Tel Aviv (AHT) – An aspect of the conflict in Syria that has not received the attention it undoubtedly deserves, has been the role of the Israeli Air Force (IAF) in acting as the de facto air force of Daesh [ISIS] and sundry other Salafi-jihadi and rebel groups fighting in the country.
Evidence of the extent of this de facto role on the part of the IAF is contained in a recent report which appeared on the website of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. The report, based on statements made by the outgoing commander of the IAF, Major General Amir Eshel, claims that Israel has carried out close to 100 separate attacks on arms convoys and other Hezbollah and Syrian targets during the conflict.
This should come as no surprise, of course, given the deep enmity that exists between Israel and the Lebanese resistance movement. Indeed, for Israel, Hezbollah is more than an enemy it is a national obsession, with the memory of the conflict that ensued between them back in 2006, the outcome of which was a ragged withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon after they sustained the kind of casualties they are neither used to sustaining nor psychologically prepared to sustain.
Israel’s enmity towards Hezbollah is shared by its US ally, with Trump an especially fierce critic of the resistance movement, which he considers to be indistinguishable from Iran, the third and most powerful pillar of resistance to US hegemony in the region, along with Hezbollah and Syria.
At the end of July, during a joint press conference in Washington with Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Trump read out a prepared statement in front of a bemused audience of journalists in which he claimed, “Lebanon is on the front lines in the fight against ISIS [Daesh], al-Qaeda, and Hezbollah.”
Though at the time most political observers ascribed Trump’s seemingly bizarre statement lumping Hezbollah in the same box as Daesh and al-Qaeda to a gaff, they were very much mistaken. On the contrary, taken in the context of Washington’s wider geostrategic objectives in the region, Trump’s statement was far from being a gaff.
It is also no stretch to imagine that Washington’s closest Middle East allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, were among those who weren’t surprised in the least by Trump’s statement. Indeed the President’s words could have been scripted for him in either Tel Aviv or Riyadh they were so on the mark where both are concerned.
What should also be borne in mind is Saad Hariri’s own hostility towards Hezbollah, along with his opposition to the Assad government in Syria. Significantly, it is a stance that isn’t shared by Lebanese President Michael Aoun, considered a staunch ally of both Hezbollah and Iran. The divergence in their respective views on Hezbollah waslaid bareearlier this year when in response to Aoun stating in an interview that Hezbollah’s military wing was vital to Lebanon’s security, Hariri described the organization’s arms as illegitimate.
Saad Hariri is the son of Rafic Hariri, the business tycoon and a former prime minister of Lebanon who in 2005 was assassinated in a massive bomb attack while travelling through Beirut in a motorcade. Members of Hezbollah wereimplicatedin the assassination, alleged to have been acting in conjunction with the Syrians over the business tycoon’s strong opposition to the presence of Syrian forces in Lebanon at that time. The enmity between Saad Hariri – his supporters and followers – and Hezbollah is thus well defined. As such, it seems highly likely that Lebanon’s Prime Minister likewise agreed with and endorsed Trump’s depiction of Hezbollah in his statement to the press.
But as they say, facts are stubborn things, and the fact where Hezbollah is concerned is that rather than belong in the same category, it has been at the forefront of the conflict in Syria against both Daesh and al-Qaeda since 2013. Its contribution in this regard is impossible to refute, measured not only in its military effectiveness but also thelossesit has sustained. As author and academic Christopher Phillips writes, “By offering expertise that Assad lacked, such as light infantry and urban warfare expertise, training, or directing military tactics, from 2013 the Party of God [Hezbollah] became a vital component of Assad’s forces and greatly shaped the conflict.”
Hezbollah’s military effectiveness has never been in doubt and is acknowledged and respected even by its enemies, chief among them Israel. After the short war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, already mentioned, the New York Times ran an article in which an anonymous Israeli soldier was quoted admitting “They [Hezbollah] are trained and highly qualified, while in the same article an Israeli tank commander described them as “not just farmers who have been given weapons to fire. They are persistent and well trained.”
No matter, for the Israelis and Saudis, Hezbollah is and will always be part of the problem rather than the solution – a position responsible for the raft of Israeli airstrikes conducted against the group in Syria over the past few years, taking advantage of its deployment in the country to try and weaken it.
It would be a mistake, however, to assume that Hezbollah’s involvement in the conflict across its western border has severely weakened its capabilities when it comes to any potential future conflict with Israel. As Nadav Pollakpoints out, “Hezbollah’s preparations for war with Israel have no doubt been hampered by its involvement in Syria, but the organization has nonetheless maintained significant capabilities to fight Israel.”
It bears emphasizing that the divide which truly matters in a region overladen with religion and religious strife is not between Muslim and non-Muslim, Sunni and Shia, or between secular and non-secular; instead the only divide that matters and is key to the region’s future is between sectarian and non-sectarian. In this respect, though identifying as a Shia resistance movement, Hezbollah undeniably comes under the category of non-sectarian, evidenced in its longstanding commitment to the plight and struggle of the Palestinians, who are majority Sunni.
Israel, along with Saudi Arabia, ISIS, and al-Qaeda, belongs in the box marked sectarian, and it is this, more than any other single factor, that has and continues to inform its aggression in the region.