Countering Hezbollah, Iran’s Expansion

November 15, 2017
Gregory Waters  —  Research Analyst


The Trump administration recently unveiled its new strategy to counter the threat Hezbollah and Iran pose to the United States and its interests abroad. Despite talk of designating the entire Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist entity. President Trump chose instead to add a few more sanctions to those that already apply to the military organization. The President did follow through on his threat to decertify the Iran Nuclear Deal, however, and Congress now has until December 12 to vote to impose new sanctions – effectively pulling the United States out of the deal – or do nothing and allow the deal to remain in place.

As for Hezbollah, the White House issued a $5 million and a $7 million reward for information leading to the capture of two high ranking Hezbollah members, Fuad Shukr and Talal Hamiyah. It was also announced that United States will increase its efforts to convince the E.U. to include Hezbollah’s political wing alongside its military wing on the E.U.’s list of international terrorist organizations. Nathan Sales, the U.S. counterterrorism coordinator, claimed that any distinction between these two branches is “false” and that “Hezbollah has no political wing.”

The White House’s new initiatives come in response to as the unprecedented influence and power of Iran and by association, Hezbollah. Beginning in 2003, Iran has worked to expand its influence throughout Iraq by funding, training, and arming a variety of Shi’ite and Kurdish political parties and militias. Central to this strategy is the IRGC – the military arm of Tehran tasked with maintaining domestic security and exporting radical Shi’ite ideology abroad. IRGC officers train anti-American and anti-Sunni private military units (PMU) such as the terrorist groups Kata’ib Hezbollah and the Badr Organization, while other IRGC veterans have served as Iran’s ambassadors to Iraq. Iran’s train and equip program in Iraq accelerated following ISIS’s rapid advances through the country, providing Iran with unmatched influence over Iraq’s economy, armed militias, and political establishment. With the outbreak of civil war in Syria, Iran and Hezbollah found an opportunity to continue to expand their influence in a country already friendly to their cause.

In 2012 the IRGC began forming a network of allied militias throughout government-controlled parts of Syria known as the National Defense Force (NDF). Between 2012 and 2013 Iran and Hezbollah – which officially entered the Syrian war in 2013 – built upon these efforts in Aleppo, creating the mostly Shi’ite Local Defense Force (LDF) with a closer tie to Hezbollah. These largely local militias are funded and trained by the IRGC and, owing their existence and continued survival to Iran, operate outside the control of Damascus.

Hezbollah, which has as many as 7,000 fighters in Syria supporting the Assad regime, has embarked on its own militia-building experiments, creating and encouraging a network of partner organizations known as “Syrian Hezbollah.” Israeli defense officials believe that, if and when the next Israel-Hezbollah war occurs, these Syrian Hezbollah units will mobilize as well. Equally concerning is the growing presence of Hezbollah units in Syria’s south, despite demands from both the U.S. and Israel that Russia remove these units from the area. In the most recent battle for the southern Syrian city of Dara’a, Hezbollah fighters flooded the city, at one point accounting for more than 20 percent of pro-government casualties. Hezbollah is also engaged in the fighting along the Beit Jinn pocket adjacent to the Golan Heights.

In addition, Hezbollah, the IRGC and its allied foreign militias have taken charge of the frontlines stretching across Syria’s desert to the Syria-Iraq border near al-Qaim. Hezbollah lost more than 40 fighters here in late August in its attempts to reach the border while on October 26, Iraqi PMUs launched their own offensive to liberate al-Qaim from ISIS. The completion of these two operations will secure Iran’s land route through Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean Sea.

With Assad’s victory in Syria looking more assured each day, Iran and Hezbollah are set to exploit their expanded influence: new air and naval bases for Iran, thousands of loyal Syrian Hezbollah fighters stationed along the Golan Heights, and easy transportation of weapons and troops across the highways spanning Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. If Iran and Hezbollah are allowed to achieve these goals, they will greatly enhance their capacity to plan and conduct terror operations against Israel, the United States, and opposition groups across the Middle East.

While it is still a political adversary, Russia remains one of the only entities capable of slowing Iran’s expansion in Syria and in the region. The United States must insist that as part of any political settlement, Russia assists in  removing Hezbollah and Iranian militias from the sensitive frontlines, such as in north Hama and across southern Syria de-escalation zones around Dara’a and Quneitra. Yet simply pushing back on Iranian deployment will not solve the problem; economic pressure on both the foreign and domestic sections of the IRGC must be increased. The IRGC controls at least 50 percent of Iran’s economy and has spent an estimated $1 billion funding its proxy militias just in Syria. Designating the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization will force foreign businesses to shift their transactions to non-IRGC owned institutions. This will in turn deprive the IRGC of the resources that today allows it to arm and pay the salaries of its Syrian and Iraqi proxies, which would be a welcome first step in loosening Tehran’s grip over the Syrian people.

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