Hizbullah’s armed involvement in the Syrian conflict since mid-2013 took a new twist this week with reports that Israeli warplanes had bombed targets in territory held by the Syrian government near Damascus on 7 December 2014, underscoring the deepening complexity of the war raging on multiple fronts in Syria. Israel has carried out airstrikes in Syria on at least four occasions since early 2013, but these were the first attacks in many months and the first since the United States began bombing Syria in September. Unsubstantiated reports in various Arab media outlets suggested the strikes were meant to destroy a storage facility housing anti-aircraft missiles and weapons as well as drones belonging to Hizbullah.
As is customary, Hizbullah is yet to publicly respond to the attacks or the reports, instead taking the wait-and-see attitude it has adopted since it decided to send armed militias to support its strategic ally, Syria, in its armed battle against opponents of the regime. An article published by Hizbullah’s official website (muqawama) reported the strikes on Monday, citing the Syrian news agency SANA, which itself quoted a statement by the Syrian army command saying the attack underlined the fact that Israel, along with some international and regional allies, supported terrorism against Syria. The airstrikes were meant to provide moral support for Islamist jihadi groups, such as Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra, claimed the Syrian army source.
The attacks come amid a concerted Israeli media campaign aimed at drawing attention to Hizbullah’s weapons and the group’s alleged armed threat to Israel’s security, with Israeli media and some defence officials repeatedly referring to a speech by Hizbullah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah on 5 November 2014 as reflecting the group’s hostile intentions. In the speech, marking the annual Ashura rituals and broadcast by video-link via Hizbullah’s official media platforms, Nasrallah, in his first appearance in months, warned Israel and its allies against assuming that the ‘Resistance’ (meaning Hizbullah) was pre-occupied by regional events and that it would not be able to prepare for a future war with Israel: ‘You should close all of your airports and your ports, because there is no place … on the land of occupied Palestine that the Resistance’s rockets cannot reach … Anything you can think of, you Zionists, count it in your calculations.’
Though Israeli media and officials played up the speech as proof of Hizbullah’s intentions, Nasrallah’s discourse is not new and does not signal a radical shift in the group’s outlook—Hizbullah’s stance towards Israel and Palestine has remained constant since its inception in 1982, as have the other two related pillars that make up its short- and long-term strategies: besides its long-term role as a resistance group against Israel, Hizbullah sees itself as an ally of Iran and a religious party representative of the Shiite community in Lebanon. Indeed, Nasrallah’s speech was consistent with Hizbullah’s strategy of adapting its language and image to suit particular historical contexts in order to increase its power and reach in Lebanon and the region while retaining support within its main constituency—the Shiites of Lebanon. Since his appointment as secretary general in 1992, Nasrallah has been the central visible and vocal actor in this strategy, tailoring his language and image to particular historical junctures or political opportunities in order to present a coherent narrative underlining the need for resistance against threats to Hizbullah’s existence and to ensure support for this narrative in Lebanon and beyond. The latest opportunity was presented by increasing tensions between Palestinians and Israeli settlers in Jerusalem in October and early November and the concern that these may turn into a third Palestinian intifada.
In his November speech, Nasrallah also warned against attempts to turn regional conflicts (meaning Syria) into sectarian wars and called on Sunnis to support efforts to defeat the takfiris (the term Hizbullah and Iran use in reference to Sunni extremists): ‘We must realise that the conflict in the region is not a sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites … I address Sunnis in the region: Shiites are not at war with you. We are both, together, at war with extremist groups like the Islamic State.’ While this discourse contrasts with the language he used in a speech on 2 August 2013, in which he emphasised Hizbullah’s Shiite and resistance identity, it is consistent with earlier statements justifying Hizbullah’s intervention in Syria as an existential battle against the US, Israel and against the takfiris.
For Hizbullah, the Israeli attack may boost its image as a pan-Arab resistance movement.
While it is not clear what effect the latest Israeli attack has had on Hizbullah’s arsenal, it will help to shift focus away from the domestic Lebanese scene, which has been suffering increased sectarian tensions since the rise of Islamic State and its capture of territory in Syria and Iraq, as evidenced by the outbreak of a battle in early August in the border town of Arsal between the Lebanese Armed Forces and Islamist extremist groups led by Islamic State. As Lina Khatib has suggested, the battle of Arsal exposed a web of intertwined problems in Lebanon, exacerbated by the continued unrest in Syria and Iraq. At another level, the attack may inadvertently boost the so-called Axis of Resistance—the Iran-supported alliance of state and non-state actors, including Hizbullah, that seeks to confront Western interests in the region, namely those of the United States and Israel.
For Hizbullah in particular, the Israeli attack may serve to boost its image as a pan-Arab resistance movement and a champion of the oppressed, an image that has suffered since it joined forces with the Syrian regime. Whether it will help it regain credibility and popularity in Lebanon and the larger Arab world to the levels seen during and immediately after the 2006 war with Israel remains unclear. What is certain is that Hizbullah’s involvement in Syria has put the group at a crossroads, and presents as many risks as opportunities. Indeed, it may become the main impediment to Hizbullah’s ability to capture the imagination of its intended audiences, as it has successfully done since its emergence in 1982.
Dina Matar is Senior Lecturer in political communication at SOAS, University of London, and co-author of The Hizbollah Phenomenon: Politics and Communication.