Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 31 March 2020

Hizbollah used Beirut bombing to justify intervention in Syria

Bombing in Beirut is being used to justify Shia intervention in Syria

In response to a blast that claimed the lives of 22 in the middle of the Hizbollah-controlled area of southern Beirut, Hizbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, delivered a fiery speech, rife with threats. The bombing was clearly intended to send a message to Hizbollah that Mr Nasrallah could not leave unaddressed.

Mr Nasrallah has vowed to avenge attacks against his followers. As expected, he blamed the Dahiyeh blast on Takfiris, a term usually applied to Sunni Islamists who cast other Muslims as apostates, but commonly used by Hizbollah to describe all of Syria's rebels.

One of the most significant points Mr Nasrallah made was: "If we have 1,000 fighters in Syria, they will become 2,000, and if we have 5,000 fighters in Syria, they will become 10,000." Disregarding the numbers, this statement does have some validity, since the group and its Iranian-backed Shia militias have been increasing their presence in Syria. If anything, the bombing's real accomplishment has been to give Hizbollah a further excuse for expanding its presence.

It should not be forgotten that when Mr Nasrallah publicly admitted his party's involvement in Syria, he proclaimed that defeating "US and Israeli-backed Takfiris" in that country is one the organisation's primary goals. During his May 25 speech, Mr Nasrallah clearly stated: "We today consider ourselves defending Lebanon, Palestine and Syria ... As I used to promise you victory always, I promise you victory again." It should come as little surprise that if the group is pushing for absolute victory in Syria, it would require further deployments to that country.

Since June, there has been gradual increase in Hizbollah and Shia militia presence in Syria. Following Hizbollah's large-scale intervention in Syria during the battles in Qusayr, battles that some in the group celebrated as a "victory" akin to "defeating" Israel in 2006, Hizbollah tended to downplay announcements of its activities there. Compared to May, when the group had public funeral after funeral and public acknowledgement of their activities in Qusayr, the current silence has had the added bonus of deflecting western attention from Hizbollah's activities.

In Hizbollah's media, the familiar anti-Syrian rebel and pro-Assad tone has continued. Nevertheless, the group's rather extensive combat and support actions in Damascus and Homs were downplayed. Instead, armed engagements by Mr Al Assad's army were covered by Hizbollah's media. Hizbollah's support for Mr Al Assad's forces received little to no mention. For the western press, which utilises limited assets devoted to tracking Hizbollah's moves, the silence and message-reorientation implied decreased or hazier levels of Hizbollah's involvement.

Mr Nasrallah's speech must also be viewed within the context of other foreign-staffed Shia militias in Syria and the declarations they have made. Iraq-based Shia militias which have supplied fighters to aid Mr Al Assad have mostly come from Iranian proxy groups. These organisations are tied to one another and to Lebanese Hizbollah through the acceptance of Iranian revolutionary ideology, particularly wilayat al faqih, or the absolute rule of a religious cleric. This belief gives Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the power to give fatwas to these groups to fight. On June 19, it was reported by Reuters that the fighters from these groups had "begun fighting under the command of the Lebanese Hizbollah".

Published a day before Hizbollah declared victory in Qusayr, the military power of Shia militias in Syria was showcased in an interview one of the Shia fighters gave to The Guardian. This fighter told the paper that foreign-staffed Shia militia groups are widespread and, "are protecting everything from the [Damascus] airport to the capital to Sweida [a Druze town near the Golan Heights], including residential areas, hospitals, government buildings, police stations, schools, mosques and hospitals". Their power appears to be growing.

From the end of June and throughout July, new groups were declared and more formalised announcements of involvement in Syria also occurred.

In May and June, Iraq's Badr Organisation, a group like Hizbollah that is extremely close to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, coyly hinted at direct involvement in Syria. Nevertheless, by July 28, the group had announced two of its members as killed-in-action in Syria and announced via social media that it had sent 1,500 fighters under the auspices of an expeditionary force to Syria called Quwet Shaheed al-Sadr (the Forces of Martyr Sadr). In July, Asa'ib Ahl Al Haq, an Iraq-based Iranian proxy that has lost a number of fighters in Syria and co-operated with Lebanese Hizbollah in Syria, also declared the presence of their own Syria-specific combat unit, Liwa'a Kafeel Zaynab.

Since June, new militias that use fighters from those groups and other Iranian proxies have also been announced. They include the Damascus-based Liwa'a Zulfiqar, Liwa'a Imam Husayn and Liwa'a Ammar ibn Yasir, which claims to operate in Aleppo.

The assertion made by Mr Nasrallah that Hizbollah's involvement in Syria will increase is not a mere threat. The Dahiyeh bombing, while horrific and having gone off in a zone of Hizbollah control, has served Hizbollah to explain the Shia militias' presence in Syria. In a strange twist, the actions of those who bombed Dahiyeh have dovetailed with the narrative of Hizbollah and its allies. Future Hizbollah and Shia militia operations in Syria can be pushed as defensive actions in response to a dark and sinister foe, rather than being viewed as the continuation of offensive operations to bolster the Assad regime.


Phillip Smyth is a researcher at the University of Maryland. He focuses on Lebanon and Syria and specialises in Shia militias in Syria

Updated: September 2, 2013 04:00 AM