‘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.