Iran’s media has highlighted comments made by the secretary-general of the Lebanese Hizballah movement, who boasted on November 3 that the Shi'ite group was experiencing a “great victory” over the Sunni Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria.
In a speech in Beirut to mark the Ashura holiday, Hassan Nasrallah played up the sectarian aspect of the Syrian conflict and the battle with IS, saying that members of the group were “takfiris” (Muslims who accuse other Muslims of apostasy) whose goal was to “control Syria and eliminate all communities of other religions and Muslim sects and even those in the Sunni community who do not agree with their viewpoint.”
Nasrallah dismissed reports that Hizballah was taking heavy losses in Syria, saying that the Shi'a group was part of a “great victory” against IS.
While some Iranian news outlets led with the parts of Nasrallah’s speech that concerned Israel or the issue of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, others focused almost exclusively on the Hizballah leader’s comments about Syria and IS.
Iran’s Defa Press website, which is close to the Iranian military, led with a Nasrallah quote, “If Hizballah were not in Syria, IS’s massacre of Iraqi tribes would also have occurred in Lebanon.”
Defa Press reported that Nasrallah said some Lebanese political parties were opposed to Hizballah’s presence in Syria and were thus acting in the “interests of Israel and the United States”. However, if Hizballah had not gone to fight in Syria, IS militants would have committed massacres inside Lebanon, as it had done against Iraqi tribes, Nasrallah said.
Just as Iran has done, Nasrallah referred to IS as an existential threat to Shi'ite Islam and to the region, an angle played up by Iran’s English-language Press TV, which quoted the Hizballah leader as saying, “We are part of the battle waged to confront the biggest danger facing the region today."
Press TV also highlighted how Nasrallah set Hizballah as a counter not only to IS but also to “efforts by the [United States] and its allies to topple the Damascus government.”
Iran’s Fars News, which is affiliated with Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), led with Nasrallah’s comments about Israel but gave ample space to the Hizballah leader’s vow that “Damascus shall not fall.”
That Damascus had not yet fallen was testimony to the role of Hizballah and “the resistance” (a term used by Iran and Hizballah to refer to the concept of opposition against the United States, Israel, and other enemies).
“The goal of the enemies is that city’s annihilation... but today Syria is still standing and Damascus has not fallen,” Fars quoted Nasrallah as saying.
While the Iranian media provided an uncritical backing for Nasrallah’s boasts of a leading role in the “victory” against IS in Syria, some analysts and reporters have noted that Hizballah is experiencing difficulties in Syria.
Imad Salamey, an associate professor of political science at Beirut’s Lebanese American University, told Ya Libnan last month that “Hizballah is spread thin. They are waging so many battles and are positioned on so many fronts.”
Al-Monitor columnist Jean Aziz noted recently that the Lebanese Shi'ite group was being “squeezed out” of the Golan Heights by the Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Al-Nusra and by Israel.
Earlier this year, Lebanon analyst Sahar Atrache of the International Crisis Group painted an even gloomier picture of Hizballah’s condition in Syria.
“Hizballah is mired in a war of attrition in Syria, fighting a determined and radical enemy, and is distracted from its traditional focus on Israel,” Atrache wrote.
Nasrallah himself hinted in his November 3 speech that Hizballah is in some difficulty in Syria -- by denying that the group was having problems.
“Every single day, we are hearing that Hizballah will retreat,” he said. But “the situation is excellent in the Qalamoun. For months, the militants are fighting to regain control over a single village from the Syrian Army and its allies, but they’re failing,” the "Daily Star" quoted him as saying.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk