It’s a rare thing for a militant group often described as shadowy and secretive to bring dozens of foreign journalists to their mountain bases.
But Hezbollah did just that on Saturday, eager to show off recent victories against jihadists on Lebanon’s frontier with Syria.
The Lebanese Shiite movement, militant group and political party led a convoy of 47 SUVs up into the rugged mountains that line the borderlands between the two countries — areas which until recently had been controlled by al-Qaeda fighters from neighboring Syria.
The al-Qaeda offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra, born in the battlefields of Syria, has held territory in the mountains since 2014. ISIS is present farther north.
Journalists were taken to a cave complex that served as a base for Nusra fighters, and on to several more mountaintop positions that Hezbollah recaptured. They were shown weapons and military equipment and even treated to lunch.
This was a victory parade for Hezbollah, which is classified as a terrorist group by the Arab League, the United States and many other Western countries. But within it was also a message to President Donald Trump.
“The goal was to show the world that the resistance has triumphed in this area,” said Hezbollah media spokesman Mohammad Afif, standing outside of the cave complex.
“I think the current American president is ignorant of the region and when he talks about battling terrorism. We are the force that fights terrorism while the US continues to support terrorism in many forms,” he added.
Just days earlier, Trump stood alongside the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and praised Lebanon for being on the “front lines in the fight against ISIS, al-Qaeda and Hezbollah.”
Trump also pledged more support, saying, “America's assistance can help ensure that the Lebanese army is the only defender Lebanon needs.”
But as much as Trump might want to lump Hezbollah in with jihadist groups in the region, Hezbollah is part of the Lebanese government. On top of the recaptured mountain in Juroud Arsal, the Hezbollah flag — a fist clenching an assault rifle against a bright yellow background — flies alongside the Lebanese flag.
The reality is that Hezbollah is fighting if not in collaboration with the Lebanese army, then in coordination with it. The hundreds of millions in military aid the US has given to the Lebanese army so far has not ensured that it is the country's only defender.
Hezbollah, which was founded in the 1980s to fight against Israeli occupation, is keen to portray itself to the world as a vital defender of Lebanon. The unusual media trip was designed partly with that in mind.
“The country has been suffering for a long time from a wave of car bombings and threats, and the villages in the surrounding area could not live safely unless we took on this role,” said Afif, the media spokesman.
Hezbollah’s critics see things differently. Far from selflessly protecting the Lebanese state from dangerous jihadists, it is concerned with protecting its own interests at the expense of Lebanon, critics say. Its participation in the Syrian civil war aims to preserve the rule of its ally, Bashar al-Assad, and with it a supply line that runs from Iran to Lebanon. And critics add that Hezbollah’s involvement in the fight across the border inflamed sectarian tensions at home and brought jihadists to the door.
Regardless of its motivations, Hezbollah’s growing clout within Lebanon and farther afield in Syria will reverberate for some time.
Writing for the Century Foundation think tank, Thanassis Cambanis and Sima Ghaddar describe Hezbollah’s leading role in the battle for Arsal as “an important shift in the Middle East order.”
“Hezbollah’s dual role might make Western governments uncomfortable, and it might force them to undergo rhetorical gymnastics in order to continue their relationship with Lebanese state institutions while ignoring the reality of Hezbollah’s central role in the state and the region,” they write. “However, it is nonetheless true that Hezbollah has emerged from the disarray in Syria as an indispensable national and regional actor with reach, strategic vision, and capacity.”
The complicated web of militant groups, allies and enemies in the barren stretch of mountain raises difficult questions for the Trump administration.
Trump has made no secret of his desire to counter Iranian influence in the region, and US officials are reportedly considering new sanctions against Iran’s key ally Hezbollah.
The question is, how to do that without upsetting the delicate, comparative stability that has endured in Lebanon throughout the Syrian civil war, and without slowing the fight against ISIS and its fellow travelers.
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