Every summer brings with it ominous warnings of war in Lebanon. The customary brinkmanship between Israel and Hezbollah is inflamed by a flare-up of tensions. The government in Tel Aviv issues warnings that this time, there will be no restraint in its barbaric destruction of homes and people, and the Lebanese party reaffirms its intention of fighting to the last.
Events over the last week, however, raise grave new concerns and risk establishing a new normal in tit-for-tat aggression that could spiral into a broader conflict, igniting the surrounding tinderbox.
Over the weekend, an Israeli drone crashed into the Hezbollah media centre in the southern suburbs of Beirut, following another attack on a base in Syria that killed two militia members. Another drone attack on Monday targeted an Iranian-backed Palestinian militia base in the Bekaa Valley. Last week, an Iraqi militia was bombed.
The attacks appear to be part of a co-ordinated campaign against pro-Iranian targets in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. In response, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said the party would no longer allow Israeli aircraft free rein in Lebanon's skies, a change in the rules of engagement that have kept the tense southern border somewhat stable since the devastating 2006 war. His deputy Sheikh Naim Qassem said on Wednesday that the party was considering a "calculated strike" in retaliation.
Attacks against Hezbollah – and by extension Iranian – interests are of course nothing new, particularly in Syria, where the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah has taken new forms, with Tel Aviv fearing the opening of a new potential front in a future war near the Golan Heights.
Israel has carried out hundreds of air strikes against pro-Iranian bases and weapons convoys in Syria, including some belonging to Hezbollah. It killed Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of the party’s legendary military commander Imad Mughniyeh, when a military helicopter opened fire on a group of fighters in Quneitra, Syria, in 2015.
However, the attacks and Hezbollah's robust response do serve to highlight the group's expansionist regional role. It is worth contemplating its role in Syria in particular, not because it makes conflict with Israel more or less likely but because it has contributed to shattering the party’s self-proclaimed image as a resistance against oppression. This has implications for Arab public opinion and has divided the ranks of those opposed to Israel’s policies.
Hezbollah initially called for dialogue between the opposition and the regime in Syria when protests broke out in 2011, but after pressure from Iran, intervened decisively on the side of the Assad regime. The party initially said its role was limited to protecting Shia religious shrines but it proceeded to crush the popular uprising with the same brute force as the regime, although with more military sophistication. The party initially focused on securing the porous border with Lebanon, seizing the city of Qusayr near Homs.
It executed the siege of Madaya, a small town near the border, using starvation as a weapon of war. Residents were reduced to eating grass for survival, or dying from malnutrition. In Lebanon, the party used the threat of ISIS, saying if it hadn’t gone to Syria, there would be militant checkpoints in Sidon and Jounieh. The intervention came with a great human as well as moral cost, leading to a series of horrific bombings in Shia-majority neighbourhoods by terrorist groups, which claimed dozens of lives and left Lebanon on the brink of further violence. I covered several of these attacks as a correspondent in Beirut, including one that damaged an orphanage, and the resilience of ordinary people in the face of so much cataclysmic violence will forever be imprinted on my mind.
In Syria, however, the cruelty of the party’s tactics was simply a manifestation of a broader, unassailable truth: Hezbollah fought for the tyrant against the weak. The image of its fighters liberating southern Lebanon from the Israeli occupation, and the achievement of bringing Israel to a standstill in 2006, have been replaced with a more mundane reality – that Hezbollah is a mere proxy militia that will happily ignite its self-proclaimed ideals in service of its patron.
Hezbollah was widely mocked for Mr Nasrallah’s self-serving declaration in 2015 that the road to Jerusalem goes through "Qalamoun, Zabadani, Homs, Aleppo, Daraa, Hasakeh and Suweida" in Syria. All such a statement was meant to do was to shroud the reality that Hezbollah was propping up a regime that was slaughtering innocent civilians, and the party enthusiastically helped starve those innocents to death and shatter their dream of an end to their totalitarianism.
Beyond the tragedy of Syria’s half a million dead to keep the country’s dictator Bashar Al Assad on his throne, the party’s hypocrisy has led to its own diminishing status and by extension, a drop in those loyalists who claim to fight with it for Palestinian rights. Its betrayal of Syrian aspirations has divided the ranks of those who oppose Israel’s brutal occupation – leaving them with the moral conundrum of having to choose which one of two tyrannies is more palatable.