“Our intervention in Syria has confused Israel and caused it a strategic setback, because they were betting on the toppling of the regime in Syria and the weakening of the resistance in Lebanon after the Arab armies from Egypt to Iraq have been weakened, strengthening the power of the resistance,” said the deputy chief of Hezbollah’s Executive Council, Nabil Qawook, in late February. “These takfirists and terrorists have endorsed all of Israel’s goals.”
Hezbollah, through its various patrons, has made similar arguments in the past. Last spring, during the battle of Al-Qusayr, when Hezbollah and Assad forces swept the Syrian town, the Beirut-based Al-Mayadeen TV channel, which is said to be funded by Syria and Iran, aired footage of what it said was an Israeli army vehicle that had been captured from the rebels.
That report later became the laughing stock of many Lebanese and Syrians, forcing Hezbollah and its loyalists to largely abandon the idea that Israel was directly involved in the fight against Assad in Syria. At least, that was true until last week, when Israeli fighter jets hit a Hezbollah target along Lebanon’s eastern border with Syria.
While Israel has not officially acknowledged the attack, it is believed to be the seventh Israeli air strike targeting weapons bound for Hezbollah from Syria. The big difference this time was that the Israeli raid hit the Lebanese, not the Syrian, side of the border, making it the first reported Israeli strike on Lebanese soil since the 2006 war.
For all of its bravado, Hezbollah had to do, or at least say, something in response. For years, the party sent out messages to Israel that aggression of any kind against Lebanon would not be tolerated. After the Israelis hit Lebanon, Hezbollah was expected to retaliate.
But Hezbollah is bogged down in Syria, fighting alongside Assad, and is in the middle of invading Yabroud, a Syrian town close to the border with Lebanon that is believed to be a hotbed of rebels. So, in the middle of its war in Syria, the last thing Hezbollah needs is to open a front with Israel.
To avoid embarrassment, Hezbollah eventually issued a statement—thirty-six hours after the attack: “We will retaliate for this Israeli aggression, and the resistance will choose the appropriate time and place, as well as appropriate means, to respond.” But it looks as though one of the main ways in which Hezbollah will retaliate is by expanding its operations in Syria, instead of directly targeting Israel.
According to the Lebanon Debate website, a Hezbollah source said that the target was not an arms shipment, but rather the site of heavy artillery that was bombing Yabroud. “This [strike] was a message that Israel wanted to send that the fall of Yabroud is a red line,” he said. The source added that he thinks that in retaliation for the Israeli airstrike on Lebanese territory, Hezbollah will amend its previous war plan. Instead of occupying the hills surrounding Yabroud, the plan will be to seize towns and cities in Qalamoun, a mountainous stretch of land just north of Damascus, like it did in Al-Qusayr.
In its new role, Hezbollah now argues that its fight in Syria is at the heart of its “resistance” against Israel, a logic that doesn’t make sense to many.
Hezbollah’s latest change in strategy comes at a time when Lebanon’s new cabinet is struggling to draft a platform that all parties agree to. That ministerial statement is required by the constitution for a confidence vote in parliament.
While the anti-Hezbollah March 14 alliance and President Michel Suleiman insist on including the Baabda Declaration—an agreement that stipulates Lebanon remain neutral on the Syrian crisis—Hezbollah and its allies have opposed such a step and have requested the renewal of a clause included in previous platforms that stated Lebanon’s right to liberate any of its territories occupied by Israel under the “army, people and resistance” formula. Now that the “resistance” also includes fighting in Syria, cabinet endorsement of such a position has proven to be more controversial than ever.
The cabinet has thirty days to present its platform before parliament or it risks being dissolved, returning Lebanon to a political vacuum.
This article was originally published in The Majalla.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine or Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.