Russia and Iran Contest for Power in Syria through Hezbollah and Shia Clan Proxies

In Syria, tension is on the rise between militias loyal to Russia and those faithful to Iran, amid signs that Moscow and Tehran are racing to recruit local clans. Last month, members of the small Hezbollah-aligned Lebanese clan of Al Jamal shot dead a fighter of the Russian-aligned Jaafar clan on the Syria side of the border with Lebanon. A tribal blood feud has ensued. But while the matter might seem like traditional vendetta in the Bekaa Valley, it instead reflects a growing schism between Russia and Iran. As Moscow attempts to recruit clans and create Lebanese-Syrian militias, Hezbollah is trying to show the Russians who is really boss in the Bekaa, where clans maintain their tribal code and networks.

Since its inception in 1982, Hezbollah has steered clear of Lebanon’s big Shia clans in the Bekaa, namely the Jaafar, Zaiter, Masri, Dandash and Shamas clans. While it is true that the roster of Hezbollah’s leaders, lawmakers and cabinet ministers features men from the BekSaa Valley, none comes from these big clans.

When the Al Assad regime ruled Lebanon, its shrewd intelligence chief, Ghazi Kanaan, skillfully subdued these clans by offering them perks and privileges in the Lebanese state in return for allegiance. But since the Syrian withdrawal, these clans have been left on their own. Until 2015, that is. Then, Russia started courting them in a bid to revive Kanaan’s network. Just like Bashar Al Assad once used these clans to offset Hezbollah’s power, Moscow became determined to do the same. And it is now intensifying.

Until 1990, the Soviet Union offered scholarships to students from around the world. Many Lebanese clan members studied in Moscow, married Russian women and became fluent Russian speakers. When Moscow decided to revive Kanaan’s tribal force, its ambassador in Beirut, Alexander Zaspikin, started reconnecting with alumni of Russian colleges. The most developed of Russian ties with Lebanon’s Shia clans is with the Jaafars. The clan boasts that it can field 5,000 fighters. Similarly, the Zaiter clan claims to run a militia of 5,000 to 10,000 men.

But despite its best efforts, Moscow probably realizes that its newfound Lebanese tribal force cannot counter the much better trained, better armed and battle-hardened Hezbollah. What these Lebanese Shia clans can do, instead, is replace Hezbollah’s fighters in holding territory that the Al Assad alliance won back over the past few years. Russia has promised Israel that it would replace pro-Iranian militias in Syria with pro-Russian forces. Publicly, Russian officials say it is time for the withdrawal of all non-Syrian fighters, including Russian, American and Iranian, from Syria. Iran disagrees.

Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s chief, implicitly responded to the Russian policy in a speech, saying that the only authority that can order his militia to leave Syria is Al Assad, whose reliance on Tehran had seemed indispensable to his survival. While militarizing Lebanon’s Shia clans might help wean Al Assad off Iran and its militias, it is also possible that Moscow is recruiting tribal fighters as a substitute to both Hezbollah and Al Assad, for the same reason that it has been propping up Syrian Army officers, such as Suheil Al Hassan, known as “the Tiger,” as an alternative to the Syrian president.

In the southern offensive against the opposition, experts noted that the fighting units mostly came from the Tiger’s militia. In response, Hezbollah’s media outlets were swift to announce that Hezbollah and other pro-Iran fighters were present with Al Assad’s forces when they regained control over areas in the south. But Hezbollah’s claim of participating in this offensive cannot be independently verified, and may suggest that it is bluffing to save face.

Signs of schism within the Al Assad alliance are now abundant, from the race between Russia and Iran to recruit local clans, to incidents in Qusair in the west and Boukamal in the east, and finally the Tiger militia – rather than combined Al Assad and Hezbollah forces – leading the southern offensive.

The hotter the Russian-Iranian contest becomes, the more clashes should be expected within a once seemingly solid pro-Al Assad alliance, including in the Bekaa Valley, where instability has forced the Lebanese Army – under Hezbollah’s influence – to reinforce its presence in the valley in a bid to rein in the clans.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai and a former visiting fellow at Chatham House in London.