Out on a limb
The question is no longer whether or not Hizbullah has been drawn into the Syrian quagmire; it is about the nature and degree of such involvement, writes Omayma Abdel-Latif
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Lebanon's Hizbullah members carry the coffin of their comrade during his funeral in Ansar village near Baalback city
Is Hizbullah sending fighters to back the Syrian president's regime? That is the burning question. It was nearly two months since the eruption of the popular uprising in Syria in March 2011, when Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah decided to set the record straight regarding the Islamic resistance movement's position vis-³-vis the unfolding protests against the rule of President Bashar Al-Assad. In a speech commemorating 11 years on the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon in May 2011, Nasrallah explained Hizbullah's stand on any popular uprising in the Arab world can be defined by two key factors: the stand of the regime on the Arab-Israel conflict, and the regime's readiness to implement reforms. Al-Assad regime fit the criteria.
Hizbullah came under heavy criticism for taking the regime's side in the conflict which erupted in March 2011 as a spontaneous popular uprising. Claims that the resistance movement has been sending off fighters to assist President Al-Assad in muting the popular uprising have made the rounds during the past 18 months. There has been no serious evidence to substantiate such claims which first appeared in the Saudi-financed Al-Arabiya news channel during the early days of the uprising. Hizbullah was quick to deny the charge. In the same speech (May 2012) Nasrallah denied categorically the existence of any Hizbullah fighters in Syria. He insisted that "intervening militarily in any Arab country was not on Hizbullah's agenda nor was its responsibility."
The speculation about a Hizbullah military presence in Syria, did not die down. The story of Hizbullah fighters kept resurfacing in the months that followed raising questions more than it offered answers. When the news of the death of a senior Hizbullah figure broke out on 2 October, both Saudi-financed and Western media claimed that Ali Nasif, a senior military commander, was killed with other Hizbullah fighters in clashes with the Free Syrian Army in the border town of Al-Qusair. On 9 October Hizbullah held a funeral for another of its fighters in the town of Ansar, Baalback.
A Washington Post story pointed out how Hizbullah fighters were becoming more involved in the Syria conflict. The reporter said that his source was "a Lebanese official" who belongs to the 14 March coalition, Hizbullah's political rival. Another story was published by the Daily Telegraph on 3 October which put the number of Hizbullah fighters backing the Al-Assad regime at 1,500 fighters.
The credibility of such claims is questioned since the only reference cited was a quote from a Lebanese official who asked not to be identified. A BBC report referred to "the quiet burials" of Hizbullah men and was lacking any information about the circumstances under which they died as evidence. What added fuel to such speculations, however, is the ambiguity with which Hizbullah handled the issue of the death of its fighters. Following Nasif's death, A Hizbullah statement said that he died while performing Jihadi duty, a metaphor often used by the resistance movement when its men are killed not in combat but in training sessions. On 9 October, Hizbullah held a funeral for one of its fighters called Hussein Abdel-Ghani Al-Nimr in Ansar, Baalback. Speaking in the event, Sheikh Mohamed Yazbak said that he was a martyr of defending the Ummah and in a battle in which he was defending the dignity of Islam and Muslims.
Such media reports have been backed by diplomatic efforts to further emphasise Hizbullah involvement in the Syrian crisis. The US Treasury Department announced that it was imposing new financial sanctions on Hizbullah for what it claimed was the movement's support for the Syrian government. The decision falls into a law issued in 2011 which targets the Syrian government and its backers. The statement claimed that "Hizbullah has provided advice and logistical support for the Syrian regime in its relentless fight against the opposition." It further added that Nasrallah was supervising efforts In helping the Syrian regime to violently suppress civilians and that Hizbullah trained Syrian government personnel.
From day one of the Syrian uprising, Hizbullah made no secret of its backing of the Syrian regime in its battle. The Islamic resistance viewed the events as part of a larger scheme targeting the resistance axis of which Hizbullah was a member. In a speech in July 2012 commemorating six years of the Israeli war on Lebanon in 2006, Nasrallah revealed for the first time that "the rockets which hit Haifa during the war were the product of the Syrian military industry." This line could sum up some of the motives behind the party's standing on the Syrian crisis. Syria has been the main supplier of arms and has been often times a passageway for Hizbullah fighters who received training in Tehran.
Hizbullah's rivals and opponents in Lebanon tend to explain Hizbullah's involvement in the Syrian conflict through a sectarian lens but some beg to differ. Asad Abu Khalil, a US-based academic and columnist in the Lebanese Al-Akhbar newspaper referred to numerous attempts by the Saudi-financed media and political elite in Lebanon to draw Hizbullah into the Syrian quagmire. The kidnapping of the 11 Shia pilgrims in May 2012 was one such case. "These were elderly men who had no connection whatsoever to Hizbullah and were presented as Hizbullah fighters," Abu Khalil wrote in an article assessing Hizbullah position on the Syrian crisis. Hassan Salim Al-Mikdad was another Lebanese kidnapped by the Free Syrian Army in Damascus in August 2012. Claims were also made of his ties to the resistance movement which Al-Mikdad family denied categorically. Abu-Khalil, nonetheless, acknowledges that Hizbullah's standing in the Arab world has been weakened by its position vis-³-vis the Syrian crisis. Two key factors defined Hizbullah's stand, according to Abu Khalil: first its need for the arms passegeway, and secondly, Hizbullah harbours deep concerns over the Syrian opposition's stand on the issue of resistance. The Islamist resistance did not receive assurances from any opposition faction on their stand regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict and whether or not any new regime in Damascus will open up to Israel. "Hizbullah is preoccupied with what future awaits the resistance if Al-Assad regime falls," wrote Abu Khalil.
Contrary to assumptions which suggest that Hizbullah will be finished off once Al-Assad regime falls, Abu Khalil believes that the resistance movement is capable of surviving a regime change in Damascus. The collapse of the Syrian regime, explained Abu Khalil, may remove restrictions and prohibitions from the activities of Hizbullah and may increase its freedom of manoeuvrability. For those who believe that the regime change in Syria is likely to deprive Hizbullah of its lifeline of armament, Abu Khalil proves them wrong. The fall, says Abu Khalil, will result in geographic fragmentation and political decentralisation in Syria that won't completely cut off Hizbullah's links to parts of Syria. "Hizbullah will survive without the Syrian regime, but it will be a different organisation. And that won't be to the liking of Israel and its friends in the region."