Despite mounting isolation, Nasrallah still on the warpath

Guterres recently warned against Hezbollah’s armament and involvement in Syria.
Saturday 16/05/2020
An Iranian carries the Iranian and Hezbollah flags during the commemoration of the 41st anniversary of the Islamic revolution in Tehran, last February. (AFP)
Allegiances. An Iranian carries the Iranian and Hezbollah flags during the commemoration of the 41st anniversary of the Islamic revolution in Tehran, last February. (AFP)

BEIRUT--Faced with mounting challenges at home and abroad, Lebanon’s pro-Iran Hezbollah is defending its involvement in Syria’s war and is calling for closer relations between Beirut and Damascus.

Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah said May 13 that Israel has been attacking “everything linked to missile-manufacturing” in Syria but Iranian and Hezbollah forces in that country were not being swayed by Israel’s actions there.

Israel has conducted many raids inside Syria since the start of Syria’s war in 2011, saying any presence of Hezbollah and Iran, which have played a vital role in supporting the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, was a strategic threat.

“Syria’s allies started to evacuate bases and positions two years ago, without any connection to Israeli attacks,” Nasrallah said, in rare comments on Israeli attacks in the war-torn country.

“Hezbollah forces and Iranian strategic advisers will remain in Syria in accordance with Syria’s interests, and Israeli attacks won’t change this,” he added.

Earlier in May, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned of the dangers of Hezbollah’s involvement in neighbouring Syria, saying the Lebanese government and army should ensure the disarmament of the paramilitary group.

“I continue to urge the government and the armed forces of Lebanon to take all measures necessary to prohibit Hezbollah and other armed groups from acquiring weapons and building paramilitary capacity outside the authority of the State,” Guterres wrote in a UN report.

“The continued involvement of Hezbollah in the conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic… carries the risk of entangling Lebanon in regional conflicts and undermining the stability of Lebanon and the region,” Guterres said.

In his report, dated April 30, Guterres said, Hezbollah’s self-acknowledged maintenance of arms and “the alleged increase by Hezbollah of its arsenal pose a serious challenge to the State’s ability to exercise full sovereignty and authority over its territory.” Hezbollah’s “renewed admission that it possesses missiles is also of great concern”, Guterres said.

Recent statements by Nasrallah seem to justify Guterres’ concern and highlight, once again, the scope of the movement’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, with the aim of serving the Iranian agenda in the region.

Israeli Defence Minister Naftali Bennett said in April that the Israeli military was working to drive Tehran out of Syria.

In recent months, Israel has significantly increased the scope of its attacks in Syria, many of which were aimed at Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah locations. Earlier in May, Israeli defence officials even claimed that Iran had begun withdrawing its forces from Syria.

Nasrallah, however, denied that any Iranian troops were currently operating in Syria or that Israeli air attacks have pushed either Hezbollah or Iran to retreat from the country, calling Israel’s claims that they have done so “imaginary victories.”

The United States Special Representative for Syria Engagement and the Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS James Jeffrey said May 12 US sanctions on Iran have forced it to reduce its military presence in Syria.

“We have seen the Iranians pulling in some of their outlying activities and such in Syria because of, frankly, financial problems…in terms of the huge success of the Trump administration’s sanctions policies against Iran. It’s having a real effect in Syria,” he said.

A 2018 file picture shows Hassan Nasrallah, General Secretary of Hezbollah, speaking during a memorial service for high-ranking Hezbollah representatives killed by Israelis. (DPA)
A 2018 file picture shows Hassan Nasrallah, General Secretary of Hezbollah, speaking during a memorial service for high-ranking Hezbollah representatives killed by Israelis. (DPA)

As Nasrallah seems preoccupied with the developments in Syria, Lebanon is currently going through one of the most difficult junctures in its history.

The Lebanese government, which took office in January with Hezbollah’s backing, is not only dealing with mass protests against the political elite but also a debt-ridden economy made worse by the country’s coronavirus outbreak.

Hezbollah is also facing unprecedented challenges of its own amid pressure from the international community and Western countries aimed at isolating the militant group.  Last month, Germany designated the entirety of Iran-backed movement, including its political arm, a terrorist organisation.

The Hezbollah chief spoke on the four-year anniversary of the death of a top Hezbollah commander in Syria, who was killed in an explosion near Damascus International Airport.

The group has blamed Sunni fighters for killing Mustafa Badreddine, who was on a US sanctions blacklist and wanted by Israel.

He had been on trial in absentia before a special tribunal in The Hague accused him of masterminding the 2005 bombing that killed Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

In his speech, Hassan Nasrallah also stressed the need to repair Syrian-Lebanese relations, considering it to be the main solution for Lebanon’s economic crisis.

He described restoring ties with Damascus a key step to solving Lebanon’s problem including its economic woes. He also attacked those who are still wary of building an open relationship with Syria accusing them of  living under “the illusion” of an impending fall of the Damascus regime.

Nasrallah admitted to the existence of smuggling routes between the two countries, which critics accuse Hezbollah of using to its military and economic advantage. The pro-Iran Shia party is however under immense pressure to end the chaos on the Syrian-Lebanese border and block the illegal routes across the border.

“No one can deny that there is cross-border smuggling between Lebanon and Syria, and I’m not talking about the fighters or arms of the resistance”, said Nasrallah

But he claimed closer cooperation between the Lebanese and Syrian governments is key to putting an end to the problem. “Cooperation between the two countries, governments and armies is necessary to halt the smuggling,” he said.

Nasrallah’s speech coincided with a meeting of the Supreme Defense Council supervised by President Michel Aoun, which highlighted the necessity of putting an end to smuggling operations and blocking illegal roads”.

Lebanese political experts say that this move would be line with the measures that need to be implemented to unlock international aid.

Lebanon is required by the international community, especially its positional donors, to present a set of economic, political, and security reforms that include disarming Hezbollah and blocking illegal trafficking operations that harm the country’s economy.

Lebanese political analysts explained Nasrallah’s calls for better relations with Syria as stemming from his wariness about being isolated at home and over the emergence of a joint Russian-Western drive to block the Tehran-Beirut land corridor which connects Tehran to cities in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.