‘We are not fighting a new enemy in Syria. It is still our old enemy Israel but with a different face’
Hizbullah’s role in the Syrian conflict marks a departure for the Lebanese Shia militant group
Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah addresses supporters in southern Beirut via a video link during iftar, the breaking of fast meal, last Friday. Photograph: Reuters/Sharif Karim
Every day Nagham comes to Rawda al-Shahidain, the cemetery in south Beirut where Hizbullah buries its war dead, to pray at her husband’s graveside.
Hussein, a veteran Hizbullah fighter and father of Nagham’s two infant children, was killed in May in Damascus. He was one of thousands of Hizbullah men sent to Syria to buttress President Bashar al-Assad and ensure Syria remains a channel for the movement to receive arms from Iran.
A Hizbullah official in Hermel, a town near the Syrian border, estimates some 1,000 fighters have gone from the surrounding Bekaa Valley alone.
According to his wife, Hussein died defending the shrine of Sayyida Zeinab, revered by Shia Muslims, from encroaching Sunni rebels seeking to topple Assad.
As Nagham walks around the indoor cemetery – which contains the graves of Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s son and Imad Mughniyeh, the group’s military strategist and the last Hizbullah member to die in Syria before the uprising (he was assassinated in Damascus in 2008) – she counts the new arrivals.
“There are 18 in total who were killed in Syria, the youngest of whom was in his late teens,” she says, pointing out marble gravestones adorned with Hizbullah’s yellow flag and pictures of Nasrallah and Iran’s late Ayatollah Khomeini. “The cemetery is full now but there are plans to build another.”
‘Our old enemy Israel’
Not since the 2006 war with Israel – during which an estimated 400 of its members died – has the Lebanese Shia militant group and political party witnessed so many funerals in its stronghold in Beirut’s southern suburbs or the villages further south and east where it holds sway.
Hizbullah’s role in the war in Syria – publicly acknowledged by its leadership only in recent months – marks a new departure for a movement whose declared raison d’etre since it was founded in the early 1980s is “resisting” Israel and defending Lebanon. This is the first time Hizbullah fighters have deployed en masse beyond Lebanese borders, and it is the first time they have battled fellow Arabs and Muslims. For its base, adapting to this new reality requires a narrative that reduces the Syrian uprising to an Israeli and US-backed conspiracy aimed at rupturing the longstanding alliance between Hizbullah and Damascus. “We are not fighting a new enemy in Syria,” says Nagham. “It is still our old enemy Israel but with a different face.”
In the early stages of Syria’s uprising, Hizbullah’s leader Nasrallah publicly called for dialogue between regime and rebels while underlining its support for Assad. As the crisis deepened, the group quietly expanded its presence inside Syria – one family told me their fighter son, now dead, had been there since late 2011. In recent months, however, Hizbullah has been more open about its involvement in Syria, particularly during the battle for rebel-held Qusair near the Lebanese border. Hizbullah played a crucial role in helping the Syrian army wrest control of the strategically important town.
Hizbullah supporters argue the group had no choice but to join forces militarily with Assad against a Sunni-dominated uprising that has taken on a more sectarian hue. They refer to videos showing Sunni extremists in Syria destroying Shia mosques and threatening “Shia dogs” and “the party of the devil”, a play on Hizbullah’s name, which means the Party of God.
Several draw deep from the history of Shia Islam, with its tales of persecution and martyrdom, to make parallels between then and now. “We don’t want to see another Karbala,” says Nagham, referring to a seventh-century battle, central to the Sunni-Shia schism, in which the prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein, who is revered by Shia Muslims, was killed.
Ironically, Nagham, along with other Hizbullah supporters I met whose relatives have died fighting in Syria, uses the word kuffar – Arabic for unbelievers – to describe those seeking to oust Assad. Sunni extremists known as takfiris, some of whom are fighting in Syria, use the same word for Shia Muslims whom they accuse of heresy.
The story of Abu Sakkar, the Syrian rebel filmed biting into a dead regime soldier’s lung, is frequently mentioned by Hizbullah’s faithful. “This is against Islam,” says Nagham. “I don’t recognise these people as Muslims.”
There are similar sentiments in Hermel, where at least four local Hizbullah fighters have died in Syria. Among them was Alaa Sujud, a 30-year-old killed in Qusair in May. At the family home, now draped in huge Hizbullah “martyr” banners, his fiancée Mariam watches videos set to a martial soundtrack. The clips feature footage of Alaa’s funeral spliced with images of him in Qusair. “He said he was fighting to save the Shia people and their shrines from the terrorists,” she says, her eyes filling with tears. “Hizbullah is in Syria because it is trying to prevent the war there from coming to us here in Lebanon.”
But many Lebanese, even in Hizbullah-dominated areas, point to increasing signs that Syria’s war has already spilled across the border. Earlier this month a car bomb exploded deep in Hizbullah territory in Beirut’s southern suburbs, causing no fatalities but jangling nerves.
An obscure Syrian rebel battalion named Brigade 313 Special Missions claimed responsibility for the bombing and vowed to continue such attacks until Hizbullah abandons Assad. Other rebel factions have warned Hizbullah that it will be targeted inside and out of Syria. There are fears that the movement’s decision to tie its fate so firmly to Assad will sharpen divisions in Lebanon – where some Sunnis are sympathetic to the Syrian rebels – and upset the country’s delicate sectarian balance.
There is also the question of how long the Syrian conflict will last, and how much it might stretch Hizbullah’s capabilities. Reports from Syria suggest Hizbullah fighters might next join the battle for Aleppo.
“This war will last at least another six months, perhaps between one and two years,” says Amin Hotait, a retired Lebanese colonel close to Hizbullah. “When Hizbullah decided to defend Syria it was a carefully considered, strategic decision. They have the capability to stay there for five years.”
Rumblings in some Hizbullah communities indicate growing anxiety that this might prove to be a lengthy and draining engagement.
“People are wondering how long will this take and how many sons will they lose,” says one resident of a small village in southern Lebanon who says four local men had died in Syria.
All this formed the backdrop to a major fundraising event last Friday for Hizbullah’s Islamic Resistance Support Association (IRSA), an entity that collects money for its military wing. IRSA donation boxes can be found across Lebanon. More than 2,000 invitees gathered for iftar – the meal that breaks the Ramadan fast – in the cavernous assembly hall of a Hizbullah-run school in southern Beirut.
At the top table were Lebanese businessmen, turbaned clerics, uniformed representatives of Lebanon’s security forces, Hizbullah’s political allies and, sitting together, the Syrian and Iranian ambassadors. Each table setting included an envelope for donations. Officials were coy when asked how much on average is raised on such occasions. “It depends. A businessman might leave a cheque for $100,000 while another will give $1,000,” said one.
When Nasrallah appeared on large TV screens to address the gathering, most of those present jumped to their feet and chanted their allegiance while pumping their fists in the air. Nasrallah’s speech, his first since the Beirut car bombing, was notable for how little he focused on Syria, apart from a brief mention at the end. Instead he concentrated on Lebanon.
“The speech was aimed at calming things here after recent events,” said IRSA official Haj Ahmed Zein Dine. “It is important to reassure people.”
Attendees shrugged off questions about how Hizbullah’s unstinting support for Assad had caused its popularity among Sunnis elsewhere in the Middle East and north Africa – which soared during the 2006 war with Israel – to evaporate. In a recent sermon, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a prominent Egyptian Sunni cleric, raged against Hizbullah and urged Sunnis from across the region to join rebel forces in Syria. As guests at the IRSA iftar tucked into chicken and lamb served with rice, conspiracy theories on who or what lay behind the Syrian uprising were rife, most of them variations on familiar themes. “Yes, it is us alone with Iran and Syria for the resistance against Israel,” said one attendee who questioned whether the street protests against Assad in early 2011 had taken place. “We are prepared for a long war.”
Back at Rawda al-Shahidain, Nagham sits by her husband’s grave. Nearby other black- shrouded widows and grieving mothers rock back and forth as they pray for the dead. “I chose him as a husband because he was a fighter,” she says, gazing at Hussein’s portrait. “I will hold my head high because my husband died a martyr. I promise our children will take the same path as he did.”