Hezbollah’s Struggle for Hearts and Minds on the Syrian Golan

In this article from the November 2016 issue of Beehive: Middle Eastern Social Media, Moran Levanoni writes about Hezbollah's efforts to sway public opinion on the Syrian Golan.
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The title card of al-Mayadeen's investigative report
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The title card of al-Mayadeen's investigative report



On October 15, the Hezbollah-affiliated television channel al Mayadeen broadcast an investigative program entitled, “Southern Syria: A Region in Flames,” which ostensibly dealt with Israeli policy and the various groups active in the southern Syria sector. The 50+ minute program provided insight into the narrative that Hezbollah is attempting to transmit as part of its military and propaganda campaign in the Syrian Golan Heights. The campaign aims to present Israel as a force interfering in southern Syria to ensure the success of regional Jihadist forces. Hezbollah’s campaign plays on Israel’s declared policy of the last three years, which includes transferring humanitarian aid to residents of the Syrian Golan and rescuing people injured in the fighting there,[1] in addition to maintaining military deterrence. Recently, Israeli media even reported on the establishment of a Coordination and Liaison unit between Israeli and Syrian agencies, facilitating the expansion of civilian aid.[2] In addition to being broadcast on television, the investigative report was also disseminated, as is customary, on the al Mayadeen YouTube channel[3] and Facebook page.[4]

al Mayadeen's report included an assessment of the military actions taken by the various forces active in the Syrian Golan Heights. These included the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and all of its various factions, Fateh al-Sham Front (formerly al-Nusra Front), forces allied with the Syrian regime and its militias (Shabiha), various Druze militias, and forces backed by Hezbollah and Iran, from 2013 until today. In addition to interviews with activists in Syria and Europe, such as Mohammed Khairallah Harbhat and former officers in the Free Syrian Army, the report included an interview with Israeli General (res.) and National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror,[5] and Israeli broadcasted interviews and briefings with Israeli generals of the Northern Command, Chief of the General Staff, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Ya'akov Amidror
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Ya'akov Amidror



In order to prove Israeli intervention in Syria, the investigative report included biased descriptions of battles and military campaigns, particularly the tactical successes of Islamist factions, along with various statements by Israeli military officials.[6] In addition, it claimed that a series of attacks against 50 officers and fighters of the Free Syrian Army, in which Khairallah Harbhat (who was interviewed for the report) was injured, had been carried out by jihadist groups, with the involvement of Western intelligence officials and Israel. The report even alleged Israeli military involvement in April 2015, in the battles at Jubata al-Khashab and the Quneitra check point, which helped Islamist factions take control of key points in the region. At the time, the IDF Spokesperson’s office issued a statement that the action was a response to leakage of fire from Syria into Israel. The investigative report concluded that the Israeli-Western-Saudi front is working actively to implant a compliant Islamist regime in the southern Syrian front, at the expense of the moderate FSA faction. As a result, in a complete role reversal, Hezbollah is portrayed as the sector's legitimate representative of the free world.

The battle for hearts and minds, known in Arabic as “al harb ‘ala al waai,” is an important, foundational item on the Hezbollah’s agenda.[7] The organization’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah reads Israeli newspapers and has, several times in the past, responded to subjects raised in the Israeli press.[8] He has cleverly used the Israeli public's fears as a vehicle to transmit his messages. Likewise, he gained advantage from the “Four Mothers” movement in the 1990s that led the public campaign for Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon. During Israel’s second war in Lebanon, Nasrallah’s emerged victorious from the battlefield of public perception, with much of Israeli society incorrectly believing that his speeches were more reliable than announcements by IDF officials.[9]

The timing of the investigative report was not coincidental. The war in Syria is currently exacting a heavy price on Hezbollah, not only in casualties and resources, but also in loss of legitimacy in the Arab, Lebanese and Shi‘ite sectors. Therefore, Hezbollah is using propaganda in an attempt to restore its legitimacy. The standard narrative in most of Nasrallah’s speeches during the last five years has been the fight against Sunni jihadists, and particularly ISIS - which he claims was established by Israel and the Americans. In addition, he attempts to evoke dissent among his opponents and erode their legitimacy. In this context, Hezbollah is promulgating a narrative that presents the soldiers of the Free Syrian Army in the southern front as pathetic men who have fallen into the trap set for them by the Israeli-Western-Saudi front. The anti-Israel narrative disseminated by Hezbollah has even reached Israeli Knesset, where there are those who believe and quote it.[10]

The struggle over narrative is an extremely important component of the campaign that Hezbollah is waging against Israel, especially under the leadership of its current Secretary-General. The investigative report on al Mayadeen television is another expression of this struggle, representing the organization’s efforts to inculcate the narrative that Israeli intervention is intended to cause ongoing chaos in the southern front of the Syrian Golan Heights. This demonstrates Hezbollah’s sophistication and its propaganda capabilities - against which Israel must act, responding as it would to any other threat. Although the propaganda war could be less expensive and more effective than confrontation on the battlefield, it is no less significant.

 



[2] Nir Boms, “'Good Neighborliness'” on Israel's northern border?"Middle East Crossroads, volume 6, issue 11 (November 2016),  Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East and African Studies.

[5] The interview was broadcast without giving credit to the interviewer and photographer, and was likely conducted by representatives of network in Israel.

[6] See for example, Ely Zuzovsky, “UN soldierswho fled from Syria report a new situation,” Mako, Sept. 17, 2014, http://www.mako.co.il/pzm-magazine/Article-8a8708d57448841006.htm

[7] See the speech given by Nasrallah marking the 10th anniversary of the Second War in Lebanon: “Victory in the Tammuz (second Lebanon) War is the Victory of Consciousness.” http://www.raialyoum.com/?p=498838

[8] See the December 2011 article “Hezbollah Financed by International Drug Network” http://www.nrg.co.il/online/1/ART2/316/511.html and Nasrallah’s February 2012 speech in response: http://www.aawsat.com/details.asp?section=4&article=662597&issueno=12125#.UY4Q6UqU3IU.

[9] The fact that the IDF initially denied Nasrallah’s live report that the INS Hanit had been targeted during the early hours of the war, which later proved true, contributed significantly to this opinion.

[10] Jack Houry, Amos Harel and Gili Cohen, “MK Akram Hasoon: Israel is Helping al-Nusra Front Attack Druze in Syria, February 11, 2016 http://www.haaretz.co.il/news/politics/.premium-1.3065151