x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 24 November 2017

Hizbollah's naked aggression strips away resistance facade

The praise Hizbollah wins from its supporters for fighting Sunnis makes it easier for the party to commit crimes like the recent assassination of Lebanon's intelligence chief.

A friend recently emailed me a story reporting that Hizbollah militants had been killed in fighting in Syria. "The road to Jerusalem goes through Homs," he wrote in the subject line. But while Hizbollah turning its guns away from Israel and against the predominantly Sunni Free Syrian Army might bewilder my Sunni friend, it sounds about right to many Shiites. After all, that conflict goes back 14 centuries; the one with Israel is only a few decades old.

The praise that Hizbollah wins from its supporters for fighting Sunni groups makes it easier for the party to commit crimes like the recent assassination of General Wissam Al Hassan, Lebanon's intelligence chief.

Hizbollah denies any role in Friday's car-bomb attack, but its record makes it exceedingly likely that the "Party of God" was somehow involved in this recent murder. Many have argued that Gen Al Hassan was killed to settle a score relating to his role in the arrest of Michel Samaha, an Assad apparatchik who was caught planning a domestic bombing campaign during the summer. In fact, Gen Al Hassan was probably targeted because of his growing security role that had started to threaten Hizbollah's unrivalled control of Lebanon's intelligence apparatus.

If Gen Al Hassan was killed by Hizbollah, as many have argued, he was not their first Sunni victim. Before him, former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, a bigger-than-life figure, was also assassinated, in 2005 by four Hizbollah operatives, according to the indictment issued by the UN-created Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

Between the two murders, much has changed in Lebanon, and so has Hizbollah's style. In 2005, Hizbollah took painstaking measures to hide its involvement in the crime: a cover-up video showing a purported suicide attack was produced and delivered to satellite TV stations. The party sent its most senior figures - including Hassan Nasrallah's wife - to offer condolences to the Hariri family. The Hizbollah propaganda machine made sure that Hariri would be always described as a martyr.

Gen Al Hassan did not receive any such honours. Judging from its media coverage, Hizbollah treated the recent bombing in Beirut's historic Ashrafiyeh district with nonchalance. Hizbollah's ally, the Christian MP Michel Aoun, went on TV to counsel Lebanese (read: Sunnis) against taking on Hizbollah's Shiites. He argued that civil strife should be avoided in what sounded like an implicit threat.

When Hariri was assassinated, the Assad regime's forces were still occupying Lebanon. The Syrian dictator was not interested in civil war, but merely wanted Hariri out of the way. Hizbollah, too, was keen to preserve its credentials as a pan-Arab, anti-Israel force that transcended the Sunni-Shia divide.

Some Hizbollah officials have said they did not foresee the consequences of the Hariri murder. Popular outrage forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon after 29 years of occupation. Hizbollah was on its back foot for some time, but fought back, often by playing on the sectarian divide and pitting its Shia supporters against the Sunni backers of the Hariri family.

The party failed to stop the creation of the UN tribunal, and became convinced that it needed something big to turn the tables in its favour. In the summer of 2006, Hizbollah invited Israel to a duel that proved devastating for Lebanon, and especially catastrophic for the party's Shia supporters, many of whom lost loved ones and their homes.

When it was over, Hizbollah adopted a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, party officials assured their supporters that there would be no further war with Israel, thus encouraging Shiites to rebuild their homes, villages and communities.

On the other hand, the party launched a full-scale offensive against Lebanon's Sunni leaders - led by Rafik Hariri's son Saad- blaming them for all the ills that had befallen Shiites, a theme in line with a Shia psyche of persecution.

Hizbollah even accused Lebanon's Sunnis and their allies of supplying Israel with target coordinates during the 2006 war.

The strategy succeeded in keeping its partisans in line, yet came at the expense of alienating Sunnis, who once were also fans of the party because of its fight that led to the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000.

Regional events have further aggravated Lebanon's Sunni-Shia fracture: the assertive nuclear programme of Iran, the ruling Shia majority in Iraq bullying Sunni groups, and the pro-Iran Alawite minority in Syria oppressing a Sunni majority.

By the time of Gen Al Hassan's murder, his assassins did not feel they needed to produce any cover-up video. Hizbollah today has no illusions about its lack of support among Sunnis.

Whatever the cost, Hizbollah now calculates that an open conflict with Lebanon's Sunnis justifies turning its arms inward and away from Israel. And if Shiites are at war with Sunnis, that would rationalise the killing of Gen Al Hassan and the Hizbollah members fighting alongside Assad forces inside Syria.

Meanwhile, wiping Israel off the map can wait. Conflict with Sunnis gives Hizbollah and its patrons in Damascus and Tehran a regional role; war with Israel is costly and unrewarding, a lesson that Hafez Al Assad learnt some 40 years ago.

As such, as Syria's MiG fighters fly north to bomb Aleppo, Hizbollah militants - hardened by the 2006 war - fight in Homs pretending it is part of their war for the "liberation of Jerusalem".

Hizbollah clearly fears no fallout from Gen Al Hassan's murder. For the Party of God, this is a war that is a continuation of more than a millennium of fighting. Whether Lebanon's Sunnis and the world can prove any links between Hizbollah operatives and the Hassan assassination may be irrelevant.

Hizbollah is bracing for the worst anyway.


Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of the Kuwaiti newspaper Alrai