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Hezbollah's Gamble in Syria
MONA YACOUBIAN is Senior Adviser for the Middle East at the Henry L. Stimson Center. She also directs the project Pathways to Progress: Peace, Prosperity, and Change in the Middle East, a joint initiative between the George C. Marshall Foundation and the Stimson Center.See more by this author
Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, appeared to cross a Rubicon last week. In a defiant speech on May 25, he emphasized the Lebanese Shia militant group’s unbridled support for the Assad regime in Syria. In doing so, he lifted the veil of secrecy that had surrounded Hezbollah’s deepening involvement in Syria. Of course, Hezbollah’s backing of Syria had never been in question. Yet the organization had worked assiduously to cover its tracks, even as the number of funerals for those “martyred” in Syria mounted.
Beyond publicly confirming what everyone already assumed, the speech, which was staunchly sectarian, signals a critical turning point for Hezbollah. It could mark the group’s transformation from resistance movement to sectarian militia. Nasrallah delivered an unprecedented and stinging criticism of Sunni hard-liners in Syria. He heralded a “new stage” in Lebanon’s struggle against external threats, adding a jihadist-controlled Syria to a list of enemies that already includes Israel and the United States.
Hezbollah’s ongoing metamorphosis will provoke a strong response from Syrian rebels as well as from Lebanon’s increasingly radicalized Sunni community. In the wake of the speech, Syrian rebels increasingly threaten reprisals against Hezbollah, which they often refer to as the hizb ash-shaytan, which means party of the devil. General Salim Idriss, chief of staff of the rebel Supreme Military Council has warned that he will not be able to "restrain the fighters" who will take "all measures" if Hezbollah does not withdraw from Lebanon. "We will chase Hezbollah to hell," Idriss continued. Colonel Abdul-Jabbar al-Aqidi, commander the Military Council in Aleppo, threatened "to strike at your stronghold in Dahiyeh,” which are Beirut's southern suburbs.
Radicalized elements in Lebanon's Sunni community appear to have launched rocket attacks at Hezbollah’s Beirut stronghold and fired on a Shia shrine outside the Bekaa valley city of Baalbek, another Hezbollah stronghold. Even moderate Sunni organizations such as the Muslim Scholars Association of Lebanon are calling on the Sunni community to support the Syrian rebels in every way, including fighting.