In a speech given on May 25, 2013, on the occasion of the 13th anniversary of the withdrawal of the Israeli military from South Lebanon, Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah openly admitted what was already known, namely that his organization is actively fighting in Syria alongside the Assad regime. He described the fighting in Syria as a war declared by the Islamists, the U.S., and Israel against the resistance axis, which is fighting for its life, and said that if Syria falls, Lebanon and Palestine will fall too, and therefore Hizbullah has no choice but to fight.
Lebanese newspapers close to Hizbullah and Syria – Al-Akhbar and Al-Safir – mobilized to explain and justify its involvement in the fighting in Syria. Editorials published in these papers on May 27 explained that the Syrian conflict erases the borders between Syria and Lebanon and stressed that it is a Lebanese conflict as much as it is a Syrian one. Nasrallah’s Lebanese rivals, on the other hand, directed harsh criticism at him for his statement, accusing him of undermining Lebanon’s sovereignty and of changing the goals of his resistance organization. Nasrallah was also criticized in the Arab press, which warned that Hizbullah could drag the entire Middle East into a Sunni-Shi’ite war.
Nasrallah’s statements brought the Sunni-Shi’ite tension in Lebanon to a new high. This was reflected by Salafi officials in Lebanon issuing new fatwas calling for jihad in Syria, and also by Sunni elements who were previously allied with Hizbullah joining the camp of its opponents. It should be mentioned that Nasrallah’s statements exacerbated Sunni-Shi’ite tensions not only in Lebanon but in the Arab world as a whole. Prominent Sunni sheikhs, chief among them International Union of Muslim Scholars head Sheikh Yousuf Al-Qaradhawi, as well as various jihadi organizations, called upon Sunnis throughout the world to mobilize for jihad against the Shi’ites and ‘Alawites and even carry out attacks on Hizbullah targets inside Lebanon.
These developments draw Lebanon openly and powerfully into the Syrian struggle. It should be mentioned that Lebanon has been involved in this struggle since its outbreak, with Hizbullah supporting the Syrian regime and the March 14 Forces and others supporting the rebels. But now, following Nasrallah’s speech and the storm of criticism it evoked, it seems that Lebanon is openly becoming an active part of this struggle. Moreover, it seems that the mobilization of the Shi’ite Hizbullah and Iran in favor of the ‘Alawite regime in Syria, which many Sunnis consider to be Shi’ite, and the counter-mobilization of Islamist elements in favor of the Syrian rebels, transform Syria, and possibly Lebanon in the near future as well, into an arena of sectarian conflict between Sunnis on the one hand, and Shi’ites and ‘Alawites on the other. This may be the reason that motivated the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to issue a travel warning for Lebanon and to advise Gulf citizens staying in Lebanon to leave this country.
The fighting in Syria has also transformed the map of political loyalties within Lebanon. Sunni elements in the country, both Palestinian and Lebanese, have begun distancing themselves from the Shi’ite Hizbullah and growing closer to other Sunni elements, thus favoring their sectarian affiliation over their political and ideological affiliation.
This report will review Hizbullah’s motives for its military involvement in Syria, the criticism and responses in Lebanon against this policy, and the escalation of Sunni-Shi’ite tension in Lebanon following Nasrallah’s statements.
Nasrallah: Our Fighting In Syria – Defense Of The Resistance Axis
Until Nasrallah’s May 25 speech, Hizbullah had avoided explicitly admitting its military involvement in Syria, probably out of awareness that such an admission would trigger harsh criticism – both inside Lebanon, where Hizbullah repeatedly states that its weapons are only trained on Israel, and outside Lebanon, from Arab countries and Islamist and jihadi organizations. In addition, Hizbullah was aware that this admission could spark a Sunni-Shi’ite conflict in Lebanon itself, and even in the entire region. Therefore, until now, Nasrallah acknowledged Hizbullah’s military involvement in Syria only indirectly and only with regards to specific areas, and justified this by evoking the need to protect Lebanese Shi’ites who live in Syrian villages and towns near Lebanon’s eastern border (the Beqaa Valley) from the Syrian rebels. Another explanation he gave was the need to protect the Shi’ite holy sites in Syria – such as the tomb of Saida Zainab, the granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad, in Damascus – from Islamists who might desecrate them. However, the exposure of Hizbullah’s involvement in the fighting in Al-Qusayr, which has no Lebanese residents and no Shi’ite holy sites, rendered this explanation untenable. Moreover, the high number of Hizbullah casualties in Al-Qusayr, and the growing political and public criticism leveled at Hizbullah in Lebanon for its actions in Syria, including by its own followers, obliged Nasrallah to respond and justify his organization’s policy. Hence, he was finally pushed to admit his unconditional military support for the Syrian regime.
In his speech, Nasrallah claimed that the events in Syria are not an expression of a popular rebellion against the regime, but rather a war declared by the Islamists, the U.S., and Israel against the resistance axis, which is fighting for its survival, and that if Syria falls, Lebanon, the resistance, and Palestine will fall too. He said: “If the takfiri stream [meaning the Islamists] takes over [Syria], then the future of that country, of Lebanon, and of the region will be grim and dark. Syria is no longer the arena for a popular rebellion against a political regime, but rather an arena for imposing a political plan led by the U.S., the West, and their lackeys in the region. We all know that the American plan in the region is a purely Israeli plan… Syria is the backbone and mainstay of the resistance, and the resistance cannot stand by with its hands tied when its backbone is exposed and its mainstay is broken. Clearly, we are not fools.
A fool is one who watches from the side without acting as death, siege and conspiracy advance towards him. The wise man acts with full responsibility… If Syria falls to the Americans, Israelis, takfiris [Islamists] and the U.S.’s lackeys in the region… the future of the resistance is to be besieged, and Israel will enter Lebanon to impose its conditions upon it… If Syria falls, then Palestine will be lost, the resistance in Palestine will be lost, and Gaza, the West Bank, and Jerusalem will be lost. If Syria falls to the U.S., Israel, and the takfiris, then the peoples and countries of the region will face a harsh, evil and dark era.” Addressing claims that Hizbullah’s weapons harm Lebanon’s sovereignty, Nasrallah said that Lebanon is a weak country that cannot withstand the enemies of the resistance.
Nasrallah’s deputy, Na’im Qassem, also mentioned Lebanon’s weakness as justification for the organization’s military involvement in Syria: “Hizbullah girded itself in order to fulfill the duty of defending the [Shi’ite] Lebanese in regions around [Al-Qusayr], after the government showed its helplessness.”
It seems that Nasrallah’s admission embarrassed the Syrian regime, which until then had denied the opposition’s claims that Hizbullah was fighting alongside it, and forced it to admit this as well, although more feebly. In an interview with Hizbullah’s Al-Mannar TV on May 30, 2013, Bashar Al-Assad said that “groups of Hizbullah fighters are deployed in border regions with Lebanon,” but qualified this by saying that “the Syrian army is the one fighting and waging battles against the armed groups.” This claim may have been meant to cover up the fact that the Syrian army can no longer withstand the rebels’ onslaught on its own, and therefore requires Hizbullah’s full-scope assistance.
Pro-Syrian Lebanese Papers Explain Hizbullah’s Involvement In Syria
Following Nasrallah’s speech, the Pro-Syrian and pro-Hizbullah Lebanese papers Al-Akhbar and Al-Safir mobilized to justify and clarify Nasrallah’s motives for his active involvement in Syria.
A. Fear Of Losing Hizbullah’s Weapons Supply Route
Articles in these papers mentioned the strategic importance of Syria for the survival of Hizbullah and the pro-Iranian axis, especially the importance of the region stretching from the Syrian capital of Damascus through Al-Qusayr to Homs. This region is vital for Hizbullah since it serves as the organization’s strategic depth and its main land route for weapons supplies coming from Syria. Wafiq Qanso, a columnist for Al-Akhbar, wrote: “Nasrallah has taken the gloves off: the fighting in Syria is part of the plan to strengthen the resistance and defend its strategic depth… The goal [of the Syrian rebels trying to control] this area – which stretches from the Rif Dimashq [governorate] via Al-Qusayr and Talkalach to Arsal and Tripoli [in Lebanon] – is, as Nasrallah said, ‘to expose the reistance’s back,’ by severing the northern Beqaa region from the Syrian depth. This would sever the weapons supply lines from Syria.”
B. Fear Of Extremist Islamists
The dailies, as well as Nasrallah himself, also justified Hizbullah’s involvement by stressing the participation of Salafi and Islamist elements, and especially non-Syrian jihadis, in the Syrian uprising – while totally ignoring other elements in the local fighting opposition. This argument is meant to challenge the Syrian uprising’s legitimacy and portray it as an attempt to transform the Middle East into a Salafi-Islamic caliphate, which would harm not only Shi’ites and non-Muslims, but also non-Islamist Sunnis. The articles stated that Hizbullah’s fighting in Syria is not for the sake of the Syrian regime alone, but also for the sake of Syria as a whole, as well as Lebanon, since it defends them from the Islamist threat, which must be stopped before it spreads from Syria to Lebanon and beyond. Some articles also emphasized the Lebanese security mechanisms’ inability to deal with the Islamist threat.
This position was clearly expressed by Tallal Salman, the owner of the daily Al-Safir, in an editorial that read: “…[The Islamist] fighters [in Syria], with their slogans calling to kill and even destroy those who refuse to take part in the civil war, openly declare in broad daylight that they will fulfill their ‘prophecy’ by eliminating all those who differ from them in faith and opinion in Syria, and later in Lebanon as well. They have already done this in Iraq, but now they have more money and weapons… [Hizbullah’s fighting in Syria] is a campaign of self-defense before [it is a campaign] of support for the Syrian regime. Hizbullah intervened very late, compared to those organizations with fundamentalist slogans who sent and are still sending groups of young men to wage ‘jihad’ against ‘the infidels’ in Syria… [Its] campaign is… aimed at preventing the spread [of the Islamists to Lebanon], but it is expected and it is a war that has been forced [upon us], and there is no choice but [to fight] before the arena expands and plunges the entire region into a ‘grand civil war’ that will destroy everything…”
Similar comments were made by Al-Akhbar columnist Nahid Hattar: “Hizbullah’s campaign in Syria… [is aimed at] defending the pluralistic spirit of the [Middle] East from the barbaric attack [by Islamists] to eliminate the other. [This attacks is manifest in] giving non-Wahhabi Sunnis and those who do not support Al-Qaeda a choice between two options: either become a Wahhabi killer for Al-Qaeda or be an infidel and die; eliminating other Muslim sects by slaughtering them; expelling Christians; banning secularism, the left wing, and pan-Arabism; and marginalizing women from all sects.”
It seems Hizbullah also fears the increasing power of the Salafi stream and extremist Islamists inside Lebanon, especially in Sidon and Tripoli. Thus, for example, Ibrahim Al-Amin, head of the Al-Akhbar board of directors, warned in an article from May 27, 2013 of attacks by these elements against Hizbullah and resistance strongholds.
Al-Safir, Al-Akhbar: The Conflict In Syria Erases The Border Between Syria And Lebanon
The May 27, 2013 editorials of the Lebanese dailies Al-Safir and Al-Akhbar – which, as mentioned, are associated with Hizbullah and Syria – addressed the character of the ties between Lebanon and Syria and their common fate, stressing that the war for Syria is equally a war for Lebanon.
Al-Safir owner Tallal Salman stated that the Syrian-Lebanese border stretching from southeastern to northeastern Lebanon does not exist in the consciousness of the Lebanese who live along it, since their ties with Damascus and Homs are stronger than their ties with Beirut. He wrote: “We don’t need strategic, military or civil experts to determine that the Al-Qusayr front is as much Lebanese as it is Syrian, and that it is a political-economic-social contact line that lies along the entire Syria-Lebanon border with all its sectarian diversity. Just like Damascus – with its universities, hospitals and affordable pharmacies and medical services – is the ‘capital’ of the western and central Beqaa [region in Lebanon], Homs is the ‘capital’ of the northern Beqaa [region], and its residents know Homs almost better than they know Beirut. They go there for trade, send their children to school there, and they have bonds of friendship and marriage with the (original) residents of Homs. The ties between the people of these two adjacent areas… are much wider than people think… [which is why] the war over this area is also a joint [Syrian-Lebanese war]. This is a region in which the ‘official border’ does not [really] separate the people living on either side of it.'”
Ibrahim Al-Amin, board chairman of Al-Akhbar, also stressed the unity of Syria and the Lebanese resistance, saying that this unity will arise naturally and spontaneously in response to a military confrontation in the region and to the attempts of the U.S., the West and some Arab countries to restore imperialism and schism to the region.
Al-Amin added that, since the onset of the events in Syria, Hizbullah and the Syrian regime have grown closer and have identical goals, and stressed that northern front with Israel has now expanded to the Syrian border and the Golan as well, with Hizbullah’s help. He wrote: “We will witness a new level of unity between the Lebanese resistance and Syria, which will have natural complementary [consequences] in Jordan, Palestine, and any area that borders the enemy [Israel]. This means that the possibility of a total conflict [in the region], which will leave no borders between Lebanon and Syria, is alive and well. This is the heart of the matter. The issue here is not just geography or logistics, but also a fundamental turning point in the reality of the Arab east. This is worthy of contemplating, especially by those who still believe that Lebanon can survive disconnected from its surroundings and its natural depth and not be affected by them.” According to Al-Amin, “while the Americans, Europeans, and some Arabs manage to reintroduce the idea of imperialism, schism, and war [among the Arabs], a [regional military] conflict automatically opens the door to renewing the dream of a different form of unity, which is worth attempting in practice, and which will lead to different results in every sense of the word… The right of the resistance [to act] against the enemy will be a true opening to a new kind of unity.”
A first step in this direction could be seen in a previous Nasrallah speech from May 9, 2013, in which he declared Hizbullah’s willingness to assist Syrian resistance against Israel in the Golan and provide it with material support.
Criticism In Lebanon Of Hizbullah’s Fighting In Syria
Nasrallah’s speech and Hizbullah’s Syria policy expectedly triggered a new wave of criticism and opposition from prominent members of the March 14 Forces and from Lebanese figures who belong to neither camp. The criticism focused on the harm to Lebanon’s sovereignty and on the question of the legitimacy of the Lebanese resistance due to the shift in its goals.
It should be mentioned that, since the outbreak of the Syrian rebellion, Syria has become a major point of contention between the rival camps in Lebanon: While the March 8 Forces, led by Hizbullah, support the Syrian regime, the March 14 Forces, as well as other figures such as Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, support the rebels. Hizbullah’s admittance of its military involvement in Syria sparked a new wave of attacks on this policy, including even from Lebanese President Michel Suleiman.
A. Hizbullah Is Undermining Lebanon’s Sovereignty
Various Lebanese politicians addressed the damage to Lebanon’s sovereignty. Lebanese President Michel Suleiman told the Al-Mustaqbal network on May 29, 2013: “The resistance [i.e., Hizbullah] must not [circumvent] the authority of the Lebanese state and people. We do not want the resistance to become involved in the Golan [Heights] or in Syria.” Former Lebanese prime minister Sa’d Al-Hariri was even harsher in his response to Nasrallah’s speech. He claimed that Hizbullah wants to take over the country, which is why it is undermining its sovereignty. In a communiqué issued for Resistance Day (marking Israel’s withdrawal from South Lebanon), Al-Hariri said: “Hassan Nasrallah claims that the Lebanese state, people, military, and civil society do not have the ability to stand fast against any [threat]… and that Hizbullah’s solution for this is to take the place of the state and retain its weapons forever… [In effect,] Nasrallah is saying to all Lebanese: Don’t exert yourselves. There is only one element in Lebanon [Hizbullah] and only one sect [the Shi’ites] that are in charge of national sovereignty and have the responsibility to protect the borders, carry arms, and use them in the time and place they see fit.”
B. Hizbullah’s Actions In Syria Are Not Resistance
Lebanon’s President Michel Suleiman, and Tammam Salam of the Al-Mustaqbal faction, who has been tasked with forming the new government, urged Hizbullah to preserve the “purity” of its weapons and its image. In a speech he delivered the day before Nasrallah’s address, on the occasion of the anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from South Lebanon, Suleiman said: “[A cause] as noble as resistance must not drown in the quagmire of a civil war in Syria or Lebanon.” Salam spoke in a similar vein, saying that the resistance must remain loyal to its goals and thus become a source of pride rather than a bone of internal contention.
Some argued that the fundamental change in Hizbullah’s goals – namely the shift from fighting only Israel to fighting the rebels in Syria – had caused Hizbullah to lose its legitimacy as a resistance organization. In its May 27, 2013 editorial, the Al-Mustaqbal daily stated that Hizbullah’s weapons, once directed at Israel, have been turned elsewhere: “First [they were turned] on the people of this homeland [referring to the events of May 7, 2008], and then they became deeply involved in the massacre of [our] Syrian brethren, in obedience to fatwas issued by Iran.” Al-Mustaqbal faction head and former Lebanese prime minister Fuad Al-Siniora not only questioned Hizbullah’s identity as a resistance organization but also its national affiliation when he said: “Hizbullah is not a Lebanese party but an Iranian group operating from inside Lebanon.”
C. Stop Exploiting The Palestinian Cause
Others attacked Nasrallah’s claim that, if Syria falls to the rebels, this will be the end of the Palestinian cause. Al-Hariri said in his communiqué: “The age of [using] the Palestinian cause, the resistance and [our] national unity as something to be bartered with is over. The Lebanese people, and all the Arab and Muslim people everywhere, are aware of the deception that lies behind the barter in [empty] slogans.”
D. Lebanon Must Not Fall Victim To External Struggles
Along with the criticism, some also advised Nasrallah on how to protect the resistance and Lebanon. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, known for his support for the Syrian rebels, said that strengthening Lebanon is the only valid response to Nasrallah’s fear of the Islamist groups fighting in Syria. He added: “What is needed is to be honest with oneself and with one’s conscience, so that Lebanon does not fall victim to regional struggles once again, and so the Lebanese do not once again become pawns in the wars of greater [forces].”
Escalation Of Struggle Between Hizbullah And Salafis In Lebanon
A. Fatwas Calling To Join Jihad In Syria; Clashes In Tripoli
In late April, as the fighting in Rif Al-Qusayr intensified, two prominent Salafi sheikhs – Salem Al-Rafi’i of Tripoli and Ahmad Al-Asir of Sidon – issued fatwas in which they urged young men in Lebanon and worldwide to join the jihad against the Assad regime in Syria. On June 1, 2013, in response to Nasrallah’s speech, the Institute of Muslim Religious Scholars, a Salafi Sunni organization, issued another fatwa which stated: “It is the duty of the Muslims, especially of the clerics, the youth and the wealthy, to help their brethren [the rebels in Al-Qusayr] through every kind of jihad: with words, money, medical assistance and fighting… each [of us must help] according to his ability…” The fatwa warns the Muslims that, if they neglect to help their brethren in Syria, they will incur Allah’s wrath and also allow the “Safavid-Iranian” plan to take over Lebanon.
Yet another manifestation of the tension was the clashes that broke out on May 19, 2013, immediately after the start of the attack on Al-Qusayr, between Sunni Islamists and ‘Alawites in Tripoli. This city in northern Lebanon is an accurate barometer of the tensions between Syria and Hizbullah on the one hand and the Salafi and Islamist movements on the other, and also between Lebanese Sunnis and Shi’ites in general, and, to some extent, between the March 8 Forces and the March 14 Forces. The clashes, which went on for a week and then were renewed after a week’s respite, included sniper fire and the firing of long-range rockets, and resulted in 35 people dead and over 280 wounded.
B. Additional Sunni Lebanese Elements Join The Fight Against Hizbullah
An even more important development was that, following Nasrallah’s explicit admission of his organization’s military involvement in Syria, other Sunni forces in Lebanon – who until then had refrained from directing harsh criticism at Hizbullah or were even allied with this organization – started joining the camp of its opponents. One example is the Al-Jama’a Al-Islamiyya organization (the Lebanese branch of the Muslim Brotherhood) in Sidon, which had until then refrained from taking a strong position against Hizbullah, but now joined Salafi sheikh Al-Asir in his anti-Hizbullah campaign. On May 22, 2013, supporters of Al-Asir and of Al-Jama’a disrupted the funeral of a Sunni Hizbullah activist who had been killed in Al-Qusayr and prevented his burial in a Sunni cemetery in Sidon, forcing Hizbullah to bury him in a Shi’ite cemetery instead. In addition, on June 9, 2013, Al-Jama’a Al-Islamiyya held a rally in Sidon in solidarity with the Syrian uprising and in protest of Hizbullah’s involvement in Syria.
Another example is a communiqué issued June 11, 2013 by the “Lebanese Salafi Gathering” (a group of pro-Hizbullah Salafis in northern Lebanon), which urged Hizbullah “not to interfere in the fighting in Syria since it is a civil war that could have grave consequences for the Muslim world and especially for Lebanon.”
In addition, criticism of Hizbullah has also been heard from various elements active in the Palestinian refugee camp ‘Ain Al-Hilweh, which until recently were considered allies of this organization. ‘Ain Al-Hilweh, a large camp adjacent to Sidon, is considered one of the biggest concentrations of Islamist and Salafi groups in Lebanon. Since the outbreak of the Syrian uprising, these Palestinian Salafi groups have been joined by many Syrian Palestinian refugees who support the rebels, and together they pose a serious threat to Hizbullah in Lebanon.
The popular resistance against Hizbullah in the camp gained momentum when, on May 30, 2013, these groups burned aid supplies provided by Hizbullah and demonstrated against its involvement in Syria. According to a report in Al-Akhbar, an organization called “Brave Sunnis of ‘Ain Al-Hilweh” expelled from the camp a Hizbullah delegation that had come to hand out aid, and called upon other refugee camps to bar Hizbullah activists from entering them. The report also stated that groups and factions in the camp that are allied with Hizbullah did not come to its defense. This indicates that Hizbullah is losing traction even among Palestinian groups that are allied with it and funded by it. A prominent example of this can be seen in two Friday sermons delivered recently by Sheikh Jamal Al-Khattab, the leader of the Islamist group “Al-Haraka Al-Islamiyya Al-Mujahida” (The Jihad-Fighting Islamic Movement) in his mosque in ‘Ain Al-Hilweh. In these sermons (delivered on May 24 and 31), he attacked Hizbullah for participating in the fighting in Syria alongside the regime.
The shift in the stance of the Muslim Brotherhood in Lebanon, of Salafi elements, and of some Palestinian groups in the refugee camps – from support for Hizbullah to harsh criticism of it and even active opposition to it – reflects a broader shift in Lebanon and the region at large. If, until now, the division in Lebanon and in the rest of the Arab world was between the resistance camp, which included both Sunnis and Shi’ites, and its rivals, today the division follows sectarian lines and reflects the struggle between the Sunni axis and the Shi’ite one. Thus, Sunni groups in Lebanon, both Lebanese and Palestinian, that supported Hizbullah before its entry into Syria are now joining the rest of the Sunni camp in the Arab world and specifically in Syria and Lebanon who oppose the Shi’ite axis of which Hizbullah is a part.