They say that in Lebanon, when Hassan Nasrallah speaks, everyone listens. On April 30, the Hezbollah chief made one of his most anticipated addresses since the start of the Arab Spring -- making it clear that despite the risks, his fighters will never abandon their support for the nearly universally-loathed Assad regime.
In his interview given on Lebanese television, Nasrallah reiterated that Hezbollah fighters would continue to operate in Syria's Qusayr region under the guise of protecting Lebanese citizens from sectarian attacks by rebel militias. Nasrallah also announced for the first time that Hezbollah fighters were actively defending the Saida Zainab Shrine in southern Damascus from rebel attacks.
Notably, Nasrallah hinted that Assad regime allies, Iran and Russia, would intervene to prevent the downfall of the regime. Nasrallah went on to deny allegations that Iranian fighters were currently assisting the Assad regime, claiming that the Syrian military maintained the capabilities to defeat the rebels.
Nasrallah's speech comes after personal meetings with Ayatollah Khameini in Tehran and a the deputy Russian foreign minister in Beirut days later. It is likely that meetings with the Iranian leadership included directives regarding Hezbollah's continued participation in the Syrian conflict. While Hezbollah has a deep interest keeping the Assad regime in power due to their own to military and ideological ties, the group's recent push in the Qusayr region and increased involvement elsewhere in the country was likely ordered by Iran.
Following his meeting with Nasrallah in Beirut, Russia's foreign minister denounced Hezbollah's participation in the Syrian conflict. Despite those remarks, it is likely that the official sought to reassure Nasrallah that Russia would continue to support the Assad regime through financial and military aid, while using its diplomatic clout to deter the West from possible military intervention. Amidst a period of sharpened rhetoric over chemical weapons usage, Nasrallah's statement therefore likely aimed to send a message to the West on behalf of Assad's allies: Any intervention will be met with mutual moves to bolster the Assad regime.
Nasrallah's speech also marked the most blatant acknowledgement of Hezbollah participation in hostilities, after denying such participation during the first 18 months of the conflict. This participation carries immense political and security hazards for Hezbollah's constituency in Lebanon, risking even larger such consequences should the rebels succeed in ousting the Assad regime. Nasrallah's affirmation that Hezbollah participation will continue is thus likely indicative that he believes the Assad regime will ultimately survive the current insurgency and remain in power.
Currently, Hezbollah fighters have succeeded in gaining control of the countryside surrounding the rebel-held town of Qusayr. Control over this area is crucial to preserving the traversing Homs-Damascus highway, which remains a key resupply route for the Assad regime. With the assistance of Syrian military artillery and air power, Hezbollah is likely to succeed in gaining control over the entire area, particularly in the absence of rebel reinforcements.
Furthermore, Hezbollah fighters are unlikely to withdraw from positions around the Saida Zainab mosque in Damascus' southern suburbs, despite facing heavy losses from rebel attacks launched from the surrounding area. The Saida Zainab mosque is both an important Shiite shrine, but also reportedly contains a primary Hezbollah command-and-control bunker outside of the group's Shiite strongholds in Lebanon.
Despite Nasrallah's accusations toward the media of exaggerating casualty numbers, Hezbollah has reportedly suffered over 200 losses in recent months, including from its highly-trained and limited special forces. Reports indicate that funerals in Shiite villages in southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley have become a daily occurrence. Due to heightened discontent in these villages, Hezbollah as reportedly resorted to holding secret and joint burials for fighters, leading to multiple families in Hezbollah-dominated areas to report that their sons had gone missing.
With pressure mounting on Hezbollah from within and without, it should surprise no one that tensions along the Israeli border recently taken the spotlight.
It remains likely that Hezbollah's leadership was involved in a high-profile drone incursion attempt into Israeli airspace on April 25, which IDF officials now attribute to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC). Iran maintains a large network in Lebanon and numerous bases which report to a command-and-control unit within the Beirut embassy and closely coordinate with Hezbollah.
Following the drone interception, Hezbollah's official media network al-Manar published an editorial praising the drone launch for causing P.M. Netanyahu's helicopter to make an emergency landing. At the time of the interception, P.M. Netanyahu had been conducting a tour in northern Israel, and the drone penetration forced his helicopter to land as a precaution. It is therefore likely that the failure of the drone to penetrate Israeli airspace was considered an embarrassment for both Iran and Hezbollah, leading to their denials.
The aftershocks of the drone penetration served Hezbollah's interests by reverting Lebanese attention back to the Israeli border and away from the Syrian conflict. Hezbollah's denials and subsequent conspiracy accusations toward Israel help to portray the IDF as an aggressor, to which Hezbollah's role as a resistance group is meant to combat.
In this context, a surprise April 30 IDF drill in northern Israel was likely meant as a show of force toward Hezbollah from making similar provocations in an effort to preserve this image. The IDF is assessed to believe that Hezbollah does not wish to enter into a conflict with Israel given that much of its manpower has been deployed to northern Lebanon and Syria.
Against the backdrop of Hezbollah's actions in Syria and its inaction toward Israel, Hassan Nasrallah has made one thing clear to every Lebanese: The era of resistance has ended.