Behind The Lines: Nasrallah gambles on Assad
Evidence grows of direct Hezbollah involvement in the Syrian civil war.
Funeral of Hezbollah fighter in Sehmor village Photo: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters
This week, fierce clashes took place in Syria’s Homs province, close to the
border with Lebanon, between Free Syrian Army fighters and armed men loyal to
the Lebanese Hezbollah movement. The Lebanese Shi’a group used its positions in
the Bekaa region to fire Katyusha rockets at FSA positions across the
The Hezbollah-affiliated fighters, said by one local resident to
number around 5,000 men, operate ostensibly to protect the Shi’a population.
Some 30,000 Lebanese Shi’a live in 20 villages in the area.
leader Hassan Nasrallah claimed that the gunmen were simply local Shi’a
residents who had decided to take up arms to defend themselves without seeking
the advice or permission of Hezbollah.
There were few takers for this
version of events. The Syrian rebels regard the Shi’a gunmen as simply another
element in the force available to Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. Fahd al-Masri, a
spokesman for the FSA, noted that rebel forces have observed the movement of
large amounts of arms and ammunition across the border from Lebanon to Syria.
The rocket fire from Hezbollah positions in Lebanon renders Nasrallah’s
assertions entirely hollow.
Rather, a growing body of evidence suggests
that the events on the border are only a part of a much more significant
Hezbollah presence among the pro-government forces in Syria.
includes, according to credible reports, an involvement by the movement in
training efforts to turn the Shabiha militia into a more formidable
The Alawi Shabiha irregulars are suspected of many of the most
heinous acts of sectarian bloodletting which have marked the Assad regime’s
attempt to destroy its opponents.
The FSA now claims to be holding 13
Hezbollah prisoners, captured in fighting near the town of Qusayr, close to the
Hezbollah’s actions on behalf of the Assad regime are serving to
deprive the movement of the last vestiges of its claim to constitute a
grass-roots, Lebanese “resistance” force concerned mainly with fighting
Events in Syria have made plain what was never really in doubt:
Hezbollah is a sectarian instrument of Iran which formulates policy and acts in
accordance with the perceived interests of an Iran-led
Domination of Syria enables Tehran to maintain its supply lines
to its proxy on the Mediterranean. It is a vital interest for both the mullahs
and their Lebanese clients.
The Shi’a Islamist movement is therefore
deeply invested in the struggle of Assad and the Iran-led interest to triumph
over its foes.
The resulting hatred of Hezbollah and Iran to be found in
rebel ranks is deep and fierce.
In Idlib province, in the areas from
which the regime army has withdrawn, opposition activists hoard Hezbollah flags.
Many were left behind from the 2006 war, when the Assad regime would deck the
streets with them in solidarity with its ally in Lebanon. The opposition
activists keep the flags in order to burn them during street protests.
fighter of the Sunni Islamist Tawhid Brigade in Aleppo city interviewed recently
by this reporter refused to even pronounce the name of
Instead, he referred to the movement as “Hizb a-Shaytan” (the
party of Satan).
These sentiments, along with the widespread conviction
that Iran and its local allies are the key factor in prolonging the bloodshed in
Syria, are storing up an account which, in the event of their victory in Syria,
the Sunni rebels are likely to seek to settle.
Following the killing of
senior Hezbollah commander Ali Hussein Nasif by the FSA in Homs province last
month, the rebels vowed to take the fight to Hezbollah’s strongholds in south
Whether or not such action is imminent, the decision of where and
when to strike is ultimately a tactical one.
On a strategic level,
Hezbollah is part of Assad’s “killing machine,” as US Ambassador to the United
Nations Susan Rice recently and eloquently expressed it.
Which means that
whatever the tactical details, the FSA and Hezbollah are already in a state of
Lebanon itself has stayed mainly free of direct violence related to
the events in Syria. The exception has been the city of Tripoli, where Sunni
Islamist supporters of the rebellion have clashed with Alawi partisans of the
regime along a number of fault lines. These disturbances, while bloody, have
But in the volatile Bekaa area, where Sunni and Shi’a
populations live in uneasy proximity, each community actively aids its preferred
side in the civil war across the border. Sunni villagers remember well the harsh
conditions imposed upon them by the Syrian military during its long occupation
of the area between 1990 and 2005. Many young men from this area have crossed
the border to fight with the FSA.
Shi’a towns, meanwhile, send operatives
across the same border to fight for the other side. Ali Hussein Nasif, for
example, came from the village of Bodai in the western Bekaa, a place of fervent
Further afield, evidence has emerged of the
involvement of senior politicians from the opposition March 14 coalition in
efforts to supply arms to the rebels.
All of which means that despite the
relative quiet in Lebanon itself, rival Lebanese political forces are deeply
invested in the outcome of the civil war across the border.
March 14 movement, and Lebanese Sunnis in general, clearly see the fall of the
Assad regime as the key to ending the Shi’a ascendancy established by Hezbollah
over the last half-decade.
Hezbollah, meanwhile, is neither willing nor
able to alter its basic nature as a client and proxy of Iran, to whom it owes
its current dominance of Lebanon.
It is therefore embarked on an
all-or-nothing gamble on behalf of its masters. This gamble will end either with
the eventual resurgence of the Assad regime – and with it, a strategic triumph
for the Iranian interest in the Levant – or with the Syrian dictator’s
destruction. The latter outcome may then bring down a fierce Sunni reckoning on
both Hezbollah and the constituency it controls in Lebanon.
its very nature, had no choice but to go down this road. Still, seen from this
angle, the movement’s participation in the sending of a drone southwards over
Israel this month looks like a rather plaintive attempt to change the subject.
Hezbollah evidently sought to recall the days when its main military efforts
were not directed against its fellow Arabs.
But as the Syrian civil war
threatens to burst its banks and erupt into Lebanon, those days look