x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Hizbollah’s misleading anti-takfiri rhetoric gains traction

A change in rhetoric may be helping to reposition Hizbollah, but it really should have no place as a force in the region.

Since its inception after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Hizbollah has presented itself as a resistance movement for all Lebanese people. Historically, it has enjoyed widespread support inside and outside the country, but that image started to unravel as it aligned itself with the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war.

The perception of Hizbollah as a nakedly sectarian party took a while to sink in among people in the region, but eventually the shift occurred. This led some to predict the demise of Hizbollah, and say that its clout in Lebanon has been significantly diminished. But what if the opposite is happening? There are reasons to believe that Hizbollah’s relevance is on the rise, not only in Lebanon, but in the region.

Hizbollah recognises that promoting itself as a resistance or a non-sectarian movement has become a hard sell, so it has opted for the next best bet: being an anti-takfiri party. By “takfiris”, Hizbollah refers to radical Salafis, a group that is equally despised by both Sunnis and Shias. This shift in rhetoric – which can be felt in Hassan Nasrallah’s recent public statements and in media outlets close to the party – is gaining traction.

By adopting this rhetoric, together with the rising sectarian tensions in Lebanon and regionally, Hizbollah can ensure two things: it will strengthen its leadership of the Shia community in Lebanon, as it positions itself as the most capable defender of the community, compared to the pacifist or moderate Shia political and religious strands in Lebanon. The party will also find sympathisers for its cause among Sunnis who fear the rise of Al Qaeda.

In this sense, Hizbollah can still reconcile its image as a sectarian militia with its potential value as a counterweight to Sunni jihadis. If it does, it might compensate for the political and ideological capital it has lost following its gamble in Syria.

While many are rightly concerned about Hizbollah’s ambitions, they also still view it as a rational, responsible party that has often shown restraint when violence escalated in Lebanon. They also view it as a militia with which they can work to contain unruly Sunni jihadis. As jihadis gain ground in the region, and as official armies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon continue to falter or fail to provide security, fewer people inside and outside the region will find it necessary for Hizbollah to hand over its arms or see it marginalised.

Indeed, Hizbollah and the Syrian regime emphasised the need to reach out to individuals and groups that share their sentiments towards takfiris. A pro-Hizbollah writer, in a recent column in the Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar, pointed out that “there are Sunni (and Christian) forces, parties and individuals who are enlightened and nationalist in Lebanon and in the Arab world and who oppose takfiris and their supporters”. Such a call was echoed this week by Bashar Al Assad during a meeting with Lebanese Sunni religious clerics in Damascus. Mr Al Assad called on moderate clerics to fight Wahhabi and takfiri thought.

It is worth noting that because the Syrian conflict is continuing, Hizbollah’s role in the civil war heightens the contempt it is held in by some in the region.

For Hizbollah, the new rhetoric can be more sustainable and convenient than its previous ones. Sectarian tensions and religious extremism are steadily rising. Shia in the Levant and Iraq are more religiously and politically polarised than ever. For the first time in history, Shia militias cross borders to fight for a religious cause in Syria. As Hizbollah positions itself as a formidable militia and political actor that can face down the Sunni extremists, it can establish itself as a more relevant player in the region – even if the Assad regime falls.

In terms of the balance of power, a mistake is often made by observers that as a minority religious sect, it is not in the interest of Shia groups to alienate majority Sunnis by being more active politically and militarily. But groups such as Hizbollah have advantages over the majority with which they live, regionally speaking; their militias are better trained and politically more equipped to rally up other minorities with them against Sunni extremists.

The change in Hizbollah’s rhetoric, of course, was not a conscious decision in the beginning. Its intervention in Syria predated the rise of jihadis in the country. But, just as the Assad regime has done, it has successfully used the rise of these groups to its advantage.

It was clear that Hizbollah was initially concerned about the colossal damage to its image caused by its alignment with the Assad regime. But that concern started to fade as extremists dominated the Syrian conflict. And Hizbollah’s concern has been replaced by confidence, evident in its leader’s recent public pronouncements.

The change in rhetoric means that the battle against Hizbollah takes a different face. The party cannot emerge as the only player that can fight extremism, in the same way that it should not have been seen as the only one that was willing to “resist” Israel. If the party manages to establish itself as anti-takfir militia, that will make it even more resilient than before.

Fighting extremism and sectarianism must be the business of responsible countries in the region that have no interest in allowing Hizbollah to turn its bloody involvement in the Syrian conflict into a historic opportunity. The battle against Hizbollah must not be limited to measures such as tightening the screws on its financial routes. The battle must be to make it irrelevant.

hhassan@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @hhassan140