By Laila Bassam and Tom Perry
BEIRUT (Reuters) – When Iran declared victory over Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, it hailed the “strong and pivotal” role played by Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement.
The praise, contained in a top general’s letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader in November, confirmed Hezbollan’s pre-eminence among Shi’ite Muslim regional groups backed by Tehran that are helping the Islamic Republic exert influence in the Middle East.
Hezbollah has emerged as a big winner in the turmoil that has swept the Arab world since the uprisings of 2011 that toppled governments in several countries. It has fought in Syria and Iraq, trained other groups in those countries and inspired other forces such as Iran-allied Houthis waging a war in Yemen.
But its growing strength has contributed to a sharp rise in regional tension, alarming Israel, the United States – which designates it as a terrorist organization – and Sunni Muslim monarchy Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rival, which accuses Hezbollah of having a military role on its doorstep in Yemen.
Israel fears Iran and Hezbollah will keep permanent garrisons in Syria and has called for action against “Iranian aggression”. With Hezbollah stronger than ever, war with Israel is seen by many in the region as inevitable, sooner or later.
“Hezbollah has gained from the experience of working with armies and managing numerous weapons systems simultaneously – air power, armored vehicles, intelligence, and drones: all specialties of conventional armies,” said a commander in a regional alliance fighting in Syria.
“Hezbollah is now a dynamic army, bringing together guerrilla and conventional warfare.”
Hezbollah’s elevated status among Iran’s regional allies was clear at the funeral this month of Hassan Soleimani, father of Major General Qassem Soleimani who wrote the letter praising Hezbollah’s role fighting IS in Syria and Iraq.
Hezbollah’s delegation, led by Sayyed Hashem Safieddine, a top figure in its clerical leadership, took responsibility for organizing talks on the sidelines of the funeral between the various Iranian allies present, an official who attended said.
“All the resistance factions were at the condolences. Hezbollah coordinated and directed meetings and discussions,” the official said.
THE “HEZBOLLAH MODEL”
Hezbollah was set up by the powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) to fight Israeli forces that invaded Lebanon in 1982 and to export Iran’s Shi’ite Islamist revolution.
It has come a long way from the Bekaa…