By Hannah Somerville
August 13, 2020
In early 2015, at the height of the Syrian civil war, a quiet ripple went through some quarters of the international community.
Images and word-of-mouth reports found their way to Western researchers, indicating that large numbers of Russian-made light weapons, notably the AKS-74U, had found their way not just to pro-Assad forces but to Hezbollah-backed fighters in the region.
The AKS-74U is a lightweight version of the AK-47 assault rifle, which was developed by the Soviets after the Second World War and is still emblazoned on Hezbollah’s flag today. With Russia’s blessing the AKS-74U became a mainstay among the various factions fighting for control in Syria, notably the pro-Assad Republican Guard and Syria Arab Army – but also, apparently, Hezbollah.
Phillip Smyth, a scholar of Shia Islamist militarism at US think-tank the Washington Institute, regards it as “farcical” that Russia could not be aware of where its weapons supplied to pro-Assad and Iran-backed forces have ended up. “Almost overnight,” he recalls, “you started seeing all ranks of Hezbollah– from commanders to guards to officers – packing these weapons. You didn’t see that before 2015. It was all brand-new, Russian-made stuff.
“You can only trust what Russia makes public and there’s always a layer of plausible deniability. Maybe it fell off a truck. But you’d see more and more of this type of rifle, and they looked relatively new and well taken-care of.”
It’s not the first time US researchers have raised the alarm about Russia apparently turning a blind eye to arms transfers in the region. As far back as 2006, Smyth says, advanced Russian-made anti-tank weapons such as the RPG29 grenade launcher “magically” found their way to Kata’ib Hezbollah, an Iraqi Shia paramilitary group supplied by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Not only this, but fighters on the ground appeared to know how to use them, in complex and co-ordinated operations, against American tanks in Iraq.
Is Moscow knowingly providing military support to Lebanese Hezbollah alongside other Shia militias in the region? If so, how, and why?
From Severed Fingers to Shaking Hands
In February 2019 Russia’s ambassador in Beirut, Alexander Zasypkin, claimed that the US’s stance toward Iran was putting the stability of the Middle East in peril. He also lavished praise on Iran’s most important ally and proxy in the Syria conflict, Hezbollah.
“Peoples are demanding the settlement of existing crises, the return to a peaceful life, the development of cooperation,” he told the Russian state news agency Sputnik. “A negative alternative to this is the incitement of new conflicts by the Americans.”
“When events started unfolding in Syria, Hezbollah sided with its lawful authorities, seeing the fight against terrorists in the region as its duty,” Zasypkin went on – ignoring the fact that Hezbollah’s military wing has been designated a terrorist organization by Russia’s closest neighbours in the European Union since 2013.
“The party took a responsible approach to what was happening in Syria and the region as a whole and contributed significantly to terrorists’ defeat.”
On the face of it, Russia and Hezbollah appear to be strange bedfellows. One is a Shia Islamist militant group bent on the destruction of Israel; the other, an ostensibly secular state that strives to maintain good relations with Israel and trades with the Sunni-dominated Gulf states.
In 1986, four Soviet diplomats were kidnapped in Beirut by Lebanese Hezbollah. The KGB’s brutal response differs according to the teller but in one version, Russian intelligence services kidnapped a relative of the Hezbollah ringleader and cut off his fingers, sending them back to his family in separate envelopes. Other versions of the story are more unpleasant.
Now, however, Russia refuses to designate Hezbollah a terrorist entity – either in whole, as the US and United Kingdom have, or in part, like the EU. In May this year, the country’s ambassador to Lebanon insisted in May that Hezbollah was “an organization that fights terrorism. There’s nothing more to say.”
Look to Iran, Researchers Say
Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute, believes it’s not possible to decode Russia’s evolving stance toward Hezbollah and other Shia militant groups without understanding its changed relationship with Iran since 1979.
Following the Iran-Iraq war, the Islamic Republic shifted from an avowed stance of “neither East nor West” to a gradual rapprochement with the Soviet Union, and by the mid-1990s, Russia had emerged as a key supplier of weaponry in Iran and supporter of its nuclear program.
“When Putin came into power,” Borshchevskaya.says, “he built on those previous ties and Syria has brought the Russia-Iran relationship to unprecedented heights. They have never been this close. And Russia’s relationship with Hezbollah is a by-product of that.”
What the Kremlin gets out of a strategic partnership with Iran, Borshchevskayasays, is simple: both share an anti-American worldview and a desire for the US to withdraw from the region, as well as an avowed antagonism to Sunni Muslim extremism. Unlike Hezbollah, a Shia entity, the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood was declared a terrorist organization by Russia as early as 2003.
It therefore behoves Russia to curry favour with Iran’s allies in the region. This includes its main proxy, Hezbollah, as well as other Iran-backed Shia militant groups and the Assad regime, on whose behalf Iran has deployed hundreds of troops and spent billions of dollars in military aid since 2012.
The gains for Russia are both political and, to a lesser extent, financial. “The more instability in the Middle East,” Borshchevskaya says, “the better: Russia wants to boost its arms sales.
“There’s a financial incentive but more importantly, a political one. As long as there’s low-level conflict instead of it boiling out of control, Russia can position itself as an indispensable power that can talk to everyone. It fosters dependence.”
What Kind of Support is Hezbollah Receiving from Russia?
It is not clear whether or not Hezbollah has an active presence, cells or assets in Russia. But its non-designation in the country is likely to have helped facilitate its operations in Syria along the way. In 2010, the Lebanese businessman Abd al Nur Shalan – a “facilitator” who played a crucial role in keeping Hizballah supplied with weapons, including small arms, at the start of the Syrian conflict – was able to broker an arms deal involving Hezbollah, Syrian customs officials and companies in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. He was not sanctioned by the US until July 2015.
In July 2015, Ghasem Solemani, then-head of the IRGC’s expeditionary Quds Force, held a meeting with President Putin and the Russian defence minister in Moscow, despite officially being under a United Nations travel ban. Russia did not comment when criticized over the breach.
Borschevskaya understands that Soleimani had long been the conduit for Russian-made light arms that found their way to Hezbollah. Whatever the truth of this, within weeks of this meeting a Russian build-up of aerial forces, armour and “advisors” had begun in western Syria. Then in September 2015, the Russian military launched an air campaign that turned the tide of the war in favour of Assad’s government.
In the bloody half-decade that has followed, Hezbollah fighters have had access to more than just arms from Russia. “Hezbollah fighters have had direct experience with Russian soldiers on the ground,” says Borshchevskaya, who adds that “private conversations” have led her to believe militia fighters could also have received training inside Russia itself. Smyth has also seen evidence of this on social media, but acknowledges that the pictures could have been faked.
In January 2016, backed by Russian air forces and artillery, Hezbollah and regime forces were able to deal a series of crushing blows to Syrian rebel bastions, including the town of Salma in Latakia, Sheikh Miskeen in Daraa. Then in February 2016, Hezbollah and Iran-backed militias broke the sieges of Nubl and Zahraa under the cover of Russian airstrikes.
“With an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 Hezbollah fighters in Syria and Iraq,” writes international think-tank the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, “the exposure and experience is likely to trickle down to individual fighters.” And despite losses of personnel throughout 2015, Hezbollah put in more fighters after the Russian intervention, especially on the south front of Aleppo city.
Russia’s careful military diplomacy in the region goes both ways, however. In late 2015 Russia began building an Anti-access/area denial, or A2/AD, anti-aircraft defense system at its bases in Syria, but unsettled both Damascus and Tehran by still allowing Israel to conduct airstrikes on non-Russian targets. This created a level of dependence on Russia on the part of Israel but also led to the killing of a Hezbollah fighter in July 2020.
To try to protect Iranian and Iran-backed targets including Hezbollah from Israeli missiles, the Syrian regime has disguised their fighters and convoys with its own uniforms and insignias. According to the Washington Institute’s own sources, Iran-backed militias have also used Russian flags to deflect Israeli airstrikes.
“A multi-polar attitude has been adopted,” Smyth says. “Russia has sometimes given the green light to Israel too. There’s a lot of playing-off of allies, as there was in the Second World War.
“This is power projection. It’s a low-impact project to build relationships, but it has a high yield.”