Hezbollah’s New Strength Leaves Israeli Border Tense

Sulome Anderson

TYRE, Lebanon — Deep in the rugged hills close to the Israeli border, two Hezbollah fighters crouched near a small fire, which heated a teapot. Despite the late-summer sun, they were both wearing full face masks to disguise their identity, because Hezbollah forbids its members from speaking with foreign reporters.

One of the fighters said their purpose there is just to keep an eye on the “Israeli enemy.”

“Any Israeli movement, we will see it,” he said. “This area is all Hezbollah members preparing only for [them] … Whether it’s Israelis or Daesh, we fear no one,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.

And in fact, Hezbollah is now playing a much larger role in Syria and Lebanon than monitoring Israel. The militia is fighting on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in that country’s civil war, and just completed the final phase of a successful operation in conjunction with the Lebanese army to finally clear the Syrian border of ISIS militants, cementing Hezbollah’s image among many residents as protector of Lebanon.

Three years after ISIS appeared on Lebanon’s northern border, Hezbollah has emerged from the morass of the Syrian conflict stronger and more powerful than ever, thanks to a steady stream of funds and advanced weaponry from its patron, Iran.

The question now is what its newfound popularity in Lebanon will mean for the stability of the region, including its tense relationship with Israel, especially given Iran’s generosity in providing Hezbollah with weapons and political support. Israeli officials are already threatening to destroy Lebanon if Hezbollah pushes the country into war.

Lebanon is not fighting Hezbollah

The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) has been coy about the extent of its coordination with Hezbollah. The army receives military aid from the United States, which considers Hezbollah to be a terrorist organization. But since the operation against ISIS on Lebanon’s northern border was carried out with simultaneous Hezbollah and Syrian army offensives against the same foe in Syria, the LAF’s cooperation with Hezbollah was no secret.

“We can’t say one is stronger than the other,” said one Hezbollah fighter near the group’s base in Hermel, a town near the Syrian border, who referred to Hezbollah as the Resistance. “Without the Resistance, the army is nothing, and it’s the same with the Resistance,” he said. “They complete each other.”

That may come as a surprise to President Donald Trump, who said in July that Lebanon was “on the front lines” fighting Hezbollah. That was a mistake on several levels: Not only is Hezbollah fighting ISIS alongside the Lebanese army, but its political wing controls the majority of the government and counts the country’s president, Michel Aoun, as a staunch ally.

Image: Hezbollah

Hezbollah fighters close to the Israeli border.