Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria has been criticized by many in the Arab world as a sign that “they have abandoned resistance to fight fellow Muslims.” Their recent qualitative operation in Sheba’a against an Israeli military convoy, however, serves as a reminder that the movement has not shifted its focus away from Israel and is able to fight on several fronts simultaneously.
Hezbollah’s continued prioritization of its resistance activity, while entangled in multiple military theaters across the region, indicates that it has transcended its original, singular mission of resisting Israel. Confronting Israel is now one role among several others Hezbollah has assumed in the post-uprising regional political order, which has ushered in the rise of takfiri-jihadism. Outgrowing its resistance role, Hezbollah now assumes responsibility for guarding Lebanon’s borders, facilitating homeland security and counter-terrorism, as well as counter-insurgency operations in Syria and Iraq.
The Resistance is no longer confined to expelling Zionist occupiers and preventing Israeli aggression, but is now intent on preserving the political-territorial framework and strategic environment that it requires for its continued operational integrity. The destabilization of both spheres by takfiri-jihadists has compelled Hezbollah to transform itself into a post-resistance movement. The prefix “post” here does not denote the end of resistance, or what comes after it, but should be understood in much the same way that the concept of “post” in postcolonial can be interpreted as “the continuation of colonialism, albeit through different or new relationships concerning power.”
The resistance, by no means over, has now morphed into a transnational Resistance Army whose core identity and mission remain tied to its raison d’être of resisting Israel, but which is also committed to protecting the Resistance’s “backbone” as Nasrallah describes it. To that end, Hezbollah has sought to wrest Syrian, Lebanese and Iraqi territories from jihadist control.
In essence, Hezbollah is confronting a transnational insurgency that seeks to expand its proto-state, by transnationalizing its resistance in turn. Just as the movement conventionalized its guerilla warfare in 2006 with its new “hybrid” resistance paradigm, which fuses conventional and unconventional methods, it has now created a new model of counterinsurgency in which its own irregular, hybridized Resistance Army seeks to suppress the insurgent activity of another hybridized irregular force.
The war with ISIS and al-Nusra Front is viewed as an existential battle with an annihilative and uncompromising force that is hell-bent on eliminating all Shia, and by extension, the Resistance. While takfiri ideology is not politically delegitimized in the same way that Zionism is, nor is its right to exist as a religious doctrine questioned, takfiri militancy or jihadism is unequivocally equated with Israel. Hezbollah’s discourse likens the danger posed by ISIS and Nusra to Israel’s; in one speech, Nasrallah invoked Israeli oppression as an analogy for the potential loss of land, destruction of homes, capture of women, killing of children, and humiliation that the jihadists could inflict. In his “Resistance and Liberation Day” speech last year, Nasrallah even went beyond this analogy when he drew parallels between the mass migration of Jewish settlers to Palestine sponsored by colonial powers in the twentieth century and the mobilization and deployment of jihadists in the region, which he argued had been facilitated by modern day imperialists.
Jihadists are not just morally and politically equated with Israel, according to this interpretation, but strategically linked, as well. ISIS is portrayed as being the witting or “unwitting” servant of the US-Israeli scheme to divide the region and foment strife, while Nusra — whose military and intelligence cooperation with Israel has now been well documented by the UN and Western mainstream , as well as Zionist media — is considered the jihadists incarnation of Israel’s collaborationist South Lebanon Army (SLA). It is on this basis that Hezbollah does not view the US-led coalition’s strikes on ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq as anything more than a “declawing” operation designed to “contain” the organization, rather than defeat it.
While empirically supported arguments such as these have enabled Hezbollah to intellectualize its war against jihadism as an extension of its resistance campaign, the nature of its military intervention in Syria and Iraq has required it to reconceptualize and expand its concept of resistance warfare qua warfare. Resistance has now been stretched to encompass military strategies which have not traditionally been associated with classic guerrilla or resistance warfare — fighting groups that don’t qualify as occupation forces, defending allies outside its national borders, and adopting counter-insurgent warfare.
Advancing into enemy territory or territory contested by an adversary on the soil of an allied neighbor, is neither typical of armed resistance movements nor of a defensive military strategy, unless one views it as an act of “preemptive” self-defense as Nasrallah accurately described it. Fearing a jihadist onslaught into Lebanese territory, Hezbollah has subscribed to the old adage that “the best defense is a good offense” in Syria and to a more limited extent, Iraq.
In 2013, Hezbollah’s military role in Syria shifted dramatically from a small advisory mission to a direct combat role involving a large numbers of fighters. Starting with Qusayr, Hezbollah’s expanded military presence helped the Syrian government regain traction in areas which had been lost to rebel control. In fact, the ground assaults in Qusayr and Qalamoun were essentially led by Hezbollah forces, while the Syrian army provided artillery and air cover for its senior partner. Moreover, according to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights (SOHR) Hezbollah is currently taking “the initiative to lead [Syrian] army and Iranian forces in the triangle of territory linking Daraa, Quneitra and the southwest of Damascus provinces.” In other areas such as parts of Damascus, Eastern Ghouta, and Kassab, Hezbollah forces engaged in direct combat alongside the Syrian armed forces, improving the latter’s combat performance. In Homs, Aleppo and the Golan, Hezbollah deployed special operations forces to assist, train, advise and organize Syrian regular forces and paramilitary NDF forces. Given the movement’s combat experience in unconventional warfare, and its training in urban warfare, Hezbollah’s special forces unit has served as a significant force multiplier for Syrian troops.
Extraterritorial operations like these have usually been the province of major powers, rather than non-state actors who have customarily been the recipients of such assistance. As defined by the United States Army Special Operations Command, unconventional warfare usually “involves external parties aiding indigenous actors against governments. Such aid can involve training, organizing, recruiting, operational advising…” In other words, special operations forces affiliated with conventional, state armies have normally been deployed to assist unconventional forces rather than the other way around. Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria and Iraq has fundamentally recast its classic resistance role and placed it on a par with its long-time mentor, Iran’s special operations, Quds Force, itself an active partner in Syria and Iraq.
The Resistance Axis
In the post-resistance phase, the politics of resistance has been supplanted by the politics of the Resistance Axis. The strategic alliance between Iran, Hezbollah, Syria and Iraq is now characterized by a unity of military forces and a unity of military theaters vis-à-vis ISIS and Israel.
In Syria, force integration among Hezbollah’s Resistance Army, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Syrian armed forces and Iraqi militias has led to the emergence of a single military front. Just days before Israel’s assassination of Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian commander in the Golan governorate of Quneitra, Nasrallah threatened to respond to Israeli attacks on targets in Syria as though they “targeted the entire Resistance Axis.” Nasrallah later declared that “the fusion of Lebanese-Iranian blood on Syrian soil [in Quneitra], reflects the unity of cause and the unity of fate of the countries of the Resistance Axis.” Mohammed Ali Jaafari, commander of the IRGC, echoed this sentiment when he implied that Hezbollah’s retaliatory attack in Shebaa,represented a united response: “We are one with Hezbollah. Wherever the blood of our martyrs is spilled on the front line, our response will be one.”
Coupled with its defense of Syria and Iraq from jihadist forces, Hezbollah’s retaliation for Israel’s Golan strike with an attack in Sheba’a in occupied Lebanon, has meant that the territories of the Resistance Axis now constitute a single battlefront. Nasrallah introduced this new security doctrine when he announced that the resistance was “no longer concerned with any rules of engagement [with Israel]. We no longer recognize the separation of arenas or battlefields.”
This new regional security architecture has dire implications for Israel. In the next war, Israel not only has to contend with offensive military operations in the Galilee and “beyond the Galilee” as Nasrallah recently promised, but also with the potential involvement of other members of the Resistance Axis, particularly Iran. As the region-wide war with takfiri-jihadists has demonstrated, any Israeli aggression on Syria, Lebanon or Iran, will be viewed as a war against the Resistance Axis as a whole.
Amal Saad is a Lebanese academic and political analyst. She is the author of Hizbullah: Politics and Religion, published by Pluto Press.