, had no tent for shelter and worried about who would care for her two boys if she died. Another Syrian woman said a local NGO came to instruct women on how to wash their hands properly. But usually, she added, there isn’t enough water in al-Hol for regular hand washing. “We don’t understand what is going on, so people are scared”, she said. “It’s hard to breathe”, another woman in Roj said by text to Alexandra Bain, director of the Canada-based Families Against Violent Extremism, “and we have heavy coughs”. In exchanges Bain showed to Crisis Group, women in the camps, using shared phones, described “never-ending coughing”, fever and successive days without access to a doctor or basic pain medications.

The messages paint a picture of an area already acutely lacking in medical personnel and supplies, where need is greatest in hospitals and camps recede in priority, and where nervous doctors reprimand women for asking about the virus. Sometimes the messages are punctuated by asides (“Ahhh, my daughter just vomited”); sometimes by desperation (“some people here want to take their own lives”); and sometimes by resignation (“if corona hits here, we are done for”).

An Iraqi refugee carries her child as she walks around in a camp in al-Hol, Syria, 13 March 2017. AFP/DELIL SOULEIMAN

Though the majority of these camps’ inhabitants are children and women under 50, a great many may already suffer from pneumonia, chest infections and tuberculosis. These “co-morbidities”, says Will Turner, emergency operations manager at Médecins Sans Frontières, put the camp population in elevated peril from the coronavirus. The danger is highest in areas like the “foreigners’ annex”, where non-Syrians and non-Iraqis are housed. Due to difficult access negotiations between aid groups and camp authorities, the annex has received no direct medical services in months. Even trying to pass COVID-19 health advice into the annex is a challenge; the camp does not officially permit women detainees to have mobile phones and will not allow the distribution of flyers inside.

The “foreigners’ annex” has received no direct medical services in months.

As of mid-March, at least two countries had active repatriation plans under way for the foreigners in the camps, one for a small number of detainees and the other for a significant number that – in a rare occurrence – included men. Getting to this stage typically requires ceaseless and multi-layered political wrangling – within home governments, and between those governments and north-eastern Syria’s governing authorities. But for now, COVID-19 has disrupted these plans. “This definitely means a halt to repatriations”, one Western official told Crisis Group. “[No one] can commit resources to repatriation now or for the foreseeable future”.

It is likely that COVID-19 will afflict the whole of the north east, indeed all of Syria, including regions under state control and the rebel-held pocket of Idlib. The authorities in the north east cannot be expected to bear the entire burden of this escalating and enormously trying humanitarian crisis. The majority of the population in al-Hol and Roj are children, and whether they are Iraqi, Syrian or of some other nationality, their well-being and that of their caregivers needs safeguarding.

The U.S. should push both the Iraqi authorities and the Autonomous Administration in the north east to agree to a regular, two-way humanitarian exemption to the temporary border closure at Faysh Khabour, so that aid groups working across the Iraqi border can maintain their activities and supply lines in both directions. To be persuasive to the Iraqi and SDF authorities alike, this request should be accompanied by delivery of humanitarian aid and COVID-19-relevant kits and equipment for the populations in Syria’s north east and Iraq proper, including other displaced persons camps. International bodies, in particular the UN, should make a major push to provide health education and test kits. The SDF, for its part, should continue to release as many Syrians from al-Hol as possible, reducing the camp’s congestion. But one border crossing is not enough: the UN Security Council should also consider immediately re-authorising the use of Yaroubia as a humanitarian access point into the north east. Waiting for the next resolution on the logistics of aid delivery into Syria, likely this summer, would result in a damaging delay. Moscow should reverse its earlier position and refrain from opposing the reopening of Yaroubia, as Damascus has not permitted the delivery of health supplies through its territory in a way that would compensate for its closing.

The UN Security Council should consider immediately re-authorising the use of Yaroubia as a humanitarian access point into the north east.

At no time in recent months have prospects for the men, women and children detained in these camps looked more uncertain. While the Autonomous Administration is seeking to step up the release of Syrian detainees at al-Hol, for Iraqis and other non-Syrians the chances of leaving do not look good. The painfully slow process of repatriation by home governments, already so fraught within states’ domestic politics, is now frozen, and it will take a monumental effort to make it a priority again anytime in the near future. Which is why women’s anxiety about the virus, together with the symptoms they are presently experiencing, merges with a more generalised panic about the future.