Hezbollah is famous for being one of the most militantly anti-Israel terrorist groups on the face of the earth. But lately, they haven’t been fighting the Israelis nearly so much as their Arab neighbors. Yaroslav Trofimov writes in the WSJ:
While the Israeli border just south of here has remained quiet since the 2006 war, more than 1,000 Hezbollah fighters died in Syria over the past three years, and many more were injured—a painful casualty rate for a group with an estimated strength of between 15,000 and 30,000 men. Portraits of this new crop of “martyrs” adorn the roadsides across south Lebanon.
With their morale high and their superior training and equipment, these Hezbollah units have become indispensable for the survival of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime—which also means they have become bogged down in battles all over Syria, not just along Lebanon’s borders but in remote Aleppo and Palmyra.
Hezbollah’s approach has been to portray both wars as part of the same conflict. Mr. Nasrallah has repeatedly described Islamic State and al Qaeda’s Syrian offshoot as creations of Israel and the U.S., a conspiracy designed to weaken Islamic unity.
Motivating Hezbollah’s Shi’a supporters to stay the course in Syria is easy, Trofimov writes, because they fear that if Hezbollah doesn’t fight ISIS in Syria, ISIS will come to fight them in Lebanon. But keeping up the movement’s prestige among the Sunni, on the other hand, even as Hezbollah fights their coreligionists, is tricky.
This is precisely why you can expect to hear more anti-Israel rhetoric out of Hezbollah—and its Iranian backers—in the years to come. Trofimov’s report starts at a rally to commemorate Hezbollah’s 2006 war; the group’s leader “thunder[ed] for more than an hour about the impending demise of the Zionist enemy.” If that seems incongruous with the rest of the story, it’s not: As Iran’s hegemonic ambitions heighten the sectarian conflicts in the region, it becomes increasingly vital for Shi’a groups to play up their hostility to Israel to justify the leadership they claim over the Sunnis, who are a regional majority.
And unfortunately but predictably, anti-American rhetoric plays the same role. Which is why the idea that we could placate Iran by making it clear we weren’t a regional threat—giving them some rope in Syria—was always fundamentally backward.