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A friend in terror. How Hezbollah helps Russia avoid sanctions and wage war in Ukraine in exchange for financial aid and weapons

Following its ostracism from the community of civilized nations, Russia is forging closer ties with fellow outcast states including Iran, Syria, Venezuela, and North Korea. It is also cozying up to non-state actors best known for terrorist activities. Take, for example, Lebanese Hezbollah, which supplies Russia with recruits for the Ukrainian conflict while receiving in return the opportunity to procure modern weaponry, including missiles for its attacks against Israel. 

Content
  • Alliance between Russia and Hezbollah

  • No Hezbollah in Ukraine. “Taqiyya”

  • Economic projects

  • Hezbollah's drones

Alliance between Russia and Hezbollah

In the early spring of 2014, a plane from Russia’s Ministry of Emergency Situations landed in the Syrian port city of Latakia with a delivery of humanitarian cargo. It was welcomed on the ground by a delegation that included the country's grand mufti, the local governor, multiple military generals, and several government officials from Damascus. While the assembled Syrians shook hands with the Russian crew and delivered speeches of gratitude, a dozen young men swiftly unloaded the humanitarian aid — cans and large ten-kilogram packs of pasta — into vans. They finished quickly and left the airport long before the end of the ceremonies.

After bidding farewell to the Russians, the delegation dispersed into expensive cars and headed towards the center of Latakia. Along the way, the generals and officials drove past packages of pasta lying on the roadside. The gratefully received aid had simply been thrown out of the vans en route to the city.

“Did you see those pasta packs? It's garbage, not pasta; even our dogs wouldn't eat this,” explained an official from the Syrian Ministry of Information. “Of course, we can't say that directly to the Russians; we're grateful to them for the help, but here, it's just something no one will touch.”

Instead of truly unappetizing gray-brown pasta, Syrian officials and generals would much rather receive tanks and howitzers, planes, and ships from the Russians. By 2014, the civil war in Syria was already in full swing, with government forces struggling to maintain a front line that sometimes ran through the outskirts of Damascus itself.

Instead of unappetizing pasta, Syrian officials and generals would much rather receive tanks and howitzers, planes, and ships from the Russians

The only significant ally of Bashar al-Assad's army at that time was the Lebanese Hezbollah, whose fighters were engaged in battles against the insurgents. Hezbollah received financing and weapons from Iran, and sometimes Iranian instructors could be seen at their positions, easily recognizable by their uniforms, distinct from both Syrian and Lebanese attire (and if the sartorial distinction was not enough, the interpreters who constantly accompanied the Persian-speaking officers should have been a clear giveaway). At that stage, Iranian infantry was not yet visible, whereas Hezbollah’s presence was highly conspicuous.

Syrian state propaganda depicted Hezbollah fighters as heroes and saviors. During holidays, the streets of regime-controlled cities were adorned not only with national flags but also with yellow banners of the Lebanese group, along with portraits of Hezbollah's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, who was displayed on billboards alongside portraits of Assad. Magnets and T-shirts featuring the bearded visage of the sheikh were sold in souvenir shops.

It might seem exaggerated to assert that Hezbollah single-handedly saved Assad's regime, but the group undoubtedly played a crucial role in enabling it to hold out long enough for the Russians to shift from providing humanitarian aid like canned goods and pasta to deploying their pilots and mercenary infantry to Syria in the fall of 2015. It was the Russians who, disregarding all norms and principles of warfare, targeted schools and hospitals, engaged in extrajudicial executions, and even leveled entire cities, ultimately altering the course of the war and securing Assad's hold on power — at least in the areas of the country his government and army could control.

From the beginning of their military presence in Syria, the Russians collaborated with Hezbollah. Russian officers and the group's representatives coordinated their actions and prepared joint operations.

The alliance between Russia and Hezbollah quickly evolved beyond a purely military partnership. By 2018, the U.S. government had uncovered a sophisticated scheme involving the smuggling of Iranian oil to Syria in violation of sanctions. This scheme included key players such as the Russian state company Rospromimport and officials from Hezbollah. Furthermore, both Russians and Hezbollah were implicated in another scheme aimed at circumventing Western sanctions. In this scheme, Iran funneled money to one of Syria's state banks, which then transferred the funds to accounts associated with Hamas and other terrorist organizations.

Delegations from Hezbollah were received at high levels in Moscow, and the Russian ambassador to Lebanon visited the group's headquarters to discuss joint projects.

Hezbollah delegation in Moscow, March 15, 2021
Hezbollah delegation in Moscow, March 15, 2021

With the support of Iran, the Lebanese group and Russian government agencies established an entire shadow tanker fleet, which was used for years to transport sanctioned Iranian oil. Revenues from its sale went towards financing the war in Syria and supporting other conflicts in the Middle East. After Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 led Western countries to institute a price cap intended to reduce Moscow’s profits from oil sales, this fleet was used to maneuver Russian hydrocarbons around the strictures of the international sanctions regime.

No Hezbollah in Ukraine. “Taqiyya”

During the initial weeks of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, reports emerged of several hundred mercenaries from Hezbollah fighting alongside the Russian forces. While the group denies these claims, it's noteworthy that Hezbollah's leadership only admitted to its participation in the Syrian war in 2013, at least a year after deploying its initial squads to the front lines. Prior to this acknowledgment, all reports of Hezbollah fighters in Syria were said by the group’s spokesmen to be falsehoods.

An important detail: Hezbollah is a Shiite organization strictly adhering to all religious prescriptions of Shiism, including the doctrine of “taqiyya,” which not only permits but literally obliges a believer to conceal their true intentions from enemies. This doctrine originated in the early Middle Ages, when Shiites were persecuted for their faith. It allowed them to pretend to be Sunnis or Christians, to violate dietary restrictions, and even to blaspheme against Shiite imams if doing so was necessary to save their lives.

Therefore, statements from Hezbollah or leaders of Shiite Iran should be taken with some skepticism. It is very possible that claims of Hezbollah fighters' absence in the occupied territories of Ukraine or assurances from Iranian ayatollahs that their nuclear program is purely peaceful in nature are examples of the modern application of this medieval doctrine.

Economic projects

Hezbollah's “domestic” stronghold lies in the southern region of Lebanon, from the capital Beirut down to the Israeli border. In 2021, there were plans for Russia to construct a hydroelectric power station in this area at an estimated cost of $1.5 billion. Interestingly, this announcement followed shortly after a delegation from Hezbollah visited Moscow. Notably, the company responsible for negotiations, Hydro Engineering and Construction, was registered just weeks prior to this visit.

Although ostensibly a private entity, Hydro Engineering and Construction enjoys the backing of the Russian government, an arrangement that suggests collaboration between official Moscow and Hezbollah. However, Russian work in southern Lebanon has yet to commence. Sheikh Nasrallah attributes the project's delay to the United States, alleging that American interests secured a contract from Lebanon's central authorities to build a hydroelectric power station and are hindering the work of other contractors.

Russia's relations with official Beirut are less cordial than with Hezbollah. Rumors once circulated about Russia's intent to open a representative office in Moscow for the group, enabling direct collaboration with Hezbollah and bypassing the Lebanese government. Despite worsening ties between Moscow and Beirut (with Lebanon being the first Middle Eastern government to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine), this office has curiously not been established.

It is possible that Hezbollah and Russia have developed their partnership without it. Certainly, their longstanding and successful cooperation in Syria, where conflict still persists, demonstrates their capacity to coordinate action despite the absence of a formal Hezbollah mission in Moscow. According to Israeli journalists, Russia has outsourced recruitment efforts to Hezbollah, which allegedly attracts Syrians to fight on the Russian side in Ukraine.

Israeli sources allege that, in exchange for sourcing cannon fodder for the Russian army, Hezbollah has gained access to modern weaponry, including missiles, from Russia. This allegation is supported by reports of Russian plans to transfer to Hezbollah the Pantsir self-propelled air defense system, previously utilized by Wagner Group mercenaries in Syria and later acquired by the Syrian military after the Wagner Group's dissolution. Allegedly, Moscow and Assad agreed to transfer the system to Hezbollah amidst Israel's ongoing conflict with Hamas in Gaza.

In exchange for sourcing and preparing cannon fodder for the Russian army, Hezbollah gained access to modern weaponry from Russia

Hezbollah is not directly involved in this war, but rockets and drones are occasionally launched towards Israel from Hezbollah-controlled territory in Lebanon. In response, the Israeli Air Force bombs Hezbollah positions from aircraft. If Hezbollah were to acquire the Pantsir system, Israeli Air Force sorties would become much more dangerous.

Notably, manned aircraft are one of the few types of forces absent from Hezbollah's military structure. The group fields tanks, missile forces, air defense forces, artillery, and even a maritime fleet — albeit one consisting of light boats. But there are no aircraft. Hezbollah compensates for their absence by actively using drones.

Hezbollah's drones

The first launch of a Hezbollah drone was recorded in 2004. A reconnaissance UAV, made in Iran in the 1980s and later extensively upgraded, crossed the Lebanon-Israel border, flew over northern Israel, and returned to Lebanese airspace twenty minutes later. At that time, Hassan Nasrallah claimed that their drones could reach any point in the Jewish state and that they were suitable not only for reconnaissance but also for targeting, as each of them had a compartment capable of carrying several dozen kilograms of explosives. In 2006, Hezbollah directed three explosive-laden drones towards targets in Israel, but they were all intercepted and destroyed by the Israeli Air Force.

After that failure, Hezbollah's UAV flights ceased for several years, during which, presumably, the group's technicians were busy enhancing their capabilities. In 2012, a reconnaissance drone managed to fly nearly 200 kilometers into Israeli airspace before being detected and shot down.

2012
2012

Hezbollah does not possess any strike drones on the level of the American Reaper or the Turkish Bayraktar. Instead, its aerial fleet consists of reconnaissance UAVs and smaller kamikaze drones. For years, operators of these unmanned aircraft have been learning how to evade Israeli air defense and electronic warfare systems, mastering the intricacies of UAV usage on the battlefield.

The experience of Lebanese terrorists came in handy for their Russian partners in Ukraine. According to Ukrainian intelligence, Hezbollah's UAV operators are training Russian military personnel and local mercenaries who have signed contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defense. The training takes place at the Shayrat airbase near the Syrian city of Homs. In addition, Iranian instructors are involved in teaching Russians and Syrians how to operate Shahed drones, which have been used to target civilian infrastructure in Ukrainian cities. Work with more modern UAVs like the Ababil 3 and Raad is also underway.

Hezbollah's UAV operators are training Russian military personnel and local mercenaries who have signed contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defense

Furthermore, according to Israel's Channel 12, Hezbollah and Russia are preparing to collaborate as members of a committee currently being formed to counter Israeli intelligence operations aimed at recruiting agents in the border regions of Syria. According to reports, Syria and Iran will also participate in the committee.

On the ground in Syria, a portion of the Russian forces in country has been relocated closer to the Israeli border. While it is unlikely that they will be deployed in any sort of attack on the Jewish state, the move serves as a symbolic gesture of allegiance to their Syrian ally. And of course, the presence of Hezbollah fighters has become a familiar sight to the Russians stationed in those areas.

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