JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: There is a new and potentially-explosive battleground shaping up in Syria’s civil war, in the country’s southeast, as is retreats from its makeshift capital, Raqqa, and the larger fight for Syria grinds on.
Along the border shared by Syria, Iraq and Jordan, American and British special operations troops are training rebel fighters — operating in close proximity, forces from the Syrian army, Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah.
As special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports, the Lebanese militant group is a unique force in the shifting political landscape in the Middle East. While it has been integral to the Syrian regime’s survival, it also remains committed to its original goal, the destruction of Israel.
JANE FERGUSON: Forged amid the bloodletting of Lebanon’s civil war from 1975 to 1990, Hezbollah was created to fight Israel, whose army invaded and occupied the country halfway through the conflict after attacks by Palestinian groups.
Hezbollah means Party of God in Arabic, but members often call themselves simply the resistance. It is a secretive militant movement of the Shia sect of Islam, largely funded and armed by Iran. To the U.S. and many of its allies, Hezbollah is a terrorist organization.
Inside Lebanon, it is regarded as much a political and social movement as an armed one. In 2006, it fought Israel to a bloody draw during a 33-day war, which the militants declared a victory. It was celebrated around the Arab world, where the group’s popularity rose.
After the war, with Iran’s help, Hezbollah reorganized to become one of the most powerful militant groups in the Middle East. In 2013, however, it entered a much more controversial war, stepping into Syria’s chaos to shore up the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Timur Goksel was the spokesperson for the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Lebanon throughout the civil war. He has seen firsthand the emergence of Hezbollah and its evolution over the years from a small group of fighters to a massive movement. He’s asking the same question many others are.
TIMUR GOKSEL, Former Spokesperson, U.N. Peacekeeping Mission in Lebanon: Why did Hezbollah get so much involved in Syria? Because of their love for Bashar al-Assad? I don’t think so. You have to think of what is happening in Lebanon and what are Hezbollah’s concerns for their own survival.
JANE FERGUSON: The answer to that question lies in geography. Designated by foreign governments as a terrorist organization, Hezbollah is blocked from using the sea and air. To the south sits Israel, with whom Lebanon is still officially at war. Hezbollah’s weaponry and financing comes from Iran, across Shia-dominated Iraq, through Syria and into Lebanon.
The Shia axis, as it is often called, would be broken if the Sunni-dominated opposition took over Syria.
TIMUR GOKSEL: For them, survival of the Syrian regime, a friendly regime in Syria, is Hezbollah’s existence. It’s their survival.
JANE FERGUSON: On the battlefield in Syria, Hezbollah has proved its effectiveness. Those injured during battles in Syria rely on the organization’s extensive network and assistance.
The NewsHour was given exclusive access to this Hezbollah treatment center in Beirut, where the group’s war wounded from Syria received treatment and physical therapy. We were not allowed to speak with these fighters, but Imad Khoshman, who lost a leg fighting the Israeli army in the past and now runs the center, told us about the kind of injuries he sees here.
IMAD KHOSHMAN, Hezbollah Rehabilitation Treatment Center (through interpreter): They are normally very painful, such as spinal cord injuries or in the brain. They lead to a person being paralyzed, not being able to speak, not being able to move, or losing limbs.
JANE FERGUSON: This young fighter is recovering from a devastating head injury, struggling to relearn names for everyday objects.
However, the war wounded are just one type of patient here. The center mostly offers medical care to civilians from the local community. It’s all part of a policy cultivated by Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah.
Since becoming the group’s leader in 1992 after Israel killed his predecessor, Nasrallah has expanded Hezbollah as a militant group, and supervised the creation of extensive social programs for its community, effectively creating a state within a state inside Lebanon.
Hezbollah runs its own schools, medical facilities and even sports clubs across Lebanon. They may also be used to control that society, too.
Andrew Exum was the top Middle East policy official at the Pentagon at the end of the Obama administration and he lived in Lebanon for several years.
ANDREW EXUM, Former Pentagon Official: The services that Hezbollah provides to its constituency are services that, quite frankly, the Lebanese government has failed to provide historically. And, so, you can’t blame Lebanon’s Shia constituency for accepting the services provided by Hezbollah.
On the other hand, it creates a real dilemma for them when they — if they were to think about ever moving away from Hezbollah.
JANE FERGUSON: Hezbollah is estimated to have lost over 1,300 fighters in the war, more than they ever lost fighting Israel. Most of these women have male loved ones fighting in Syria. This woman lost a son. As the mother of a man seen as a martyr, her emotions are complicated.
WOMAN (through interpreter): The feeling of my son being martyred is powerful. He will attain a high position in heaven for what he did for us and for our dignity, even though it is difficult. Because he is my child, it is difficult.
JANE FERGUSON: To followers of Hezbollah, this sacrifice is not made for politics. It is a religious duty. And that duty is absolute devotion and loyalty to the global Shia community’s guardian, regardless of national boundaries. Currently, that guardian is Iranian cleric and supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini.
Hezbollah has taken Iran’s side in the region-wide rift between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. And Syria’s war is part of that rift. Saudi Arabia and Iran back opposing sides in the sectarian conflict.
While Hezbollah’s supporters in Lebanon remain loyal, its popularity in Sunni countries across the Middle East, which had risen after the 2006 war with Israel, has now plummeted. The group is now perceived as killing Sunni civilians inside Syria on Iran’s request.
ANDREW EXUM: They very much played a role in the regime tactics to isolate, surround and starve out communities, and the siege and ultimate fall of Eastern Aleppo had Hezbollah’s fingerprints all over it.
JANE FERGUSON: But Hezbollah claims it is fighting terrorists in Syria and making sure they don’t cross over into Lebanon.
IMAD KHOSHMAN (through interpreter): Our fighters are injured fighting terrorists and protecting our borders. They are protecting our people, our villages and our towns.
JANE FERGUSON: However, for all it has lost in regional popularity, the group has become hugely strengthened militarily. And it is capitalizing on that by pursuing further involvement in the region.
The group is also fighting in Iraq, taking on the Sunni extremists ISIS. At the same time, the U.S.-led coalition is also fighting the Islamic State in Iraq, and operating on the same side as Shia militias, including Hezbollah.
This indirect relationship of convenience is an irony of the war against the Islamic State. The Trump administration has talked tough about containing Iran, but given little explanation of how it would play a role in curbing Iran and its ally here in Lebanon Hezbollah, while continuing to fight the common enemy of ISIS.
America has long viewed Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and a deadly enemy. In 1983, the group killed 241 U.S. servicemen in Lebanon when it blew up a U.S. Marine barracks. Israel is anxiously watching Hezbollah’s evolution.
The Israeli military has conducted airstrikes against Hezbollah targets inside Syria throughout the war, although that hasn’t stopped the group from expanding its arms supplies, which could threaten Israel. In February, Hezbollah leader Nasrallah leader threatened to strike a nuclear facility in Israel.
HASSAN NASRALLAH (through interpreter): They know that, if rockets hit this reactor, what would befall them and their entity. They are aware of the risks which would be inflicted on them.
JANE FERGUSON: Both Israel and Hezbollah know a war between them will bring more devastation than ever before for communities on each side.
This, for now, seems to be the most effective conflict prevention. It is not one, however, guaranteed to keep this fragile truce.
For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jane Ferguson in Beirut, Lebanon.