x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Hizbollah's strategy in Syria will accelerate sectarian war

Hizbollah's strong combat support for the Syrian regime threatens to have serious repercussions.

Fears that the Syrian conflict may spill over the country's borders are being realised, but in reverse: the Lebanese conflict is coming to Syria.

Ahmed Al Aseer, an influential Lebanese Sunni cleric, declared on Monday that jihad in Syria is now mandatory for all capable Muslims. Sheikh Al Aseer said that the decision was taken after Hizbollah's involvement in Syria became clear.

"We felt that [Hizbollah] was militarily involved and everyone was denying," he said in a video statement posted on YouTube on Monday. "But now that has become clear."

Hizbollah's initial denial of involvement in Syria appears to have changed to justification, primarily because it has become difficult for the group to continue denying reports as an increasing number of dead fighters are sent back from Syria. Although the party's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, admitted in October that party members were fighting alongside the Assad regime, he said those fighters were acting as individuals and not under his orders.

This escalation should not be played down as part of traditional Lebanese sectarian bickering. Hizbollah's decision to openly support the Syrian regime is a serious move that merits a closer look.

The obvious question is, why now?

According to accounts, the party's fighters in Syria are numerous and well-trained. Additionally, the structure of Hizbollah allows it to order the fighters to withdraw if needed.

But why would the party opt to wage war against the people of a neighbouring country that is far larger than Lebanon, offers access to its allies in Iraq and Iran, and most of all, has a vast number of supporters inside Lebanon?

The escalation of Hizbollah's involvement in Homs follows a series of media reports that suggests the party, in coordination with Tehran, has moved aggressively and openly to back the regime of Bashar Al Assad. According to the Kuwaiti newspaper Al Rai, Nasrallah visited Tehran this week and met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the commander of the Al Quds Brigades, General Qasim Sulaimani.

On Monday, Mr Al Assad expressed resentment towards Lebanon's "dissociation policy" during a meeting with a pro-Hizbollah Lebanese delegation. The Syrian president said: "A person cannot dissociate himself if that person is within a circle of fire and that fire is getting closer to him."

Also on Monday, the interim leader of the Syrian opposition's National Coalition, George Sabra, accused Hizbollah of declaring war against the Syrian people; as proof he said party members have fought against the rebels in the town of Qusayr, near the Lebanese border.

Hizbollah appears to have taken steps to explain its purpose of involvement in Syria, without trying to downplay that involvement. In an article for Al Monitor, Lebanese journalist Ali Hashem aptly explained why Hizbollah is allowing its fighters to fight in Syria: it is an obligation, not a choice.

The source speaking to Hashem rationalises the involvement by saying that failure to get involved would eventually have a spiralling affect on the region. The Hizbollah source explains that the party is trying to prevent a regional looming fitna, or sectarian strife, by protecting Shia villages and religious shrines from Sunni extremists.

Moreover, the source suggests that the destruction of any Shia shrine in Syria would enrage Shia communities across the region, rage that the party would be unable to contain that would lead to an all-out, long-term sectarian war.

While this narrative offers insight into the party's thinking, it does not take into account fighters' rhetoric or the early involvement of Shia fighters in Syria. YouTube videos and other social media outlets show that fighters follow a consistent, deranged narrative, mostly drawing on the symbolism of Zainab, the daughter of the Prophet's cousin Ali, to justify their involvement and portray it as a sectarian offensive against Sunni Syrians, not a defensive war.

Also, activists say that foreign Shia fighters were often involved in the types of carnage that include the use of knives, especially in Homs and near Damascus (such as Houla, Daraya and Jdaidet Al Fadhl). One activist told me that weeks before the Al Houla massacre in May 2012, during which 108 people were killed, an "atmosphere of sectarian tension spread in the area" and that "foreign militiamen were involved".

The presence of foreign jihadis fighting against the regime has long worried western governments. But the involvement of Shia fighters takes the situation in Syria to another level; Lebanese clerics calling for jihad in Syria is only the tip of the iceberg. Across the region, the concept of "jihad" is being discussed again, decades after a similar trend in the 1980s sent young men from the region to Afghanistan to fight. This time, the "normalisation" of jihad should be more worrisome in a more religiously diverse region.

It is unclear whether Hizbollah intends to de-escalate its members' activities in Syria or continue to allow their flow. It is possible that the Syrian regime has asked Iran and Hizbollah to assist its troops in that border area, considering that Homs in general is crucial for the regime, perhaps the most important area after Damascus, because it is a choke point between the coast and other areas.

The involvement of Shia fighters must be alarming to everyone and serves as a reminder that the Syrian conflict needs to end sooner rather than later.

 

hhassan@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @hhassan140