Hezbollah rolls the dice in Syria

Seeing its fate as tied to Assad’s, the Lebanese Shia movement is ready to fight on both sides of the border

A Syrian man holds a picture of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (R) and Lebanon's Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah during a pro-regime rally in Damascus on January 11, 2012.
Louia Beshara/AFP/Getty Images

BEIRUT – On a recent afternoon in South Beirut’s Rawda al-Shahidayn cemetery, a covered woman sat in a plastic chair at the edge of a grave, silently reading religious texts. It is in this room – an indoor graveyard housed in an outwardly nondescript building attached to a civilian cemetery – that Hezbollah buries its martyrs. Photographs of dead fighters are superimposed over images of Damascus’ golden-domed Sayyida Zaynab shrine and the yellow and green Hezbollah banner. Alongside their frames sit candles, plastic flowers, Qurans and boxes of tissues left out for mourners.

More are buried here as each month passes, but these fighters have not been killed in combat with the powerful Shia movement’s traditional enemy, Israel. They have been killed in Syria, fighting to prop up the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters across the border, giving Assad forces a decisive edge along some key front lines. The movement’s leadership has concluded that the survival of the Assad regime, which has provided a vital conduit for weapons sent by Iran, is critical to Hezbollah’s own prospects.

The Lebanese movement’s involvement in the Syrian civil war had initially been fairly limited, and was never publicly acknowledged. But in late May, Hezbollah leader Syed Hassan Nasrallah admitted his group’s role in Syria as thousands of fighters entered the country. In June, Hezbollah fighters broke Syrian rebel lines at the strategic border town of Qusayr, a vital link to anti-Assad forces in Homs that government forces had struggled to dislodge.

Still, here in Dahiyeh – as the Hezbollah stronghold in the Shia-majority southern suburbs of Beirut are known – Syria’s war was distant, with few reminders beyond new martyr posters appearing on shop fronts with every death.

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That all changed last month.

"They moved the battle from Syria to Dahiyeh," 23-year-old Nour Fakih said as she sat in front of the shattered windows of a shop selling racy lingerie on Aug.16. Bandages on her arm and hand hugged shrapnel wounds. Automatic gunfire from nearby funerals cracked in the air as she spoke.

The previous day, a powerful car bomb had detonated on her street, killing 30 people and bringing Hezbollah's war in Syria back home. Hezbollah blamed Sunni fighters and vowed to deepen its involvement in the fight for Syria.

"If we had 1,000 fighters in Syria, they will become 2,000, and if we had 5,000, they will become 10,000," Nasrallah said in an Aug. 16 speech, according to al-Manar, Hezbollah’s television station. "And if the battle with those terrorists required that I go with Hezbollah to Syria, we will all go for the sake of Syria and its people, Lebanon and its people, Palestine and Jerusalem and the central cause."

But the Sunni armed groups who comprise Hezbollah's bitterest enemies in Lebanon have been emboldened by the successes of the mostly Sunni rebels next door, and many have begun advocating a new offensive aimed at breaking the Shia movement's grip on power in Beirut.

As it became clear that Hezbollah was involved for the fight in Qusayr this spring, its Lebanese Sunni militia rivals encouraged their followers to fight Hezbollah there. Once both sides were being called to battle in Syria, confrontation on Lebanese soil became inevitable.

Eight days after the explosion in Dahiyeh, near-simultaneous car bombs killed 47 people in the northern city of Tripoli, the seat of Sunni militancy in Lebanon. They exploded outside of the mosques of two popular, vehemently anti-Hezbollah Sunni preachers, just as Friday prayers were ending.

"Hezbollah did it," said Jalal Misto, a businessman surveying the damage at the Salam Mosque the day after the bombing. The bloodstains reached as high as 10 feet up the mosque's white walls.

"They sent their militias to Syria to kill innocent people there," added his friend Sleiman al-Ali, an Australian-Lebanese national who had recently returned to his hometown.

"This is a war against the Sunnis," Misto said. "If you look in the faces of all these people, you will see their anger."

A short drive away at the Taqwa Mosque, Sunni gunmen patrolled the area and set up checkpoints. Emergency workers from an Islamic charity tossed unidentifiable chunks of charred flesh and bone fragments into a filthy bucket. There was no sign of the state save for a few policemen taking reports on damaged vehicles and property.

Although they've stockpiled heavy weapons in recent years in anticipation of a showdown with Hezbollah, most Sunni fighters in Lebanon realize that the Shia movement has the upper hand militarily and politically. Tripoli and the north are far away from Hezbollah's strongholds. Instead of a frontal assault, some Sunni groups call instead for the establishment of their own version of what Hezbollah already is – a state within a state, or, as many Lebanese joke, a state within a non-state.

Hezbollah's direct involvement in Syria's civil war has changed the movement's status at home and throughout the region. Nasrallah, whose battles against Israel made him one of the most popular figures in the Arab world, is now despised by many in the region for his partisan involvement in a sectarian conflict.

As the U.S. Navy's Sixth Fleet musters in the eastern Mediterranean for potential strikes against the Syrian regime, Lebanon is on edge: Sectarian tensions are running high in the fallout from the bombings, and anxiety is growing that Hezbollah might seek to retaliate for any Western strikes on its ally and bring new turmoil to Lebanon.

Despite the risks and the damage to its reputation, Hezbollah believes its war in Syria is vital to its own survival.

"They perceive that if they don't get involved in Syria, then the problem will come home to Lebanon and they will have to fight it there," said Faysal Itani, a fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Middle East Center.

Hezbollah fighters echo this view, believing that a fight with Sunni rivals is inevitable but saying they would rather choose the battlefield.

"We had to get involved, because if we do not participate in Syria against these extremists, they are going to move the battle to Lebanon, inside our borders," said a Hezbollah fighter named Mahdi in an interview in June just after he returned from the frontline in Syria's Qusayr. He did not disclose his full name as he was not authorized to speak to the media. "We have a clear vision of who our enemy is: These people belong to al-Qaeda, and we believe the Americans are behind them."

"It is known (that) throughout history, whoever controls Syria will control Lebanon," he said. And Hezbollah remains confident in the ability of its battle-hardened cadres to control the current situation, despite the growing risks.

"Martyrdom is something that is sacred for us. This will not change whether it is 27 martyrs or 27,000" said Hussein Moqdad, 47. He spoke to two foreign journalists at the funeral of his 42-year-old brother, Abu Mahdi, who died as he tried to assist those wounded in the Aug. 15 Dahiyeh bombing. And to the extent that Hezbollah sees its own fate as tied to that of Assad, many more of those martyrs may fall – both in Syria and on home soil.

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