x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Shamefully, Hizbollah has abetted Assad’s worst acts

What Mr Al Assad really means is that he intends to resolve Syria’s problems by drowning the uprising in more blood, writes Michael Young

Last weekend, Bashar Al Assad was quoted as saying that the Syrian conflict was turning to his government’s advantage.

Few may take such optimistic comments seriously, but there is a broader implication in what Mr Al Assad said: that a military solution to the Syrian conflict is achievable. Among those who seem to support this view is Hizbollah, which has deployed thousands of combatants to Syria to defend the regime.

But what Mr Al Assad really means is that he intends to resolve Syria’s problems by drowning the uprising in more blood. And that has implications for Hizbollah. The party’s involvement in that effort, its strategic partnership with Syria’s leadership, backed by Iran, has fundamentally altered its image.

From a party once hailed on the political left as part of the “resistance axis” against Israel and the US, Hizbollah has become complicit in the Syrian regime’s brutality.

The party’s image was damaged in Lebanon years earlier, after it sought to reverse the 2005 uprising against Syria following the assassination of a former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, which led to a Syrian military pullout. Party members were indicted in Mr Hariri’s killing, while many believe Hizbollah was involved in other assassinations between 2005 and 2013.

But somehow, Hizbollah’s action in Lebanon did little to dent its reputation worldwide among those on the left describing themselves as “anti-imperialists”. They tend to view the world mainly through a prism of hostility towards the United States.

For its admirers on the left, Hizbollah symbolised not only resistance to America and Israel – culminating in the liberation of South Lebanon in May 2000 – it also embodied the triumph of a once-poor Shia community that had long been accorded a secondary status in Lebanon, which the party helped reverse.

There was much here to rouse a feverish revolutionary imagination: a successful anti-imperialist, Third-World liberation movement that had also overcome a corrupt political system to end Shia social and political marginalisation.

Largely ignored was the other side of the coin. Hizbollah’s admirers seemed entirely to disregard the party’s more pronounced characteristics – as an armed and authoritarian religious and military organisation with a disturbing tendency to mobilise its supporters through a cult of death – jarring with many of the values the left claims to embody.

This was perhaps best shown in 2006, when Hizbollah provoked an unnecessary war with Israel after kidnapping two Israeli soldiers. At the time, the Lebanese government, in which Hizbollah was represented, issued a statement taking its distance from the party, which had failed to consult with anyone in the state before the abductions. Israel retaliated with air attacks, plunging Lebanon into a month-long war.

In response to the government, a group of 450 academics and intellectuals, many of them politically on the left and working in the west, issued a statement expressing “conscious support” for Hizbollah’s resistance against Israel, “as it wages a war in defence of our sovereignty and independence … a war to safeguard the dignity of the Lebanese and Arab people.”

The statement also expressed “utter rejection of the Lebanese government’s decision to ‘not adopt’ the Lebanese Resistance operation, thereby stripping the Resistance of political credibility before the adversarial international powers …”

Absent in this paean was any recognition that Hizbollah’s actions had undermined the authority of the government, the embodiment of national sovereignty. Nor that Hizbollah was seeking to assert itself at a time when it worried that Lebanon might break free of Damascus’ influence a year after the Syrian military withdrawal, thereby consolidating its independence.

It was easy to have contempt for Hizbollah’s rivals in the Lebanese political class. Most of them were purveyors of old-fashioned patronage, usually engaged in shady political deal-making. Hizbollah seemed on a higher plane. Its seriousness came from its alleged refusal to compromise on its principles.

But today in Syria this image has been substantially altered. While Hizbollah’s jihadist adversaries elicit no sympathy in the west, the majority of those suffering from the regime’s and the party’s gains are average Syrians who simply no longer want Mr Al Assad in power, and initially sought to remove him peacefully.

Either by action or omission, Hizbollah has aided and abetted the worst crimes of the Syrian regime. Video evidence shows party members shooting wounded prisoners, which is a war crime. The party has collaborated with military and intelligence services that have massacred, tortured, bombed or starved civilians – not least Palestinian refugees in the Yarmouk area south of Damascus and refugee camps elsewhere in Syria.

Yet, despite all this, condemnation of the party has been scant among its western devotees. Nor any sense that the cruel fate of Mr Al Assad’s Palestinian victims, given their symbolic importance for western anti-imperialists, has prompted a reconsideration of Hizbollah. No communiqués have expressed “utter rejection” of the Syrian regime’s cruelty.

Can Hizbollah continue to remain a model for its western aficionados? Can those on the political left continue to approve of a party that openly acknowledges its leading role in the Syrian regime’s barbaric three-year campaign of repression? The answer has been only remarkable silence.

The American left-wing academic Norman Finkelstein once defended Hizbollah’s resistance against Israel by saying: “There is a fundamental principle. People have the right to defend their country from foreign occupiers … from invaders who are destroying their country.”

Perhaps Mr Finkelstein is right. But that would mean that Syrians are entitled to defend their country against Hizbollah. But a wager says we will not hear that line anytime soon.

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut

On Twitter: @BeirutCalling