Hizbollah risking Lebanon to keep Assad

Hassan Nasrallah was once considered the most credible leader in the
Middle East.

Supporters and enemies of Hizbollah’s secretary-general knew that his threats were credible, his denials accurate and that, by contrast with the high-blown rhetoric of the region, he usually meant what he said.

For the past two years, this credibility has been greatly eroded as Nasrallah and other Hizbollah spokesmen have sought to deny what has become general knowledge: that the Lebanese movement has been deeply involved in the fighting in Syria, on the side of the Assad regime.

In recent weeks, the denials have become almost farcical, not only as the reports of Hizbollah fighters in Syria intensified daily, but as the number mounted of “martyrs” coming back in coffins for burial in Beirut and Shia villages across Lebanon.

On Saturday night, in a televised speech, Nasrallah finally came clean. He announced that Hizbollah fighters were indeed in Syria and that, if the need arose, the movement would send thousands more to Assad’s aid.

This was not a simple admission for Nasrallah to make. In Lebanon, Hizbollah calls itself “the resistance” and it justifies maintaining a large military force by claiming to be Lebanon’s main line of defence against a Zionist invasion.

For that reason, Nasrallah put the fighting in Syria in a regional context, saying: “If Syria falls, so will Palestine, the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem.” He called the jihadists now fighting against Assad “takfiris” — a derogatory term used by Muslims to describe Salafists — and accused them of serving Israel’s agenda.

Nasrallah’s speech was answered almost immediately with two Grad rockets, launched towards the Dahiye neighbourhood in Beirut, the movement’s main stronghold. There could be no clearer proof that Lebanon is now deeply embroiled in the Syrian conflict. At the same time, fighting between Shia and Allawite supporters of Assad and their Sunni opponents has engulfed Lebanon’s second-largest city, Tripoli.

Since the Lebanese civil war officially ended in 1990, there have been numerous outbreaks of violence that have threatened to plunge that fragile country back into chaos. Now that its neighbour to the east — which always sought to control Lebanon — is tearing itself to pieces, the entire balance of power is changing. Hizbollah and other pro-Assad factions in Lebanon are afraid of losing their main source of power. As long as they believe there is still a chance of preserving Assad, they will risk Lebanon’s stability and prosperity to do so.

Last updated: 5:45pm, May 30 2013