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Why Hezbollah has openly joined the Syrian fight

The Lebanese Shiite militant organization once denied its involvement in Syria, but is now holding lavish public funerals for its fighters killed in action. 

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Wounded Hezbollah fighters cheer during a televised address from their leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah on June 14.

Bilal Hussein/AP

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The face of Abbas Farhat, a combatant with the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah killed recently in Syria, looms down from a banner outside his home in this winding hill village.

He is one of two Hezbollah men from the village to die during fierce fighting last month in the strategic Syrian town of Qusayr, which had been in rebel hands for a year before it was overrun on June 5 after a 17-day Hezbollah-led assault.

A male relative, who asked for anonymity because Hezbollah had instructed the family not to speak to reporters, admits that he and his other kin have been inspired by Abbas’ sacrifice.

“I want to talk about Abbas. We are very proud of him,” he says. “I would go and fight in Syria tomorrow if I could.”

Such comments echo across Shiite-populated areas of Lebanon today, even as dozens of dead Hezbollah men are brought back from the battlefields of Syria for lavish funerals in their towns and villages.

The continued support is the result of Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah’s successful efforts to persuade Hezbollah’s core constituency to embrace the party's radical and potentially dangerous new path of intervention in the Syrian civil war.

“The care and time [Sheikh] Nasrallah invested in crafting and marketing this narrative is indicative of Hezbollah’s assessment that their base needs convincing about the party’s involvement in Syria,” says Randa Slim, a scholar with the Middle East Institute in Washington who writes regularly on Hezbollah affairs.

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Growing openness

Hezbollah’s decision to fully participate in Syria’s bloody two-year war on behalf of the regime of Bashar al-Assad is a dramatic development for an organization that has always been defined as a champion of anti-Israel resistance.

Yet today, Hezbollah finds itself fighting fellow Arab Muslims, albeit Sunnis, who make up the bulk of the Syrian armed opposition. Hezbollah and its patron, Iran, stand to be weakened if their ally, the Assad regime, falls and is replaced by a Sunni-dominated administration that moves closer to the West and Arab Gulf states.

Rumors of Hezbollah involvement in Syria began circulating soon after the uprising broke out in March 2011, but the early claims were generally unconvincing and lacked evidence. In October 2011, Sheikh Nasrallah said in a television interview that accusations that Hezbollah had deployed fighters into Syria were “absolutely untrue.”

“There are no thousands or a thousand or even half a soldier [in Syria],” he said.

However, by early 2012, it was becoming public knowledge within Lebanese Shiite circles that some Hezbollah fighters were being sent into Syria. That summer there were a flurry of reports in the Lebanese media of funerals for slain Hezbollah fighters. Hezbollah released statements saying that they had died “while performing their jihadi duty,” a possible allusion to combat-related deaths.

Unusually, there was some quietly muttered dissent in Shiite circles, including within Hezbollah’s support base, about the morality of dispatching fighters to help the Assad regime’s brutal repression of the opposition.

On Oct. 3, 2012, the rebel Free Syrian Army announced that it had killed Ali Nassif, a veteran Hezbollah commander, near Qusayr in Syria. Four days later, Nasrallah called continuing allegations that Hezbollah was fighting in Syria a “lie.” However, he conceded that Nassif and some other Hezbollah members were voluntarily fighting to defend their homes against rebel attacks in several Shiite-populated villages just inside Syria.

By December 2012, videos allegedly portraying Hezbollah fighters in southern Damascus, home to a shrine revered by Shiites, had emerged.

Meanwhile, any sympathy toward the Syrian opposition was beginning to fade amid increasing evidence of atrocities committed by the armed opposition and the escalation of anti-Shiite rhetoric from groups like the Al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra. Meanwhile, Hezbollah leaders emphasized the threat posed to Lebanon’s stability by “Takfiri” groups in Syria, a reference to extremist Sunnis who view as apostates anyone that does not share their austere interpretation of Islam.

In April, fighting flared near Qusayr as the Assad regime and Hezbollah fighters launched a campaign to drive rebels from nearby villages before staging an assault on the town. At the end of the month, Nasrallah came closer to admitting Hezbollah was in Syria, saying he was especially proud of the “martyrs who fell in the past few weeks" and warned that the Assad regime had “real friends” who would not allow Syria to fall into the hands of “American or Israel or Takfiri groups.”

On May 19, Hezbollah fighters spearheaded an attack on the rebel-held town of Qusayr. Six days later, Nasrallah finally admitted what by now was common knowledge that Hezbollah was operating in Syria. He said that “by taking this position, we believe we are defending Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria.”

Fractures

While Lebanon’s Shiites have generally accepted Hezbollah’s rationale for intervening in Syria, reactions have ranged from dismay to fury elsewhere in Lebanon and the region. Brief clashes have broken out in several areas of Lebanon between Shiite and Sunni gunmen. Michel Suleiman, the Lebanese president, has urged Hezbollah to withdraw its forces from Syria.

The Lebanese government, presently operating in a limited caretaker capacity, follows a policy of neutrality toward the conflict in Syria, but lacks the heft to force the powerful Hezbollah to retreat.

Still, not all Shiites back Hezbollah’s intervention. A minority of Shiites openly oppose Hezbollah’s dominance of the community. One of them, Hashem Salman, a 27-year-old company manager from Adloun in south Lebanon, was among a group of anti-Hezbollah Shiites who attempted to hold a demonstration outside the Iranian embassy in Beirut two weeks ago. The demonstrators were attacked by suspected Hezbollah men wielding batons. Salman was shot three times in the scuffles and bled to death on the road.

“Hashem died for freedom,” says his brother Hassan during a condolence session at the family home in Adloun. “They [Hezbollah] don’t fear weapons in the hands of their opponents, they fear open minds and freedom.”

Hezbollah’s popularity within the Shiite community is unlikely to be seriously challenged in the foreseeable future. But loyalists may balk at a lengthy intervention in Syria, especially if the casualty toll remains high, anti-Shiite sentiment continues to flare across the region, and former supporters turn away from the party.

Three weeks ago, Sheikh Youssef Qaradawi, an influential Sunni cleric who once defended Hezbollah, called for jihad against the party which he dubbed the “Party of Satan.” Hezbollah means the Party of God in Arabic.

There could be economic considerations too. Arab Gulf states have said they will expel Hezbollah members living in their countries. 

Hezbollah has given no indication that it intends to pull out of Syria soon. Since Qusayr fell on June 5, Hezbollah fighters reportedly have been engaged in battles around Damascus and are being sent to Aleppo ahead of an anticipated offensive against rebel forces in the northern city.

“I do not think there is a consensus inside Hezbollah’s constituency around a protracted never-ending involvement in Syria,” says Slim, the Hezbollah scholar. “The higher the death toll, especially as the party moves toward northern Syria, will raise concerns about the costs of this involvement.”


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