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Hezbollah’s No. 2: US strike on Syria mere ‘muscle flexing'

In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor, Sheikh Naim Qassem, the deputy secretary-general of Hezbollah in Lebanon, spoke about the US military strikes on a Syrian air base and Israel and its potential moves in the region among other things.
Lebanon's Hezbollah deputy leader Sheikh Naim Qassem gestures as he speaks during an interview with Reuters at his office in Beirut's suburbs, Lebanon August 3, 2016. REUTERS/Aziz Taher - RTSKVYY

In an exclusive two-part interview with Al-Monitor, Sheikh Naim Qassem, deputy secretary-general of Hezbollah, dismissed the April 6 US military strike against the Shayrat air base in Syria as “muscle flexing” and a “one-time incident.”

Speaking April 8 in Beirut, Hezbollah's number 2 also called the missile strike a “blatant and unjustified attack.” Qassem argued, “There was no investigation into what actually happened in Khan Sheikhoun,” which on April 4 had been the target of the apparent chemical weapons attack that led US President Donald Trump to order the missile strike as a warning to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom he blamed for the incident.

Qassam further remarked, “The American attack on Syria is an attempt on the part of the US to shirk its responsibility in taking part in a political solution in Syria and a confirmation that it continues to support the terrorist path in moments of loss. The US, however, will not be able to achieve any of its objectives. The Syrian army is keeping up morale, making gains and moving forward. There is no turning back. The US and its terrorist allies and proxies will face more defeats.”

Two days earlier, on April 6 at a Hezbollah office in southern Beirut, Qassem said that it was too early to judge if the American administration would take unilateral action against the Syrian government after US officials blamed the Syrian government for the chemical attack in Khan Sheikoun. After the attack, he asserted, “The US military strike is merely muscle flexing and a show of strength. Things ended there because any deviation from the existing equation in Syria or any interference against the regime will lead to dangerous results because of the Russian presence [in Syria]. There is no reason for escalation. Although the US has not determined its policies in dealing with the Syrian crisis, … toppling the regime is out of the question.”

Hezbollah’s number 2 also warned that Israel would face serious consequences if it escalated militarily against the Syrian regime and its allies. He therefore ruled out Israel becoming directly involved in Syria or being able to change the situation on the ground there. He added that Hezbollah has no intention of establishing a permanent presence in Syria.

Qassem downplayed the likelihood of an Israeli war on Lebanon, saying that recent Israeli talk of Hezbollah being its biggest military threat did not necessarily mean that Israel was preparing to go to war.

The following part of the interview took place April 6.

Al-Monitor:  During Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s visit to Washington March 7, sources said that a war on Lebanon was at the top of the agenda during the discussions. It was also reported that Liberman received a message that the United States will support Israel in any future war. In light of these reports, do you think 2017 will witness a new Israeli war on Lebanon?

Qassem:  I do not think it would be convenient to respond to or even discuss sources, which would lead to a lot of analysis that may not even be realistic. Regarding the issue of a new war on Lebanon, we must look at Israel’s current situation, as it will try to avoid going into a losing war. This is not to mention its ongoing problems, as it is seeking to gain further acceptance by the international community. Israel is also waiting for developments in Syria. In light of all this, I do not believe Israel is looking into a new war in the near future. But we, as Hezbollah, are accustomed to always be prepared for any surprises. In terms of readiness, we are prepared to defend ourselves against any Israeli folly. But I do not expect this to happen anytime soon.

Al-Monitor:  How do you explain Israeli statements that Hezbollah’s threat to Israel has become greater than that of Iran? There are many Israeli statements suggesting an imminent war.

Qassem:  Wars are not based on statements, but on decisions and facts. Statements may have other objectives sometimes, such as generating additional momentum for the Israeli leadership or to boost morale in the face of many challenges, including preparation for a possible event in the future. Statements are not always an indication of an imminent war.

Al-Monitor:  We often hear Israeli officials talking about the danger of Iran’s and Hezbollah’s permanent military presence in Syria. Do you believe that Israel will escalate its military activity inside Syria in the near future?

Qassem:  Israel has been helping Syrian rebels all along, in order to fight the regime and to change the equation in Syria. We can say that it has failed in doing so. … The developments in the Syrian arena that have tipped in favor of the regime are an indication that Israel has lost its bet and failed in this direction.

I do not believe there is much for Israel to do in Syria. This was the maximum that it could do. The issue is not linked to an Israeli decision alone, as this is a complex equation. Israel cannot have free rein in Syria without anticipating serious consequences.

Al-Monitor:  Does Hezbollah intend to have a permanent presence in Syria?

Qassem:  No. Hezbollah is currently present in Syria to support our Syrian brothers so that the Syrian resistance will not fall under the mercy of Israel. As long as we are needed in Syria, we will remain there. When Syrians reach political solutions to save their country, and they no longer need us, we will return home. We do not have any political, military or financial ambitions in Syria. We are fighting there to protect the resistance axis. This does not require our permanent presence there. We will stay in Syria as long as we are needed there.

Al-Monitor:  That means that Hezbollah is not planning on creating a “new resistance front” in the Golan Heights?

Qassem:  The question of the Golan Heights concerns the people of the Golan and Syria. If the people there decide to start a resistance or a similar action, this would be their call and the call of people working on the ground. But we do not want to discuss Hezbollah’s position in this regard.

Al-Monitor:  A recent report by the International Crisis Group said that Hezbollah’s alliance with President Bashar al-Assad has become a burden, and the party is now seen as a Shiite militia. What do you think of this statement?

Qassem:  Hezbollah is a resistance fighting to bring down the Israeli project and is now fighting [in Syria] to put an end to the new takfiri project, which emanates from the Israeli plan. When we fight, we cooperate with all concerned parties, be they Sunnis, nationalists, secularists, Christians or any other national affiliations, according to the place, time and circumstances. Therefore, Hezbollah is a resistance project, and everyone knows that. Hezbollah’s network of contacts, be it in the Lebanese or Syrian arena, or anywhere it is needed, goes beyond sects and factions. These inaccurate reports have no weight on the ground and are only part of the political media lobbying to harm Hezbollah, but they are ineffective.

Al-Monitor:  Some believe that Hezbollah’s support for Assad has decreased its popularity, especially among Sunnis.

Qassem:  The majority supporting President Assad in Syria is an overwhelming Sunni majority in addition to prominent scholars, who are well known and respected in the Arab and Islamic worlds. Our support to Syria is in support of the Syrian homeland, with all its sects and factions regardless of their affiliation. These accusations by some parties in Syria are merely attempts to compensate for their losses, after Hezbollah’s success within the national and Islamic frameworks.

Al-Monitor:  Obviously, there is a big difference between the Barack Obama administration and the Donald Trump administration. The latter seems to be much more aggressive toward Iran. In light of this, do you expect any American escalation against Hezbollah?

Qassem:  In my opinion, there is no difference between the Obama administration and the Trump administration. The Obama administration was also hostile to Iran [and] issued sanctions against Hezbollah while also waging bad and negative propaganda against the party. This is not to mention that it supports Israel.

Al-Monitor:  But Obama said in an interview with Thomas Friedman, for instance, that the main threat to Saudi Arabia comes from inside Saudi Arabia and not from Iran. Trump has a different rhetoric, one that is closer to that of the Gulf countries, that Iran is the source of all problems.

Qassem:  The difference between Obama and Trump is that the latter makes direct hostile statements with a lot of uproar and clamor. But for us, all the US administrations are alike, supporting Israel to the fullest against the Palestinians. They are also for the Saudi war on Yemen. This is why I cannot say there is a fundamental difference between the Trump administration and the Obama administration except for some media and tactical additions in Trump’s rhetoric against us and against Iran.

Al-Monitor:  On the domestic level, do you think the election of President Michel Aoun has brought further momentum to Hezbollah or not?

Qassem:  The election of President Aoun has reinforced the stability of Lebanon. After a long vacuum, now the administration is working toward achievements for the benefit of the country. Boosting the country’s strength means boosting the strength of all its components, including us.

Al-Monitor:  Do you think the Lebanese parliamentary elections will be held as scheduled?

Qassem:  It is too late to hold the elections as scheduled, unless a law is passed in the coming days and if there is enough time for the necessary preparations to hold them. We will have to wait and see if the law will be passed.

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