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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Can Nicola Sturgeon keep Scotland in the EU?

For Sturgeon, Scotland's rightful place is in the EU. If that means independence, so be it.

In the aftermath of the EU referendum, when Remain voters were still nursing their hangovers, a meme began to circulate on Scottish Facebook pages. It was an image of Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister, her arms outspread, with a simple message: “F***in’ calm doon. Am oan it.”

At a time when British politicians are mired in the kind of chaos seen once in a generation, Sturgeon has emerged as a figure of calm. While her fellow Remain campaigners were speaking tearfully to news cameras, she addressed EU citizens, telling them: “You remain welcome here. Scotland is your home and your contribution is valued.”

When Boris Johnson declared, “Project Fear is over,” she retorted on Twitter, “Project Farce has now begun.” Her message has been retweeted more than 6,000 times. Faisal Islam, the political editor of Sky News, remarked on air that she seemed to be “the person with the most thought-through plan”.

Sturgeon now presents herself as Scotland’s anchor to Europe. Yet critics view her actions as those of a veteran independence campaigner seizing a chance denied to her by the Scottish referendum two years ago. In reality, she is working for both objectives.

It is hard to imagine now but the Scottish National Party was once suspicious of the idea of an independent Scotland in Europe. The idea took hold thanks to Jim Sillars, the Labour MP who led the 1976 breakaway that formed the Scottish Labour Party. He defected to the SNP in the early 1980s and became one of its strongest pro-EU advocates. The promise of an independent state within a larger framework was soon a mainstay of the party’s campaigns. The 1997 manifesto promised voters “the restoration of self-confidence and the creation of a modern democracy in the mainstream of European life”.

In the early years of the Scottish Parliament, Sturgeon’s approach to the EU was one of a negotiator, not an idealist. In 2003, she put forward a motion that the Scottish Executive should oppose the reduction of Scottish seats in the European Parliament from eight to seven. “Scotland, with no seat on the Council of Europe, no commissioners and fewer MEPs than comparably sized independent member states, has little enough influence in the EU,” she argued.

Her interest in representation emerged again in 2005 when she described an EU proposal on software patents as “a serious threat” to developers. She noted that: “There was apparently no Scottish minister at the Council to represent Scottish interests, the UK instead being represented by an unelected member of the House of Lords.”

Sturgeon’s commitment to work with the EU has not always been reciprocated. In the Scottish referendum, as deputy first minister, she promised the continuity of EU membership. Yet José Manuel Barroso, the then president of the European Commission, said it would be “extremely difficult, if not impossible”, for an independent Scotland to join. Some consider his statement to have been crucial to the success of the No campaign.

When the EU referendum arrived, Sillars, the architect of the SNP’s Europhile agenda, criticised the “love affair” that he believed his party was indulging in and joined the campaign for Brexit. Sturgeon made a different calculation. She threw herself into the Remain campaign, though she was careful not to stand alongside David Cameron. She played down the Scottish independence line – when asked, in the run-up to the vote, if she was a unionist, she described herself as “an enthusiastic European”.

She turned her reputation as a “nippie sweetie” to her advantage. Once viewed as a dour machine politician, now Sturgeon was warm to voters while cutting Boris Johnson down to size. There was no need to scaremonger over Europe, she said. A positive campaign was enough. There is no doubt that she tapped in to the popular feeling: 62 per cent of voters in Scotland opted to remain in the EU, compared to 48 per cent in the UK as a whole. Every local authority area north of the border voted Remain.

As the referendum results rolled in, she prepared to go it alone. “There are no rules,” Sturgeon told Andrew Marr. “The status quo we voted for doesn’t exist.” To her, Scotland’s rightful place is in the EU and if that requires independence, so be it.

She offered to meet Brussels diplomats. She contacted EU institutions. She put forward a motion in the Scottish Parliament demanding “the Scottish government to have discussions” in pursuit of “protecting Scotland’s relationship with the EU”.

Yet Barroso’s warnings may come back to haunt Sturgeon. She has always painted a picture of an independent Scotland in Europe as one that is nevertheless tied to the British Isles. Its currency is the pound; Scots and the English move freely between Glasgow and Carlisle. EU member states may seize on her proposal, or use it as a way of repeating the rebuff of 2014. Sturgeon the nippie sweetie negotiator has her plan for a European Scotland. Now she must wait for Europe to answer. 

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies