How to Define a Hezbollah at War With Takfiri Militants?
by Adam Weinstein
The recent attacks in Paris have added enormous world pressure for the United States, Russia, and Iran to decide the future of Bashar al-Assad and Syria. The US cites Assad’s alleged war crimes and lack of legitimacy as the reasons why his departure must accompany any political solution. Russia and Iran counter that it is not up to the US or its allies to determine the political landscape of a post-war Syria. But mention of Hezbollah is noticeably missing from most official statements on all sides, yet it may be the crux of the debate. And, as Western social media and news bickered over the disparate coverage that the terrorist attack in south Beirut received, they largely ignored the relevance of the target. The ISIS attack in Beirut was mainly directed not at Lebanon but at Hezbollah.
The United States and Hezbollah, while united only in their struggle against ISIS, have the same public relations conundrum—how to portray a Hezbollah that is fighting takfiri terrorists instead of Israel? Hezbollah uses the word takfiri, or one who declares others to be infidels, to refer to Salafi militias operating in Syria. They make no distinction between the loose conglomerate of Islamist groups operating under the name ‘Free Syrian Army’ and al-Nusra or ISIS. While the US and its formal allies debate the possibility of using ground troops in Syria post-Paris attacks, it is Hezbollah which has been the dominant presence on the ground for over two years since the organisation’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah officially announced their involvement on 25 May 2013. This marked a sharp break from the organisation’s traditional claim that its sole mission was to fight Israel.
Hezbollah has insisted that while a transition in its focus has occurred the goal remains to weaken Israel. On July 10, 2015 to mark Quds (Jerusalem) Day, Nasrallah stated ‘the road to Al-Quds does not pass through Jounieh. We’ve never said that. However, the road to Al-Quds passes through Qalamoun, Zabadani, Homs, Aleppo, Deraa, Hassakeh and Swaida, because if Syria was lost, Palestine would be lost too.’ Nasrallah mentioned the traditionally Christian city of Jounieh, just north of Beirut, to stress his recurring message that Hezbollah does not seek to dominate Lebanon. More importantly, he asserted that the mission in Syria was crucial to maintaining the ‘axis of resistance’ against Israel with Iran and Syria representing the only existential threat to Zionism. He added that other Arab nations ‘have made an official decision to sell Palestine’.
The perception that Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the US are part of an insidious alliance against both Shiites and the Palestinian resistance is popular among Hezbollah’s followers. Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign in Yemen, Israel’s providing medical treatment to some al-Nusra members near its border in the Golan Heights, and America’s cautious campaign against ISIS have added fodder to Nasrallah’s view of events. Despite higher than ever casualties of young Lebanese men in Syria and a growing number of Iranian casualties, it would appear that Hezbollah’s supporters are accepting the Syria-Israel connection—for now.
Nevertheless no military force wants to operate on two fronts simultaneously and Hezbollah has scrupulously avoided any serious engagement with Israel since its forces entered Syria. The ‘Zionist Entity’ may be the ultimate objective for Hezbollah, but Syria is its current battle. Few events highlight this development more clearly than Hezbollah’s limited reaction last January when an Israeli airstrike in Syria killed Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of Hezbollah’s late chief of foreign operations Imad Mughniyeh, along with an Iranian general. Hezbollah fired an antitank missile at an Israeli vehicle killing two soldiers, but nothing more. The reasons behind the Israeli airstrike were not obvious, but Hezbollah’s response was clear—it was one of strategic restraint. Interestingly, when Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed the US Congress in March, he offered as evidence that Iranian President Rouhani is disguised as a reformer but is in reality a hardliner, having placed flowers on the ceremonial tomb of Imad Mughniyeh. What Netanyahu and most news outlets failed to mention was the January airstrike that had killed Mughniyeh’s son Jihad, and the Iranian general.
For its part, the US still insists Hezbollah is a terrorist organisation that needs to be fought vigorously. Last May, the House of Representatives voted 423-0 to enact various sanctions on Hezbollah and on 17 November the Senate passed an amended version of the sanctions bill by unanimous consent, which now returns to the House. Furthermore, the Obama Administration has emphasised that the nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran does not change its stance on Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation. This attitude is not likely to change as regional US alliances and domestic ill regard for Hezbollah prevent any deviation from a confrontational policy—at least officially.
As often is the case, official lines and reality on the ground differ. Back in August, Lebanese authorities in Beirut arrested the Salafist Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir who once fought alongside the famous Lebanese singer turned jihadist Fadl Shaker against Lebanese soldiers. Amid al-Assir’s often nonsensical publicised rants, he did speak some truth when he noted the cooperation between Hezbollah and the Lebanese Armed Forces. This is a fact the US will never publicly acknowledge. Earlier this summer American Ambassador David Hale witnessed a live fire demonstration of TOW-II missiles given to the Lebanese army by the US. To mark the occasion he noted that the US was committed to ensuring the army was the “sole defender” of Lebanon. These statements are empty when you consider Hezbollah’s political strength in Lebanon since its reconciliation with prominent politician Nabih Berri’s Shiite Amal movement, combined with relative military success against Israel in 2006.. This position will likely be further reinforced if pro-Assad Suleiman Frangieh becomes Lebanon’s next president. Furthermore, if not for Hezbollah then ISIS would eventually knock at the doorsteps of Beirut.
In some sense history has come full circle between Syria and Lebanon. Syria began its long occupation of Lebanon in 1976 as a result of the Lebanese Civil War and did not leave until the Cedar Revolution of 2005. It is unlikely that Hezbollah wants the unenviable role of standing army in Syria when this detracts from its fight against Israel. The organisation’s future in Syria will depend on the political solution or lack thereof decided by the U.S., Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia. If Assad or a close associate remain in power there will always be a place for Hezbollah in Syria as a stabilizing counterbalance to other influences. If a system similar to Lebanon’s Taif Agreement is adopted then Hezbollah may seek to fill the vacuum inherent in that power sharing structure. It is without doubt however that Hezbollah will remain in Syria so long as the war continues. While Western officials speak about the campaign against ISIS as if it were limited to coalition air strikes it is dubious how successful any air offensive would be without Hezbollah’s ground offensive—a reality not lost on Russia. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov recently said that Hezbollah is not considered a terrorist organisation by his county because ‘they have never committed any terrorist acts on Russian territory’ and were elected to the parliament. US alliances in the Middle East and its own history in Beirut preclude its diplomats from making such statements even if that would promote cooperation in Syria. A loud silence by US officials on Hezbollah’s future and Syria may be a tacit approval. Nevertheless no deal will be reached with Iran and likely Russia on Syria unless Hezbollah is given some assurances—official or unofficial—in exchange for the blood it has spilt there.
Adam Weinstein is a third year law student and J.D. candidate at the Temple Beasley School of Law in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where he focuses on developmental and international law. His interests include the relationship of US foreign policy to development and security within the Middle East. He tweets at@AdamNoahWho and can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.