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Hezbollah's dilemma in Syria and the spillover to Lebanon

The intervention of the Shia Lebanese militant group Hezbollah in support of the Assad regime in Syria has effectively exacerbated political tensions within Lebanon.

The Lebanese media has been largely focused on the conflict spillover from Syria. News coverage has been directed at events associated with the Syrian conflict: the latest bombings within the country, Hezbollah’s role as an army fighting “extremism”, and the political vacuum in the Lebanese government.

In recent days, a video published by the media office of Jabhat Al-Nusra, also known as Al-Nusra Front (NF), Al-Qaeda’s wing in Syria, showed nine officers from Lebanon’s police and armed forces detained by NF.

“I wish my family, all those around me and all Shias to realise that the party [Hezbollah] has nothing to do with us,” said one of the detained officers in the video. “Go and protest against the party to leave Syria.”

The five-minute video, filmed at an unknown location, shows the detainees sitting on the ground, shouting a forced plea to their families in Lebanon to protest against Hezbollah for their interference in Syria. According the NF, the officers were arrested in the Al-Qalamoun Mountains, located on the 375 kilometre border between Syria and Lebanon, at the beginning of August this year.

“It is certain that Hezbollah’s popularity has decreased a lot since its interference in Syria,” said Luna Safwan, a Lebanese journalist based in Beirut, commenting on the reaction of the Lebanese people towards Hezbollah in light of its involvement with the Assad regime.

Hezbollah, translated into English as “The Party of God”, is deemed a terrorist organisation by the US and Europe. It is based in Lebanon and funded primarily by Iran. Hezbollah is considered to be the most highly-trained and strongest armed Shia power outside of Iran.

In May 2013, Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah confirmed that his party intervened in Syria to prevent it from falling into the hands of “takfiri groups”. However, Hezbollah began providing the Assad regime with military and logistical support long before the emergence of extremist groups in Syria.

“Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria was gradual and has currently reached its peak,” said Fahad Al-Masri, director of the Paris-based Centre of Strategic, Security and Military Studies on Syria. He believes that the presence of Hezbollah and other Shia groups fighting in Syria alongside the regime has acted as a magnet in attracting Sunni jihadists to the country, further intensifying the sectarian element of the conflict.

“The video supports Hezbollah’s story that there are terrorists and takfiris entering Arsal,” added Fahad stressing that Hezbollah aims to strengthen its presence politically in front of the Lebanese factions.

According to a report published by the Syrian Network for Human Rights about Shia groups in Syria, it is estimated that there are around 7,000 to 10,000 Hezbollah fighters in Syria, and 300 have been killed since joining the conflict. The Centre of Strategic, Security and Military Studies on Syria estimates the number to be much higher, stating that Hezbollah has invested around 20,000 of its fighters in Syria and lost more than 2,000 in the fighting.

In early August, militants linked to IS began to operate out of Arsal, a village in east Lebanon at the border to Syria. Hezbollah had a major role in fighting with the Lebanese army in a battle against the militants, as it is better armed and more experienced than the national forces. As a result of the violence, 19 Lebanese soldiers were killed, in addition to an unknown number of IS militants.

“Obviously there is a plan to reopen the Arsal [extremist] front again especially with the chaos in the Qalamoun area,” added Safwan, who has written extensively about the situation in Syria and the revolution. She also noted that the latest clashes in Arsal have split the Lebanese public’s opinion on the army. Some have grown sceptical of the Lebanese army’s cooperation with Hezbollah and believe that the army has helped cover up the extent of Hezbollah’s interference in Syria.

On Wednesday, the Lebanese daily news site the Daily Starreported that warplanes belonging to the Assad regime launched airstrikes against “militant hideouts” in Lebanon, according to a Lebanese security source. The next day, Syria’s Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Abdul-Karim Ali stated that his government is willing to help Lebanon in its fight against “Islamist militants”, with the justification that Lebanon “cannot deal with terrorism alone”.

“Hezbollah and the Syrian regime have merged and become one, now it is really hard to separate them,” Safwan explained. She said that it is too late to discuss who is responsible for causing the conflict to spillover into Lebanon.

“We [Lebanese] are witnessing repercussions that are just the beginning of the potential consequences from Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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