Does Hezbollah seek Israel’s elimination? ‘Not so,’ says Nasrallah
Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah appeared to signal a possibly pragmatic turn in Hezbollah’s approach to Israel in a speech Feb. 16.
“If there is now a consensus in Israel on this characterization of the resistance in Lebanon, does it mean that Hezbollah is opening a front and wants to eliminate Israel from existence?” the Hezbollah chief asked. “The reality now is not so.”
The speech, not surprisingly, was otherwise laced with anti-Israeli rhetoric and threats; nothing new there. But Nasrallah this time drew the line at both establishing a new “front” with Israel and threatening Israel’s “existence.” In practical terms, his remarks implied that Hezbollah would keep the Lebanese and Syrian borders quiet.
Nasrallah’s approach could be understood as both deeply pragmatic, given the toll of the Syrian war on Hezbollah’s forces, and reflective of a more moderate trend in Iranian foreign policy. It is no exaggeration to suggest that what Nasrallah says in Beirut is approved in Tehran. Al-Monitor columns have traced a mostly steady deterrence between Israel and Hezbollah over the past two years. Ben Caspit wrote in December that the assessment in Jerusalem was that “war with Israel is the last thing that Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei needs right now.”
Two years ago this week, this column suggested that US-Iran engagement on Syria, which is now happening in the International Syria Support Group, could, over time, eventually lead to a broader discussion about Hezbollah and its role in the region. A year later, in January 2015, we wrote, “We could, and probably should, imagine a more expansive conversation, somewhere, between the United States and its allies and Iran to defuse the crisis on Israel’s borders. All parties should have an interest in averting a confrontation involving Israel, Lebanon and Syria, which would threaten the hard-fought progress to date in the nuclear talks and the increasing alignment of US, coalition and Iranian actions in battling IS and al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria and Iraq.” Since that column, the nuclear talks are a done deal, and US Secretary of State John Kerry said just last month that Iran’s plan for Syria “needs to be explored” and is “very close to what Geneva has been trying to achieve.”
Iran will be subject to sanctions as a “state of sponsor of terrorism” under US law until there are conversations about Hezbollah’s role in the region. Israel, Lebanon and post-war Syria will all benefit from secure and peaceful borders. The trend in that direction may be fragile and precarious, but it is a trend nonetheless, and it depends, ultimately, on Israel and Iran. And it all begins with Syria.
Relief worker: Jabhat al-Nusra can cross Turkish border “anytime”
Fehim Tastekin reported that “while speculation continues about whether Turkey and Saudi Arabia will march into the Syrian war, Turkey is already fighting on two fronts without even entering Syria.”
“In the first [front], Turkey is launching heavy artillery fire at Syrian Democratic Forces advancing toward Azaz in northwestern Syria, while declaring that the objective is to stop the advances of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG). On the second front, Turkey is allowing militants to cross into Syria, since the Syrian army cut off the Aleppo-Kilis corridor,” Tastekin wrote.
Tastekin went on to explain how Jabhat al-Nusra is embedded among many of the Salafi groups operating in these regions: “As for claims that Jabhat al-Nusra is not present at Azaz, we have to realize that since Jabhat al-Nusra was added to the UN terror list, it has not been flying its flag in areas close to the Turkish border. In addition to its concentration in rural Idlib, Jabhat al-Nusra also has a presence north of Aleppo, in the Turkmen regions of Latakia and Azaz. Jabhat al-Nusra has significant mobilization capacity in these areas. Everyone following the developments in the region knows that the group is active not only on the Syrian side of the border but also in Turkey’s Kilis and Hatay. According to a relief worker at Yayladag, ‘Nusra people are considered local residents. They can cross the border anytime.’ Jabhat al-Nusra generally operates with Ahrar al-Sham in these areas.”
Aleppo: Syrian armed groups in “all-out defense”
Mohammed al-Khatieb reported from Aleppo that the battles for control of Aleppo “are unlike any others. They are the fiercest and bloodiest yet, for regime forces are attacking rebels at the heart of their areas of control, spurring them into all-out defense.”
“Russian fighter jets never leave Aleppo's airspace, Khatieb wrote. “The importance of this advance lies in the fact that rebel forces have lost a strategic passage linking the northern Aleppo countryside with the rest of their zones of control. As a result, FSA fighters in the northern countryside are now isolated and surrounded by IS in the east, the regime forces and their allies in the south, and the Syrian Democratic Forces in the west.”
Mustafa al-Haj reported from Syria that “the Syrian regime and its allies have taken control over the entire area between the cities of Moadamiyet al-Sham and Daraya in Rif Dimashq governorate, following an extensive military campaign and heavy aerial bombardment that began in December 2015. The campaign aims to isolate the city of Daraya, which has already been besieged for three years, cutting off the only humanitarian supply line and weakening the opposition and civilians in preparation to storm the city. … It is noteworthy that in 2010, Daraya was home to 250,000 citizens, and today that number has dropped to 12,000, including both civilians and military forces. As the road to Moadamiyet al-Sham has been cut off, these people will face worsening conditions as the regime continues the heavy bombardment that prompted people to seek refuge underground.”
Saudi Northern Thunder
Bruce Riedel suggested that a high-profile military exercise may be a distraction for Saudi Arabia’s many domestic and regional challenges.
“Iran is no longer under damaging UN sanctions and is poised to pump more oil into an already glutted world market. IS [Islamic State] and al-Qaeda are operating inside the kingdom and have bases to the north and south of it. The Yemeni war has no end in sight. Rumors about infighting in the royal family are persistent. Northern Thunder [large-scale military training maneuvers] is helping project strength and international support, but the king really needs a face-saving answer to his Yemen conundrums,” wrote Riedel.