Hezbollah walks a tightrope on Syria violence


When Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah addressed supporters earlier this week he said recent violence and kidnappings threatening to push the country into confrontation are “out of Hezbollah’s control”.

“We tried to deter the protesters from blocking the airport road, but failed,” Nasrallah said on Friday. “The situation is spiraling out of control due to the media and political chaos.”

Commentators and supporters of the anti-Hezbollah March 14 alliance in Lebanon pounced upon these words, dismissing them as lies, stating the leader of the largest Shia party is behind the recent events, orchestrating the situation in order to maintain its grip over its supporters.

Violence in neighbourhing Syria, recently linked to tit-for-tat kidnappings between Syrian opposition groups and Lebanese tribes, has put Hezbollah in a difficult position. Formed during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in the 1980s Hezbollah – which means the “party of God” – is popular and controversial inside Lebanon’s borders and beyond.

Since the start of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, however, there have been grumblings about Hezbollah’s support for the Syrian government. Nasrallah considers Syria’s government an integral player in the resistance against Israel.

“How can someone who is threatening Israel be the same person who also says the situation is out of control?” asked Lukman Slim, a political analyst based in the heart of Dahyeh, Beirut’s southern suburbs.

As the death toll rises in Syria, many feel Hezbollah’s position puts its supporters at risk, going so far as to jeopardise their security in the country and outside.

Alienating friends and foes

Hanin Ghaddar, editor in chief of the pro-March 14 news outlet Now Lebanon and an outspoken opponent of Hezbollah, told Al Jazeera the party has been losing supporters, especially from leftist circles, because of its position on Syria.

“They no longer see Hezbollah as a symbol of resistance because of the revolution,” she said. “Furthermore, the party has been plagued with corruption since 2006, so it is no longer seen as clean, and since it took control of the government, it has been the worst in terms of services, and the worst in terms of security.”

The Lebanese government, of which Hezbollah is a part, has failed to address several domestic issues, alienating its supporters and further stoking tensions with its opponents. Numerous communities have taken to the streets, now on an almost-daily basis, to protest increasing power cuts.

These bread and butter concerns have been compounded by broader political tensions.

In May, 11 Lebanese pilgrims, targeted because they are Shia, were abducted by an apparent affiliate of the Free Syrian Army in Syria. While it has been determined the pilgrims are not members of Hezbollah, their kidnappers have so far refused to release them unless Nasrallah publicly apologises for his position, in an attempt to drag Hezbollah into the conflict.

Hezbollah, in an effort to prevent further escalation, told the families of the pilgrims to go home when they began protesting, and handed the file over to the Lebanese government to handle, yet for the last four months little has been done to secure their release.

Meanwhile, clashes and protests in Lebanon’s north forced the government to appease those opposed to it by releasing individuals suspected of terrorism and weapons smuggling for the Syrian opposition.

The government also did little to prevent a month-long sit-in by a Salafi cleric in the southern city of Sidon, whom many within the Shia community felt was actively inciting sectarian hatred.

‘Losing support’

It all came to a head last week. The Meqdad clan took matters into its own hands when a member of its family was kidnapped in Syria, by abducting several Syrians and a Turkish national in Lebanon.

On the same day, a Syrian airstrike hit Aazaz, the area where the 11 pilgrims were being held, and initial reports claimed four of them had been killed.

In response, the families of the pilgrims, going against the wishes of Hezbollah, blocked the airport road with burning tyres. Conflicting reports have continued to emerge as to the fate of the pilgrims; some say four of the 11 were killed; others say they were all killed; still others say they are all alive.

“One needs to ask who is profiting from the events over the last few days,” Slim told Al Jazeera. “Hezbollah has been losing its support on the ground for a long time, its image has been breached, and with a mythical body like the so-called Meqdad tribe, [Hezbollah] is trying to restore its support.”

Others see the actions of the Meqdads, who said they do not take orders from Hezbollah and cited the lack of action on securing the release of the 11 kidnapped by the party as a reason why they mounted their own operation, as evidence of the precarious position Hezbollah faces today.

Khodr Salameh, a prominent Lebanese activist and blogger, told Al Jazeera some supporters feel the party is not doing enough to protect them from attacks.

Hezbollah recognises that an internal conflict “would be its destruction”, said Salameh. “They also know that because of their sectarian nature, any action by the people on the street would be viewed from the outside as something instigated by Hezbollah. Therefore, some supporters have now taken the decision that if Hezbollah wants to just focus on protecting them from Israel, then they will protect themselves from attacks inside.”

“Most supporters of Hezbollah support the party’s position on Syria because of ‘minority phobia’, and this is a result of the rhetoric of the Syrian opposition,” explained Salameh, adding that the Syrian opposition has not reached out to them as a minority, nor regarding Israel.

From Beirut to Damascus

As the Syrian conflict evolves, critics say the predominantly Sunni Syrian opposition has adopted an increasingly sectarian tone. This has caused minorities in Syria and Lebanon such as the Alawites, Christians, and Shia, to be fearful of the intentions of the opposition.

Today, Hezbollah is said to be in a state of paralysis. Its adoption of a muted role in government in order to not aggravate its opponents and allies alike has led Hezbollah-sympathetic newspapers like Al Akhbar to call for it to leave politics and focus solely on resisting Israel.

While maintaining tenuous relations with the clans of Lebanon, recent events demonstrate Hezbollah does not have control over them. Nor is Hezbollah in a position to confront the clans. This would cause Hezbollah to lose its base, some of whom are sympathetic to the cause of the Meqdads.

“Hezbollah faced two options; either to regain control of the street and lose its supporters, or to declare loss of control and let those who started the campaign of hate against the Shia assume responsibility,” said Salameh.

Hezbollah chose the latter. “Nasrallah, through his speech, ‘liberated’ his supporters, in order to not lose them.”

Nasser Qandil, a political analyst and former MP sympathetic to the pro-Hezbollah March 8 alliance, told Al Jazeera that “by ‘liberating’ his supporters, Nasrallah is telling them the party has done what it can politically speaking, but has been ignored by its opponents. Therefore he is saying they can act accordingly, within certain limits.”

“It needs to be said that the population is well aware that there are forces desperate to drag Hezbollah into a clash,” Qandil added.

Symbol of resistance

Supporters of Hezbollah hold Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, responsible for the fate of the kidnapped, accusing them of using the kidnappings to destabilise Hezbollah’s base in Lebanon or force concessions out of it. Getting Hezbollah involved in sectarian reprisals is said to be one method of doing so.

Salameh agreed, pointing out that there are forces that want Hezbollah to lose control of its population. “[These forces know] the Shia street is the only street in Lebanon which can cause a war, and some are trying to play on their emotions to push them into a confrontation.”

Ghaddar, the newspaper editor, disagreed, saying it was Nasrallah, rather than opposing forces, trying to play with the Shia street. “Hezbollah is playing on the emotions of their support base and manipulating them,” she said, adding that “it is no coincidence the Syrian army struck Aazaz the same day the Meqdad clan carried out their kidnappings”.

Yet Bachar, a school teacher in Chiyah, a neighbourhood in Dahyeh, told Al Jazeera that while supporters are unhappy with some of the party’s policies, they will still vote for it in the next elections.

“Look, Hezbollah gets attacked if they do something about the 11 Shia, and it gets attacked if it doesn’t do something. They can’t win either way.”

“Yes, we are unhappy with some of the party’s policies on the ground,” he said. “But we will vote for them because they are the only ones who will defend us against Israel.”

Al Jazeera