Nasrallah’s tight shoes

My piece on NOW Blog after the recent clashed between Hezbollah and the IDF in South Lebanon. The original posting is here.

I wouldn’t want to be in Hassan Nasrallah’s shoes right now— it’s obvious that they’re getting tight and uncomfortable.

His latest speech was a victory speech, but it came after a compromise. Last week’s attack against an Israeli military convoy near the Shebaa Farms, in retaliation for the Quneitra attack, was obviously a small scale operation to pacify Hezbollah’s enraged supporters and gave them a reason to shoot in the air. It was something that had to be done after the death of Jihad Moughnieh, whom the Party and Qassem Soleimani were training to follow in his father’s footsteps.

Two Israeli soldiers were killed, Hezbollah and the Israeli forces exchanged fire for a couple of hours, and then, when it seemed like things were about to blow out of proportion and people feared another war would break out, Hezbollah sends a letter to UNIFIL asking the peacekeepers to tell Israel: “This was it. No more rockets. We don’t want war.” It kind of beats the purpose, doesn’t it? It feels like Hezbollah and Israel are engaged in this 100 year war in the 21st century: they fight for a bit, and then they stop fighting on rainy days, during heat waves, holidays, birthdays, commemorations, etc.

It’s Hezbollah’s covert war with Israel that is much more interesting.

There is a whole generation of politicians who tried to build up a political entity [sic] on the fundaments of the anti-Israeli Islamic Resistance notion, and who have tried to shake off the reputation that was based on the attack on the US Army barracks in Beirut and the Buenos Aires AMIA bombing. Hezbollah wanted to be much more than just a resistance movement: they wanted to govern.

Hezbollah did not behave like a terrorist organization for a long time, and tried to shake off the “terrorism” reputation. It mimicked the behavior of statelets: a skilled political faction within Lebanon that governed over its community with an iron fist; with its own foreign policies and economic strategies; and, of course, its own intelligence and military apparatus.

Its intelligence operations outside of Lebanon, even the successful ones, were never claimed by the group. It seems handy to be able to fight your arch-enemy on foreign soil, without claiming the responsibility. On the one hand, the rest of the world will always doubt whether they were ever involved, while the people who are supposed to get the message actually get it.

This has been Hezbollah’s real victory actually: for years, both the US and Israel struggled to convince the European Union (EU) to list Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and, and when the EU finally did, it wasn’t really what Washington and Tel Aviv wanted. Hezbollah’s supporters are still able to raise funding in Europe and are still able to use their passports to carry out covert operations.

There was no use admitting “we did it.” It wasn’t the type of reputation it needed, especially when its strategy to strengthen its economy included connecting with the Lebanese diaspora in Europe, South America and Southeast Asia.

This is what Hezbollah was like until 2012, when it got sucked into the Syrian war. It was obvious even to the profane that there were differences between the military and the politicians on whether to get involved in Syria and, later, on whether to make it public or not. The changes in internal political discourse were difficult to swallow; the numerous coffins returning from Syria were even more difficult to accept. The bombs that rocked Beirut’s southern suburbs did not make things better.

The deaths of so many experienced military commanders in Syria also lead many young, barely-trained men to join the ranks. Less trained also means less disciplined. Hezbollah used to be very selective when it recruited members. After it became involved in the Syrian war, they couldn’t afford to be selective anymore. Nor did they have the time to train the new recruits, who were desperate to go to war and earn a living. But many times, that can complicate things at a political level.

The shoes are getting tighter. There is no comfortable way to balance all these causes. Facing an army like Israel’s is out of the question right now. That war has been put aside until further notice. Until recently, targeting Israeli targets on foreign soil seemed like the only way for Hezbollah to strike back and avenge its military commander Imad Moughnieh, who was assassinated in Damascus in 2008, and his son who died in an Israeli strike on the Golan Heights.

But the latest developments have put Hezbollah in a difficult position. When Hezbollah uncovered a Mossad spy, reportedly in charge of the Party of God’s covert operations, the group managed to keep it from the public for a few months. But Israeli security sources informed the press that it was that particular spy who tipped off the Mossad on all of Hezbollah’s covert operations against Israeli targets across the globe. Hezbollah did not deny the reports, and Nasrallah himself acknowledged the affair. But the bigger damage now was that the whole world knew about it. Just in case there were countries that still doubted that Hezbollah carried out secret operations on foreign soils.

Since the news that the Mossad spy foiled several Hezbollah plots abroad, many countries began to toughen up their security and started gathering more intelligence on Hezbollah. It had become obvious that, at least for a while, these covert operations couldn’t work.

But when US security sources leaked to the press that it was the CIA in cooperation with the Mossad were behind Imad Moughnieh’s assassination in 2008, Hezbollah did not have a choice anymore. It’s not like Hezbollah didn’t know who killed Moughnieh. But now, that it has been made public, the Party can’t just sit around waiting. If it’s an “eye of an eye,” then Hezbollah has to strike back.

But how? The choices are few. The Party of God can’t sit around waiting for the IDF to gun down or bomb all its high ranking members in Syria. Hezbollah can’t afford to fight Israel in a direct confrontation either. They made it clear when they had the chance to escalate the missile incident but chose to send the letter instead. Hezbollah also can’t afford to send suicide bombers or covert ops teams to attack Israel’s embassies and diplomats. That would close many doors that it has struggled for years, in spite of a strong Israeli lobby, to keep open for the sake of its business interests. Hezbollah is also in financial trouble; the young men in Syria need to be paid. Iran is busy negotiating a deal with the US. Some formerly friendly countries in South America are also changing their foreign policy. All that’s left is West Africa, where the weak states and corrupt governments still allow fundraising and business activities.

Which way to go? Strike back and be labeled a terrorist organization again? Keep it quiet and deny your raison d’etre? I wouldn’t want to be in Nasrallah’s shoes right now; they’re very tight.
Ana Maria Luca tweets @aml1609.

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