Lebanon's Hezbollah is perhaps best known for its strikes against Israel. It fought off an Israeli invasion in 2006, and has been seen across the Middle East as a revolutionary resistance force. Despite the fact that it is a Shi'ite group, primarily funded by Syria and Iran, it has traditionally drawn support from Sunnis elsewhere in the region, too, because of its primary aims of resisting imperialism and fighting the Israeli occupation.
But is that changing? Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, took the group into unchartered territory when he sent fighters to Syria to back up Bashar al-Assad's floundering government. On Saturday, in a televised speech, he publicly pledged to back Assad's government to the hilt. This was merely the public admission of the fact that the group has thrown its military and political weight behind the Assad regime. This is an incredibly high risk strategy.
The Syrian conflict divides opinion across the Middle East, increasingly along sectarian lines. While Hezbollah's main support base of Shi'ite Muslims broadly supports Assad's Alawite regime, the rebellion is popular elsewhere in Lebanon, as well as with many Sunnis (who make up a majority) elsewhere in the region. In the past, Hezbollah's focus on resisting Israel has allowed it to transcend these sectarian lines to an extent. Going headfirst into a conflict that is sharpening sectarian tension across the region seriously threatens its credibility, and could lead to the group being seen simply as a conduit for Iranian interests.
It is worth noting that Hezbollah's actions in Syria have very serious consequences for Lebanon. The country is politically polarised, and has attempted to pursue a policy of "disassociation" during the past two years of uprising in Syria. On Saturday, Hezbollah admitted it had sent fighters to Syria, and publically avowed its support for Assad, thus marking the death toll for the aim of neutrality in Lebanon. This is not just any militant group; it is also a political party with huge influence over Lebanon's weak caretaker government. Its militant wing, the country's most effective force, is even stronger than the national army.
And its involvement in Syria has already had repercussions. Rockets have been fired on Hezbollah targets in Lebanon with increasing frequency over the last few days. On Sunday, Beirut was hit for the first time since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, as rockets targeted Hezbollah's headquarters in the south of the city. These attacks are coming from groups that oppose the Syrian government and back rebels both within Syria and in Lebanon. Since the end of Lebanon's civil war in 1990, the country has maintained a fragile state of peace. This divisive military action by Hezbollah has clearly endangered that.
So why has Hezbollah got involved, given the major risks to its regional credibility and its own country's stability? Put plainly, it sees the outcome of the Syrian conflict as crucial to its very survival. Hezbollah relies on Syria to provide a safe passage for arms from Iran. It has framed the intervention as part of an attempt to safeguard its core missions of fighting Israel, empowering Shi'ites, and protecting Lebanon. "If Syria falls into the hands of America, Israel and the takfiris, the people of our region will enter a dark period," Nasrullah said in his televised address at the weekend. "If we do not go there to fight them …they will come here." However, as he must recognise, if Assad's regime falls and the conflict is lost, all of these missions will be seriously undermined. The New York Times suggests that "if it loses, or fails to win quickly and decisively, Hezbollah could suffer a blow to its military lustre not unlike the one it inflicted on Israel in 2006."
"I have always promised you victory, and I promise victory again," Nasrullah told his fighters at the weekend. This bold claim demonstrates how much he is staking his credibility on a win. But this risky move does not just threaten to shrink Hezbollah's support base; more worryingly, it is one more step along the road towards all out sectarian war in the region.
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