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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Hizbollah’s regional agenda is a surefire recipe for more war

The group's willingness and ability to unilaterally decide when and how it wants is one among many telltale signs of its menace

Hizbollah's alarming threats to Israel are a cause for concern for the entire region. Mahmoud Zayyat / AFP
Hizbollah's alarming threats to Israel are a cause for concern for the entire region. Mahmoud Zayyat / AFP

It is excellent news that ISIL has been driven out of Lebanon. Yet serious alarm is warranted regarding the evolving role of Hizbollah.

ISIL has been defeated in Tal Afar in Iraq and is rapidly losing Raqqa, its main redoubt in Syria. Thus, ISIL was already struggling when its positions along the Syrian-Lebanese border were simultaneously attacked by the Lebanese military and Hizbollah from its strongholds in Syria.

Territorially, the operation was a success. However, in a bizarre surrender agreement, reportedly unilaterally agreed by Hizbollah, several hundred ISIL terrorists and their families were allowed to escape in air-conditioned buses to eastern Syria. In return, the bodies of nine Lebanese soldiers were located.

Hizbollah apparently did not consult the authorities in Beirut, but did inform Syrian president Bashar Al Assad.

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Read more from Opinion on Hizbollah and ISIL

While Hizbollah celebrates its victory against ISIL in Lebanon, Syrians and Iraqis must prepare for the next showdown

Is there ever an appropriate occasion to negotiate with terror groups?

Editorial: Lebanon's executive power is hijacked by Hizbollah

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This underscores Hizbollah’s willingness and ability to unilaterally decide when and how it coordinates with the Lebanese state or usurps its authority. Hizbollah is using the victory to increase its already alarming dominance of Lebanese politics.

Worse, the Syrian war has transformed the nature and role of Hizbollah. The organisation has become much better armed, experienced, connected and capable. It now controls highly strategic areas in Syria, answering only to Tehran, and not Damascus, let alone Beirut.

Hizbollah is no longer simply, or even primarily, a Lebanese political organisation or another militia. It is becoming a regional player, serving, in effect, as the armed vanguard of pro-Iranian forces as far afield as Yemen.

Indeed, Hizbollah has a plausible claim to being the most powerful non-state fighting force, depending on how that’s defined, in human history.

The organisation has long been more than a non-state militia, serving as a sub-state actor that carries out many state functions and prerogatives in parts of Lebanon and now Syria. But it is also a supra-state actor operating at a regional level, playing a crucial role within the pro-Iranian alliance in a growing list of battlegrounds.

Hizbollah's role as a hyper-empowered and transnational sub-state entity spells big trouble for the Middle East in general and Lebanon in particular.

For years, Hizbollah has maintained an independent foreign and defence policy to match its autonomous military capability. And it has demonstrated a brazen willingness to drag the rest of Lebanon into disastrous conflicts, particularly with Israel, without warning.

In July 2006, apparently hoping to seize prisoners for a swap, Hizbollah launched a cross-border raid that killed three Israeli soldiers. This, almost inevitably, provoked a massive Israeli response that left about 1,000 Lebanese dead and much of the country devastated.

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Read more from Opinion on Lebanon

Hizbollah, Assad and his Iranian masters: what the returning refugees deal tells us about the Syrian conflict

Editorial: Lebanon's executive power is hijacked by Hizbollah

Lebanon is now in the crosshairs of some complex regional rivalries

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Hizbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, described this debacle as a "divine victory", but later apologised to other Lebanese, claiming he would never have authorised the attack had he anticipated the consequences. No one, however, even remotely familiar with Israel's policies could have failed to anticipate them.

The truth is that Hizbollah acted in its own interests, and those of its Iranian masters, and both its own constituency and the rest of Lebanon paid the price.

With the primary fighting in the main part of the Syrian civil war effectively resolved by the fall of the rebel-held parts of Aleppo eight months ago, Hizbollah is not only stronger than ever, but also no longer fully occupied or bogged down in Syria. Indeed, it has emerged from that conflict as a much graver strategic threat to Israel, among many others, than it ever was in the past.

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Also read

Editorial: It is a losing game in Syria

What ISIL's rise in 2014 tells us about Al Qaeda's potential in Syria today

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Israeli alarm is evident, and all year long the two sides have been exchanging dire, and very real, threats.

Hizbollah has been touting its undoubtedly greatly improved missile capabilities, threatening to attack all of Israel, including Tel Aviv, and even the nuclear reactor at Dimona.

The Israelis have made it clear that no part of Lebanon will be spared in any future conflict. Israel never cared much what other parts of Lebanon suffered in its conflicts with Hizbollah. But now it has sent the message that next time it will actively seek to brutally punish everyone and everything.

Can Israel live with a hyper-empowered, regionally significant and ascendant Hizbollah more dominant than ever in Lebanon, ruling parts of Syria and threatening its cities and nuclear reactors? Israel has already struck several times in Syria to prevent weapons transfers to Hizbollah forces in Lebanon.

If no other means of containing or reversing Hizbollah’s rise develops, then a broader Israeli campaign designed to significantly degrade this perceived threat could be a matter of when, not if. Alternatively, Iran might decide to unleash Hizbollah against Israel for its own reasons. Or Hizbollah could again deliberately initiate a conflict.

In any of these scenarios, most other Lebanese would pay an appalling price for a decision over which they have practically no influence.

Lebanese Shiites plainly need effective leadership to defend their interests. But they don't need, and neither they nor their Lebanese compatriots can afford, to be the playthings of a region-wide terrorist network answerable to no one except the most cynical hardliners in Tehran.

Hizbollah’s growing power and nefarious regional agenda isn't just a nightmare for Lebanon. It’s a serious threat to the whole region and a surefire recipe for yet more war.

Hizbollah’s growing power and nefarious regional agenda isn't just a nightmare for Lebanon. It’s a serious threat to the whole region and a surefire recipe for yet more war.

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