Thursday, 27 March 2014


Syrian Conflict Creates New Tensions Between Israel And Hezbollah

On Tuesday, the situation in Israel got a little more tense and a little more uncertain. An IDF patrol was attacked in the Golan Heights, and Israel struck back. Such events are fairly common, sadly, but this one could spell the beginning of a new chapter in the history of the Middle East. Developments are still unfolding, but signs point not only to the erosion of the extended period of quiet between Syria and Israel, but also a significant change in the convoluted relationship between Damascus and Hezbollah.

Some background: Hezbollah was founded in 1982 by a group from inside Iran's Revolutionary Guard, together with Lebanese Shiite Clerics, the majority of whom received their religious instruction in the city of Qom, in Iran.

From its inception, the group received a frosty reception from the elder Assad, Hafez al-Assad (Bashar's late father). In fact, Hafez actually nurtured the rival Shiite Amal movement, and in 1987, sent tanks and other assets to fight Hezbollah direct.

These days, it seems that times, and circumstances have changed. With the passing of the elder Assad in 2000, his son Bashar has moved increasingly closer to Hezbollah. The younger Assad has actively armed the Shiite organization with every sort of rocket, missile, and weapon he can, in order to strengthen Syrian deterrence against hated Israel. Before the onset of the civil war, Bashar's assumption was that although Syria might be unable to reclaim the Golan Heights directly, Hezbollah could underscore the price of not reaching an accord with Damascus on that matter.

For years Bashar has assisted Hezbollah with training and equipment, always careful not to supply the group with sensitive weapons that would risk Israeli ire and wrath. This policy resulted in a huge supply of missiles, produced for Hezbollah but stored in secret locations around Syria, ready for the decisive moment (escalation vs. Israel), when it came.

Bashar's bungling of the civil war in his country has changed the game. It used to be the case that Syria saw Hezbollah as a net cost...a burden. Now it seems that it is the other way around. When Bashar's government began to falter under the rebel onslaught, he requested assistance from Hezbollah. That group's leader, Hassan Nasrallah flatly refused. It was only under pressure from Iran's supreme leader that the group ultimately complied, and since then, Hezbollah has committed itself to the curious task of saving President Bashar Assad.

The operation has been a success so far. Victories have come since the group's involvement, but it has also not been without cost, mostly in the form of support. Hezbollah formerly enjoyed widespread support across the Middle East. Now, in a significant shift, they have become al-Qaeda's favorite target in the region.

The biggest boon, however, has been that the Assad regime is now completely dependent on Hezbollah for its continued existence.

On its own, the Syrian Army has proved completely incapable of dealing with the rebel threat. Assad needs Hezbollah's continuous involvement, and since Nasrallah began getting involved, the tide has indeed been turning. There is now a “clear corridor” along the Lebanese border for Assad, and rebel supply lines have been disrupted.

Gone is the old Syrian perception that Lebanon was its playing field. In the new reality, Hezbollah increasingly sees Syria as its playing field, and recently Hezbollah has demanded, and begun to receive those aforementioned missiles that Syria had been storing. Assad now allows the group to operate anywhere it chooses, including the Golan Heights. 
This “green light” to go and do as it pleases could pose serious problems to Assad when the civil war finally ends, should Hezbollah opt to remain in Syria. Using their position and freedom to move, they could opt to take revenge against Israel, as, in fact, they began trying to do today.

It should be noted that Assad has something of an interest in punishing Israel as well, and making that nation pay for striking Syrian or Hezbollah targets. Still, the potential complications for Assad from the attack in the Golan are much more serious than they are for Hezbollah. At a time when his military is already reeling, the last thing he needs is an escalation with Israel.

As ever, the problem is that it is nearly impossible to know Assad's mind. As he has shown, his decision making is complicated. Enigmatic. It is also possible that one of Assad's subordinates will simply take matters into his own hands, and do something that could lead to a further escalation with Israel, which in turn, could lead to a significantly wider conflict. At this point, it is just impossible to say which direction he will turn.


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