When Hezbollah plays hide-and-seek with Israel in the Golan

Hezbollah may change its rhetoric regarding the US decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. The party had been keeping a low profile regarding its presence in the region, but now it seems like it wants to flex its muscles.

Israeli soldiers in the occupied part of the Golan Heights. AFP photo

On March 13, Israel released information about the presence of Hezbollah activities in the Golan Heights, revealing an alleged “attempt by the Shiite axis to establish a secret unit with capabilities greater than before in order to operate against Israel from the Syrian part of the Golan Heights". Hezbollah has not spoken publicly to confirm or deny the report, and refused to comment, when contacted by L’Orient-Le Jour (OLJ).

According to anonymous Israeli officials quoted in the newspaper Haaretz, “Hezbollah has recruited dozens, if not hundreds of men” for its operation in the Golan Heights. The officials also said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “was not informed” about Hezbollah’s activities. The party has been involved militarily in Syria since 2012, but only formally admitted its presence after the battle of Qusair in 2013. It has continuously stated that it is in Syria to protect the mausoleum of Sayyidah Zeinab, an important Shia shrine, secure Lebanon’s border and fight the “takfiris”. But above all, the party has a strategic interest in preventing the fall of the Assad regime, which is an indispensible operational and political link in the axis of resistance, comprised of Iran, Syria and Hebollah.

Even though it has lost quite an important number of men–around 2,000 fighters, according to estimates–and much of its prestige in the Arab world, Hezbollah has been strengthened by the war in Syria. By fighting alongside Russia and leading Shiite militiamen from Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan, the party has become a regional player. It now operates in several territories without endangering or challenging its hybrid identity. Its presence in Syria also eventually allowed it to open a second front–in addition to South Lebanon–where it can carry out operations against the Jewish state. This is what is at the heart of the current psychological warfare between the party and Israel in the Golan Heights.

"For Hezbollah, settling in the Golan is a way to create a ‘second South Lebanon’ from which it can retaliate to whatever comes from Israel without the same risks that an attack from Lebanon would mean for the country. Investing in Syria allowed Hezbollah to gain more room for maneuver,” says Michael Horowitz, a Middle East specialist at the Bahrain-based think tank LeBeck International.

Hezbollah never left the area

Hezbollah’s presence in southern Syria has been a frequent source of controversy, and Israel and Russia have both put pressure on the group to leave. On March 25, US President Donald Trump officially recognized Israeli sovereignty over the part of the Golan Heights that Israel occupied in 1967 and annexed in 1981.

President Trump’s announcement was a gift for Hezbollah that confirmed its ideological stance and justified its presence in the Golan with its renewed strategic importance. Trump explained his decision by reiterating his support for Israel’s security and pointing to Iran and Hezbollah’s presence in the Golan. But the decision has granted legitimacy to Hezbollah’s rhetoric about fighting US-Zionist imperialism. Since 1974, when the US re-established diplomatic relations with Syria, the Golan has been viewed as a stable region. But the Syrian war has turned it into a strategic area where multiple parties are competing for power, influence and control.

Hezbollah has been present in the Golan since 2013. According to the party, Syria is the last Arab line of defense against the Zionist project, and the “takfiri”, or Sunni jihadist groups, operating in the country are instruments of the Jewish state trying to fragment Syria. "Some Hezbollah men got involved in southern Syria to help the Druze fight takfiri groups,” Faysal Abdel Sater, a political analyst close to Hezbollah, told OLJ. "Above all, the objective was defensive, and Hezbollah was using its logistics and fighting skills led by Samir Kantar.”

Kantar later started managing the operations from Damascus. "The possibility of creating a real resistance in southern Syria was considered at the time, but it did not go further,” Abdel Sater said.

Kantar was killed in an Israeli strike in December 2015. In January of the same year, another Israeli strike killed Jihad Mughniyeh, son of the former head of the Hezbollah’s military wing, Imad Mughniyeh, who was also reportedly responsible for developing the group’s activities in southern Syria.

The situation in southern Syria began to shift when Assad’s forces regained control of the area, along with the Syrian-Jordanian border, in August 2018. Before that, the Israelis had provided logistical support to Syrian rebels in the south to counteract the Iranian presence in the region. After Assad retook control, Russia, the US and Israel negotiated an agreement about the presence of Iran and its allies in southern Syria. According to different sources, the agreement called for a 50, 80 or even 100 km buffer zone from the border where Iran and its proxies weren’t supposed to operate.

But analysts agree that Hezbollah never left the area in the first place. "Hezbollah fighters have started wearing the Syrian army uniform to go unnoticed,” said Hanin Ghaddar from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"We know that Hezbollah is present, but they are extremely discreet and they use the Syrian army as a cover," an opposition activist based in Daraa confirmed.

Significant differences

In 2017 and 2018, Israel intensified its operations against Iranian targets in Syria. According to former Israeli Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot, thousands of strikes were reportedly carried out. At the same time, Iran is said to have deployed 3,000 troops in Syria and Hezbollah has 8,000 fighters in the country, according to Israeli estimates. Russia, the Syrian regime’s closest, along with Iran, has an anti-aircraft missile system deployed in Syria, but allowed Israel to carry out strikes, which has led to strained relations between Iran and Russia.

Since the Russian intervention, Benjamin Netanyahu and Vladimir Putin have met twelve times. The question of Iran’s presence in Syria has been the main topic of discussion at each meeting. Since Syrian air defenses mistakenly shot down a Russian reconnaissance aircraft with 15 soldiers onboard after an Israeli attack on northwestern Syria last September, relations between Moscow and Tel Aviv have grown closer. As a sign, Putin organized last week the return of the remains of Zachary Baumel, an Israeli soldier killed in Lebanon in 1982 whose remains were recovered in Syria. The move is likely to anger Hezbollah and Iran, especially because Moscow claims to have had the Syrian government's cooperation in the operation, although the Assad regime has denied this.

"When Putin receives Netanyahu a few days after the US decision regarding the Golan Heights it shows that he does not really defend the interests of Damascus,” Abdel Sater said, confirming Russia’s actions have “greatly angered” Hezbollah. "There are significant differences between Russia and Iran, but no confrontation for now," he continued.

Israel is counting on Russia to help push the Iranians out of Syria. "By publishing its information on the Golan before an important meeting with the Russian president, Israel hopes to encourage Russia to keep its promises, but also sends the message that, if forced, it will have to act alone and continue its strikes," Horowitz explained.

For the time being, Russia is acting as a mediator between the two enemies, allowing Israel to carry out strikes in Syria on the condition that it does not target the Syrian regime. This agreement makes some of Israel’s operations complex given the close ties between the Syrian regime and Iran. "The Russians are well aware that they cannot chase the Iranians out of Syria. The relationship between Syria, Hezbollah and Iran is strategic and much stronger than the one between Moscow and Damascus,” Abdel Sater said.

"Israel can hope to slow down or increase the cost of an Iranian presence in Syria, but without the help of a great power it is unlikely that it will really be enough to completely eliminate it, and I believe that Israel is well aware that Russia is not able to do so,” Horowitz added. As Naim Kassem, Hezbollah’s second in command, said in March 2017: "Hezbollah alone will decide when it wants to leave Syria”.

"More Hezbollah than Hezbollah"

In that context, Hezbollah may have to change its rhetoric regarding the US decision on the Golan. While the party was keeping a low profile regarding its presence in the region, playing a game of hide and seek with the Israelis, it now seems to want to flex its muscles. "The question of whether Hezbollah is present in the Golan is not even relevant since the Shiite party never left this region," Abdel Sater said.

"Hezbollah is here to stay. It controls the region, especially in terms of security and intelligence,” an anonymous source close to Hezbollah added. "There are Druze in southern Syria that are more Hezbollah than Hezbollah... [and] their number is about to grow,” the source continued.

According to the Israelis, the leader of Hezbollah’s activities in the Golan is Ali Moussa Abbas Dakdouk, aka Abu Hussein Sajed. Dakdouk made a name for himself during his missions in Iraq where he allegedly contributed to the formation of Shiite militias supported by Tehran.

By making the Golan a new territory for resistance, Hezbollah is endangering the status quo between the Assad regime and Israel. No direct confrontation has occurred between the two countries for decades. Russia clearly does not want the south of Syria to become a front in the fight between Iran and Israel, even if this means jeopardizing its plans for stabilizing and rehabilitating the Syrian regime.

At first glance, the Syria regime, deeply weakened by eight years of war, is also not interested in reigniting hostilities with Israel. But Bashar al-Assad knows that to remain in power he has to keep the rivalry between his two sponsors alive, and it seems unlikely that he will abandon the Iranians on a topic that has been at the heart of his foreign policy propaganda. "The Iranians, Hezbollah and the regime agree one hundred percent on this issue," Abdel Sater said, as if to emphasize Russia’s isolation on the topic.

For its part, Hezbollah may be tempted to conduct operations in the south of Golan soon both to retaliate against Israeli strikes in Syria and to symbolically embody the resistance to the US decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the occupied territory. "Something may be happening now, but probably not be before the Israeli elections so as not to play in Benjamin Netanyahu’s favor," the anonymous source close to Hezbollah said.

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 6th of April)

On March 13, Israel released information about the presence of Hezbollah activities in the Golan Heights, revealing an alleged “attempt by the Shiite axis to establish a secret unit with capabilities greater than before in order to operate against Israel from the Syrian part of the Golan Heights". Hezbollah has not spoken publicly to confirm or deny the report, and refused to comment, when...