How would Hezbollah respond to air strikes in Syria?

While the US continues to deliberate their course of action, so, too, does Hezbollah. After depending upon the Syrian regime for so long, how will they retaliate in the event of air strikes?

The public debate over strikes on Syria has given Hezbollah and Iran ample time to ratchet up their rhetoric and threaten retaliation. The Iranian parliamentarian Mansur Haqiqatpur stated, “In case of a US military strike against Syria, the flames of outrage of the region’s revolutionaries will point towards the Zionist regime.” The Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, responded quickly and decisively: “The state of Israel is ready for any scenario. We are not part of the civil war in Syria but if we identify any attempt whatsoever to harm us, we will respond and we will respond in strength.”
 
Hezbollah seeks to keep Bashar al-Assad in power for its own and Iran’s interests. For years, Syria has been a reliable patron of the Islamist group, a relationship that only grew deeper under the rule of Assad. By 2010, Syria was not just allowing the shipment of Iranian arms to Hezbollah through the country but was reportedly providing the militant group with long-range Scud missiles from its arsenal.
 
Hezbollah is keen to make sure that air and land corridors remain open for the delivery of weapons, cash and other materials from Tehran. Until the Syrian civil war, Iranian aircraft would fly into Damascus International Airport, where their cargo would be loaded on to Syrian military trucks and escorted into Lebanon for delivery to Hezbollah. Now, Hezbollah is desperate either to secure the Assad regime, its control of the airport and the roads to Lebanon or, at the very least, to establish firm Alawite control of the coastal areas, so that it can receive shipments through the airport and seaport in Latakia, as it has done in the past.
 
To that end – and in case Iran, Hezbollah and Syria are unable to defeat the rebels and pacify the Sunni majority – it is establishing local proxies through which it can maintain influence in the country.
 
While the US continues to deliberate the course of action, so, too, does Hezbollah. Already, there are indications that all sides are preparing for any military strike. In Syria, there are reports that the Assad regime’s forces are evacuating buildings that house headquarters and that they are moving Scud missiles and other heavy military equipment out of harm’s way. The families of Syrian officials are reportedly fleeing the region on flights from Beirut-Rafiq Hariri International Airport in Lebanon.
 
Meanwhile, Israel has issued a limited call for military reservists to report for duty and deployed strategic missile defences. The US has moved four destroyers into a position in the Mediterranean from which they will be able to strike Syria and Hezbollah has mobilised troops in southern Lebanon.
 
Hezbollah has taken significant losses in Syria but it remains a formidable adversary. It could fire rockets at Israel but its global networks are equally capable and could execute terrorist attacks targeting Israeli or western interests. In July 2012, Hezbollah allegedly blew up a bus of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria and nearly pulled off a similar plot in Cyprus in the same month. In May this year, Hezbollah agents with considerable amounts of weapons were discovered in Nigeria, allegedly targeting Israeli and western interests. In the light of these and other plots, the US government has described Hezbollah as an “expansive global network” that “is sending money and operatives to carry out terrorist attacks around the world”.
 
The question is: how severe will the coming air strikes targeting Syria be and how will Hezbollah retaliate?
 
Matthew Levitt directs the Stein programme on counterterrorism and intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near-East Policy and is the author of Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon's Party of God (Hurst, £20)
A protester in the flahspoint central Syrian city of Homs throws a tear gas bomb back towards security forces. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories