Allegiances are proving costly for Islamic militant group Hezbollah as the war in Syria deepens the sectarian divide in the Middle East.
Days after the town of al-Qusair fell to President Bashar al-Assad’s forces this month with help from Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah, the group was shunned by the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council. The oil-rich, mainly Sunni GCC labeled it a terrorist group and threatened unprecedented measures against its loyalists and their financial transactions. The U.S. said last week it will help arm the Syrian opposition.
Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria has led to greater polarization between Islam’s two main sects, said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center in Qatar. Without the group, it “would have been more of an inter-Syrian fight rather than being a sectarian one,” he said.
The result is a watershed in the 31-year history of Hezbollah, which seeks to portray itself as an anti-Israel resistance group and a champion of the downtrodden and oppressed, irrespective of their brand of Islam.
Its fighters are also likely to get mired further in Syria’s civil war to protect its central conduit of weapons and prevent the well-armed rebels from strengthening Sunni militias in Lebanon, said Torbjorn Soltvedt, senior analyst at Maplecroft, a U.K.-based risk consultant.
“Combined with significant pressure from Iran, these factors are likely to lead to even stronger involvement by Hezbollah in the Syrian conflict despite the hostile GCC stands,” he said.
Most of the rebels fighting Assad are Sunni Muslims while the president belongs to the minority Alawite sect, an off-shoot of Shiite Islam. The split resulted from a dispute over succession following Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632.
Hezbollah’s open alignment with the Syrian regime has triggered an escalation in the Sunni rhetoric, including from Saudi Arabia’s top cleric.
Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul-Aziz Al al-Sheikh called Hezbollah a “loathsome, sectarian” group in a statement carried June 6 by the official Saudi Press Agency. He also endorsed Egyptian-born cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s call on Sunni Muslims from his base in Qatar to fight a holy war in Syria.
Saudi Arabia’s stock market, the Arab world’s biggest, dropped the most in almost two years on June 15 after King Abdullah interrupted his vacation in Morocco because of what the official Saudi Press Agency said were “escalating concerns relating to events in the region.”
Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, who hails from the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, on June 15 suspended diplomatic relations with Assad. Egyptians stood by Lebanon and Hezbollah against Israel in 2006, and “today we stand against Hezbollah for Syria,” Mursi told a stadium packed with his supporters.
Khaled Al-Qazza, Mursi’s secretary for foreign affairs, last week said Egyptians were free to make up their minds about going to Syria.
More fighters may make their way to Syria after Mohammad Al-Areefi, an influential Saudi scholar whose comments are often cited, gave a sermon in a Cairo mosque on June 14 urging Sunnis to take up arms against Assad and Hezbollah. Scores of worshipers jumped to their feet after his comments, also broadcast on Egyptian television, and erupted into chants of “Arm us, arm us, to Syria, to Syria!”
The tension has also led to a rise in violence in Lebanon, where Shiites, Sunnis and Christians each make up roughly a third of the population of 4.3 million people. Groups clashed in the northern city of Tripoli, most recently this month, and rockets launched from Syria fell on Shiite areas in Lebanon.
Lebanon’s army leadership urged restraint last night following the killing of four people in a remote Bekaa Vally area close to the Syrian border. The victims included three Shiites and a Turk with a Shiite mother, the Daily Star reported.
Gunmen fanned out in the region following the killings, that show how Shiite-Sunni tensions have spilled over from the Syria crisis. The army, in a statement carried by the official National News Agency, called on residents to “transcend their injuries” and said it won’t allow anyone to exploit the incident to “strike national unity.”
The chaos in Syria is already weighing on the economy of Lebanon, whose modern history is marred by sectarian conflicts. Growth, which averaged 8 percent from 2007 to 2010, won’t exceed 2 percent in 2013, Finance Minister Mohammad Safadi said in a June 5 interview. The risk premium investors demand to hold Lebanon’s debt over U.S. Treasuries surged in the past four weeks to 467 on June 14, the highest since September last year, according to JP Morgan Chase & Co. data.
Lebanon’s benchmark BLOM Stock Index fell for a sixth day today, declining 0.1 percent. The measure dropped 2.7 percent last week, the biggest weekly slide since December 2011.
Arabic for “Party of God,” Hezbollah, is the only group that refused to disband following the end of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, swelling from a small militia in 1982 to the most powerful political group in the country with seats in parliament and ministers in the cabinet in Beirut.
Hezbollah says it needs its arsenal of weapons to defend against Israeli attacks. It spearheaded the fight against Israel’s 18-year occupation of an enclave in south Lebanon. Israel withdrew in 2000, a move Hezbollah claimed as a victory. The group also fought an inconclusive war against Israel in 2006, earning popularity among Sunnis as well as Shiites.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has linked the group’s involvement in Syria with its resistance narrative. He called the fighting part of a broader struggle against Israel, saying Hezbollah “won’t keep silent and watch its back break.”
In funerals this month for fighters who died in Syria, Hezbollah officials repeated that message, while members of the group say they are not fighting a sectarian war.
“No one should consider the al-Qusair achievement as a victory for Shiites against Sunnis,” said Hezbollah lawmaker Hussein al-Moussawi in Nabi Sheet on June 5, according to a transcript of his comments e-mailed by Hezbollah. He said it was a victory against the Zionist-Western plot targeting Syria.
Syrian opposition groups, which the U.S. government will supply with small arms and ammunition, say Hezbollah is mobilizing its fighters along with Syrian troops outside Aleppo in the north for a push into the city, which unlike al-Qusair, is far from the borders of Lebanon.
One of the consequences of Hezbollah’s engagement in Syria is the possibility that Lebanese Shiites who work in Gulf countries and send money back home would be expelled, said Peter Harling, project director with the Middle East Program of the International Crisis Group think tank.
“It’s happening on a small scale, but you could have an exodus of Lebanese Shiites who are present in the Gulf in large numbers, making a lot of money which they send home,” he said in a phone interview. “This can have a very dire economic impact on the Shiites in Lebanon.”
The crisis in Syria has also deepened tensions between the Western-backed March 14 group and the Hezbollah-led March 8 group, which dominates the caretaker government of Najib Mikati.
What is Hezbollah “doing in the alleys of al-Qusair and amid the rubble of its houses and buildings?” former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who heads the Future Movement in the March 14 bloc, said in a June 7 statement. “What is Hezbollah doing to Lebanon and the Lebanese, to the Arabs and Muslims?”
For now, the group is stuck on its side of the sectarian divide. Hezbollah won’t change its position on Syria or give up support for Assad government, leader Nasrallah said in a June 14 speech. “The alternative in Syria is chaos,” he said.