Do you remember Hezbollah? The Lebanese Shiite militant group has fought Israel during their occupation of Lebanon in 1982 as well as in the 2006 Lebanon war. These actions made them the heroes of the Muslim community in the Middle East, and the fierce enemy of Israel. Presently however, their involvement in the Syrian war, is changing everything. For Syria, themselves – and maybe also for Israel.
Hezbollah was created during the Lebanese civil war as a Shiite Muslim resistance movement against the Israeli occupation in southern Lebanon. Since its conception Hezbollah has had the support of Iran, the Shiite superpower of the region. Currently, Hezbollah has proven to be a vital instrument for Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad, helping him to gain control over numerous cities that were captured by rebels, including ISIL. Since Hezbollah’s first involvement in the Syrian War in 2013, the conflict has turned rapidly in Al-Assad’s favor. A war that looked as though the world would see the fall of the Al-Assad regime now looks like a never-ending conflict with Al-Assad still keeping a tight grip on large parts of the country. According to the pro-Israeli Washington Institute, Al-Assad would have lost the war if it weren’t for Hezbollah.
Hezbollah’s battle for the Shiite Al-Assad has changed their favour mainly among the Sunni community. Being the only Arab resistance movement able to force Israel to leave occupied soil, the group’s popularity rocketed among people of all religions in the Arab world. Today, many Sunnis regard Al-Assad as a murderer and by helping him Hezbollah has been nicknamed “The party of Satan”. Simultaneously, the Lebanese president and the US have urged Hezbollah to leave Syria. So why is Hezbollah risking their reputation both nationally and internationally for president Al-Assad?
(Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah)
One possible answer might be Iran. Some claim that Hezbollah is the “puppet” of Iran, going where Iran tells them to go, not putting Lebanese interest first. Iranian forces trained Hezbollah when it was founded, and Hezbollah has an alliance with the leaders of Iran. As the Syrian war has developed into a Shiite versus Sunni battle, Iran, is terrified of losing Syria into Sunni hands. Al-Assad and Hezbollah are regarded by Iran as the guarantor for balance of power between the Sunni and the Shiite, with the Sunnis being the most populous denomination in the region, and the world. If Syria would fall into the hands of Sunni-rebels, Iran would lose an important Shiite ally and also be geographically cut out from south Lebanon and Hezbollah. Power would fall into Sunni hands, and in the hands of Iran’s Sunni antagonists, Saudi Arabia, which supports parts of the opposition against Al-Assad.
Talking to those in favor of Hezbollah’s intervention, and Hezbollah themselves, we are given a different answer. The presence of Hezbollah’s soldiers on Syrian soil is due to a concrete defense of Lebanon as a country, and the Shiite population in the south. Why wait for ISIL and other Sunni rebels to penetrate the Lebanese border, when they can be stopped in Syria, is the general argument for the operation. Hezbollah’s battle in Syria is seen as a preventative measure to defend the autonomy of Lebanon.
Others argue that Hezbollah’s Syrian intervention could have far greater consequences than just defending Lebanon or pleasing Iran. 2015 has seen the most military action between Hezbollah and Israel since the 2006 war. In January, Israel bombed a Hezbollah convoy, and Hezbollah responded by killing two Israeli soldiers. The 2006 war was a war without any clear winner. Hezbollah and Lebanon suffered big causalities. Israel was not able to crush Hezbollah. They also aggravated their reputation in the Middle East and in the world as they killed about 1000 Lebanese civilians, compared to the Israeli civilian death toll of 43. Since the conflict, both Hezbollah and Israel has massively expanded their military capability. In 2006, Hezbollah’s rocket-weapons were believed to be about 13,000 in numbers, the estimate today is over 100,000. The armory today is more advanced and could strike Israel far deeper than they could in 2006. IDF, the Israeli Defense Force, has also upgraded their military equipment. A new war could be more devastating than ever, for both sides.
If Hezbollah were to gain control of the Golan Heights, an area where Hezbollah is fighting today, they could deploy military missions toward Israel from there, being able to strike further south in Israel than before. This concern is thought to be reason for Israel’s bombing of the Hezbollah convoy in January. If Israel responds with an act that could lead to war just to prevent Hezbollah from gaining control in the region, what would happen if Hezbollah succeeded? The Israelis have stated that they will not accept Hezbollah turning the Golan Heights into a new frontline. If Israel would get involved on a bigger scale in Syria compared to today, a big turn in the war would be a fact.
Hezbollah has been a massive contributor to Al-Assad’s strength in Syria and they are one of the reasons he still remains in power, and that the country has not fallen into the hands of any rebel groups, including ISIL. Whether or not they are there to please Iran, defend Lebanon or open up a new frontline towards Israel, the consequences of their Syrian involvement are numerous and could lead to a new full-scale conflict between Israel. In 2010, Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah addressed Israel by saying: “I say to the Israelis: if you attack Beirut’s Rafiq Hariri airport we will attack Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, If you hit our ports, we will bomb your ports, and if you hit our oil refineries, we will bomb your oil refineries. The only language Israel understands is that of threats”. It remains to be seen if these words will be transformed to actions.