Is Hezbollah the real game-changer on Syrian battlefield?

Hafsa Kara-Mustapha
Hafsa Kara-Mustapha is a journalist, political analyst and commentator with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa. She has worked for the FT group and Reuters and her work has been published in the Middle East magazine, Jane's Foreign report, El Watan and a host of international publications. A regular pundit on TV and radio, Hafsa can regularly be seen on RT and Press TV.
Samir Qantar © Khaled Abdullah Ali Al Mahdi
Lebanon buried one of its most notable war heroes this week among silence from Western capitals and much clamor across the Middle East.

Samir Qantar, a high ranking Hezbollah militant, was killed in Damascus when, according to the Lebanese resistance movement, Israeli bombers violated Syrian airspace and destroyed the building he was living in. Eight other people living in the same block were also killed in the attack.

Respected in his native Lebanon, Qantar was hated by the Israelis who accused him of an attack on the coastal town of Nahariya in 1979.

Captured by Israel, he served nearly 30 years in prison before being returned to Lebanon in a prisoner exchange in 2008.

Born to a Druze family, as a young Lebanese activist he joined the Palestinian resistance and aided the movement in fighting Israeli occupation which, by 1978 had spread beyond the UN mandate over Palestine and into Lebanon.

How did Hezbollah come to being?

The crossing of the Litani River by Israeli forces in 1978 ushered in the occupation of South Lebanon which would last over 22 years. Israel's occupation continued unchallenged while the population of South Lebanon bore the brunt of the powerful neighbor's brutal policies.

It was during this time that Ariel Sharon famously orchestrated a massacre in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla on the outskirts of Beirut. Under his watch, Phalange militiamen entered the camps and conducted the slaughter which left as many as 6000 men, women and children dead.

In the absence of any international reaction, the population of South Lebanon organized and by 1982 Hezbollah was formed.

Aided and supported by Iran, the predominantly Shia Muslim movement began resisting Israeli occupation, targeting Israeli outposts and cities, forcing the powerful army into gradual retreat.

Israel's occupation of the country was characterized by arbitrary arrests and the imprisonment of random men of fighting age.
Disappearances at the hands of the Israeli forces were common place and the presence of the occupation army only exacerbated the now raging civil war in Lebanon.

Hezbollah used guerrilla warfare techniques against their occupiers and developed very efficient resistance methods that would ensure Israel would finally disengage from Lebanon. The Lebanese organization, which boasts a notable presence in the Lebanese parliament, remains the only Arab movement able to secure a solid victory against Israel.

It should be noted that Israel to this day refuses to agree to fixed borders, thus allowing it to expand beyond the agreed terms of the UN partition mandate of 1948. The UN agreement at the time ensured the Palestinian population would retain one quarter of the land while the remainder would be given to Jewish immigrants now arriving essentially from Eastern Europe as part of the migration programs started in the aftermath of the Balfour Declaration of 1917.

Despite the generous carve up of Palestine in favor of Jewish migration, Israeli forces would later occupy the Egyptian Sinai, the West Bank, Gaza as well as the Syrian Golan Heights. By 1978, Israel was looking to make a foray into Lebanon in a bid to re-create the mythical Eretz Israel or greater Israel which would see it rule over much of the Levant.

That plan was stopped in its tracks by the now increasingly powerful and formidable Lebanese militia group that broke down the myth of an invincible Israel thanks in large part to crude military techniques that would eventually wear down Israeli might.

Fifteen years since the official withdrawal from Southern Lebanon and Israeli-Hezbollah tensions have not abated. Regular clashes occur between respective forces at the Lebanese border with Israeli towns.

Hezbollah, Sayyidah Zaynab and the Syrian civil war

When uprisings in Syria escalated into civil war, neighboring Lebanon kept a distance. In those first days and months of protests it was believed the aim was to push the country towards a more democratic system of governance. However, when the autocratic monarchies of the Gulf intervened, sending in paid mercenaries to fight in Syria, it became obvious that democracy and human rights were not at the forefront of the most reactionary state's ambitions for the secular Levantine nation.

In a bid to rally support from outside the Arab world, those first fighters sent to Syria by Saudi and its Gulf allies were prompt to trigger a sectarian conflict that would nudge Sunni Muslims into seeing Bashar al-Assad as an oppressor of Sunnis as opposed to an autocratic ruler.

While portrayed as fighting for democracy, Western and Saudi backed Syrian 'rebel' fighters destroyed one of the holiest shrines for Shia Muslims: Sayyidah Zaynab’s tomb.

The Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque in
Damascus, Syria © Wikipedia

This very deliberate desecration of a holy site would inflame sectarian tensions and force the Lebanese Shia militia into the conflict. In a bid to safeguard its communities' holy sites Hezbollah officially joined the war siding with the Syrian army's official forces.
By 2013, what started out as a domestic issue among Syrians from all communities morphed into a full blown sectarian conflict drawing in Sunnis and Shias from across the Muslim world.

Israel for its part has made no secret of where it stood in regards to this war and has repeatedly sided with anti-government forces looking to push for the ousting of Bashar al-Assad.

Over the years, Israeli military hospitals have provided help, support and treated the wounded Syrian fighters said to be closely linked to Al-Qaeda and the ISIS terror network.

As an invaluable support to the Syrian government, Hezbollah has for its part inflicted serious damage on the opposite side and its collaboration with Assad’s forces has proven to be a game changer.

Many have argued that had it not been for Hezbollah, Assad might have already been toppled and Syria would now be the failed and destroyed state Libya is today since the forceful removal of its strong man from the helm.

No doubt Israel would want to drag many Hezbollah fighters back into South Lebanon against Israeli forces hoping opposition fighters would regain what they lost at the hands of the Lebanese movement.

By distracting Hezbollah away from the Syrian battlefields, Israel will allow them to regroup and regain lost ground. For the moment however, Hezbollah has refused to be distracted from its Syrian mission and continues to fight ISIS and affiliates in Syria.

For its role Lebanon paid the ultimate price last month when ISIS claimed responsibility for an attack on a residential neighborhood in Beirut which killed over 40 people.

Yet many Lebanese people, who'd opposed Hezbollah’s plan to support Assad four years ago, now realize the ISIS network, which benefits from help from across the region, poses an existential threat not only to Syria and Iraq but to Lebanon, as well as forcing many within Lebanon to side with the Shia militia group.

The execution of Samir Qantar may have been an act of provocation designed to force Hezbollah to react on its southern flank, but the movement's flamboyant and much respected figurehead Hassan Nasrallah has remained calm.

It was reported back in October, however, that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Premier Benyamin Netanyahu had agreed that during Russia's operation in Syria, Israel would not violate Syrian airspace.

Should a similar incident occur again no doubt Russian officials will intervene to stop further Israeli planes flying above an already overcrowded sky.

Israel may still have an axe to grind with the only movement that defeated it in the region, considering the complexities on the current Syrian battlefields, but it's in no one's interest for the Israel-Hezbollah stand off to escalate.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.