Commanders recount preparations for 10,000 battle casualties, clashes with allies and justification for thousands of civilian deaths
DAHIEH, Lebanon - It was a battle like no other fought by Hezbollah. Commanders were ordered to capture Aleppo at any cost to themselves and the city, and headed to the frontlines preparing their troops for martyrdom.
When the Syrian city finally fell two months ago, the Lebanese guerilla movement found itself in the role of an occupying army, controlling vast tracts of a shattered urban landscape, justifying its role in the deaths of thousands of civilians and holding together fragile alliances surrounding Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad.
In interviews with Middle East Eye from the Lebanese stronghold of Dahieh, Hezbollah commanders recounted their roles and experiences in the battle, and what it meant for the future of the organisation.
"Before the battle, Hezbollah's general secretary, Hassan Nasrallah, instructed 200 of his military commanders to capture the city in a swift battle, even if that meant the loss of 10,000 men," said one of the commanders, going under the name Abou Ali.
And fighters were willing to respond to the call: "Death is the greatest gift God could bestow upon me," said Abou Ali. Many Hezbollah fighters had already lost their lives in Syria.
Hezbollah fighters hold funeral for comrade killed in battle for Aleppo (AFP)
In the end, however, Abou Ali said his fighters had little to do.
"We increased pressure on the terrorists by slowly diminishing the territory they held," says Abou Ali. "We worked with the Syrians, the Iranians and the Russians directly.”
"However by the end of the siege, clashes dwindled and there was no real battle in Aleppo, because of the Russian-Iranian-Turkish deal, the opposition did not put up much resistance in the last days."
For Hezbollah, no distinction was made between the political opposition, rebels, Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front, now known as Jabhat Fateh Sham.
"All of the Syrian opposition are terrorists," says Abou Ali. "Don’t they visit Tel Aviv or the Gulf capitals?" he asks.
All of the Syrian opposition are terrorists
- Abou Ali, Hezbollah commander
Hezbollah fighters moved through rebel-held areas in three waves, he said - an offensive team to secure the area, a demining team following in its path and finally, a "Tathbeet" - or "stabilisation" team - that could stay in strategic areas of the city anywhere between two months to two years, says Abou Ali.
"Hezbollah is operating there not only as a guerilla force but also as a conventional army," he says, adding that his men are trained in the latest Iranian weapons, including the Toophan anti-tank missile, the Karrar - or "striker" - armed drone and heat-seeking missiles.
And with the capture of Aleppo, Hezbollah now has a presence in Syria’s strategic areas and needs manpower to maintain it. The group has created several training centres - a total of 120,000 fighters have passed through its camps, including in Qussayr on the border with Lebanon, said Abou Ali.
That figure includes 80,000 earmarked for a new fighting force. The commander was silent on what that new force - the size of the current British army - was being prepared for.
Abou Ali’s estimation may nonetheless be an exaggeration. A Hezbollah trainer also interviewed by Middle East Eye put the figure at a conservative 10,000 for the Qussayr area.
"The training takes from three days to several months depending on capabilities ranging from combat, sniper shooting, handling explosives, reconnaissance work, special operations or manning artillery among many others," the trainer said.
Hezbollah’s growing presence in Syria is not without consequences, however. Sources close to the organisation report increasing clashes and growing resentment from Syrian officers toward Hezbollah fighters.
Yet, Abou Ali attributes the mistrust between the two parties to Syrian soldiers abandoning their positions during battle. "Syrian soldiers are mistreated by their superiors, which translates into a lack of loyalty to the army. Things are now looking much better though, with the military institution being restructured," he adds.
Hezbollah headbands showing Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, Hassan Nasrallah and Syria's Bashar al-Assad (AFP)
Clashes were not limited however to their Syrian counterparts. Abou Ali's comrade, who calls himself Abu Hassan, said that there had been battles between Iranian forces and Hezbollah, although they are rarer.
"There was a recent incident in Tell Eiss, when a disagreement between Hezbollah fighters and Iranian forces over their insufficient backing during battle escalated into a bloody confrontation when a Hezbollah fighter called Zulfikar killed several Iranians," said Abu Hassan.
Abou Ali’s view of Russia's involvement is tempered with pragmatism: "Moscow is not our ally, but a faction involved like us in the war. It is the partner of President Assad, but like any other country it has its own agenda, and our agendas meet for now in Syria," he said.
Russia provides Hezbollah with air support, as well as intelligence gathering, according to the commander.
With Iran, Hezbollah’s relation is symbiotic as they are at "one with one another", says Abou Ali.
And with Iran’s help, Hezbollah is also expanding its footprint across the region: namely, in Iraq.
"We have deployed experts in Mosul as well as trainers, but have no fighters on the ground," he says.
Civilians die in every war. Ask France about what they did in Algeria, ask Israel about what they did in Lebanon
- Abou Ali, Hezbollah commander
"Hezbollah experts are also present in the Quneitra region alongside Iranians who have deployed soldiers there," says Abou Ali.
Quneitra lies on the border of the Golan Heights, a plateau located in southwestern Syria that has a strategic significance. Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 War.
For Iran and Hezbollah, the war in Syria is existential, as the fall of the regime would mean the end of the "sacred" alliance between Dahieh, Tehran and Damascus.
And finally, on the subject of civilian deaths in Aleppo under months of government and Russian bombing and ground assault, Abou Ali has no regrets - the deaths have been sidelined under the label of the "war on terror".
"Civilians die in every war. Ask France about what they did in Algeria, ask Israel about what they did in Lebanon."
The last comment is followed by a heavy silence as the small group around him ponders the fact that Hezbollah now needs to invoke war crimes committed by its staunch enemy in Lebanon to justify the validity of its endless war in Syria.
Aleppo's shattered streets after months of bombardment (AFP)