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Excerpts from the Arab and Iranian Media & Analysis of US Policy in the Region

Marisa Sullivan’s Institutional Mash-up Analysis of Hezbollah: Unusable

Marisa Sullivan has just put out a report here for the Institute for the Study of War on Hezbollah and the Syria conflict.

For various reasons, I have not written much analysis in the last year and a half. I have during that time continued on in Beirut and the region meeting actors, reading etc.

This report comes after three years of just deeply disappointing “reports,” white papers and reporting on Syria and especially on Hezbollah – and it is too much.

More on this larger issue shortly with a more structured article. Suffice it to say that I believe at this point the deception practiced at many levels over the syria file – especially the early WRONG claims of the regimes imminent fall as but ONE example – have at least now equaled the moral and strategic tragedy of the Iraq WMD fiasco.

Sullivan’s piece is reflective of how the many problems which have metastasized in the journalism community around syria coverage have spread deeply in the supposedly more rigorous “academic” and institute driven sector. Her paper is, quite incredibly, merely a mash-up of almost exclusively western/opposed journalist reporting… and nearly all from english sources.

Apparently NO field visits, no attempt to talk to the actors themselves etc. Just a mash-up. At least Nasrallah is quoted a few times on a paper about his organization’s inner most thinking, to her credit, since Stephen Biddle managed to write a 100 page paper that literally quoted nasrallah ONCE…. even though it was about him and hezbollah in the 2006 war!

Based on problematic sourcing, bad methodology and thin attempts at synthesizing the limited material, the result is a paper with nothing new, assertions that can be taken with a grain of salt (sure, maybe its true), and a wide sea of missed debates/opportunities to actually positively inform the discussion about this key issue.

This is but one more example – we really do not need more – of why the policy debate in DC and beyond is so poor, why the ideas are so few and why the US keeps making similar mistakes over and over again and missing opportunities.

Sadly, it just seems as though things will continue to get worse in all of these regards.

Some points:

1) The Old Canard rises again! The regime is about to fall

She opens by writing: “The war in Syria presents a significant threat to the strategic alliance of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah. The Syrian government, the vital conduit between Iran and Hezbollah, is in danger of being overthrown.”

— Yes Sullivan is right that the war in syria presents a significant threat to the Resistance Axis. This is in fact but one reason why some of us long ago argued that Hizbullah would NOT allow a collapse and would respond in kind to increasing militarization (as I did here in the summer of 2011 But how can you possibly begin an academic-aspiring piece with an assertion that is one of the great mistakes+morally reprehensible predictions made over the last three years of the syria conflict? Sullivan is aware of how many people got this prediction wrong: Assad’s days are numbered. Why in the world would she raise at the second paragraph such a discredited statement and one which needlessly raised the expectations of so many Syrians (and others) who actually believed these pronouncements and their ramifications as early as the summer of 2011!

— Yes, perhaps an extreme event might take place. But it is now thankfully even conventional wisdom that the regime is NOT in danger of being overthrown – or at the very least this is NOT likely.

2) Its all about the supply lines (like always)/Almost total reliance on English language, Western/Israeli newspaper sources – a thin-gruel mashup!

She writes: “Iran cannot afford to lose its most important foothold in the levant, and hezbollah cannot risk losing its access to critical iranian and syrian support. Syria’s importance to Hezbollah, however, is not limited to its role as a conduit for financial and material support; the assad regime has provided safe haven for hezbollah training camps and weapons storage. It is through this relationship that Hezbollah has therefore entered the conflict as a key player.”

— This is the line of so many reports, largely based on no field work IN lebanon much less Syria, and little or NO interaction with the actors involved. How does she divine hizbullah’s intentions? Sadly if you breeze through her footnotes, its incredible: Next to NO reference to Arabic sources, page 31 is almost all referencing nick blanford articles, and the vast majority of her references are from only a few sources: Ann Barnard, Dexter Filkins, Liz Sly, Mitchell Prothero and Nick Blanford. Essentially what Ms. Sullivan has done is merely synthesize western journalist reporting on the conflict. There is hardly much reference to Nasrallah’s speechs, certainly little of the nuanced passages in his many explanations/defences, whereas unnamed sources from the party who tell bad things about the party to US journalists is block quoted! And this of course leaves out almost ALL of the Arabic media/discussion/sourcing etc. How does this form of analysis pass for an ISW white paper? (And this of course also leaves our the larger debate of to what degree the western journalist coverage of the syrian conflict has been productive or problematic… or both and at what points. She, for example, references a poor Dexter Filkins piece without any reference to its many problems, as discussed on this blog last year here)? I will leave that issue aside, but the gap in her data set and the thin methodology is simply jarring – how can we trust her analysis and her claim to be divining the “real” thinking of Hizbullah, when she clearly did NO interviews, no field work and reads almost exclusively among sources hostile to the party?

–How can one know your enemy or your subject without listening to him and without reading him?

— On the substance of her claim, this stands as a major blindspot for the report. By leading with the hackneyed thesis that its all about the lines of attachment/supply etc to Syria and Iran, she misses the main event, the main event certainly from Hizbullah’s public perspective I would like to argue (which would need to be raised and critiqued as such in any serious analysis): lines of attachment and “footholds” are important, sure, but the fall of Assad in a militarized conflict is more important vis-a-vis the structural dynamics of the existential conflict with Israel as well as the structural dynamics of the existential conflict with Takfirism – and how this relates to the regional and global balance of power. Sullivan, like so many before her, gets caught up on an important but subsidiary issue (after all, we know and hizbullah has openly discussed how it can and does modify itself to fractured situations, especially geographic ones which are far easier to overcome than military and ideological ones. Why is there NO discussion of what some of us believe in Lebanon: that hizbullah has countered the supply line threat by developing along the Iranian lines and having its own war production facilities? Zero discussion of this issue follows). All in all, she spends little time even later on actually analyzing what is more important here (and when she does, it is unsatisfactory as I will show).

— She is also flat wrong when she writes: “Since 2006, Hezbollah fighters have trained in Lebanon and Iran in tactics of both offensive and defensive urban warfare.” This has likely been going on well before 2006. And she is wrong when she says: “Hezbollah fighters offer capabilities that complement the Assad regime, including light infantry, reconnaissance, and sniper fire.” No they have offered capabilities that apparently in some areas go far beyond the regimes – something she then touches on at the end.

— She concludes the intro by saying “Syria’s importance to hezbollah cannot be understated.” But this is exactly what she does by the order and emphasis of her argument.

3) Ok the sources are dubious BUT we can still know what is going on!

She writes: “Although Hezbollah has retained a high degree of secrecy about the size, organization, and activities of its fighters in syria it is still possible to assess the group’s involvement in syria from open-source accounts of hezbollah’s presence.”

— Sorry that is simply NOT good enough. I have told dozens of researchers and our students over the years in Beirut – and journalists – stay away from trying to purport to know and explain the military/secret side of Hizbullah. You will fail and you will help promulgate bad policies. If Israel has apparently had such a bad go of it over the years, habibi, dont go down that road of deception, speculation and false flag media fixers. Focus on what we can know, what is said publicly, the discourse itself, and you will find there is SO MUCH to discover and understand and analyze which can help inform better policy. Sullivan does not do this. She tries at points to let the reader know, ok, there is not real data, we cant be sure. BUT BUT like so many of the journalistic accounts, she quickly follows this up with a non-sequitor: We can still kind of know, and its good enough for an authoritative white paper and good enough to inform policy. This is how mistakes are made, mistakes we have seen first hand in the middle east for far far too long.

She writes again: “…not only did hezbollah operate in much larger, more concentrated numbers than ever before, but the group also controlled the planning and conduct of the operation.”

— The footnotes are almost all based on western newspaper reports. For those of us who have lived this for a decade, its not satisfactory to base a semi-academic analysis almost solely on these references. Given the problematics of the coverage over the last three years, it does not do. Maybe she is correct? But maybe she is not. Where does that lead the reader, who at the very least should be reminded at every step by the author how thin her sourcing is (of course, ideally she should discard this approach altogether and focus on what we do know with high confidence…).

— My favorite example where Sullivan does the old bait and switch is here: “as with hezbollah’s activities elsewhere in syria, detailed information about hezbollah’s role in these operations is lacking. videos posted on youtube by both pro and anti- regime sources claim to show hezbollah and iraqi militant forces fighting in eastern and southern Damascus during this time, however many are difficult to verify or analyze. Still, a picture of how these operations unfolded does emerge from accounts of where and when regime military and paramilitary forces fought alongside Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi‘a militants in Damascus.

— What? How any editor let this non-sequitor pass is beyond me.

4) Overestimating the “Sunni” factor

She writes:  “nasrallah continues to portray hezbollah’s involvement in syria as a confrontation with israel, the West, and sunni extremists..Third, the group also seeks to prevent the emergence of a Sunni-dominated regime in syria should assad fall.”

— This is misleading. Although she briskly notes the concern about Takfiris, she makes it a wholly sectarian concern by Hizbullah. This of course both mis-understands Hizbullah’s approach to the sectarian issue (the problem is far less about a “sunni” regime per se and much more about the structural orientation of any new regime), and lessens the immense concern that hizbullah has vis-a-vis takfiris who are NOT even described by Nasrallah as “sunnis” (he stresses they are not sunnis in fact). Sullivan therefore goes down the same path as some others who amplify the sectarianism of Hizbullah and then do little work in unpacking the ways in which Hizbullah struggles (sometimes unsuccessfully) to minimize this aspect. This is a dialectical process which Sullivan describes to the reader as essentially a monolithic one. This of course leads to poor predictive analyses and missed opportunities for hammering out better policy approaches to an actor like hizbullah.

5) Hizbullah as sectarian defender of Shia in Syria – how can we know this if we only rely on an english language mash-up?

She writes: “As the conflict has taken a more sectarian turn, Hezbollah has also portrayed itself as the defender of the Shi‘a in syria.”

— This is very misleading. First, she cites literally NO arabic sources. She could have tried to even look at Al-Manar’s english site. But there is nothing. How can we trust her if she did not even try to read much of (apparently) the Hizbullah sources themselves? How does she know what she just asserted with NO hesitation? The larger point that she misses – and it is a key point in helping to shape a good understanding and better policy – is that the Shia angle has in fact been greatly DOWNPLAYED by Nasrallah. This sect-mobilizing aspect is there of course, especially in regards to Sayyida Zeinab shrine protection. But even here, it is critical to understanding Hizbullah’s discourse to recognize how even this most religious of symbols for shia is couched in multisectarian terms – i.e. shiite villages on the border, protection of minority shrines is clothed in the language of the protection of minorities and even anti sectarianism! The malleability of this assertion is fascinating and productive to debate and ponder; Sullivan gives us NO discussion however and a grossly imprecise assertion based on another mash-up.

6)Hizbullah’s supposedly consistent on support for Syrian Regime

She writes: “hezbollah’s rhetorical support for Syrian regime has remained constant throughout the conflict.”

— Another problem with a mash-up analysis: The analyst sees consistency oftentimes because journalists – who the mash-up analyst exclusively relies on – of course dont like to challenge their own previous narratives, predictions etc. Overtime, we can see early reporting problems, assertions, facts based on “sources” glossed over, subtly modified/corrected and otherwise elided. What we get from this kind of methodology is a wholly unnuanced statement like the above: nothing has changed. Well this also leads to lazy analysis and bad policy recs. I wrote about but ONE subtle shift in 2011 here:

7) More guessing games: Why didn’t Hizbullah get involved earlier?

She writes: “..however, this was likely a result of the organization’s reluctance to get drawn into the fighting in Syria for fear of its consequences for detrimental effects that such involvement might have for lebanon’s stability and for hezbollah’s standing. Moreover, the uprising had not yet metastasized to the scale and scope it has now reached at the beginning.”

— Leave aside the critique of poor mash-up sourcing, Sullivan misses a major, interesting point for reflection and debate: In my discussion with Hizbullah officials as well as a number of their key interlocutors in the country, I have been consistently struck by how during the first 6-18 months really, hizbullah thinkers and actors got the Syria crisis so wrong. This, I believe, has been a major point (like the post 2006 war period) of internal debate and self-criticism. They really misjudged the regime, its opponents and the developing facts on the ground in what quickly became a militarized conflict. A headline point here: Nasrallah clearly believed his own earlier pronouncements of the Resistance Axis states gaining MORE internal coherency in the run up to 2011. He did NOT see the deep cancer infecting Iran and Syria and Hamas…. and to a lesser degree Hizbullah itself. These signs were always already apparent of course (I wrote about this issue here But they were, in my opinion, not well read and caused a major error of analysis on the part of Hizbullah that cost it between 2012-2014. In any case, Sullivan is unaware of this key part of the effort to understand her subject matter – she is not able to account for errors in Hizbullah’s approach and relies instead on an obvious marker: they were restrained because the situation had not “metastasized.”

8) Not aware of Arabic reporting on key issues such as when Hizbullah was (pretty hilariously) accused of massive involvement in Syria

She writes confiedntly: “accusations of hezbollah’s activities in syria on behalf of the regime surfaced in the fall of 2011.”

— This is simply not true – and it is critical for good analysis and recs to get this one right! In fact, within the first 6-8 weeks, there were  stories in the arabic media which we translated at, where hizbullah was accused of already sending THOUSANDS of fighters and torturers to the field in Syria. To miss this means Sullivan can provide only a thinner account than she already does concerning the info ops aspect of this conflict and its relationship to Hizbullah. Plus she only refers to the english language sites of two joke urls – yaliban and al-arabiyya. This passes for scholarly referencing?

9) The sourcing is bad, true, but…. really its fine…We can and will divine!

She writes: “It is difficult to verify the validity of these claims. Many of these stories appear in anti-regime media outlets or are based on single-source reporting from opposition sources. still, rumors of hezbollah’s involvement did elicit a response from Hassan Nasrallah, who called it “absolutely untrue” that Hezbollah had sent fighters to Syria.

— So because Nasrallah rejected the claims…. what does that do for the assertion? The deceptiveness in this tactic can be routine in journalism (and should be rejected) when Cnn and NYT and others say something like: it was impossible to verify BUT…. it looked like Aleppo…. it looked like Hizbullah tatoos etc etc. For an institute piece though, it’s really incredible that this material gets into a report.

— And then this: “hezbollah has retained a high degree of secrecy about the size, organization, and activities of its fighters in Syria. Still, it is possible to assess the group’s involvement in syria from the open source accounts of hezbollah’s presence referenced in the narrative above.”

— How does this follow? A mashup from opposing english language sources is fine? Really?

— Sullivan then attempts with footnote #168 to inject a “lebanese” authoritative voice to her narrative by referencing… NOW LEBANON. I love Hanin, Eli everyone there. But the attempt to somehow suggest to the unknowing reader that an indigenous voice is proving that a Hezbollah fighter is divulging battelfield secrets TO ONE OF THE MOST ANTI-HIZBULLAH outlets.. is not serious scholarship. We dont even get a small reference to the stance of now lebanon.

10) Yet another breeze-over: Failure to unpack the content of Nasrallah’s justifications

She writes: “yet, he did acknowledge indirectly that Hezbollah members were fighting in Syria, but that they were there of their own accord to defend lebanese Shi‘a living in villages near the border.”

— Well that’s it. The meat of how nasrallah justified the early intervention is just stated matter of factly. Whereas we were given lots of poorly sourced conjecture before, there is little discussion of this key assertion by Nasrallah. How did this play with different constituencies? What is the validity of the claim? What might this say about the counter claims? Zero discussion.

11) Iran orders Hizbullah into Syria, obviously

She writes: “Unconfirmed reports on the meetings allege that Khamanei pressed nasrallah for a greater hezbollah commitment to syria.42 While the exact nature of the talks is now known [this is a very funny typo! She presumably means NOT KNOWN….], within days of nasrallah’s return to beirut, the hezbollah leader gave a speech on april 30, 2013 in which he acknowledged Hezbollah’s efforts in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime for the first time. “Hezbollah is giving a hand in Syria,””

— This elides the whole, critical discussion of to what extent Iran “pressured” Hizbullah – against its will?? – further into Syria. This is a large debate and needs a serious discussion – not relying on back of the envelope reasoning (after the meetup, hizbullah did it, so logically they were ordered, which is confirmed by unconfirmed reports). Sullivan provides none of this. She is therefore not able to get into a fruitful discussion about the extent to which Hizbullah’s views of syria and Hizbullah/even Lebanese interests only (the latter as judged by Hizbullah) were convergent.. and what that means…. and how the dynamics of the iran-hizbullah relationship have evidently changed over time and especially in the last few years. If she so loves thinly sourced guesswork, why not bring up the widespread view on the web that the photo of the two – nas and khamene’i – was unprecedented in its equalizing imagery? No discussion, and an opportunity for enlightenment lost again.

12) Sectarian sloppiness one more time

She writes: “…he also cast the conflict in an increasingly sectarian light, as a fight against the takfiri (or sunni extremist) threat. this portrayal was an effort to garner support from Hezbollah’s Shi‘a followers in Lebanon, many of whom were skeptical of involvement in syria for fear it would destabilize lebanon and be a departure from the group’s mission of islamic resistance against israel.

— No, takfiri does not = sunni in nasrallah’s discourse. In fact quite the opposite (from a pure discourse analysis and not a truth-finding effort). Indeed, sullivan again misses the key multi-sectarian appeal that Nasrallah is structuring, and a discussion of the effectiveness of this appraoch. His several speechs on the effort have specifically sought to attract christians, minorities AND sunnis to his arguments. Sullivan crudely boils it down to a point where the analysis again suffers.

12) Bad sourcing becomes a throw away line in the service of rescuing it for continued use in the analysis.

She writes: “information about hezbollah’s activities in syria in the summer and fall of 2013 comes from more fragmented sources. First, residents in embattled areas or pro-opposition monitoring groups often report on areas where regime forces are operating with backing from hezbollah. these accounts often lack detail and have inherent problems on account of their sourcing, but can be useful when paired with other sources. information about the locations of hezbollah activity also comes from the announcements of and funerals for Hezbollah fighters killed in syria. these announcements are often publicized in the local lebanese press and on social media, and they sometimes indicate the location of the fighter’s death or level of seniority within the Lebanese militant wing. Finally, some Hezbollah fighters have spoken to journalists anonymously about their activities in syria. these accounts, while rare, are often most illuminating the organization’s role in syria.

— No discussion about the inherent, well known problem of hizbullah “fighters” commanders or whatever having the hilarious bad habit of saying secret AND damaging stuff about their own organization to western journalists no less! No discussion at least… just a discussion about this pitfall. The – saying they are “rare” lends credence – and illuminating sounds sexy…. even though there are serious questions about using this type of material in any analysis.

— The larger point is how Sullivan occasionally admits to the reader that, yes, her sources are problematic. The key turn – as in so many reporter’s stories – is there is ALWAYS a “but” which immediately undercuts the initial throw-away skepticism. I understand if you got to sell newspapers, but this does not pass the smell test for an institute paper.

13) Hizbullah is pissed off that they got WMD’ed by the Regime

She writes with a high degree of confidence: “… neighborhoods in Eastern Ghouta as well as several contested areas in southwest Damascus near muadhamiyah. hezbollah militants were not warned of the assault ahead of time and some fighters fell ill because they were not wearing gas masks, though there do not appear to have been any casualties.113 in a call intercepted by German intelligence following the attack, a hezbollah commander chided a contact at the iranian embassy in beirut over the assad regime’s use of chemical weapons.114 still, hezbollah maintained its support for the syrian regime as pressure mounted for an international response to the chemical attacks.”

— No discussion of even the latest reporting and controversies over the key issue of any rebel involvement in chemical attacks in Syria. Zero. The famous german phone intercept is all the proof we need apparently of this major issue.

14) Only stupid+poor shiites are believing nasrallah

She writes confidently: “More affluent and educated residents of beirut have been more skeptical of hezbollah’s involvement in syria.17”

— This does not need much – what is the source? A NYT blog post by sarah birke…. Ok done! Point proved.


Written by nickbiddlenoe

May 4, 2014 at 1:32 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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