Hizbullah’s Role in Syria
For quite some time there has been a great deal of talk and speculation in Lebanon, Syria, and the Arab and Western worlds about Hezbollah’s true role in the Syrian crisis. The anti-Hezbollah propaganda machine has, as usual, been particularly active, issuing a daily stream of news and reports about the party’s supposed involvement in the conflict.
This machine – which has Lebanese, Syrian, and other operators – has announced the deaths of hundreds of Hezbollah fighters in Syria, and the capture of dozens by Syrian rebels. An official security agency in Beirut plays a central role on this front by leaking factual information that is then embellished. This deluge, these people believe, is a useful means of helping generate as much public anger as possible against Hezbollah.
Hezbollah, for its part, has offered no further clarification of what Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has said about the party’s role in aiding its Lebanese supporters who live in villages inside Syria, though he has reiterated that Hezbollah had not so far taken part in the fighting in Syria.
A deliberate strategy of incitement and exaggeration is being employed against Hezbollah by regional and foreign intelligence agencies, including Israel’s. But the focus was, and remains, on trying to understand Hezbollah’s place in the Syrian crisis as it starts its third year. These agencies know many details of what is really happening on the ground in terms of fighting between regime and opposition forces. They are aware of each side’s capabilities, and keep a constant watch on all activities undertaken in support of the regime, including by Hezbollah.
But for others, it may be necessary to clarify the outlook on which Hezbollah’s attitude to the crisis is based. This could help many understand the ideological, political, and operational underpinnings of its stance.
Hezbollah continues to view things from the perspective of its central role in confronting Israel. It may not often elaborate about the ultimate objective of that struggle, but the party behaves as though it is part of a long-term campaign aimed at getting rid of Israel, a battle for which much preparedness is required. While a majority of the Arab and Islamic peoples would not mind being rid of Israel, only a minority are willing to fight such a battle to the end.
A minority of the unwilling think such talk is insane or delusional and can have no bearing on history. This influential group sees no need for a battle of this kind. It therefore views Hezbollah as a bunch of lunatics who are not only endangering their own people and themselves, but also the interests of the peoples of the region. This minority thus finds itself in alliance, with or without any actual agreement, with Hezbollah’s real foes, namely Israel, the US, and certain Arab and Western capitals
Hezbollah’s commitment to resistance against occupation obliges it to do many things, including to avoid making other enemies. Its position on Syria is consistent with its attitude to the protest movements in the Arab world as a whole.
Nobody from the outset could ever have imagined Hezbollah taking a stand against the regime in Syria. While the party does not disregard the domestic causes of the crisis, it does not condone the battles that are taking place. Its view of the bigger picture prevents it from adopting a neutral posture, as does the fact that it has a clearer and stronger following in Syria than many of the groups involved in the fighting.
Hezbollah warned early on about the foreign connections and agendas of groups leading the protests. It had clear evidence of the ideological persuasions of some of the most influential of these groups. It noticed how, from the start of the protests, demonstrators in Homs and Deraa set fire to pictures of Nasrallah and Hezbollah flags, and how the campaign of sectarian incitement against the party went into full-gear.
This was before the party had made any comment on developments in Syria – indeed, while it was working with various Arab Islamist movements, including Hamas, on trying to broker contacts aimed at avoiding the current catastrophe.
Hezbollah’s view, simply put, is that the war in Syria aims at shifting the country politically and strategically to a position of opposing its existence. That makes it see the current regime led by Bashar al-Assad as a forward line of defense for the resistance movement in Lebanon and Palestine. This alone is grounds for the party to be at the heart of the crisis.
There have been many questions and claims about the role Hezbollah is playing in Syria. Its detractors say it is heavily engaged in the ongoing military operations. The facts of the matter do not need much explanation:
– Hezbollah trains, arms, and provides sufficient logistical support to Lebanese inhabitants of border villages.
– Hezbollah took over the task of protecting the Sayida Zainab shrine south of Damascus after its Iraqi guards left. Party members are deployed there under a plan that restricts their responsibility to the immediate vicinity of the shrine.
– Hezbollah received delegations from a considerable number of Druze, Christian, Shia, and Ismaili groups who felt their minority communities were under serious threat. It did not comply with their training and arming requests, but provided them with the means to prevent their displacement.
– Hezbollah, which has security and military ties to the regime, assists Syrian forces in providing protection to scientific academies and missile factories that were built over the past decade largely with aid from Iran.
– Hezbollah operates a major scheme, perhaps the biggest, to help Syrian refugees in Lebanon and even inside Syria. This is not aimed at repaying the Syrians for taking in refugees from Lebanon in 2006. It is done quietly, out of conviction that refugees and displaced people are entitled to all possible humanitarian aid regardless of political views.
Attitudes to Hezbollah are linked to a whole host of calculations. Yet some are desperate to not just drag the party into the Syrian crisis, but into a similar battle in Lebanon. The party is conscious of this. It appears to be discussing procedures for an operation aimed at putting sectarian strife back into a coma, though its leaders fear much blood will flow before that happens.
Ibrahim al-Amin is editor-in-chief of Al-Akhbar.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.