Hizbullah: the elephant in the room of Lebanese-Syrian relations
Organisation hosting many Syrian refugees
Israeli reserve soldiers preparing to take on Hizbullah, their militia vanguard in neighbouring Lebanon. Photograph: Amir Cohen/Reuters
The elephant in the Lebanese- Syria n room is Hizbullah, the Lebanese Shia movement that is a major political, economic and military player on the Lebanese scene and a key regional presence.
“There is stability in the country thanks to the exercise by Hizbullah of a maximum level of self-restraint in spite of many provocations,” the movement’s media relations officer, Ibrahim Moussawi, tells The Irish Times .
He mentions, in particular, Sidon’s Sunni Salafi cleric Ahmed al-Assir, who has called for Hizbullah secretary general Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah to be tried for war crimes. Sheikh Assir has also placed roadblocks across main roads to put pressure on Hizbullah to shut down facilities near his mosque in the city. Hizbullah, however, made the point that its presence predated his mosque by 20 years. “It is a basic Hizbullah principle that Lebanon remains stable,” Moussawi adds.
Analyst Timur Goksel agrees. So far, he says, both Hizbullah, which backs the Syrian government, and the mainstream Sunni Future Movement, which supports and arms the opposition, have “kept their cool”. Tensions flared recently when Hizbullah fighters were deployed to protect 31 Lebanese Shia villages on the Syrian side of the border in the northern Hermel area. Un til the Syrian conflict erupted, Lebanese living there had the best of both worlds, says Goksel.
“They had Lebanese identity cards, voted in Lebanon, worked in Syria and enjoyed its free healthcare and social security. However, this area is a major route for smuggling weapons to the rebels and the supply was interrupted.
“Both sides were careful and tension did not spread. But the situation can blow up at any time if there is a confrontation with civilian casualties. The Sunnis are more militant and sensitive than before [while] Hizbullah is smart and stays away from Sunni outbursts.”
Hizbullah fighters killed in clashes with Syrian rebels have been given martyrs’ funerals in their villages. The movement is also hosting thousands of Syrian refugees in the Beirut area, Baalbek in Bekaa Valley and the south. It provides whatever refugees need: shelter, food, bedding, hospital care, schooling and money.
Hussein Shehada, his wife, Ibtisam, and their two children are refugees from a rebel-held village near Aleppo. They live with the family of Hussein’s brother in a one-room flat in Choueifat Sahara near Beirut.
Ibtisam proudly displays the birth certificate of their infant daughter issued in Hizbullah’s main hospital in the capital.
“All my medical expenses were paid. Before we came we learned from relatives that Hizbullah gave help.”
Abu Hussein, who is in charge of refugees in this area, says: “We don’t ask them humiliating questions or their religion.” But, he adds, “they are 95 per cent Sunnis”.
During Israel ’s 2006 war, Syrian families took in tens of thousands of Lebanese Shias fleeing the Israeli onslaught, my driver Hamza explains. “This is payback time.”
Hizbullah, the Party of God, was founded in the 1980s with Iran ’s aid as an armed force to resist Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon. It has many branches, contrary to the claim in an interview in Beirut’s Daily Star by Minister for Defence Alan Shatter, who argued that no distinction could be made between the movement’s military and political wings.
Hizbullah has grown into a major social welfare organisation, reconstruction body, land owner and entrepreneur. It runs schools, clinics, restaurants and agencies that offer low-interest loans. It is seen by many as a state-within-a-state operating in a country where the state is weak.
Hizbullah has 14 seats in Lebanon’s parliament and two ministers in the government. Its satellite television channel is widely watched. Its well-trained and well-armed military wing is a major concern of Israel and its allies.
The alliance between the Shia powers and Syria’s secular government, dominated by the Assad clan, which belongs to the Shia offshoot Alawite community, is seen as a threat.
Commentators argue Sunni rulers seek to overthrow the Syrian government, weakening Iran, Iraq and Hizbullah. The consequences could be dire for the entire region, they say, if Syria is fractured or falls under the rule of Sunni Salafis seeking to re-establish a fundamentalist caliphate.