From NOW magazine, February 22, 2013, by Hanin Ghaddar*:
Recent developments in Syria indicate that Iran has increased its support for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad on more than one level. As Iran seems to have taken over military and logistical decisions, Hezbollah’s involvement has also expanded and intensified.
This is very bad news for Lebanon, and unless the Lebanese government and the Shia community take drastic measures to dissociate themselves from Hezbollah, Lebanon will not be spared from an imminent, region-wide sectarian war.
Last month, in a significant prisoner exchange between the Syrian rebels and the Assad regime, forty eight Iranians were hand-picked by the regime for release by the rebels, and not a single Syrian. This caused a wave of discontent among Assad supporters and fighters, who felt betrayed. Assad no doubt realizes that ill will among his already-shrinking popular base will not help his cause. This questionable decision indicates that Assad had no real say in the matter, and probably doesn’t on other issues either.
Then last week, Iranian official Hojjatoleslam Mehdi Taeb, head of the Ammar Strategic Base and a former Basij commander said that “Syria is [Iran’s] 35th [district] and a strategic province… If the enemy attacks us and intends to occupy either Syria or Khuzestan, the priority is that we keep Syria.” He also added that Iran suggested the Syrians establish their own Basij. “Syria then [must] set up its own Basij with an initial force of 60,000 Hezbollah forces and they [could] replace the regular army in dealing with the urban warfare."
If this statement had come out a month ago, no one would have believed Taeb. However, it has become obvious today that Hezbollah is involved in the bloodshed in Syria up to its neck, whether under a “Basij” or in a different form.
This dangerous reality has been acknowledged by Hezbollah officials who claim they are defending Shiite residents of Syria. This reality has put Lebanon and the Lebanese at a new crossroads that can only lead to bad scenarios. Hezbollah in Syria versus Jihadist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra is a story that will not have a happy ending. Both are sectarian armed groups that will do anything and kill anyone to protect their presence and the power of their founders and funders. A Sunni-Shiite war is now no longer a scenario. It started when Hezbollah sent its fighter into Syria.
Hezbollah’s sending militants to Syria to fight against the rebels has a number of dangerous implications.
Hezbollah is not, as it claims to its supporters, a Lebanese party whose mission is to protect Lebanese people and territories. It is a militia which uses Lebanon as a geographical base from which to launch attacks against Iran’s enemies no matter where or who they are.
This means that Hezbollah will probably fight Iran’s war on other fronts as well. If Iran gets attacked by Israel or others, Hezbollah could retaliate.
Many Lebanese believed that the Party of God would never confront Israel if Iran was attacked because its leaders do not want to lose their arms or credibility among their supporters. Iran also prefers this scenario. However, becoming militarily involved in Syria raises this concern again, especially that this involvement will probably expand and increase.
The involvement so far is probably limited to the Shiite villages along the Lebanese-Syria border, and could have been stretched to Homs in order to link the Syrian coast to Damascus and Lebanon. This means that the Syrian regime, with major Iranian support, could be planning an Alawite/Shiite enclave that will be connected to Lebanon. However, this enclave can only hold up if it is protected militarily for years to come, to avoid possible ethnic cleansing. Hezbollah, in this scenario, could be asked to stay around to protect and defend this area to preserve the linkage to Lebanon, mainly to Shiite areas.
Their involvement in terms of presence and use of arms could develop and grow as the crisis does. The Party of God could find itself managing a war against Sunni Jihadists for a very long time, mainly because these jihadists can no longer see the difference between Assad’s regime and Hezbollah.
So Hezbollah has decided to be part of an upcoming regional war, and to drag Lebanon into it. The war between Alawite/Shiite fighters and Sunni jihadists will not stay within the parameters of Qusayr along the Lebanese-Syrian borders. The spillover of the Syrian crisis to Lebanon will possibly take the form of increased military clashes in more than one area in Lebanon. Jihadists from both groups will not limit their clashes to Syrian territories and become friends back at home.
The problem is that entire Sunni and Shiite communities in Lebanon will be dragged into this war. Al-Nusra and other Jihadists groups in Syria have already defined themselves along sharp sectarian lines. And Hezbollah entered the sectarian game the moment they claimed they are defending the Shia in Syria.
By ‘defending Shiites in Syria’ Hezbollah is exposing the Shiites in Lebanon, as usual, to a very dangerous front. This time the price is going to be very high, as no Shiite will ever be trusted, and no Shiite will be spared.
It is convenient to blame Hezbollah for the dark days to come, but if we look inside, it is unsettling to see that the Lebanese government is not doing anything about it. The Shiites are not really doing anything about it either. Some actually believe that Hezbollah needs to protect this bridge in Syria to secure the passage of arms, while others are just afraid to look the other way. They do not want to see the reality, or do anything about it.
If the Shiites in Lebanon don’t do anything now, in the context of a strong condemnation of Hezbollah’s behavior, they will have only themselves to blame when things get bloody.
*Hanin Ghaddar is the managing editor of NOW. She tweets @haningdr