Report: Hezbollah to leave Syria to prepare for conflict with Israel

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Hezbollah is planning to withdraw its forces from Syria in 2018 in order to bolster its presence along the border with Israel, Lebanese news site Lebanon 24 reported on Tuesday.

According to the report, Hezbollah’s high command issued a new order mandating that the last remaining Hezbollah fighters must leave Syria in early 2018.

For the past five years, Hezbollah forces have been fighting alongside the Syrian military in the country’s brutal civil war. It is believed that the Shiite terrorist group, alongside other Iranian-backed militias, helped turned the tide in favor of Syrian President Bashar Assad. [ Source: Israel Hayom  ]

For the past five years, Hezbollah forces have been fighting alongside the Syrian military in the country’s brutal civil war. It is believed that the Shiite terrorist group, alongside other Iranian-backed militias, helped turned the tide in favor of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The measure is designed to ensure the organization would be able to have a sizable presence along the Lebanese border with Israel should hostilities resume.

According to the report, Hezbollah’s commanders realized that its operatives were stretched too thin, to the point that 85% of the group’s fighting force was in Syria. Another reason cited was the heavy casualty rate – more than 1,800 Hezbollah operatives have been killed in the Syrian civil war – and the need to train more operatives.

The site further claimed that the first phase of the withdrawal was scheduled to begin in the coming days and could involve 60% of the forces, with the other phases spreading over a period of several weeks.

Meanwhile, the IDF on Tuesday revealed Munir Shaito as Hezbollah’s “southern commander” in Syria. Shaito is believed to be responsible for establishing the Shiite terrorist organization’s military infrastructure on the Syrian Golan Heights.

Shaito, also known as Hajj Hashem, commands all Hezbollah territory west of the Sweida-Damascus line in southern Syria, and further south from Daraa to the border with Israel. His rank is equivalent to that of the Syrian Army’s 1st Corps commander, Mahmoud Al-Quzi, and is subordinate to the head of all Hezbollah forces in Syria, Ahmed Saleb and to the Syria Corps of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force.

Hezbollah’s Munir Shaito (far right), dressed in a Syrian army uniform, tours southern Syria with top Syrian army brass

Shaito, 50, is married with four children and resides in a village in southern Lebanon, but spends most of the week in Damascus. The majority of his attention is focused on southern Syria, where his task is to ensure Hezbollah’s interests.

This essentially marks the first time that Shaito’s name and face have been exposed, as until now he has managed to work in secret. Arab media had little to no information about him, and he has managed to have virtually no digital footprint.

In the early 2000s, Shaito served as Hezbollah’s deputy commander of the “unit for Palestine operations,” during which he dispatched the terrorists who in 2002 carried out the deadly attack near Kibbutz Matzuva, in which six Israelis were murdered.

He was eventually promoted to serve as a regional commander, a position he held during the 2006 Second Lebanon War. After the war, he was promoted to serve as deputy commander of the Badr unit, which is responsible for the area between the Litani and Awali rivers.

Shaito was reportedly appointed to his current position in June 2016. His predecessors were Jihad Mughniyeh – the son of Hezbollah’s iconic military commander Imad Mughniyeh, who was assassinated in January 2015 in the Golan Heights; and Samir Kuntar, who murdered three members of the Haran family in Nahariya in 1979 and was also assassinated in 2015. Hezbollah accused Israel of both assassinations and in both cases retaliated from Lebanese territory.

However, while Kuntar and Mughniyeh were responsible for building a terrorist infrastructure on the Syrian Golan, to be utilized for attacking Israel, Shaito’s job is more official in nature. Similar to his Hezbollah counterparts in other parts of Syria, Shaito’s primary mission is to help the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad win the civil war and retake control of the bleeding nation. Once that mission is accomplished, his task would be to implement Iran and Hezbollah’s interests in Syria.

Within this context, Shaito is responsible for establishing Hezbollah’s infrastructure in the southern area of the Golan Heights. Several weeks ago Israel shot down a Hezbollah drone, controlled by Shaito’s operatives, flying near the border. He is responsible for additional Hezbollah operations in the sector as well, but the brunt of his effort is dedicated to helping the Syrian army defeat rebel forces in the area. His force comprises a group of junior Hezbollah officers and several dozen fighters under his command, a portion of who serve a few months of operational duty in the sector and then return to Lebanon to be replaced by others.

Avoiding escalation, for now

Hezbollah’s activities in Syria made headlines this week, after Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman accused the organization of firing rockets at Israel over the weekend. Lieberman even determined that the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, personally issued the directive in an effort to compartmentalize Assad and his army. IDF officials, who said the army had no evidence to support the defense minister’s claims, were caught off guard by his statement. It is safe to assume, however, that had Hezbollah fired the projectiles, Shaito would have given the order.

Regardless, IDF officials in recent years have pointed to Hezbollah’s strategy, orchestrated by Iran, of entrenching itself on the Golan Heights from where it can open another front against Israel. Military operations attributed to Israel – among them the Mughniyeh and Kuntar assassinations – were able to stymie the growth of the organization’s terrorist infrastructure. It appears, however, that Hezbollah adhered to its plan, which is now Shaito’s responsibility.

With that, defense officials believe Hezbollah wants to avoid anything that could lead to an escalation with Israel. The group’s priority, shared by its Iranian patron, is first and foremost to win the Syrian civil war and only then intensify its operations along the Israeli border – an area that is currently under rebel control, mostly by groups affiliated with Islamic State and al-Qaida.