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May 27, 2013
The latest news from Syria has been familiarly bad. The latest advances by Syrian government forces, in cooperation with thousands of Hezbollah fighters from neighboring Lebanon, have all but cemented the stalemate (to say nothing of increased Russian support). Hezbollah’s involvement in the conflict has provoked sharp reactions from observers in Syria and the broader region, but nowhere has the reaction been stronger than within Lebanon, where fears of a sectarian conflict have grown as the Syrian civil war drags on.
The presence of Hezbollah fighters in Syria has been evident for quite some time, although details of the role they are playing have only recently become apparent as reports of skirmishes between Hezbollah fighters and rebels start pouring in. As Haaretz News’ Amos Harel reported earlier this month: “The fighters are taking an active part in the most important battle for the survival of the Syrian dictator....Hezbollah’s focus on the civil war in Syria has led to sharp criticism of the organization in Lebanon....Assad also claimed that Israel has intervened on the side of the rebels because his forces have scored some successes recently. Sources in Israel deny that Israel wants to take sides in the civil war in Syria, but the impression is that the regime is very far from victory and that the adversaries are trapped in a kind of paralyzing tie that does not permit a win by either side.”
Several regional leaders have commented on the participation of Hezbollah forces in the conflict, with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, according to the Turkish daily Today’s Zaman, justifying his hard line against the Syrian regime by pointing to the spiraling violence in the country: “[Erdogan] rejected on Tuesday criticism against his government's support for the Syrian opposition, saying that Turkey only provides ‘logistical support’ for the opposition. Speaking upon his return from a visit to the U.S., the prime minister said that Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah and others are involved in fighting along with forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and slammed his critics for turning a blind eye to that.”
Asharq Alawsat and several news agencies also reported that three of the most important EU member states — France, Germany, and the UK — have expressed their intention “to have Hezbollah’s military wing declared a terrorist organization by the European Union. French and German officials signaled on Wednesday that they would support the move, following an appeal from the UK, reversing the previous position of both governments on the issue.... However, the measure faces some serious obstacles. Aside from the fact that it will require the unanimous assent of all 27 member-states in order to be adopted, experts say it is not clear that Hezbollah’s ‘military wing’ can be meaningfully distinguished from its political operations in Lebanon, where it is a political party with ministers in government.”
In Lebanon, meanwhile, the presence of Hezbollah fighters in Syria has proven very controversial. An article in the Lebanese Daily Star cites the Former Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora, who is critical of such involvement: “‘What Hezbollah is doing is very dangerous and undermines all national principles and contradicts the Constitution, [national] laws, the Baabda Declaration, international agreements and the policy of disassociation adopted by Lebanon,’ Siniora said in a statement....According to the statement, Siniora, who heads the Future parliamentary bloc, also contacted a number of Shiite figures and urged them to exert efforts to help prevent Hezbollah getting further involved in the conflict next door.”
The Daily Star’s Stephen Dockery also reports on various protests that have taken place in Lebanon’s capital: “A small group of protesters gathered in Downtown Beirut Tuesday to condemn Hezbollah’s role in the Syrian conflict, after the party’s widely publicized intervention in the battle of Qusair claimed the lives of dozens of fighters. Around 30 people, mostly students, held signs decrying Hezbollah’s actions while calling for the country’s leaders to make a stand against the party.”
For many regional observers, Hezbollah’s decision to take an active role in the Syrian conflict has the potential to seriously endanger the organization’s image in the country and the region. For example, Al Hayat’s Abdullah Iskandar argues “the participation of Hezbollah — with what it represents — is a foreign intervention, with all the consequences this implies in International Law. This is why there is great interest in the expansion of this participation, which in turn reflects the expansion of Iran’s participation that also falls under the stipulations of this law. In parallel, this public participation by Hezbollah in the fighting in Syria reveals strategic change in the political rhetoric, after its previous Lebanese task has transformed into a recognized Iranian intervention tool in the sovereign affairs of another state.”
In an op-ed, Rami Khouri wonders whether this might become a turning point for Hezbollah and even the future of the Lebanese state: “The significance of Hezbollah’s participation in the battle for the Syrian town of Qusair comprises several distinct elements — its reputation as a fighting force, its political wisdom, its perception among Lebanese, its independence from Iran, and its standing in the region and globally as it identifies more closely with the Syrian regime that has been increasingly isolated and sanctioned....the bigger threat emanating from this episode is that by asserting dramatically its ability and willingness to fight wherever, whenever and whomever it wishes, Hezbollah could add to existing forces that threaten to fracture the integrity of the Lebanese state.”
And finally, the Peninsula editorial makes the case that Hezbollah’s involvement amounts to an ill-conceived move by the organization: “Lebanon’s Hezbollah has taken on a new role least expected of it, and one that will cause an erosion of faith among Arab masses in an organization which has won legions of fans for its spirited struggle against Israel....Nothing can justify the flagrant intervention of Hezbollah in Syria and Syed Hassan Nasrallah must rethink his position before it’s too late....Hezbollah’s actions have huge consequences for the Arab world, including Lebanon, which is split along sectarian lines. It’s said some Sunni Lebanese have joined the rebels in Syria, with the body of one such fighter brought home yesterday. This means a deepening of the conflict will unravel the tenuous peace prevailing in Lebanon.”
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