Hezbollah and the politics of the revolving corridors
In extreme times, human logic often looks towards military operations to achieve political ends. However, in the case of Hezbollah and its continuous involvement in the Syrian war and the region, military actions are the ultimate aim for Iran’s militia on the Mediterranean.
Take the recent Hezbollah military campaign on the outskirts of the border town of Arsal in eastern Lebanon against the combined force of the al-Qaeda linked Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and a small contingent of the Free Syrian Army.
Ostensibly, Hezbollah’s objective was to liberate occupied Lebanese territory struggling under the jihadist yoke. However, the underlying motivation behind Hezbollah’s patriotic zeal lay not so much in freeing occupied Lebanon as in establishing a critical staging post in Iran’s long-standing plan to establish a land route stretching from Tehran to the Mediterranean.
Forging such a route would give Iran a free hand in moving weapons, men and militias across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and establishing Tehran as a virtually unassailable power within the region.
There is little that is new or unexpected about this. Iran’s allies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon have all invested money and lives to keep the dream of Iran’s land corridor to the Mediterranean alive and each has shifted strategies to serve that end.
Hezbollah’s Arsal adventure came a few weeks after the pro-Iranian Iraqi government announced the liberation of Mosul from the Islamic State (ISIS), which had threatened this precious land route. Consequently, following Mosul’s liberation, Hezbollah was expected to do its part and secure the Syrian-Lebanese portion of the corridor, which had led to the Syrian port city of Latakia, deep in the heart of Bashar Assad’s Alawite turf.
Jad Yateem, a Lebanese political analyst who follows Syria closely, said Hezbollah’s Arsal operation was intended solely “to secure for Iran a backward base adjacent to the Lebanese border while giving it access both to the Beqaa, (east of Lebanon) as well as the Lebanese south without having to clash or confront their so-called Russian allies.”
Contrary to what many believed, Hezbollah’s military parade in November 2016 in Homs was intended solely to send a message of Hezbollah strength to Russian eyes and, Yateem said, signalled its plan to secure control of Syria’s Qalamoun Mountains, overlooking the Lebanese border.
Occupying the range would allow Hezbollah “to move its main arsenal into Syria where it will be able to avoid provoking a war with Israel while still having the operational capacity to strike when needed,” Yateem said.
In pursuing this goal, Hezbollah consciously sidestepped ISIS’s much smaller contingent, bunkered to the west of Arsal, which posed no significant risk to Hezbollah and Iran’s potential land route. ISIS did, however, make an excellent bogeyman with which to cow the area’s Lebanese population and rally the Sunni population of the area to the Hezbollah cause. Many of these are to be found in predominantly Sunni Arsal itself, as well among the 100,000 or so Syrian refugees scattered in and around it.
Fidaa Itani, a Lebanese journalist who reported extensively from the Qalamoun Mountains at the start of the Syrian war, said Arsal was the “sectarian exception within a largely universally Shia area.”
Assuming, therefore, that Hezbollah can win the hearts and minds of Arsal’s Sunni inhabitants, it would “consolidate the whole area within its overall plan and establish ‘Hezbollah Land,’ essentially, Iran’s share of any future international settlement on Syria,” Itani said.
Throughout the course of the battle of Arsal, Hezbollah never lost sight of its twin goals of securing the Qalamoun Mountains and portraying itself as an indigenous resistance movement aiming to defend Lebanon and its people from alien aggression. On many of the videos circulated by Hezbollah media, militia fighters can be seen patriotically returning Lebanese flags to Lebanon’s liberated territory.
However, just as wearing a football star’s jersey does not make one a star player, carrying a Lebanese flag does not make one a patriot, especially if actions and, more importantly, history prove otherwise.