Hezbollah has claimed victory in a battle with its rival Jabhat Al-Nusra, over the significant Qalamoun area on the Lebanese-Syrian border. If true, the fighting would represent a change to the otherwise consistent losing streak that allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have sustained in recent months.
“A strong defeat was dealt to the armed militants and they left the areas of the battlefield," Hezbollah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, said in a televised address to supporters in Beirut. But the attack on Al-Nusra, the Al-Qa’ida affiliate in Syria, is also an attempt to win the media battle.
Following months of sporadic skirmishes triggered by Al-Nusra in Lebanon’s border regions, Hezbollah launched its own counter-offensive. The aim was to clear the mountainous area that separates Lebanon and Syria of rebel groups fighting against the Assad regime in the country’s long running civil war. As well as a military operation, the move is representative of a broader attempt by Hezbollah to reassure the Lebanese population that the Shi’ite group still has the initiative.
Paramount for Hezbollah is the reversal of the image that has been portrayed recently in the media that the group and its allies are losing the war in Syria. A number of strategic setbacks to the Syrian regime has sparked speculation that rebels may soon defeat what is left of Assad’s forces. This would represent a huge blow to Hezbollah's image and to its logistical supply lines from Iran.
In mid-March, Hezbollah launched the Qalamoun operation to secure the Lebanese border from encroaching Sunni rebel fighters. The group has always maintained that its intervention in Syria was in order to protect Lebanon, its Shi’ite communities and sites within Syria. Lebanon has at times experienced spillover violence from the neighboring civil war, including a series of explosions in civilian areas in 2013 and 2014 and sectarian clashes in Tripoli throughout 2014. Lebanon’s delicate sectarian balance was jeopardized by the Shi’ite Hezbollah's battles against predominantly Sunni organizations in neighboring Syria.
Nasrallah has claimed that groups like the Islamic State (ISIS) and Al-Nusra Front represent an existential threat to Shi’ites living in Syria, and by extension to those living in Lebanon.
Just weeks after the start of the operation, Nasrallah announced in a televised address that the first phase of the assault was complete and that Al-Nusra had been pushed away from the border. The second phase of the operation, against ISIS fighters in the region, could now begin, he said. It remains unclear how much of Nasrallah’s comments are merely propaganda and how much represent actual facts on the ground.
“Hezbollah wants to show they can still project [force], especially against Al-Nusra, as recent headlines have all been negative,” Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland who specializes in Shi’ite militias, told The Media Line. Smyth, referring to the string of recent regime defeats in Syria that included the loss of the historic city of Palmyra in May, highlighted the effectiveness of groups like ISIS at utilizing propaganda, including making clever use of conventional and social media to advertise their exploits, he said. This media attention has given them the appearance of maintaining near unstoppable momentum and can be extremely intimidating to fighters arrayed against them. However, Smyth also pointed out that this is not the first time that the media has speculated over the imminent demise of Assad’s regime in Damascus. “Sometimes the media sphere overblows this threat,” explained Smyth, so he is cautious about the most recent wave of conjecture.
ISIS’s skill stands in stark contrast to the less social media-savvy Hezbollah, which is now seeking to use similar methods in an attempt to dispel the rebels’ image. A quick, decisive and concrete gain, made in front of the media’s lenses, is one way to do this.
In a rare departure for the often-secretive group, Hezbollah organized a number of media tours for major regional and international news agencies. The group took a number of journalists to see the gains claimed by Hezbollah, allowing reporters to meet and interview combatants in an apparent attempt to counter the effective media narrative that ISIS is infamous for.
A second key public relations objective for the Qalamoun offensive is to rebrand Hezbollah as the defenders of Lebanon, rather than simply as a Shi’ite fighting force. Many people in Lebanon’s religiously divided state have felt that Nasrallah’s army has been sounding increasingly sectarian, and the group wishes to reverse this perception.
Nasrallah’s recent condemnation of the Saudi Arabia-led air campaign over Yemen was a key example of this sectarianism, Imad Salamey, associate professor of political science at Beirut’s LAU University, told The Media Line. “Nasrallah’s message is self-defeating for his own party as they say they are ‘defending the legitimately-elected government in Syria’ and then do not use the same logic in Yemen,” Salamey said.
“Hezbollah is very much working in the interests of Shi’itism and fragmentation, so pretty much the whole of Nasrallah’s program of undermining and creating conflicts in Arab states - under the banner of fighting Israel - is becoming very exposed now… this is of concern for the group,” Salamey explained.
Since the beginning of Hezbollah's intervention in Syria, it has pushed the narrative that it is protecting Shi’ite communities and locations in Syria. This message had a lot of traction with Lebanon’s large Shi’ite population, but has not played strongly with other major sects among Lebanon’s religiously diverse population.
Smyth points out that Nasrallah needs a better message, in particular for Lebanon’s Christian and Druze populations. The group asserts that it is the ‘true defender of Lebanon and the only ones capable of keeping the country safe.’ But for this message to be effective, Hezbollah needs to keep wining in Syria and to do so in a way that can be related to by the Lebanese people. For this, operations like Qalamoun are key.
The recent offensive, although smaller in scale than many of Hezbollah's other Syrian campaigns, had far reaching implications for the group - both domestically and internationally. It arguably was seen protecting Lebanon, completing a job that the Lebanese army had been unable to achieve due to a lack of manpower, arms and restrictive rules of engagement.
This may have garnered some support domestically for Hezbollah but is unlikely to change the long-term belief by many in Lebanon who see the intervention in Syria as an extension of Iran’s foreign policy.
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