Are Hezbollah and Russia on a Collision Course in Syria?

Lebanon’s recently re-appointed Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri of the Amal Movement, a close political ally of Hezbollah, has recently given an interview with Sputnik where he openly contradicted the desires expressed by Russian President Putin who has called for a pull out of all foreign troops from Syria so that the military phase of the conflict can transition to a negotiated political settlement.

As Berri’s interview was with a prominent international/multi-lingual Russian news outlet, he would have been well aware that his seemingly controversial remarks would be viewed in Russia and by Russia watchers. Sputnik’s report describes the prelude to Berri’s statement in the following way,

“The Lebanese parliamentary speaker noted that Iranian troops were present in Syria at the request of the Syrian leadership, just like the Russian Aerospace Forces, while the United States, which has demanded the withdrawal of Hezbollah and Iran, had deployed their troops in the country without the permission of the Syrian government”.

Berri then said,

“[These forces will not be withdrawn] until Syria is liberated and regains its territorial integrity”.

Berri’s statement reads as a contradiction of Russia’s stated desire to have all foreign troops peacefully withdrawn from Syria but perhaps more surprisingly, it is also a contradiction of official statements from the Syrian President and Iranian officials who claim that Iranian soldiers are not in Syria but that instead it is merely “advisers” who are have helped to instruct and train the Syrian Arab Army in its war against Takfiri terrorism.

Therefore one is witnessing the presence of three different narratives among various forces who have allied with Damascus during the conflict to defeat the Takfiri terrorist proxy war on Syria. Crucially, when it comes to taking the rhetoric at face value, the statements are all mutually contradictory.

Before progressing further, it should be noted that Nabih Berri is not formally a member of Hezbollah but instead leads an allied political party, the Amal Movement. That being said, Berri is if anything closer to the Hezbollah leadership than the governments of any country in the region.

With this in mind, there are three possible outcomes deriving from Berri’s statement and only time or a more precise clarification from Berri or the Hezbollah leadership will be able to reveal the true purpose and intent of the statement. Below are the realistic possibilities:

1. Domestic/partisan rhetoric rather than policy rhetoric 

Hezbollah’s prominent social media presence as well as some of its members of parliament in Lebanon and their allies are often prone to statements which are far more grandiose than that which is heard from any government in the region, including those like Syria and Iran who are partners with Hezbollah in the war against terrorism. Such statements are often intended as a kind of “motivational speech” for partisan loyalists than they are meant to be taken as true policy rhetoric. The fact that “Israel” pretends it believes such statements in order to justify its aggression against its Arab neighbours is merely par for the course in such instances.

Infamously, after the April 2017 US act of aggression against Syria, Hezbollah social media released a statement saying that Russia and Iran would target US assets in the region as a means of extracting vengeance for the illegal attack on Syria. Strictly speaking this was fake news – perhaps better described as “wishful thinking” by a Hezbollah member on social media. Both Russia and Iran denied the statement which worryingly was picked up by the ultra-liberal British newspaper Independent as a genuine reflection of Russian and Iranian policy.

In this sense, there is a possibility that while Russia works with Iran, Syria and by extrapolation Hezbollah’s leadership on the ground in the Syrian Arab Republic to organise a hero’s dignified withdrawal of both Hezbollah and later Iranian “advisers”, that in the meantime, Berri is soothing excitable tensions among loyalists to the Islamic Resistance by telling them what they want to hear, namely that the Resistance will fight to effectively liberate “every inch of Syria” which at this point means direct confrontation with the United States, “Israel” and possibly Turkey. No matter how much some in the Resistance might want a “war till the end”, it simply is not going to happen as such a suicide mission would serve to undo all of the necessary gains that the Resistance played a vital role in helping Syria to secure.

Furthermore, as Hezbollah’s leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has said on multiple occasions, the victory in Syria is one for Syria alone rather than for a coalition. In this sense, Nasrallah’s remarks while magnanimous to a close partner, also have the added effect (intentionally or otherwise) of paving the way for a dignified hero’s exit of Hezbollah troops from Syria according to the constructive Russian model.

2. Berri is saying what Iran doesn’t want to publicly say 

If one were to believe the discredited western mainstream media, everything a Hezbollah or allied official says is official Iranian policy, written in Tehran and read out on cue by a Lebanese Arab. This is not only false but is designed to embarrass Iran and deprive Arab politicians of dignity and political agency. That being said, Hezbollah and their allies do at times and in a particular context reveal (either with Iran’s permission or against Iran’s wishes) what at least some officials in Tehran are thinking but are generally too diplomatic to voice in public.

Thus, there remains a possibility that cannot be ruled out that Berri is saying something he was told or overheard from officials in Iran and thus Berri is voicing what members of Iran’s government think but have not yet openly said.

3. Berri has revealed that Hezbollah is ready to defy Russia in spite of what Moscow wants, and what Tehran and Damascus say

There is also a possibility that Berri is revealing official Hezbollah policy which is to remain in Syria no matter who says what. This could bring about that which Russia wants to avoid most and that which at least some in Damascus are keen to avoid in spite of public rhetoric. A prolonged Hezbollah presence in Syria could nix the deal that Moscow has made with “Israel” whereby Tel Aviv will de-faco acknowledge the Syrian government and President’s legitimacy and cease its increasingly aggressive illegal attacks on the Arab Republic in exchange for a Russia coordinated withdrawal of what “Israel” calls “Iranian” forces which in reality means Hezbollah, other Shi’a volunteers (aka the Popular Mobilisation Units) and any Iranian advisers, IRGC or regulars. If Hezbollah stays, the deal is off.

What it could lead to 

If Hezbollah stays as they have the full legal right to do so long as Syria’s government approves, it could set off a chain of events which could lead to “Israel” and its US ally conducting a “war on Iran” on Syrian soil. Tel Aviv has already shown that it is eager to inflect Syria with damaging air strikes all under the pretext of harming “Iranian assets”. For the US, this would be like having its cake and eating it too as the anti-Iranian ‘chicken-hawks’ in Washington led by America’s National Security Adviser John Bolton would be able to “fight Iran” but without having to pay the devastating consequences implicit in a war on Iranian soil. This would be the ultimate gift to an American government eager to pretend that it is fighting Iran but too afraid to attack Iranian soil militarily.

Given “Israel’s” air superiority in the region (in spite of crucial upgrades to Syria’s air defence systems) and its illegal stockpile of nuclear weapons, there is a grave possibility that it would be Syrian Arabs who would pay the ultimate price for a Zionist war on Iran fought on Syrian soil.

In political terms, it would also have the unintended consequence of pushing Russia closer to its “Israeli” partner than its Syrian or Iranian partners. While Russia will never abandon Syria or Iran as vital regional partners, if Hezbollah and/or Iran itself act in such a way that scuttles the deal that Russia made with “Israel” regarding Tel Aviv’s agreement to cease its aggression towards Syria in exchange for an Iranian/Hezbollah withdrawal, it would demonstrate to Moscow’s policy makers that doing a deal with Tel Aviv is easier than doing one with Iran or Hezbollah. For Iran, such a development couldn’t come at a worse time as Tehran will require Moscow’s economic cooperation more than ever in the aftermath of America’s withdrawal from the JCPOA (aka Iran nuclear deal).

Russia has already proved that it possesses a unique diplomatic ability in being able to force “Israel” to agree to a deal that it has never before agreed to in its history: one in which Tel Aviv is forced to resign itself to living next to an anti-Zionist Arab Nationalist government without constantly trying to destroy it. The only comparable feat in regional history was when in 1956 the USSR and US briefly worked together to force an “Israeli”, British and French withdrawal from Egypt, thus de-facto defending the legitimacy of Egypt’s revolutionary President Nasser. But while in 1956 the USSR and US joined forces, in 2018, Russia accomplished something even more extraordinary alone.

The amount of leverage Russia had to employ to secure such an agreement from Tel Aviv was clearly colossal and the fact that such efforts from Moscow may be overlooked by its partners from Lebanon and Iran mean that in the future, Russia might concentrate its deal making ability with Tel Aviv to secure agreements that benefit Russia directly rather than those which benefit Syria and Lebanon first and foremost. After all, as a staunch US ally, “Israel” is unique in never coming close to joining the anti-Russian sanctions movement that has bewitched and seduced much of the west.  Likewise, while most European leaders and American leaders go out of their way to show disrespect to important Russian national holidays, the “Israeli” regime leader paid his respects next to President Putin on the 9th of May celebrations of the Soviet victory against European fascism.

Because of this, those in the Middle East must realise that Russia does not solely exist to prop up the Islamic Resistance nor does Russia exist solely to do deals with “Israel”. Russia exists as a global superpower with interests and partners around the world. Thus, Russia will try to make the best of a balanced situation in all of these regions. While the USA has gone out of its way to torture the Middle East more than it has tortured any other region, Russia is not in the Middle East to specifically be an angle countering the US devil. Such a false dichotomy is simply wishful thinking among those who misunderstand Russia’s geopolitical aims entirely. That being said, in helping Syria to come this far in defeating the bulk of Takfiri terrorists, it could nevertheless be argued that there was something righteous if not spiritual in the nature of Russia’s aid to Syria, even if in reality it was done for deeply pragmatic reasons.

Conclusion 

The difference between Russia’s role as an unemotional superpower and America’s role as a meddling superpower is this: While both Russia and the US act according to their interests, Russia follows a geopolitical version of the Hippocratic Oath taken by physicians which specifically states “do no harm”. By contrast, the United States will do anything, no matter how harmful to secure its goals. This has been the case from the time the US dropped atomic weapons on a beaten and broken Japan in 1945 and it is true today when Washington has allied with the most savage head-chopping Takfiri terrorists the world has seen.

Russia does not seek to be anyone’s enemy, but nor does Russia seek to by anyone’s “super best friend”. Russia has its interests and it has expressed them honestly. It is now up to Russia’s Arab and Iranian partners to decide how to proceed from here, knowing that if they reject the Russian deal, Russia will take appropriate steps which reflect the fact the in geopoliticals like in all other relationships “it takes two to tango”.

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