Nobody, neither its friends nor its foes, ever questions Hezbollah’s military prowess. During its last major engagement, the July war of 2006, an Israeli general ruefully called it “the greatest guerilla organization in the world today,” and the entire Arab world thrilled at its exploits, not only in classical guerilla warfare, but in higher-tech forms of combat, such as the sea-borne missile which very nearly sank the Israeli navy’s flagship.
The really contentious question is: What does it use its prowess, and its weapons, for? In the past two weeks, it has given two dramatic, and profoundly contradictory, answers.
One came in the shape of the drone that Hezbollah launched over Israel on Oct. 6. In a subsequent speech, Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah called it an “Iranian-built,” “Hezbollah-assembled” device which, during its three-hour, 300 km mission, conducted reconnaissance of sensitive sites, including that “holy of holies,” the ultra-secret nuclear facility at Dimona.
The second answer was that, yes indeed, Hezbollah is now engaged, militarily, on the side of the Syrian regime in its war of repression against the rebels seeking to overthrow it.
Ever since the Syrian uprising began there had been reports and allegations about such an engagement; coming mainly from partisan sources, they were often less than entirely convincing. Now, in his speech, Nasrallah has for the first time effectively admitted it.
However, it was not – in marked contrast with his revelations about the drone – an admission that fell clearly, emphatically, still less triumphantly, from his lips. In fact he was very ambivalent about it.
On the one hand he persisted in his party’s traditional insistence that it was not involved. But on the other, he divulged some information indicating that his mujahedeen definitely were active on the regime’s behalf; specifically, they were helping it retain control of some 23 strategically located villages which – though on the other side of Syrian-Lebanese border – were actually inhabited by Shiites of Lebanese citizenship. Some of them had died there doing their “jihadist duties” – terminology which seemed to carry the rather startling implication that, for him, “martyrdom” is as noble in battle against fellow-Arabs as it is against the historic Zionist foe.
This first, official admission lends more credence to suggestions that the involvement is really much more extensive than he claims. It certainly might become so anyway; for while denying that Hezbollah had “so far” any part in “Syria’s crisis,” Nasrallah had no qualms about suggesting it might have one in future – and wouldn’t hide it if it did.
The first answer is a big plus for Hezbollah. Arabs who may not like the organization can hardly but acknowledge the drone for the achievement it was. Indeed, said pan-Arab nationalist newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi, it should be “a source of pride for Lebanese, Arabs and Muslims everywhere.” For 60 years, Israel’s air force had enjoyed almost total mastery of the Arab skies around it; more than anything else, this had been the reason for its repeated victories against Arab states and armies. Now, said Al-Quds, this non-state actor has put those states to shame, “especially those spending hundreds of billions on American and European weapons.”
Indeed, could there be better corroboration of what this achievement means than that which comes from shocked Israelis themselves? Calling it a “major turning-point for Israel security,” military correspondent Alex Fishman wrote that “the Iranians have sent us a message via Lebanon: In future you will be attacked not only with rockets and missiles, but with explosives-laden unmanned aircraft as well.”
The second answer is, however, a big minus for Hezbollah; it further, and grievously, tarnishes that reputation which, in the 2006 war, Nasrallah had earned for himself as a pan-Arab hero of almost Nasser-like proportions. And judging by his speech, he surely knows it. The drone – he tried to argue – showed that Hezbollah was not being diverted from its primary mission, the struggle against Israel, by “regional developments and events” – in other words, by the Syrian civil war.
But this simply isn’t true. Such a claim might have been once. In its early, idealistic days, Hezbollah could seriously contend that its only raison d’etre really was what it said it was: namely, the use of its weapons for “resistance,” jihad and the “religious duty” to liberate Israeli-occupied Lebanese territory, and then the whole of Palestine.
It did once ostentatiously refuse to sully itself with the mud of conventional Lebanese politics. But in due course it effectively became a political party like any other – with the one, crucial difference, however, that, remaining a militia too, it retained its weapons.
It pledged it would never use them against other Lebanese, or to advance any agenda except its jihadist one. But in reality its military might lent it a huge, “illegitimate” advantage over all other actors on the Lebanese political stage. The more it exploited that advantage the more it damaged its standing, especially in Lebanon and the Arab world at large.
But now, with its involvement in Syria, it has embarked on a vast and qualitative escalation of this political abuse of military power, vastly widening the circle of its enemies accordingly.
In the first place, it is hypocrisy writ large. A basic claim of Hezbollah’s is to be a champion of the “oppressed.” That, ostensibly, was one key reason why it leapt to the support of the first great uprisings – in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya – of the Arab Spring. The ideal behind them was everywhere essentially the same – the replacement of despotism by democracy. But with Syria it did the very opposite: It sided with a peculiarly brutal “oppressor” against the “oppressed.”
It reckons to be ecumenical in its Islam. But however idealistically it began, the Syrian uprising has in large measure degenerated into a sectarian civil war – a war which, given Syria’s centrality in the region’s affairs, will do more than anything else to shape the outcome of the conflict that now pits Sunni versus Shiite Islam throughout the Middle East. Inevitably, whether it likes it or not, Hezbollah now finds itself party to sectarianism at its most atrocious – and, of course, on the side of the “wrong” sect, the Alawites who constitute the backbone of the despotic regime.
Its involvement is also very dangerous for Lebanon. That small country is polarized between two camps, supporters – mainly Sunni – of the Syrian rebels on the one hand and their opponents – mainly Shiite – on the other. Hezbollah’s military assistance to the regime will intensify that – already very real and substantially sectarian-motivated too – which the rival camp are furnishing to the rebels, aggravate growing inter-communal tensions inside Lebanon itself, and help push the country a few more steps down the road to a second civil war which precious few want.
Nasrallah’s motives are obvious – and pure realpolitik. The Assad regime is the heart of the so-called “axis of resistance” of which, with Iran, Hezbollah is a part. The moral and political price that he is paying in his efforts to keep the regime in being is already great, but evidently, for him, no price could be greater than its fall.
The positive consequences of his military exploit on the Israeli front may compensate in some degree for the negative ones on the Syrian front.
Indeed, that may partly have been the very purpose of it.
That is certainly what members of the March 14, anti-Hezbollah coalition think: “Resistance” and jihad be damned, they say, the drone was just a stunt to divert attention from its nefarious role in Syria.
Some even say that Hezbollah wants to drag Lebanon into another war with Israel.
But that, surely, is an exaggeration. Yes, the drone was a provocation, but – no doubt calculatedly – hardly a war-provoking one; for all their inherent belligerence, even the Israelis wouldn’t have the chutzpah to call this single, unarmed violation of their airspace a casus belli, especially since – as Nasrallah pointed out – Israeli warplanes have for years been doing just that in Lebanon’s airspace on an almost daily basis.
Yet that is not to say that war there will not, at some point, occur; at least not according to the school of thought which says that Iran, Syria and Hezbollah are now – in varying ways and degrees – in such trouble at home that war, and the patriotic rallying effect it should have on their peoples, might sooner or later appear to them as their only possible salvation. But in Hezbollah’s case, it would definitely have to be a war about which the Lebanese are convinced that Israel, not it, is the manifest aggressor.
David Hirst is a former Middle East correspondent for the Guardian and author of “Beware of Small States: Lebanon, battleground of the Middle East. He wrote this commentary for The Daily Star.