x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Hizbollah’s advances in Syria expose its frailties in Lebanon

The repercussions of Yabroud will be felt as much in Lebanon as in Syria. Is this what victory looks like? Sharif Nashashibi asks

The fall of Yabroud on Sunday to Hizbollah and Syrian regime forces is a significant setback for rebel fighters. The Syrian city, which had been under opposition control for much of the revolution, was their last stronghold near the Lebanese border.

It was an important supply route to and from Lebanon, and overlooks a cross-country highway from Damascus to the central Syrian city of Homs. As such, the fall of Yabroud leaves nearby rebel-held towns and suburbs of the capital more vulnerable to attacks that are reportedly imminent. It also enables President Bashar Al Assad to secure the land route linking his Mediterranean coastal stronghold with Damascus.

However, the description of this by one of his military spokesmen as “a continuation of the successes made by the Syrian army” is fanciful. This, and a string of previous battlefield gains, would not have been possible without the direct involvement of Hizbollah fighters. Mr Al Assad had been losing ground until his formidable Lebanese ally came to his rescue in 2012. Reports that Hizbollah led the operation against Yabroud come as no surprise.

The fall of the city is yet another stark example of the fact that the regime owes its survival to foreign intervention, the very thing it constantly condemns.

As such, if the capture of Yabroud is to be described as a victory for anyone, it would be for Hizbollah, not the regime it is propping up.

Even then, however, victory is an appropriate description only in a narrow sense. The more Hizbollah advances in Syria, the more unstable its position at home. Attacks against it in Lebanon are increasing in scale and frequency, due directly to its support for Mr Al Assad. As it was attacking Yabroud, rockets were fired from Syria into its territory in Lebanon, killing one person and wounding three.

On the day the city fell, I warned in a TV interview that it would not be long before there was a revenge attack against Hizbollah inside Lebanon. That very evening, two of its members – including a local leader – were killed in a suicide car bomb claimed by the Al Nusra Front in Lebanon and the Liwa Ahrar al-Sunna. Both groups said they were avenging Yabroud. “Prepare for the transfer of the battle of Yabroud into Lebanese territory,” warned the latter.

This “transfer” has been literal, with fighters and civilians from the city reportedly fleeing to parts of Lebanon that are sympathetic to the Syrian revolution. The Lebanese army detected and detonated another car bomb near the scene of the revenge attack.

As well as being increasingly on the defensive in its own country, Hizbollah is “widely unpopular in the region” and domestically because of its support for Mr Al Assad, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center that was published in June last year.

In every Arab country where the poll was conducted (Palestine, Lebanon, Tunisia, Jordan and Egypt), more people viewed the organisation unfavourably than those who had a positive opinion. In Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, outright majorities had a negative view: 59 per cent, 72 per cent and 75 per cent respectively (73 per cent of Turks felt the same way).

That Hizbollah should be so unpopular in its own country, and among Lebanese and Palestinians – over whom the movement has portrayed itself a guardian – should cause it great concern, but it is no surprise.

Hizbollah owed its former popularity to its carefully cultivated and hard-earned reputation as the only Arab fighting force with the will and the ability to check Israeli aggression. It managed to garner cross-sectarian support in a region woefully split along such lines.

However, Hizbollah is now widely viewed not as a defender against Israel, but as a killer of fellow Arabs in support of a dictator whose regime is guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the starvation and killing of Palestinians in Syria’s Yarmouk refugee camp.

Meanwhile, neither of these so-called resisters against Israel are doing any resisting (Mr Al Assad never has). Israeli warplanes violate Lebanon’s sovereignty regularly and with impunity, as they do Syria’s. They are met only with verbal bluster.

Israel’s recent attack against Hizbollah targets has gone unanswered, probably because the organisation is too busy killing Syrians. As a Syrian friend wrote on Facebook: “Remember when the Hizbollah chief would threaten after every Israeli attack that he would retaliate at “a time and place of our own choosing”? Turns out the time is now and the place is Yabroud. Take that, Zionists!”

A movement that had weathered the sectarian storm unleashed by the US invasion of Iraq is now a central contributor to the worsening of that storm. It is now seen simply as a Shia party acting selfishly out of narrow sectarian interests. In fact, its actions are damaging those interests, as well as those of Lebanon and the wider Arab world.

Hizbollah’s apologists claim that its involvement in Syria is to counter takfiri groups. However, the movement’s support for Mr Al Assad has been constant, well before the emergence of jihadists in Syria and attacks against Hizbollah in Lebanon. Its actions have realised a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It is laughable to think that Hizbollah – or the Iranian and Iraqi governments – would not have supported Mr Al Assad without the presence of takfiris in Syria. They were, and continue to be, a flimsy pretext.

Lebanon grows ever-more unstable, polarised and violent, subject to increasing attacks by Mr Al Assad’s warplanes. Meanwhile, Hizbollah’s involvement in Syria is creating divisions within its own ranks and support base, as well as the wider Shiite community, who are paying the price. The repercussions of Yabroud will be felt as much in Lebanon as in Syria. Is this what victory looks like?

Sharif Nashashibi is a journalist and analyst on Arab affairs