Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah on Tuesday said he would pledge soldiers to support the Iraqi regime against ISIS, according to a report in pro-Hezbollah newspaper As-Safir, as reported in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, but Lebanese sources close to the group told the U.S. business daily that Hezbollah was already spread too thin in Syria and along the Israeli border to also enter Iraq. Meanwhile, a Lebanese security source pointed to Hezbollah reinforcements strengthening their positions in Beirut in case ISIS also makes a play for the city.
Nasrallah told As-Safir: “We are ready to sacrifice martyrs in Iraq five times more than what we sacrificed in Syria, in order to protect shrines, because they are much more important than [Syria’s holy sites].”
The WSJ said that Hezbollah justifies its presence in Syria as being to protect holy sites important to Shiite Islam, including the Sayeda Zeinab shrine near Damascus, from ISIS that could seek to destroy them. The same argument has also been used by Iraqi Shiites militias and Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards Corps for joining the fight in Syria, it said.
However, the WSJ cited a Lebanese official close to Hezbollah’s leadership who played down the withdrawal of Iraqi Shiite militias from Syria. “Just as Hezbollah is prepared to fight Israel and reserve forces to fight Israel, it is prepared for Syria,” the official said. “But he said Hezbollah is too occupied trying to defend against Sunni extremist groups in Syria and Lebanon to commit significant forces to Iraq,” the WSJ reported.
Lebanese security officials told the WSJ that Hezbollah last week increased security around its stronghold of Dahiyeh, a suburb of Beirut, because of concerns that ISIS gains in Iraq could lead to attacks in Lebanon.
Underscoring Hezbollah’s fears, the WSJ noted that ISIS published a map showing the group’s black flag over Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, and Lebanon.
Phillip Smyth, a researcher with the University of Maryland, told the WSJ that, in Syria, there are an estimated 5,000 Hezbollah fighters and 8,000 Iraqi Shiite militants.
A Syrian rebel fighting government forces in Meliha, in the Damascus countryside, told the WSJ: “We used to hear fighters with Iraqi accents on our radios, but now they have Lebanese accents.”
Smyth said that at least 1,000 Iraqi fighters in Syria have deployed to Iraq in the past few weeks, answering the call to help defend the Iraqi government from the assault by ISIS which captured Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, last week.
He said many of the fighters are from Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Arabic for the League of the Righteous, a militant group formed in 2006 to fight U.S. forces in Iraq. The group has been active in Syria since 2012.
Two Western diplomats and an Arab diplomat also confirmed the troop movement. ”The Iraqi Shiite militias are being pulled out from Syria to Iraq,” the Arab diplomat told the WSJ.