Thursday, June 13, 2013

Lebanon Openly Enters Fighting In Syria

by E. B. Picali and H. Varulkar


In a speech given on May 25, 2013, on the occasion of the 13th anniversary of the withdrawal of the Israeli military from South Lebanon, Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah openly admitted what was already known, namely that his organization is actively fighting in Syria alongside the Assad regime. He described the fighting in Syria as a war declared by the Islamists, the U.S., and Israel against the resistance axis, which is fighting for its life, and said that if Syria falls, Lebanon and Palestine will fall too, and therefore Hizbullah has no choice but to fight.

Lebanese newspapers close to Hizbullah and Syria – Al-Akhbar and Al-Safir – mobilized to explain and justify its involvement in the fighting in Syria. Editorials published in these papers on May 27 explained that the Syrian conflict erases the borders between Syria and Lebanon and stressed that it is a Lebanese conflict as much as it is a Syrian one. Nasrallah's Lebanese rivals, on the other hand, directed harsh criticism at him for his statement, accusing him of undermining Lebanon's sovereignty and of changing the goals of his resistance organization. Nasrallah was also criticized in the Arab press, which warned that Hizbullah could drag the entire Middle East into a Sunni-Shi'ite war.[1]

Nasrallah's statements brought the Sunni-Shi'ite tension in Lebanon to a new high. This was reflected by Salafi officials in Lebanon issuing new fatwas calling for jihad in Syria, and also by Sunni elements who were previously allied with Hizbullah joining the camp of its opponents. It should be mentioned that Nasrallah's statements exacerbated Sunni-Shi'ite tensions not only in Lebanon but in the Arab world as a whole. Prominent Sunni sheikhs, chief among them International Union of Muslim Scholars head Sheikh Yousuf Al-Qaradhawi, as well as various jihadi organizations, called upon Sunnis throughout the world to mobilize for jihad against the Shi'ites and 'Alawites and even carry out attacks on Hizbullah targets inside Lebanon.[2]

These developments draw Lebanon openly and powerfully into the Syrian struggle. It should be mentioned that Lebanon has been involved in this struggle since its outbreak, with Hizbullah supporting the Syrian regime and the March 14 Forces and others supporting the rebels.[3] But now, following Nasrallah's speech and the storm of criticism it evoked, it seems that Lebanon is openly becoming an active part of this struggle. Moreover, it seems that the mobilization of the Shi'ite Hizbullah and Iran in favor of the 'Alawite regime in Syria, which many Sunnis consider to be Shi'ite, and the counter-mobilization of Islamist elements in favor of the Syrian rebels, transform Syria, and possibly Lebanon in the near future as well, into an arena of sectarian conflict between Sunnis on the one hand, and Shi'ites and 'Alawites on the other. This may be the reason that motivated the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to issue a travel warning for Lebanon and to advise Gulf citizens staying in Lebanon to leave this country.[4]

The fighting in Syria has also transformed the map of political loyalties within Lebanon. Sunni elements in the country, both Palestinian and Lebanese, have begun distancing themselves from the Shi'ite Hizbullah and growing closer to other Sunni elements, thus favoring their sectarian affiliation over their political and ideological affiliation.    

This report will review Hizbullah's motives for its military involvement in Syria, the criticism and responses in Lebanon against this policy, and the escalation of Sunni-Shi'ite tension in Lebanon following Nasrallah's statements.

Nasrallah: Our Fighting In Syria – Defense Of The Resistance Axis

Until Nasrallah's May 25 speech, Hizbullah had avoided explicitly admitting its military involvement in Syria, probably out of awareness that such an admission would trigger harsh criticism – both inside Lebanon, where Hizbullah repeatedly states that its weapons are only trained on Israel, and outside Lebanon, from Arab countries and Islamist and jihadi organizations. In addition, Hizbullah was aware that this admission could spark a Sunni-Shi'ite conflict in Lebanon itself, and even in the entire region. Therefore, until now, Nasrallah acknowledged Hizbullah's military involvement in Syria only indirectly and only with regards to specific areas, and justified this by evoking the need to protect Lebanese Shi'ites who live in Syrian villages and towns near Lebanon's eastern border (the Beqaa Valley) from the Syrian rebels. Another explanation he gave was the need to protect the Shi'ite holy sites in Syria – such as the tomb of Saida Zainab, the granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad, in Damascus – from Islamists who might desecrate them. However, the exposure of Hizbullah's involvement in the fighting in Al-Qusayr, which has no Lebanese residents and no Shi'ite holy sites, rendered this explanation untenable. Moreover, the high number of Hizbullah casualties in Al-Qusayr, and the growing political and public criticism leveled at Hizbullah in Lebanon for its actions in Syria, including by its own followers, obliged Nasrallah to respond and justify his organization's policy. Hence, he was finally pushed to admit his unconditional military support for the Syrian regime.

In his speech, Nasrallah claimed that the events in Syria are not an expression of a popular rebellion against the regime, but rather a war declared by the Islamists, the U.S., and Israel against the resistance axis, which is fighting for its survival, and that if Syria falls, Lebanon, the resistance, and Palestine will fall too. He said: "If the takfiri[5] stream [meaning the Islamists] takes over [Syria], then the future of that country, of Lebanon, and of the region will be grim and dark. Syria is no longer the arena for a popular rebellion against a political regime, but rather an arena for imposing a political plan led by the U.S., the West, and their lackeys in the region. We all know that the American plan in the region is a purely Israeli plan... Syria is the backbone and mainstay of the resistance, and the resistance cannot stand by with its hands tied when its backbone is exposed and its mainstay is broken. Clearly, we are not fools. A fool is one who watches from the side without acting as death, siege and conspiracy advance towards him. The wise man acts with full responsibility... If Syria falls to the Americans, Israelis, takfiris [Islamists] and the U.S.'s lackeys in the region... the future of the resistance is to be besieged, and Israel will enter Lebanon to impose its conditions upon it... If Syria falls, then Palestine will be lost, the resistance in Palestine will be lost, and Gaza, the West Bank, and Jerusalem will be lost. If Syria falls to the U.S., Israel, and the takfiris, then the peoples and countries of the region will face a harsh, evil and dark era." Addressing claims that Hizbullah's weapons harm Lebanon's sovereignty, Nasrallah said that Lebanon is a weak country that cannot withstand the enemies of the resistance.[6]


Nasrallah's deputy, Na'im Qassem, also mentioned Lebanon's weakness as justification for the organization's military involvement in Syria: "Hizbullah girded itself in order to fulfill the duty of defending the [Shi'ite] Lebanese in regions around [Al-Qusayr], after the government showed its helplessness."[7]

It seems that Nasrallah's admission embarrassed the Syrian regime, which until then had denied the opposition's claims that Hizbullah was fighting alongside it, and forced it to admit this as well, although more feebly. In an interview with Hizbullah's Al-Mannar TV on May 30, 2013, Bashar Al-Assad said that "groups of Hizbullah fighters are deployed in border regions with Lebanon," but qualified this by saying that "the Syrian army is the one fighting and waging battles against the armed groups."[8] This claim may have been meant to cover up the fact that the Syrian army can no longer withstand the rebels' onslaught on its own, and therefore requires Hizbullah's full-scope assistance.

Pro-Syrian Lebanese Papers Explain Hizbullah's Involvement In Syria

Following Nasrallah's speech, the Pro-Syrian and pro-Hizbullah Lebanese papers Al-Akhbar and Al-Safir mobilized to justify and clarify Nasrallah's motives for his active involvement in Syria.

A. Fear Of Losing Hizbullah's Weapons Supply Route 

Articles in these papers mentioned the strategic importance of Syria for the survival of Hizbullah and the pro-Iranian axis, especially the importance of the region stretching from the Syrian capital of Damascus through Al-Qusayr to Homs. This region is vital for Hizbullah since it serves as the organization's strategic depth and its main land route for weapons supplies coming from Syria. Wafiq Qanso, a columnist for Al-Akhbar, wrote: "Nasrallah has taken the gloves off: the fighting in Syria is part of the plan to strengthen the resistance and defend its strategic depth... The goal [of the Syrian rebels trying to control] this area – which stretches from the Rif Dimashq [governorate] via Al-Qusayr and Talkalach to Arsal and Tripoli [in Lebanon] – is, as Nasrallah said, 'to expose the resistance's back,' by severing the northern Beqaa region from the Syrian depth. This would sever the weapons supply lines from Syria."[9]


B. Fear Of Extremist Islamists

The dailies, as well as Nasrallah himself, also justified Hizbullah's involvement by stressing the participation of Salafi and Islamist elements, and especially non-Syrian jihadis, in the Syrian uprising – while totally ignoring other elements in the local fighting opposition. This argument is meant to challenge the Syrian uprising's legitimacy and portray it as an attempt to transform the Middle East into a Salafi-Islamic caliphate, which would harm not only Shi'ites and non-Muslims, but also non-Islamist Sunnis.[10] The articles stated that Hizbullah's fighting in Syria is not for the sake of the Syrian regime alone, but also for the sake of Syria as a whole, as well as Lebanon, since it defends them from the Islamist threat, which must be stopped before it spreads from Syria to Lebanon and beyond. Some articles also emphasized the Lebanese security mechanisms' inability to deal with the Islamist threat.

This position was clearly expressed by Tallal Salman, the owner of the daily Al-Safir, in an editorial that read: "...[The Islamist] fighters [in Syria], with their slogans calling to kill and even destroy those who refuse to take part in the civil war, openly declare in broad daylight that they will fulfill their 'prophecy' by eliminating all those who differ from them in faith and opinion in Syria, and later in Lebanon as well. They have already done this in Iraq, but now they have more money and weapons... [Hizbullah's fighting in Syria] is a campaign of self-defense before [it is a campaign] of support for the Syrian regime. Hizbullah intervened very late, compared to those organizations with fundamentalist slogans who sent and are still sending groups of young men to wage 'jihad' against 'the infidels' in Syria... [Its] campaign is… aimed at preventing the spread [of the Islamists to Lebanon], but it is expected and it is a war that has been forced [upon us], and there is no choice but [to fight] before the arena expands and plunges the entire region into a 'grand civil war' that will destroy everything..."[11]

Similar comments were made by Al-Akhbar columnist Nahid Hattar: "Hizbullah's campaign in Syria... [is aimed at] defending the pluralistic spirit of the [Middle] East from the barbaric attack [by Islamists] to eliminate the other. [This attacks is manifest in] giving non-Wahhabi Sunnis and those who do not support Al-Qaeda a choice between two options: either become a Wahhabi killer for Al-Qaeda or be an infidel and die; eliminating other Muslim sects by slaughtering them; expelling Christians; banning secularism, the left wing, and pan-Arabism; and marginalizing women from all sects."

It seems Hizbullah also fears the increasing power of the Salafi stream and extremist Islamists inside Lebanon, especially in Sidon and Tripoli.[12] Thus, for example, Ibrahim Al-Amin, head of the Al-Akhbar board of directors, warned in an article from May 27, 2013 of attacks by these elements against Hizbullah and resistance strongholds.[13]

Al-Safir, Al-Akhbar: The Conflict In Syria Erases The Border Between Syria And Lebanon

The May 27, 2013 editorials of the Lebanese dailies Al-Safir and Al-Akhbar – which, as mentioned, are associated with Hizbullah and Syria – addressed the character of the ties between Lebanon and Syria and their common fate, stressing that the war for Syria is equally a war for Lebanon.  

Al-Safir owner Tallal Salman stated that the Syrian-Lebanese border stretching from southeastern to northeastern Lebanon does not exist in the consciousness of the Lebanese who live along it, since their ties with Damascus and Homs are stronger than their ties with Beirut. He wrote: "We don't need strategic, military or civil experts to determine that the Al-Qusayr front is as much Lebanese as it is Syrian, and that it is a political-economic-social contact line that lies along the entire Syria-Lebanon border with all its sectarian diversity. Just like Damascus – with its universities, hospitals and affordable pharmacies and medical services – is the 'capital' of the western and central Beqaa [region in Lebanon], Homs is the 'capital' of the northern Beqaa [region], and its residents know Homs almost better than they know Beirut. They go there for trade, send their children to school there, and they have bonds of friendship and marriage with the (original) residents of Homs. The ties between the people of these two adjacent areas... are much wider than people think... [which is why] the war over this area is also a joint [Syrian-Lebanese war]. This is a region in which the 'official border' does not [really] separate the people living on either side of it.'"[14]

Ibrahim Al-Amin, board chairman of Al-Akhbar, also stressed the unity of Syria and the Lebanese resistance, saying that this unity will arise naturally and spontaneously in response to a military confrontation in the region and to the attempts of the U.S., the West and some Arab countries to restore imperialism and schism to the region.

Al-Amin added that, since the onset of the events in Syria, Hizbullah and the Syrian regime have grown closer and have identical goals, and stressed that northern front with Israel has now expanded to the Syrian border and the Golan as well, with Hizbullah's help. He wrote: "We will witness a new level of unity between the Lebanese resistance and Syria, which will have natural complementary [consequences] in Jordan, Palestine, and any area that borders the enemy [Israel]. This means that the possibility of a total conflict [in the region], which will leave no borders between Lebanon and Syria, is alive and well. This is the heart of the matter. The issue here is not just geography or logistics, but also a fundamental turning point in the reality of the Arab east. This is worthy of contemplating, especially by those who still believe that Lebanon can survive disconnected from its surroundings and its natural depth and not be affected by them." According to Al-Amin, "while the Americans, Europeans, and some Arabs manage to reintroduce the idea of imperialism, schism, and war [among the Arabs], a [regional military] conflict automatically opens the door to renewing the dream of a different form of unity, which is worth attempting in practice, and which will lead to different results in every sense of the word... The right of the resistance [to act] against the enemy will be a true opening to a new kind of unity."[15]

A first step in this direction could be seen in a previous Nasrallah speech from May 9, 2013, in which he declared Hizbullah's willingness to assist Syrian resistance against Israel in the Golan and provide it with material support.[16]

Click here to read the full report.

[3] On Hizbullah's military involvement in the fighting in Syria, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 916, Struggle Between Forces Within Lebanon Is Reflected In Their Involvement In Syria, January 3, 2013.
[4] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), June 6, 2013. Later, the GCC also announced the imposition of sanctions on Hizbullah members living in the Gulf and on their bank accounts. Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), June 11, 2013.
[5] Takfir is the act of accusing other Muslims of heresy.
[6], May 27, 2013. The armed Syrian opposition swiftly responded to Nasrallah's admission and threatened to hunt down Hizbullah everywhere. Indeed, two hours after the speech, two Grad missiles were launched towards the Dahiya, Hizbullah's stronghold in Beirut. Missiles were also fired at Lebanese areas considered to be Hizbullah strongholds in northeast Lebanon, Al-Hermel, and Baalbek. Salim Idris, head of the Free Syrian Army, held the Lebanese president responsible for the events in Syria and gave him a 24-hour ultimatum to withdraw Hizbullah from Syrian territory, threatening that his forces would pursue Hizbullah all the way to hell. The military council of the opposition in Aleppo announced that it had ordered its men to attack Hizbullah forces in all the Shi'ite villages and wherever they are in Lebanon, and warned that its missiles could reach even farther than the Dahiya in Beirut. 'Abd Al-Halim Khaddam, former Syrian vice president and currently one of the heads of the Syrian opposition abroad, threatened that "the new regime [that will be established] in Syria will enter Lebanon and take vengeance on Hizbullah.", May 25, 2013;, May 28, 2013.
[7] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), May 25, 2013.
[8], May 30, 2013.
[9] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), May 27, 2013.
[10] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), May 27, 2013. See also 'Imad Marmal's article that states that Nasrallah's war in Syria will defend moderate Sunni Muslims like former Lebanese prime minister Sa'd Al-Hariri from the Islamist threat. Al-Safir (Lebanon), May 28, 2013.
[11] Al-Safir (Lebanon), May 27, 2013.
[12] On the struggle between Lebanese Salafis and Hizbullah, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 966, Fear In Lebanon Over Possible Slide Into Sectarian War, May 9, 2013; MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 861, Decline In Hizbullah's Status In Lebanon, July 25, 2012.
[13] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), May 27, 2013.
[14] Al-Safir (Lebanon), May 27, 2013.
[15] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), May 27, 2013.
[16] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 5307, Assad And His Allies Threaten To Open A Front In Golan Heights, May 21, 2013.

E. B. Picali and H. Varulkar


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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