Hizballah enters the Syrian Abyss

Two Grad rockets were fired this week at the south Beirut suburb of Shiyah. This district borders the Dahiyeh – the stronghold in the city which houses the main offices of Hizballah. The decision to strike so close to Hizballah’s nerve center is a dramatic escalation by the Syrian rebels of their simmering conflict with the Lebanese Shia militia.

The official leadership of the Free Syrian Army repudiated earlier claims of responsibility for the rocket fire issued in its name. But the official leadership of the FSA do not in fact command the mainly Sunni Islamist men who do the actual fighting in Syria for the rebellion. So their statements are of only secondary importance.

What is happening is that Hizballah’s long standing but increasingly overt engagement in the war in Syria is now being paid back in kind by the rebels.

Some of Hizballah’s best fighters have for the last ten days been spearheading a relentless regime advance into the city of Qusayr. They are now two thirds of the way into the city, pushing northwards. The going has been tougher than expected. The rebels have fought for every inch of ground. But the Lebanese Shia fighters, backed up by regime artillery and air power, are moving forward.

The fighting in Qusayr does not represent the opening of a new front. Rather, it is the most intensive manifestation of a long active sector of the war, in which Hizballah and regime forces battle rebels in the poorly demarcated border zone between Syria and Lebanon. This reporter wrote as far back as October last year that ‘whatever the tactical details – the FSA and Hizballah are already at war.’

But Hizballah for a long time preferred to blur its own role in the fighting. It claimed that the Shia fighters on the ground were local Syrian villagers, who had requested assistance and advice from Hizballah. No longer. A week into the fight for Qusayr, Hassan Nasrallah issued a ringing declaration promising victory to his followers.

It has evidently occurred to elements among the Syrian rebels that if Hizballah can interfere in their dispute, they can return the compliment.

Hizballah dominance has been apparent in Lebanon ever since the Shia brushed aside Sa’ad Hariri’s feeble challenge to its authority in May, 2008.

The movement’s ascendancy has never been accepted by all. But neither the urbane followers of Hariri, nor the divided and declining Christians, nor the ever pragmatic and few in number Druze, were able to pose any kind of a challenge.

It was long clear that if a challenge were to come, it could come from one quarter only – that of the Islamists among the Lebanese Sunni population. For a long period, though, a challenge from that quarter too seemed unlikely. Lebanon’s Sunnis do not have a long tradition of militancy. Hizballah’s Iran-supplied weaponry and expertise seemed to conclude the argument. Sunni radical preachers such as Sidon’s Ahmed al-Assir were half comical figures. No one is laughing now.

The Syrian civil war has altered the power calculus in Lebanon. The Salafi Islamists of Lebanon have noted the emergence of an insurgency dominated by their ideological compatriots in Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. The Syrian rebels, meanwhile, as they battle Hizballah’s forces in Homs province and the Damascus area, observe that their enemies have a backyard in which they are vulnerable.

The Lebanese Sunni Islamist and the Syrian rebels have therefore now begun to strike Hizballah in its underbelly – Lebanon itself.

The Grads in south Beirut were only the most graphic demonstration of the opening of a new front in Lebanon. In the northern city of Tripoli, the long smoldering conflict between pro-rebel Islamist militants in the city’s Bab al-Tabaneh neighborhood and the pro-Assad Alawites of the Jebel Mohsen district once again broke out into the open.

Over 30 people died and more than 200 have been wounded as the Sunni Islamists, thought to include Jabhat al-Nusra members, descended on the rival neighborhood. Their act came only days after the opening of the assault on Qusayr City.

There are fears that if and when Qusayr falls to the regime, the Islamists in Tripoli will seek to exact their vengeance on the people of Jabal Mohsen.

Which means that Tripoli has now in effect become an outlying sector in the Syrian civil war.

There have been further rocket attacks by rebels across the Syrian border on the Hizballah supporting Hermel area. And rebels have issued a number of blood-curdling threats against Hizballah. In one video, commanders and fighters of Aleppo’s Tawhid Brigade threatened to ‘target the locations’ of Hizballah everwhere, in response to the party’s engagement in Syria.

The Tawhid commander further warned that unless the Beirut government restrained Hezbollah, the rebels ‘will have to move the battle to Lebanon,’ and said that ‘“Our developed rockets will then target Beirut’s southern suburb and beyond… and I will give directions to the revolutionary in Syria to attack the gangs of Hezbollah in all Shiite village.”

Another group of rebels in Qusayr accused senior Hizballah commander Mustafa Badreddine of leading Hizballah forces in the city and vowed to kill him. They referred to party leader Hassan Nasarallah as ‘Hassan Nasr a-Shaytan’ (Hassan victory of Satan.)

In Sidon, too, followers of Ahmed al-Assir fought with Hizballah supporting members of the so-called ‘Resistance Brigades.’ Shotes were fired outside of the Bilal Ibn Rabah Mosque, where Assir is the Imam.

What all this adds up to is that the sectarian balance of power in Lebanon is ripe for shifting as a result of the emergence of the Sunni insurgency in Syria. Hizballah chose or was instructed by its Iranian patron to go all in to help save their ally in Damascus. As a result, Lebanon is now being drawn inexorably closer to the flames of the Syrian civil war. The explosions in the Shiyah district may well be remembered as the decisive opening shots to renewed civil strife in Lebanon.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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