Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 1   No. 10

October 1999 

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Is Hezbollah Moving out of the Syrian Orbit?

Hassan Nasrallah

Hassan Nasrallah
During his visit to Teheran on October 6, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah declared the need for "an all-out continued resistance drive" against Israeli forces in south Lebanon. In light of Syria's vested interest in restricting Hezbollah activities during the sensitive pre-negotiation phase of the peace process with Israel, Nasrallah's declaration seemed to portend Hezbollah's departure from the Syrian orbit. It now appears that his Iranian hosts are eager to assist him in this regard.

According to Israeli military sources, Iran recently began airlifting arms shipments to Hezbollah directly through Beirut International Airport. Previously, these shipments of Katyusha rockets, mortar shells and other weapons were transported by three Boeing 747 cargo jets every month to Damascus, where they were loaded on trucks and transferred overland into Lebanon.1 Syria apparently cut off or severely curtailed this supply route shortly after the election of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak in May.

The new direct shipments reportedly include a new weapon previously unused in south Lebanon: the short-range 107mm Katyusha rocket (the standard version commonly used by Hezbollah is the 122mm, which has a range of 21 km). The arrival of the suboptimal 107mm, which has a range of about 8 km, suggests that the group is attempting to stockpile as much weaponry as it can in anticipation of a Syrian move to cut off the arms shipments from Teheran.

The broader significance of this development is unclear. One interpretation is that there has emerged a "divergence in Iranian and Syrian agendas for Hezbollah" which could "threaten the traditionally solid relationship between Iran and Syria."2 According to this reasoning, Teheran fears that any further advancement of the peace process between Israel and Syria will dramatically reduce Iranian influence in the region. In order to deal effectively with Israel, Damascus must retain absolute control over Hezbollah--Syria's ability to increase or decrease the frequency and scale of Hezbollah attacks is its primary bargaining chip. By circumventing Syria and arming Hezbollah directly, Iran hopes to undermine Syria's negotiating position.

  1 Yediot Aharonot, 7 October 1999.
  2 "Iran Risking Syrian Relations to Retain Influence?" Stratfor.com, 8 October 1999.

1999 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.

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