Friday, August 1, 2014

Echoes of Syria: Hezbollah reemerges in Iraq

By Alexander Orleans

Visibility on Lebanese Hezbollah’s current response to the crisis in Iraq has markedly increased, with reliable sources describing that military advisors are being deployed from Lebanon to assist Iraqi Shi’a militia forces. Nicholas Blanford, for example, has reported that sources close to Hezbollah have revealed that a 250-member advisory unit is being deployed to Iraq. The unit’s primary mission is to advise, train, and coordinate Iraqi Shi’a militias operating under the guidance of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The sources furthermore indicated that the advisory unit is also already engaged in conducting intelligence and reconnaissance operations against ISIS forces. This advisory mission echoes Hezbollah’s early primary role in Syria as advisers and trainers of pro-regime forces. 

Operating in Iraq is nothing new to Hezbollah. In approximately 2005, Iran requested that Hezbollah stand up a group to support the training and operations of the Mahdi Army and the Special Groups in Iraq. The resulting organization was Hezbollah’s Unit 3800 (earlier known as Unit 2800), designed to supplant ongoing advisory efforts to Iraqi Shi’a militias being undertaken by Department 9000 of the IRGC-Qods Force’s (IRGC-QF) Ramazan Corps. Unit 3800 drew on expertise from Hezbollah’s Unit 1800, which provides support to Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas, as well as Hezbollah’s own special operations community.

According to a 2010 Defense Intelligence Agency report, Department 9000 and Unit 3800 were providing “the training, tactics, and technology to conduct kidnappings, small unit tactical operations, and employ sophisticated improvised explosive devices (IEDs).” From 2003 to 2005, Hezbollah’s primary engagement was with the Mahdi Army; after the Special Groups emerged in 2006, they became the primary recipients of Unit 3800’s attention. In 2007, with rising tensions between local Iraqi Shi’a and Iranian trainers alongside marked Coalition pressure on IRGC activities in-country, Unit 3800 more and more became the Arab intermediary for Iranian support to Iraqi Shia militias. By 2008, it was reported that Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah was spending “several hours” a day on matters related to Iraq.

As described by Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, Unit 3800 conducted training missions in Iraq, Lebanon, and Iran – while also supporting actual militia operations. Unit 3800 trainer and Hezbollah liaison to IRGC Ali Musa Daqduq, who was in custody from 2007 to 2012 before being released by Iraqi authorities, was tied to the January 20, 2007 attack on the Joint Coordination Center in Karbala, which resulted in the abduction and murder of four American soldiers. That attack was carried out by Qais al-Khazali’s Iranian-sponsored Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) and later linked to Abdul Reza Shahlai, the Deputy Commander of IRGC-QF Special External Operations Unit. Evidence also exists that Hezbollah may have been conducting its own operations in Iraq as well. When conducting operations outside of Lebanon, Hezbollah has traditionally relied on its feared External Security Organization (ESO), which is responsible for both terror operations abroad and contributes to some intelligence and special operations. If Hezbollah was operating in Iraq beyond providing training, it is likely that ESO members were taking part. 

Since the departure of Coalition forces from Iraq, Unit 3800 commander Khalil Harb has been spotted in Yemen in 2012 and then-U.S. Homeland Security Advisor John Brennan described Hezbollah as “training militants in Yemen.” Unit 3800’s presence was likely in support of ongoing Iranian assistance to Houthi rebels there. The training requirements of Houthi groups are more conventional than the special operations-oriented training provided to the Special Groups. Thus, between missions in Yemen and the ongoing training of Iraqi Shi’a militias for action in Syria, Unit 3800 has likely developed a more sophisticated and multifaceted training capacity by drawing on both Hezbollah’s more conventional infantry experts and special operators, such as those from the ESO. 

Elite trainers from Hezbollah, such as those fielded by Unit 3800, have also played a major role in Iran’s assistance to the Syrian regime. While Hezbollah’s support to the Assad regime is clearly multifaceted, trainers in particular have played a major role in contributing to force integration between pro-Assad militias, Iraqi Shi’a militants in Syria, and the Syrian military. Hezbollah’s combat operations in Syria have also produced a new generation of experienced fighters on which it can draw. Hezbollah, alongside Iraqi Shi’a militias that have deployed to Syria, are components of an “Axis of Resistance” that have shown the ability to operate together in multiple theaters. It is telling that Muhammad Kawtharani, who as of 2013 was Hezbollah’s manager of all Iraqi operations, has assisted in coordinating the movement of Hezbollah fighters to support pro-regime forces in Syria. It would be unsurprising for Kawtharani to be involved in Hezbollah’s renewed deployment to Iraq.

Lebanese Hezbollah Iraq infrastructure 

On June 29, Brigadier General Massoud Jazayeri, deputy joint chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces and a senior IRGC officer, announced that “the same winning strategy used in Syria to put the terrorists on the defensive … is now taking shape in Iraq.” Given Hezbollah’s experience, it is quite possible that the new advisory unit in Iraq will play a similar force integration role in working to coordinate between the Iraqi military and Iraqi Shi’a militias. 

From this context, a plausible sketch of the new advisory unit clearly emerges. Given the past experiences of Hezbollah trainers in Iraq, Yemen, and Syria, the advisors now in Iraq have developed a solid idea on how to train militias for more conventional fighting in a timely and effective manner and direct the integration of their efforts with those of other forces. In this case, they are also stepping into an existing militia infrastructure with which they have familiarity both in the camp and the field, which can streamline the process. The advisors are probably a mix of Unit 3800 personnel, ESO members, and experienced fighters and special operators previously deployed to Syria. Based on reports that the advisors are already engaged in intelligence operations against ISIS, it is more than likely that a particularly sizeable portion of the advisors are special operations and intelligence personnel, expected to fill capability gaps of Iraqi Shi’a militias. 

While significant extension into Iraq does pose a challenge for Hezbollah – which concurrently needs to maintain a strong presence in Lebanon, maintain the momentum of its operations in Syria, and increasingly fill the gap in Syria left by departing Iraqi Shi’a militias – there are reasons to believe that the number of advisors (250) should be considered a conservative estimate. Reports of younger Hezbollah fighters in Syria indicates that in its effort to reconfigure forces for operations in both Syria and extension into Iraq, Hezbollah is likely sending its more experienced fighters from Syria to support the vital force integration effort in Iraq and attempting to backfill the vacuum they have left in Syria with newer fighters. 

On July 31, a Reuters report indicated that Ibrahim al-Hajj, a Hezbollah commander and technical specialist with ties to Hassan Nasrallah, was killed in Iraq on July 29. Initially, Lebanese news site Naharnet reported that al-Hajj had been killed in the Qalamoun region of Syria during a clash with rebel forces which left three other Hezbollah fighters dead. However, on next day – when al-Hajj was buried in his hometown of Qiyla in the Beqaa – an ISIS-supporter Twitter account claimed that al-Hajj had actually been killed in Samarra. The July 31 Reuters report, citing sources in Lebanon, claimed that al-Hajj had been acting as a trainer and was killed near Mosul. The AP has also reported that al-Hajj was part of the team which infiltrated Israel and kidnapped two Israeli soldiers in July 2006, triggering the 2006 Lebanon war. While the location of al-Hajj’s death remains unconfirmed, his public burial and the initial claim that he died fighting in Syria bears striking resemblance to the burials of early Hezbollah casualties in Syria. Those “martyrs” were supposedly killed doing their “jihadist duties,” which was intended to obscure the manner and location of their deaths; al-Hajj’s death has been described in the same terms by Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV station. In this case, claiming that al-Hajj died in Syria would provide a plausible narrative for his demise while also masking the possibility of his deployment to Iraq. 

Ibrahim al-Hajj martyr poster

Both the supposed number of advisors and the murky circumstances surrounding the death of al-Hajj would fit a pattern of Hezbollah’s initial foray into a conflict being intentionally understated, as it was in Syria during 2011 and 2012. 

While Hezbollah’s early public messaging on the crisis in Iraq was quite guarded, it eventually did progress to Hassan Nasrallah being quoted as saying on June 17 “We are ready to sacrifice martyrs in Iraq five times more than what we sacrificed in Syria, in order to protect shrines.” Also, in Nasrallah’s Quds [Jerusalem] Day address on July 25 he denounced ISIS saying “This is the most dangerous phase since the occupation of Palestine because there is a systematic destruction of countries, peoples, armies and societies … Iraq has entered into a dark tunnel in the name of Islam, unfortunately … Our duty as Muslims today is to condemn what Christians and Muslims are facing in Iraq.” It is reasonable to suspect that Hezbollah is already doing more rather than less in Iraq. Hezbollah activity in Iraq is likely to serve as a force multiplier for Iraqi Shi’a militias, making their activity more effective, but at the possible cost of galvanizing Iraqi Sunni resistance against the government. Furthermore, if Hezbollah’s commitment to Iraq truly is more than significant than advertised, the increasing attacks it is facing from Syrian rebels may begin to constitute a rising risk to the continued success of its operations in Syria. How these challenges are balanced, supported, and coordinated with other actors across multiple fronts will remain an area to watch.

Edited on August 21, 2014 to include information about Ibrahim al-Hajj.