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

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder