As Hezbollah fights on Golan, borders are redrawn

With geopolitical lines shifting, the sliver of Syria controlled by Assad has become part of Iran’s greater Lebanon

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Illustrative: Smoke rises following an explosion in Syria's Quneitra province as Syrian rebels clash with Assad regime forces, seen from the Golan Heights in 2014. (AP/Ariel Schalit, File)
Illustrative: Smoke rises following an explosion in Syria's Quneitra province as Syrian rebels clash with Assad regime forces, seen from the Golan Heights in 2014. (AP/Ariel Schalit, File)

It’s too early to be certain, but it seems the battles waged by Hezbollah, along with thousands of Syrian army troops and members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, against the anti-Syrian opposition militias on the Syrian Golan Heights, are only getting started.

But for now at least, the momentum is on the side of the Shiite axis, which has managed to capture several villages and towns from the Syrian Southern Front group and the Nusra Front, the organization affiliated with al-Qaeda, considered to be the dominant military power in the southern Daraa province.

Still, the outcome on the Golan has not been decided. After a few days of progress, the snow and the rain slowed down Hezbollah. But even now that the weather is improving, the task is not proving easy for the organization, which has been driven to the edge of its military capabilities. The region’s south, i.e. the triangle between Quneitra, Daraa and the southern suburbs of Damascus, is still considered a stronghold of Hezbollah’s opponents not affiliated with the Islamic State. While the rebels’ weapons and military abilities are limited, their motivation is high as the area is considered to be nearly the “last bastion” of non-IS opposition forces in Syria.

But even if Hezbollah’s operation in Syria succeeds and the group is able to occupy the Golan Heights, that won’t mean the battle has been won. The organization has made visible strategic gains, defeating opposition forces in the mountains along the Lebanese border, only to see the combat renewed a few short months later. In the Syrian Golan Heights, this is also a likely scenario, as, just as before, opposition fighters will most likely try to regain control of the area, which they too consider critical for their military purposes.

But regardless of the outcome of the week-old operation, the very fact that Hezbollah set out on a ground campaign inside Syrian territory is an extraordinary statement. The placement of thousands of the group’s soldiers near the Syrian-Israeli border, with the organization not even trying to conceal its involvement in the battles, signifies much more than just another operation. This is a new strategy. First, on the geopolitical level, Hezbollah is trying to implement the vision only recently introduced by its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, according to whom the Syrian Golan Heights and South Lebanon are a united front. To put it more bluntly, the old order and the old geographical distribution between Syria and Lebanon is now utterly irrelevant as far as the group is concerned.

In other words, no more separation between President Bashar Assad’s forces in Syria and Nasrallah’s organization in Lebanon; they are now single entity that controls parts of Syria and most of Lebanon. In the past, the leaders of Syria, including Assad’s father, Hafez Assad, saw Lebanon as part of greater Syria. Now, the sliver of Syria controlled by Assad has become part of Hezbollah’s, or rather Iran’s, greater Lebanon. The old countries have died; long live the smaller Greater Syria — under Iran’s control.

Former Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri spoke in Beirut Saturday at an event marking a decade since the killing of his father, Rafik Hariri. Hariri criticized Hezbollah’s involvement in the civil war in Syria, blasting its recent statements according to which “South Lebanon and the Golan Heights are a united front.” He even called on the group to turn the suspects in the murder of his father, who are of course Hezbollah members, in to the International Criminal Court.

Ostensibly, this is a step by a courageous man, who despite knowing that his life is in great danger, formally and unequivocally challenged Hezbollah. But in this writer’s opinion, Hariri’s speech was mostly a farewell to the old Lebanon, which was once dominated by Sunnis and Maronite Christians. Hariri also understands that Lebanon is no longer the same country in which he was raised, or even, for that matter, of which he was prime minister. The Arab Spring brought with it a regional upheaval that utterly transformed Lebanon, portending a particularly bleak future for those who are not supporters of radical Sunni militias or Hezbollah affiliates. Perhaps this is why Hariri no longer lives in Lebanon.

Beyond the political-geographical changes in Lebanon and Syria, Hezbollah is also trying to reshape its security balance with Israel.

Like almost any other body or entity in the Middle East, Hezbollah is also prone to conspiracy theories on which it establishes its military tactics. This month, the organization claimed that Israel was backing the radical Nusra Front rebel group and its advances in the Syrian Golan Heights. Hezbollah members claimed they had seen the transfer of patients from Syria to Israel. What was seen in Israel as a humanitarian gesture was interpreted as an attempt at cooperation between the organization, which supports al-Qaeda, and Israel.

This operation led by Hezbollah is designed to prevent what it considers the possibility that Israel will close in on it from Mount Dov to the west, using the Al-Nusra Front and moderate opposition forces. Hezbollah is afraid that Israel will outflank it and lay siege to southern Lebanon from the east, thus causing difficulties for the organization’s activities there. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, Hezbollah and Assad fear that Israel is carving out a path to Damascus via Quneitra and Daraa — one that will allow it easy access to the Syrian capital in the event of war.

Hezbollah’s mission is intended to torpedo that possibility. How it will end, it is difficult to say. But what is clear is that the situation on the border between Israel and Hezbollah-land is as explosive as ever.

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