BEIRUT, Lebanon – Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah’s pledge in a recent speech to liberate Syria’s Golan Heights from Israel is adding a new dimension to existing regional tension. And it has prompted his opponents within Lebanon, the Sunni March 14 group, to demand that the Shi’ite resistance group be barred from the Lebanese cabinet.
Nasrallah’s call to action follows comments by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad about turning the Golan Heights into a “resistance front” against Israel. His declaration came following two separate Israel airstrikes on Syria in the past few weeks, ostensibly to halt what Jerusalem said were missiles being sent from Syria to the Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Israel once again threatened further airstrikes against Syria if it continues providing advanced weapons to Hezbollah. Following the last Israeli airstrike two weeks ago at a military research center on the outskirts of Damascus, Syrian deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, said Syria would retaliate and called the Israeli attack a “declaration of war.”
Sources say that al-Assad’s intent to turn the Golan into a “resistance front” was a signal to militants to launch retaliatory attacks from there.
Up until the beginning of the Syrian civil war, the Golan had remained relatively quiet. Both al-Assad, and his father before him, Hafaz al-Assad, had kept the front line between Syria and the Israeli-held Golan calm, even though an official state of war still exists between the two.
This was done by maintaining battalions of Syrian troops on the Syrian side. However, the civil war forced the military to redeploy most of those troops elsewhere in the country, leaving the area vulnerable to opposition forces such as the Syrian Free Army, those rebelling against al-Assad, to attempt to occupy the area.
The volatility of the area has prompted United Nations observers to consider removing their forces from the Golan due to the increased instability.
Nasrallah, whose fighters have been in Syria to prop up the al-Assad government in the civil war and the fighting against foreign fighters, promised to support al-Assad’s efforts “to liberate the Syrian Golan.”
With Nasrallah backing al-Assad, sources say that the Israelis are taking it seriously.
In 2006, Hezbollah and Israel fought a war for 34 days, resulting in a stalemate but a psychological victory for the resistance group. Israel’s intention at the time was to eliminate Hezbollah as a threat to the country.
Instead, Hezbollah has grown stronger, with increased military assistance and training from Syria and Iran, which also backs al-Assad.
Nasrallah’s backing of al-Assad also underscores the regional expansion of the resistance group beyond Lebanon’s borders to include Syria. Hezbollah justifies its existence as a resistance group by claiming a duty to protect the existence of Lebanon, particularly from Israeli attack.
In expanding that role and to be included in the “resistance front” on behalf of Syria, Hezbollah’s opponents in Lebanon have seized on Nasrallah’s comments to demand that the resistance group be kicked out of the Lebanese cabinet.
“An absolute majority of the Druze oppose Israeli occupation,” said Salman Sahar-Deen, a Golan Druze. “But they are split on supporting Syria. What Nasrallah is proposing does not suit our capabilities nor our doctrine.”
Some sources say that perhaps having Nasrallah involved in the Golan, in fact, could help Israel, since the area is becoming increasingly populated by al-Qaida’s affiliate, al-Nusra.
This development reportedly has become a source of increasing worry for Jerusalem, since the Golan overlook’s northern Israel.
Within Lebanon, Nasrallah’s threat to retake the Golan for Syria has been met with harsh criticism from Hezbollah’s political opponents, especially the Sunni March 14 group.
Senior March 14 officials are concerned that Nasrallah has set for himself the goal of liberating the Golan from the Israelis. They say that contradicts Lebanon’s disassociation policy, which is to not meddle in Syria’s affairs or lend to the unrest in the region.
They said it violates the Baabda Declaration and the 1989 Taif Agreements which underscore such a disassociation from wider conflicts.
Various sources in Lebanon see the potential for a widening of the Syrian conflict and, in that connection, do not hold much promise for a conference proposed by the U.S. and Russia to end the Syrian conflict.
These sources say that neither the governments of Syria nor Iran would be included in such discussions and it would be unrealistic, given their involvement, not to have them represented at the conference.
According to sources, the U.S. wants Russia to agree to gradual Syrian regime change by having the government and armed opposition enter into discussions, followed by the formation of a transitional government.
The problem with that, sources say, is that al-Assad has no intention of stepping down and, given the recent victories the government has achieved over the armed opposition, the likelihood of that happening appears limited.
Senior Syrian government officials told WND that there is the possibility that al-Assad may even run again in 2014 when his term as president is up, suggesting the government feels it is in an even stronger position than it was a few months ago.
At the same time, these officials said they have gotten the message to implement the needed reforms demanded by the opposition, but the shooting first must stop before discussions can begin and those talks could include al-Assad himself.