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Blowback: The Unintended Consequences of Hezbollah’s Role in Syria
Comprehensive Information on Complex Crises
Linda Lavender Complex Coverage Desk Officer email@example.com
Until April 2013, Hezbollah projected to the international community its commitment to insulate Lebanon from the Syrian civil war. Hezbollah appeared to understand the serious threat the conflict posed to Lebanon, seeking ways to mitigate negative impacts the war created domestically. This changed in late April when Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah publicly acknowledged the involvement of the organisation’s militant wing in the Syrian conflict. This paper explores the variety of ways Hezbollah’s decision has impacted the organisation operationally and diplomatically. Hyperlinks to source material are highlighted in blue and underlined in the text.
Introduction Within Lebanese society, deep divisions still linger from a violent and protracted civil war that occurred from 1975 to 1990. Today these divisions continue to strain social cohesion within the country. Experts have expressed concern over the on-going violence in Syria, increasingly sectarian, which tests the fragile peace in Lebanon. Syria and Lebanon share a long, conflicted history and Lebanese citizens are deeply divided over the neighbouring conflict. Northern Lebanon, in particular, is ripe for violence. The North comprises a predominantly Sunni population, and firmly supports the Syrian - Sunni rebels in their aim to overthrow President Bashar al Assad. To further complicate matters, the North contains pockets of small communities of Shi’ite Alawites1 firmly allied with the Alawite-majority Syrian government. The most recent demographic study, conducted in 2011 by Beirut-based research firm Statistics Lebanon, showed that 27 per cent of Lebanon’s population is Sunni Muslim, 27 per cent Shi’ite Muslim, 21 per cent Maronite Christian, 8 per cent Greek Orthodox, 5 per cent Druze and 4 per cent Greek Catholic with the remaining 8 per cent belonging to smaller Christian denominations. Lebanon is a country rich in diversity which perpetually presents challenges to long-term stability. Hezbollah – "The Party of God"
Source: Flat World Knowledge
Hezbollah was forged in eastern Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley in response to Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Hezbollah (“Party of God”) is a multifaceted organisation. It is a powerful political party in Lebanon, a Shi’ite Islam religious and social movement, the country’s largest militia, a close ally of Iran, and a US Department of State designated terrorist organisation, according to the Washington Institute. Today, Hezbollah primarily defines itself as a “resistance movement” and remains adamantly opposed to what it views as illegitimate Israeli and US intervention in Lebanon’s internal and Middle Eastern affairs. The organisation continues to deny Israel’s right to exist while opposing all efforts toward a negotiated resolution to the Palestinian – Israeli conflict.
There are a number of differences between Alawites, and Shi’ites. While most Muslims have five pillars of faith, the Alawites have seven. They believe in the divinity of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad; other Shiites revere Ali, but do not believe he was divine.
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not reflect NATO policies or positions of any other organisation.
Hezbollah in Syria
The debate over the organisation’s role, responsibilities and the future of its militia force continues to dominate Lebanese politics. Historically, Hezbollah’s popularity in Lebanon has been fostered by its on-going military campaign against Israel, its Lebanese character and its social service networks, among other factors. Many Lebanese who support Hezbollah eschew its military component, preferring to focus on the organisation’s delivery of social services along with its perceived religious piety (see Figure 1). Nevertheless, Hezbollah’s robust conventional and unconventional military capabilities make the organisation larger and stronger2 than the Lebanese Armed Forces, according to the Washington Post. Figure 1. Hezbollah Organisational Chart - 2003 It is widely accepted in the academic community that Hezbollah built its legitimacy fighting Israel, according to the Middle East Institute. It enjoys strongholds in southern Lebanon, in portions of Beirut and in the Bekaa Valley (see Figure 2). In tandem with its military operations, Hezbollah pursues political and social agendas as seen in its decision to participate in the 1992 national elections. Politically, Hezbollah advances an “Islamic system” of clerical governance and has been a long-standing critic of what is deemed “the corruption of Lebanon’s confessional political arrangements”, according to a Congressional Research Source: American Diplomacy Service (CRS) report. After winning eight seats in parliament in the 1992 elections, Hezbollah continues to field candidates in national and local elections and has achieved modest electoral representation. In the 2009 national elections, Hezbollah won ten seats in parliament while in 2011 the organisation held two cabinet posts to include the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Administrative Reform. Currently, Hezbollah controls 60 per cent of municipalities in southern Lebanon and has gained posts in Beirut’s southern suburb of Dahiyeh as well as controlling 27 of 30 municipalities in the Bekaa Valley. In 2011, Hezbollah successfully crushed the Lebanese coalition Figure 2: Hezbollah Strongholds government and “rounded up votes for a prime minister of its choosing”, according to the New York Times. As a result, in June 2011, Lebanon’s newly-elected Prime Minister Najib Mikati announced a Lebanese government dominated by members, and allies, of Hezbollah. Socially, Hezbollah, like other Lebanese religious groups, competes for the loyalties of its Shi’ite constituents by operating a vast network of schools, clinics, youth programmes, private business, and local security – which many Lebanese refer to as “a state within a state”, according to Middle East Policy Council. The Islamic Health Unit operates three hospitals, twelve health centres, twenty infirmaries and twenty dental clinics. As a demonstration of its success in service delivery, the social services unit of Hezbollah assumed operations of several government hospitals in southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley. Services are primarily offered to Shi’ite populations.
Source: The Hashmonean/2006
While it remains challenging to accurately determine the size and strength of Hezbollah’ s military capabilities, IranTracker asserts that Hezbollah’s weapons capabilities is larger than the Lebanese security forces.
Hezbollah in Syria
A Shift in Hezbollah Strategy Until April 2013, Hezbollah projected to the international community its commitment to insulate Lebanon from the Syrian civil war. The organisation indicated through rhetoric an understanding of the risk the Syrian conflict posed to Lebanon’s stability, and seemingly sought ways to mitigate the effects of the war domestically, according to the Aspen Institute. However, even in October 2012, as Hezbollah launched a series of social assistance programmes for beleaguered Syrian refugees, Hezbollah’s covert military support in the conflict steadily increased. On 30 April 2013, Hezbollah’s Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah publicly confirmed, for the first time, what was until then an “open secret” in Lebanon’s Shi’ite community: Hezbollah was not honouring Lebanon’s Disassociation Policy3 in Syria. Rather, Nasrallah disclosed Hezbollah was fighting in Syria with the objective of preventing the Assad regime’s fall. Most analysts agree that this shift in Hezbollah’s policy is a gamble in regard to the organisation’s future and could prove to be the undoing of the monopoly Hezbollah has maintained in Lebanon. The Stimson Center asserts that Nasrallah may have “crossed the Rubicon4” when he professed, in his 30 April speech, the organisation's “unbridled support for the Assad regime in Syria”. In doing so, Foreign Affairs suggests that Nasrallah officially “lifted the veil of secrecy” that surrounded Hezbollah’s deepening involvement in Syria. Hezbollah’s support of the Assad regime was never doubted by the international community. However, until May 2013, the organisation worked behind the scenes, even as the number of Lebanese funerals for those “martyred in Syria” mounted. The Hezbollah leader’s announcement is viewed as a crucial turning point, re-focusing the group from resistance movement to sectarian militia. Nasrallah’s April 2013 speech sought to expand the organisation’s mission in the region in order to justify its involvement in Syria. His unprecedented and stinging criticism of Sunni hard-liners in Syria ushered in a “new stage” in Lebanon’s struggle against external threats while adding Sunni-jihadists fighting in Syria to a list of its enemies, according to Foreign Affairs. Nasrallah was eager to remind his followers that they were not “living in Djibouti” but on the border of a country whose two -year war threatens Hezbollah’s very existence. For Iran and Hezbollah, the preservation of the Assad regime is of critical strategic importance, according to the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center. For Iran, alliances with Syria and Hezbollah strengthen its political influence in the Middle East. For Hezbollah, Syria provides an important conduit for weapons transfers from Iran. Furthermore, both Iran and Syria are crucial in building Hezbollah’s weapons caches. According to the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), the decision by Nasrallah to interpose in Syria reflects a new and narrow priority for Hezbollah: the primacy of preserving the “ Resistance Axis5 with Iran”. The organisation’s inability to either appease increasingly militant Lebanese Sunni political forces or diffuse deepening regional Sunni-Shi’ite tensions, magnified by long-standing Shi’ite communal fears as a regional minority group, seem to have led Hezbollah to a troubling conclusion. The organisation can either “choose to fight Sunni forces in Syria today or fight Sunni forces in Lebanon tomorrow, should Assad fall” , writes CSIS. As a result, Hezbollah has now seemingly embarked on a pre-emptive war of choice in Syria. Hezbollah’s Pre-Emptive War in Syria According to the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, Hezbollah was involved in the first year of the Syrian conflict beginning in March 2011. Careful to keep a low profile in order to maintain the illusion of Lebanon’s Disassociation Policy, Hezbollah continued its practice of sending limited assistance of members, primarily advisors on security missions, to Syria in 2012. Hezbollah grew more engrossed in the Syrian conflict as a result of early 2013 Iranian and Hezbollah assessments, which suggested that the Assad regime's hold on power was in jeopardy.
Lebanon’s Disassociation Policy comes from the Baabda Declaration issued by the National Dialogue Committee on 11 June 2012 that states Lebanon will remain disengaged from the Syrian conflict. UN document A/66/849–S/2012/477, Sections 12 and 13 discuss Lebanon’s intent to “avoid the negative repercussions of regional tensions, and crises”. 4 “Crossing the Rubicon” today refers to a “point of no return” and originates from Roman times when the Rubicon river was considered to mark the boundary where any Roman General coming home from war had to disband his army. In January 49 BC the “all conquering” Julius Caesar, returning from years of campaigning, with his political prowess and popularity, decided to “cross the Rubicon” and st art a civil war – passing the point of no return. 5 The “Resistance Axis” includes those countries that are opposed to US hegemony. Hezbollah is working to ensure that Lebanon remains part of the so-called axis of resistance and opposition which includes Iran, Syria, Iraq and Hezbollah.
Hezbollah in Syria
In March 2013, Al Jazeera reported that Hezbollah fighters had intensified their engagements against Syrian rebels. Nasrallah initially denied the group’s military involvement in Syria. Widespread reports showed that Iranians and Hezbollah members focused on creating and training a “popular army”, Jaysh al Sha’bi, which would likely comprise as many as 150,000 Shi’ite militiamen. The goal was not only to help Syrian Alawites with selfdefence, but also to provide a military foothold in the areas populated by Shi’ites and Alawites. In turn, the Hezbollah-Iran alliance would continue to be an important influence in domestic Syrian politics in a possible postAssad era. Hezbollah’s expansive involvement encompasses provision of training assistance to Assad forces in guerrilla warfare, intelligence support to the Syrian government, and fighters on the ground. Hezbollah secures the SyrianLebanese border, taking preventive measures at enabling security inside Lebanon while also waging a propaganda campaign in support of Assad, reports Al Monitor. Qusayr Siege Commencing on 19 May 2013, al Qusayr Syria became the epicentre for Hezbollah fighters engaged in the Syrian conflict (see Figure 3). With the assistance of thousands of Hezbollah, Iranian and Iraqi fighters, the Assad regime scored an important military victory by forcing the withdrawal of rebel opposition forces from the town of al Qusayr, reports the Institute for the Study of War. Foreign Policy asserts that the city is vital to both Hezbollah and the regime, serving as a “strategic link in the Syrian communications chain, connecting Damascus, Syria’s Alawite-dominated coastal highlands and Hezbollah’s heartland in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley”. Estimates of the number of Hezbollah fighters committed to the Qusayr siege vary between 1,500 and 2,500. IRIN reports that over 40,000 people fled Qusayr during the month of May amid fierce fighting, thereby overwhelming refugee capacity in neighbouring Lebanon. After a three week long siege, on 05 June, the Syrian government announced the retaking of al Qusayr. Figure 3: Al Qusayr Combatant Positions (May 2013)
Source: Now Media
A collection of YouTube videos depicting funerals and fighters, official Hezbollah announcements, web sites of Hezbollah-controlled towns and villages, social media outlets controlled by the group and Hezbollah web forums offer confirmation that a significant number of Lebanese militants were killed while fighting in the Syrian siege. Hezbollah’s victory in al Qusayr proved a turning point in the Syrian conflict. In the aftermath of Qusayr, Assad forces made significant advances against rebel held regions, according to The Economist. The battle demonstrated that the regime had developed new offensive capabilities. The loss of the city, a strategic logistical hub for several opposition groups, including the Free Syrian Army (FSA), provided significant advantage for regime forces to access the contested city of nearby Homs. At the same time, the victory awakened Sunni sympathies, squarely supporting the Syrian opposition, leading some analysts to suggest that success in Qusayr delivered only a fleeting victory for Assad, resulting in the loss of political traction for Hezbollah. According to Rami Khouri, “ [al Qusayr] is a very strategic win, but a localised victory which took several weeks and with huge foreign assistance which has a lot of negative connotations”. Khouri predicted, “[t]here will definitely be a reaction against Hezbollah”, according to Reuters
Hezbollah in Syria
Post al Qusayr In the weeks immediately following al Qusayr, Hezbollah publicly calcified support for the Assad regime and followed up on its rhetorical promises with tactical security assistance. Nasrallah pledged, “wherever we need to be [for Syria]… there is no need to elaborate”, reported Associated Press (AP). Over 4,000 Hezbollah fighters reached the northern city of Aleppo as part of military preparations to retake the rebel-held city in early June, according to The Daily Star. Additionally, reports indicate that hundreds of fighters were stationed throughout Syria. Some were garrisoned by the Shi’ite shrine of Sayyida Zeinab 6 near Damascus while others were reportedly sent to two Shi’ite villages in the northern Aleppo province – mainly for training and advising. According to Israeli intelligence, Hezbollah had sustained between 180 and 200 casualties in Syria as of 18 June 2013. In July 2013, Syrian state forces, supported by Hezbollah fighters, hammered the central city of Homs. Residents report that pro-Assad militias and Hezbollah operatives lead operations in Homs. In early August, reports suggest that Hezbollah fighters concentrated efforts in the Damascus region. On 18 August, FSA fighters claimed to kill twenty Hezbollah fighters in an ambush near the Sayyida Zeinab mosque in Damascus. One of the group’s top Syrian military commanders, Hossam Ali Nisr, was killed in Damascus clashes with rebel forces. Jerusalem Post offers that Hezbollah emerged from the Qusayr battle as a committed party in the increasingly sectarian war, thereby “intensifying regional “Sunni-Shi'ite tensions already running high due to the growing participation of Sunni radical militants with the opposition”. Consequences of Hezbollah Intervention Policy CSIS suggests that the recent Hezbollah strategy comes with long-term risks and challenges. To many observers, Hezbollah’s decision to commit to offensive military operations in concert with Syrian and Iranian forces “borders on the irrational” and comes at a cost - both domestically and internationally. The Court of Public Opinion Not all Lebanese Shi’ites support Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria. A minority openly oppose Hezbollah’s dominance of the Shi’ite community. In June 2013, a group of anti -Hezbollah Shi’ites was attacked while attempting to demonstrate outside the Iranian embassy in Beirut. One protester was killed in the violence. Voice of America reported in July 2013 that increasing numbers of “Hezbollah martyrs” prompted some Hezbollah supporters to question the wisdom of fighting fellow Muslims, “even if they are primarily Sunni”, and for many Lebanese Shi’ites, the real enemy continues to be Israel. Retired Lebanese General Hisham Jaber, a Shi’ite from southern Lebanon, described sentiments which are now overheard at many Shi’ite funerals: “If our son was kille d defending south Lebanon against Israeli attack, any attack, we must be very proud, but our son was killed in Syria, why?” In June The Wall Street Journal reported that Hezbollah’s continued operations in Syria strains the group’s relations with its followers. Hezbollah’s shifting strategy could unravel the “rock -solid” relationship with its Lebanese Shi’ite constituency. The organisation’s ability to influence other political coalitions within Lebanon may also be compromised. Additionally, Hezbollah has been forced to defend accusations that it is now at the service of foreign powers. One anti-Syrian parliamentarian in Lebanon, Nadim Gemayel, said “Hezbollah [ha s] changed from an Islamic resistance movement in Lebanon to an Iranian mercenary in Syria”. Furthermore, Shi’ite Hezbollah victories over mostly Sunni Syrian rebels in places like Qusayr have fuelled a more sectarian and regional conflict in Syria, reports Reuters. The vicious siege and number of casualties in Qusayr will undoubtedly result in a desire amongst the rebel community to exact revenge says Charles Lister, analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre. After the Beirut bombings in July and August 2013 targeted the Hezbollah stronghold of Dahiyeh, south of the city centre, supporters of the movement found themselves in “unchartered territory”. The attacks were considered the strongest to target Dahiyeh since 1985, seemingly foreshadowing what the AP called “Iraqi-style sectarian conflict”. For now, those living in Dahiyeh continue to voice unwavering support for the group’s leadership. However, recurring attacks may create new dynamics that could erode Hezbollah’s hold over its Shi’ite constituency.
The Sayyida Zeinab Mosque is the burial place of Mohammed’s granddaughter and approximately 10 km south of city centre Damascus.
Hezbollah in Syria
Call for Jihad – Militants on the Rise in Syria Hezbollah’s participation in the Syrian conflict anticipates a violent response from anti -Assad militants, according to Reuters. As one senior security official in the Middle East explains, “Hezbollah entered a Sunni -Shi’ite conflict (in Syria) declaring jihad so they expect a counter jihad in return”. This is especially true when considering the growing presence of Sunni-jihadist groups such as Jabhat al Nusra (JAN) and places Syria on the front lines of the centuries-old Sunni-Shi’ite rift. In the wake of the al Qusayr siege, leading Sunni Muslim cleric Sheikh Youssef al Qaradawi7 , incensed by Shi’ite Hezbollah’s intervention in the Syrian conflict, called for a holy war against the Syrian government, reports Reuters. According to The Telegraph, Qaradawi is considered to be the spiritual mentor for the worldwide Muslim Brotherhood. His website asked “all those able to undertake jihad and fighting to head to Syria to stand by the Syrian people who are being killed by the Syrian regime and are now being killed at the hands of what he called ‘the party of Satan [Hezbollah]’”. US intelligence estimates that as of August 2013, there are up to 10,000 foreign fighters engaged in overthrowing the Assad government. Syria has replaced Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia as the “favourite training ground for jihadists and terrorists”, counter-terrorism experts acknowledged. In April 2013, The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College found that there were approximately 2,000 to 5,500 foreign fighters in Syria. As foreign fighters migrate at an increasing rate to Syria, many are carving out pockets of territory that are becoming havens for radicalism. Some US and Western intelligence officials suggest that Syria could likely become one of the biggest terrorist threats in the world today. Additionally, fighters are arriving in Syria in greater numbers than those who travelled to Iraq at the height of the Iraqi insurgency. New Militant Groups in Lebanon – Liwa 313 Brigade A little known Syrian rebel group, Liwa 313 Brigade, formed out of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), claimed responsibility for the 09 July bombing of a supermarket in the pro-Hezbollah neighbourhood of Bir al Abed. In a statement released by the group, Liwa 313 lashed out at Lebanon asserting that the country actively assists Hezbollah in Syria. Additionally, it claimed that the bombing was in response to Hezbollah’s participation in the Assad government’s on-going siege of Homs. The group also claimed responsibility for an earlier attack on a Hezbollah convoy in eastern Lebanon on 28 June. Numerous rebels and analysts claim that Liwa 313, with members rooted in the Syrian city of Homs, was formed in November 2012 to conduct “ special operations”. Lebanese intelligence has linked the group to a series of rocket attacks, targeting pro-Hezbollah villages near Hermel in the Bekaa Valley earlier this year. While originating from the more moderate FSA ranks, Liwa 313 Brigade appears to increasingly cooperate with Islamist rebel factions, including JAN. “What is clear is that Liwa 313 is well armed and well supplied”, says Charles Lister of IHS Jane’s, a prominent defence analysis group. Spill-over Violence: Cross-Border Attacks, Bombings and Sectarian Violence Sporadic violence in historical hotspots such as Bekaa Valley, Sidon and Tripoli has been part of Lebanon’s reality since the beginning of the Syrian uprising. However, increasing flashes of violence continue to stress communities hosting the massive influx of refugees. In May 2012, a fragile calm returned to the Lebanese capital Beirut and the northern city of Tripoli, a day after clashes between pro and anti-Syrian Lebanese factions erupted in the aftermath of the killing of a prominent anti- Syrian Sunni cleric, Sheikh Ahmad Abdel Wahed, and his associate. At the time the day-long clashes were considered the worst outbreak of sectarian violence Lebanon had experienced since 2008. Protests erupted, roads were closed and in some areas of Beirut, heavy machine guns and rocketpropelled grenades were employed in overnight violence. Since then, scores of Lebanese have died and hundreds have been wounded in sectarian clashes. Sit-ins and protests have been held in south Lebanon by anti-Hezbollah Salafists. In February 2013, at least two people were killed in clashes between Assad supporters and opponents. In May 2013, five people were killed in violence after the arrest of Sunni cleric Shadi al Moulawi on terrorism charges, reports BBC. Since Nasrallah’s disclosure of the organisation’s participation in fighting Syrian rebels and the organisation’s “game-changing” victory in Qusayr, violence in Lebanon is on the rise.
Sheikh Youssef al Qaradawi is considered to be the most popular and influential Islamic preacher in the world and is the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Hezbollah in Syria
Bekaa Valley Violence In March 2013, as fierce sporadic clashes ensued between Syrian rebels and Hezbollah fighters outside Qusayr, Syrian rebel leaders threatened to “take the fight to Hezbollah inside Lebanese territory”, according to McClatchy. Since then, a series of attacks against Hezbollah strongholds has been launched from Syrian soil, presumably by Syrian rebels. In May 2013, rockets were fired on Hermel injuring several villagers. On 03 June, The National reports that at least twelve Syrian rebels were killed in clashes with Hezbollah fighters on Lebanese soil near Baalbek, a Hezbollah stronghold. Again on 05 June, two rockets hit near the historic ruins of Baalbek in the Bekaa Valley, hours after the Assad regime seized control of the strategic border town of Qusayr in Syria, according to France 24. After the rocket attacks, gunmen took to the streets while other gunmen headed for the Syrian border ready to engage in the conflict. On 10 June, Lebanese officials were investigating a roadside explosion that damaged a van and car in Taanayel, east Lebanon, carrying Hezbollah supporters. On 18 June, The Daily Star reports that three Source: Foreign Policy Focus Lebanese Shi’ite men in Wadi Rafet were killed in an ambush in the remote area of the Bekaa Valley near the Syrian border near the towns of Arsal and Baalbek. Sheikh Mohammad Zeaiter, a clan member from Qasr, said that clan and sectarian tensions have “reached a climax” after the killings. Two small bombs hit a Hezbollah convoy on 28 June in the Bekaa Valley causing no casualties. Recently, on 16 July, an explosion near the Masnaa border crossing between Lebanon and Syria targeted two vehicles carrying Hezbollah officials travelling to Syria. While no group claimed responsibility for the attack, which injured two, Syrian rebels have threatened to strike Hezbollah for its interference in Syrian affairs. The Hezbollah stronghold of Hermel continues to be targeted by Syrian rebels, reminding Hezbollah of the risks involved in their continued Assad support. On 18 August, two rockets allegedly fired by rebels within Syria struck the eastern Lebanese village. Violence within the Bekaa Valley is indiscriminate and not aimed at only Shi’ites, as Sunnis in the Valley are attacked by Hezbollah’s ally, the Syrian government. Syrian helicopters fired six rockets into the Bekaa Valley on 07 June, targeting the Wadi Hmeid region near the border town of Arsal, a Sunni rebel haven, reports The Daily Star. The helicopter attacks were the second time in several days the Syrian government attacked the Sunnimajority regions of the Bekaa Valley. Currently, it is impossible to quantify the continued barrage of mortar attacks, Syrian fighter jet attacks, cross-border skirmishes and “tit-for-tat” kidnappings occur in the Bekaa Valley as a direct result of the spill over from the conflict. Northern Lebanon/Tripoli Tripoli, a city of nearly 200,000 people and Lebanon’s second largest city, is home to a large Sunni population. Historically, the city has seen its share of clashes between Sunnis and Alawites. Early in the Syrian conflict, in June 2011, and again in February 2012, Tripoli experienced clashes between pro-Syrian government and anti-Syrian government Lebanese neighbourhoods. As the battle for Qusayr raged, fierce fighting erupted between Sunni and Shi’ite militias in the northern city of Tripoli which forced schools and local businesses to close, according to NYT. The clashes resulted in 24 deaths. PBS News Hour reported on 05 June that during May 2013, three dozen people in Tripoli were killed in sectarian fighting. Rockets and shells from Syria struck northern Lebanon on 07 and 08 June 2013, but resulted in no casualties, according to The Daily Star. Syrian rockets struck villages of Hiker Janine, Janine, al Arama and Qishliq in Akkar district. Shells from the Syrian side of the border also sparked fires in Ammar Bikat. On 23 August, car bombs exploded outside two Sunni mosques during Friday worship, “sending new sectarian shudders through the country”, reports NYT. The Lebanese Red Cross reported to CNN that 27 people died and over 600 were wounded, but fatalities later grew to over 45. Many Tripoli residents indicated that the bombings would not go unanswered. Taqwa mosque, one of the bomb targets, is home to Sheik Salem al Rafei, an outspoken Sunni preacher who is strongly anti-Hezbollah and has encouraged worshippers to support the Sunni insurgency in Syria. On 08 September, Sheikh Saadeddine Ghiyeh, a pro-Assad supporter, survived a car bomb detonation, according to Daily Star. The bomb targeted Ghiyeh because of his relationship with Sheikh Hashem Minqara, a preacher who is close to Assad. Minqara was held on charges of withholding information related to the Taqwa mosque attacks and provisionally released on 04 September.
Hezbollah in Syria
Beirut Beirut has remained relatively calm since 2008 after violence broken out between Hezbollah militia and government troops in street battles. However, Beirut, Tripoli and then eastern Lebanon erupted in violence in May 2012 after the killing of a prominent anti-Syrian Sunni cleric Sheikh Ahmad Abdel Wahed and an associate, mentioned earlier. At the time, the incident was only the latest to tap into the deeply-seated frustrations of the largely anti-Syrian Sunni community in Lebanon, and Sunni reaction to the killing was immediate and predictable. In May 2013, four rockets struck the southern neighbourhood of Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold. Responsibility for the attack was attributed to Syrian rebels, reacting to Hezbollah’s continued support of the Assad Army. Then in the wake of the al Qusayr siege, on 09 June, a Lebanese protester was shot and killed while demonstrating outside the Iranian embassy. Anti-Hezbollah demonstrators claim they were attacked by pro-Hezbollah crowds that reacted violently when protesters organised near the Iranian embassy. The incident resulted in Lebanese troops blocking streets in Beirut with tanks and barbed wire to cordon the city centre and neighbourhoods controlled by Hezbollah for several hours after the attack. On 09 July, a massive car bomb ripped through the Shi’ite neighbourhood of Bir al Abed wounding more than fifty people. The bombing heightened fears that Hezbollah and supporters would face attacks in response to its intervention in Syria. On 15 August, another car bomb detonated in the Beirut Hezbollah stronghold killing at least 22 people. Sidon In mid-June, Sunni protesters inflamed sectarian tensions by blockading streets in Sidon in order to prevent the funeral procession of a known Hezbollah fighter. On 18 June, The Washington Post reports that clashes between supporters of a local Salafist sheik and Shi’ites affiliated with Hezbollah erupted with gunmen using small arms and rocket-propelled grenades. The outbreak of violence was sparked when the brother of Sheik Ahmad al Assir found his car vandalised. The incident resulted in the deaths of ten Lebanese soldiers who were called in to regain control of the area and two gunmen loyal to Sheikh Ahmad al Assir; 38 soldiers were also injured in the confrontations. Terrorism Designation On 22 July 2013, the European Union (EU) declared the military wing of Hezbollah a terrorist organisation8, a decision that EU leadership anticipates will place pressure on the Shi’ite group that relies heavily on fundraising and financial support. EU leaders indicated the decision reflected their concern about Hezbollah’s suspected involvement in Europe-based bombings9 as well as its growing role in Syria. Sanctions against Hezbollah will include asset freezes and potential travel bans on some individuals. In the days following the announcement, Hezbollah’s future role was heavily debated amongst Lebanese opposition groups and the March 14 Alliance. Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri accused Hezbollah of threatening national security with its decision to fight in Syria. Antoine Zahra a lawmaker from the March 14 Alliance stated they did not seek to side-line Hezbollah from political engagement, but opposed Hezbollah’s “illegal weapons” that were being used domestically to intimidate others. Hezbollah leader Nasrallah told followers that the EU decision would have no impact, particularly regarding the new Cabinet formation. Meanwhile, the March 14 general secretariat called on Hezbollah to make a “historical compromise” by relinquishing their weapons to the Lebanese state, thereby ending its military involvement in Syria. Lebanese Political Fallout - Splintering of the March 8 Alliance After al Qusayr, the Future Movement’s10 parliamentary bloc “blasted Hezbollah’s dangerous and criminal role” in Syria and warned that Lebanon’s political, security and economic woes would not be resolved as long as Hezbollah continued to engage in Syria, reports The Daily Star. Recent bombings, street battles and political defections could
to its involvement in Lebanese politics and vast network of social services, there is considerable debate among the international community concerning whether Hezbollah should be classified as a terrorist organization. The U.S., Canada, Israel, and others classify Hezbollah strictly as a terrorist organization, which limits the group's ability to raise funds and travel internationally.. 9 Hezbollah remains a suspect in a July 2012 bus bombing in Bulgaria where the attack in the Black Sea resort of Burgas killed five Israel tourists, the bus driver and alleged perpetrator. 10 The Future Movement is a Lebanese political movement led by Member of Parliament Saad Hariri and the son of assassinated former Prime Minister of Lebanon Rafik Hariri. The movement is the largest member of the March 14 Alliance, a political bloc, which also includes Christians with the Lebanese Forces and Kataeb parties. The majority of the Future Movement members are Sunni Muslims.
Hezbollah in Syria
signal the end of Hezbollah’s “relative impunity”, thereby laying the groundwork for more instability and violence, according to David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. A day after the 09 July bombing of a Hezbollah-controlled suburb of Beirut, Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) party, led by retired Christian General Michel Aoun, announced the FPM departure from the Hezbollah-led March 8 Alliance in parliament. FPM’s association with Hezbollah had helped the group’s political dominance, and if the split continues, could signal a significant shift in Lebanon’s political la ndscape – and isolation of Hezbollah. In June 2013, former Hezbollah Secretary-General Subhi al Tufayli (1989-1991) condemned Hezbollah activities in Syria saying the group has now “provoked the whole world”. Tufayli added, “Hezbollah’s project as a resistance party that works to unify the Islamic world has fallen. It is no longer that party that defends the Umma [Islamic nation]; instead it plagues the Umma”. The former leader also asserts that Iran fully controls the group and is responsible for pushing the militia into the Syrian war, according to Al Arabiya. President Michel Sleiman, for the first time ever, publicly announced he can “ no longer sanction Hezbollah’s existence as an armed militia in Lebanon”, reported Michael Totten in his article Hezbollah Plays the Israel Card. In an effort to quash debate over Hezbollah’s political future, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the de -facto leader of Lebanon’s Sunnis, reiterated that he is against the formation of a government cabinet that legitimises Hezbollah’s weapons, suggests Totten. Nasrallah said, “if some groups…are planning to isolate or corner us [after the EU decision]…by saying the decision affirms that a government excluded Hezbollah should be formed…I tell them the situation after the European Union decision is the same as it was before the European Union decision”, adding, “a government in which Hezbollah is not represented will not be formed, this is logic”. Head of the Lebanese Forces party, Samir Geagea recently lashed out at Hezbollah saying that the organisation “opened the gates of hell” in Lebanon. The repercussions of Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria is, according to Geagea, “oppressing the Syrian people, antagonized dozens of states an d hundreds of Arabs, Muslims and Christians, as well as international public opinion” writes The Daily Star. Regional Response - Expulsion of Shi’ites from Gulf States Hezbollah's actions against Sunnis in Syria could provoke violence against Shi’ite communities in the Gulf Cooperation Council states (GCC11) and damage regional Arab public opinion, according to CSIS. Most Arab leaders have already severed ties with Assad’s “heinous” regime, and the Syrian National Coalition now represents Syria at the Arab League. CSIS suggests Hezbollah risks compromising the organisation’s brand as a resistance organisation. Hezbollah is fast becoming known as “a sectarian tool in the service of increasingly narrow Lebanese Shi’ite interests”. After the victory in al Qusayr, one senior Arab security source says Hezbollah “[H]as committed a grave mistake. We are facing a turning point. Hezbollah hopes [their involvement in Syria] will be for its own interest but I don’t see that it is in its interest”, reports Reuters. Condemning Hezbollah’s “widening involvement”, General Salim Idriss, military chief of the main Syrian umbrella opposition group FSA in Syria, says his men are ready to fight Hezbollah militants inside neighbouring Lebanon, saying that Lebanese fighters are “invading” Syria while Lebanon has failed to take the necessary steps to stop the group’s intervention, reports BBC. Shi’ite Muslims residing in the largely Sunni Gulf States are alarmed by the sectarian rhetoric of some Sunni clerics responding to Hezbollah’s intervention in the Syrian conflict , reports Reuters. Hate speech is on the rise, aggravating a geopolitical split that has turned into an all-out proxy war in Syria between countries allied with Shi’ite Iran and those aligned with Gulf Sunni States. On 13 June, days after the fall of al Qusayr to the Assad forces, dozens of Islamic religious scholars, mostly from Gulf, Sunni-majority states gathered in Cairo to “study plans to call for an international appeal for jihad in Syria”, reported Inter-Press Service (IPS). Saudi Arabian religious scholars urged Muslims and Arabs on 14 June to support Syrian rebels against what they say are atrocities at the hands of Iranian-backed Shi’ite forces in Syria. IPS reports the imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Sheikh Saudi al Shoreym, issued an appeal to Muslims to provide help “by all means” to Syrian rebels and civilians trapped within Syria. His “emotional message” was broadcas t live on several pan-Arab television channels.
With the exception of Bahrain, which has a Shi’ite majority of 70 per cent of the population, GCC states which include Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are overwhelmingly Sunni.
Hezbollah in Syria
On 15 June, then Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi 12 announced Egypt had cut diplomatic ties with Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s government. Additionally, Morsi announced his government’s support of a no -fly zone over Syria and called on Shi’ite Hezbollah forces fighting in Syria to leave. Since Morsi’s removal from power on 03 July, the Egyptian interim government, while still supporting the rebels, has taken a more impartial approach to the conflict, according to AP. Considered by some Gulf State authorities as a security threat, hundreds of foreign Shi’ites have been expelled from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and Qatar on suspicions of supporting Hezbollah, reports Naharnet. The deportations of Shi’ites have surged in recent months after Hezbollah openly announced its involvement in the Syrian conflict on the side of Assad. One Lebanese diplomat stationed in the Gulf confirmed that Saudi Arabia announced plans to deport all Lebanese. On average, the diplomat was now processing three expulsion cases per week in July. In June 2013, Qatar expelled eighteen Lebanese citizens. Also, in June the six GCC states agreed to implement sanctions against Hezbollah. The GCC countries determined that unlike the EU, it would sanction all of Hezbollah, without distinction between the group’s military and political w ings. Sanctions against the organisation began in July with the restriction of all financial transactions originating from Hezbollah bank accounts in Gulf States. Conclusion Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria has exacerbated the sectarian narrative of the conflict, inflaming tensions throughout the region, even compelling some Sunnis to engage in jihad. Hezbollah is likely seen by many Sunnis as a puppet of the Shi’ite powerhouse Iran, according to Agence-France Presse. Iran has provided billions of US dollars in assistance to the Assad regime to include militia members from its Revolutionary Guard to Syria, reports USA Today. The impacts of the Hezbollah victory in Qusayr have been immediate. The sense that Syrian rebels are losing ground to Hezbollah and Iran likely impacted the West’s decision to begin arming moderate Syrian rebels – while Russia has committed naval assets to the region, signalling its intent to continue supporting the Syrian government. Jonathan Schanzer, a Middle East scholar at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies suggests, “[t]here is a real danger of greater contagion”. Beyond Hezbollah’s deeper role in Syria, the conflict could risk widening as Israel decides whether to take further defensive measures against Syria, should additional Iranian troops arrive in the region. The probability of a peace conference that would include key stakeholders producing a political solution to the conflict at this time seems remote. The recent succession of advances by Assad diminishes the need for the regime to engage in a negotiated settlement in the conflict. In the aftermath of the 21 August alleged chemical weapons attack by Assad forces against rebel-held areas of the capital, military intervention by Western countries is uncertain. The future trajectory of this proxy-war is also ambiguous. Some analysts speculate that Hezbollah’s involvement in the conflict could expand into carrying out attacks against Western targets if the US and allies punitively strike the Syrian regime, writes USA Today. Regardless of the outcome, Nasrallah and other leaders of the “Party of God” have irrevocably engaged in the Syrian conflict. As a journalist in Lebanon quipped, Hezbollah’s destabilising activities in Syria have, in essence, “torn away the party’s mask of virtue”.
Former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was removed from his elected position on 03 July after millions of Egyptians took to the streets calling for his resignation. The Egyptian military ultimately removed Morsi from the Presidency.