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Hizbollah's Ill-Advised Foray Into Syria

  Last week, Moaz Al-Khatib recorded a video in which he addressed Hizbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah in relation to the party’s involvement in Syria. Al-Khatib's speech was moving and powerful. But Al-Khatib seemed convinced that Nasrallah was a virtuous person who could be dissuaded, through emotive words, from partnering with the Assad regime in slaughtering Syrians.

 On Tuesday, Nasrallah addressed his party’s involvement in Syria in a Qaddafisque long speech -- major Arabic channels aired only part of the speech. Nasrallah snubbed Al-Khatib’s calls for withdrawing forces from Syria, even refraining from mentioning Al-Khatib by name when he spoke about his peace initiative. He said when the “‘resigned head” of the National Coalition spoke of a political solution, he was severely attacked by outside countries and his colleagues. In their videos, both Al-Khatib and Nasrallah spoke of a catastrophic fitna (sectarian strife) in the offing but each from his own vantage point.

 Nasrallah’s speech is still shrouded with mystery. There area few points to make about it.

 The first one is whether he needed to make his party’s involvement in Syria so public. The party previously benefited from denial and vagueness to maintain its image as a non-sectarian resistance party. His announcement has now made the party nakedly sectarian.

 That is a huge development and will change the way Hizbollah is viewed across the region. Even though Hizbollah had always been exclusive to Shia members, many in the Arab world showed understanding and gave the party the benefit of the doubt. I remember a Lebanese Palestinian friend of mine, in Damascus, saying that Palestinians were urging Hizbollah to allow them to join its ranks. The idea that Hizbollah is a Shia party that fought for Lebanese, Palestinians and the Arab world led many to ignore its ideological background.

 The second point is whether the speech embarrassed the Assad regime. Nasrallah said that his forces are fighting in two areas, in Homs and Damascus, to protect Shia villages and shrines. He said that the anti-regime rebels are only few hundred metres away from Zainab Shrine, in Sayyida Zainab in Damascus. Is the regime weak enough to be unable to protect Shia shrines? Nasrallah has a point: what if the regime failed to protect it? what if the rebels decided to enter the shrine and its vicinity to make it a base for attacking the regime forces in Damascus?

 The shrine is certainly a strategic area and it is part of the rebels’ strategy to close in on the regime’s forces in Damascus by controlling the two Ghutas  and marching towards the heart of Damascus. The regime would be in a dilemma if the rebels controlled the shrine or the area surrounding it, shelling the shrine would enrage his allies, leaving it would help the rebels to advance well into Damascus. The Shia fighters from Hizbollah and Iraq (and reportedly Yemen and Maghreb) are also taking part in battles in Damascus and around it, at least. The idea is to prevent the rebel forces from reaching near the shrines by pushing them away.

 But of course Nasrallah’s claims that his forces are there to protect the shrines rather than fight for the regime are not the full story. They are fighting at least in the two most vital areas for the regime, namely Damascus and Homs.

 Another point to make about whether Nasrallah’s announcement embarrassed the regime. Pro-regime Shabbiha fighters had been deeply disappointed with the performance of the regime’s leadership and media. Judging from their recent rhetoric on social media, it is clear they were disillusioned with the media coverage of the conflict. Also, they are suffering defeats at the hands of the rebels. Nasrallah’s announcement would certainly raise their morale, that whatever happens, Shia fighters would not leave them alone.

Shabbiha look up to Nasrallah’s forces and would certainly feel a lot better if they knew they were fighting alongside them. The regime’s leadership knows that and would not mind such statements emerging from militias’ leaders in Lebanon and Iraq. Iraq’s Hizbollah leader also made similar announcement and called on “everyone to donate money and arms and to fight alongside the Syrian government” against what he described as a “Sufyan’s army” - in reference to a myth that the Hidden Imam would fight an army in the Levant in the run-up to the end of times. He said that the Free Syrian Army is the beginning of that mythical army.

The regime’s short-staffed forces led it to try a few tricks recently, first by trying to enlist young men in a national army, then by declaring jihad as obligatory on all capable Syrians against the rebels. It is natural that resorting to Shia fighters to help its forces and raise their morale would follow.

Hassan Hassan
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