Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah’s decision to fight openly alongside the Syrian regime will increase Lebanon’s involvement in Syria’s conflict, despite a policy of neutrality, analysts say.
“Hezbollah’s public involvement is no longer the world’s worst-kept secret, and now we are in a crisis where the Lebanese are not only politically divided… but also militarily divided,” Ghassan al-Azzi, a professor of political science at the Lebanese University, said.
“Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian crisis now involves all of Lebanon because we’ve heard from the other side calls to fight jihad alongside the opposition to the Syrian regime,” he added, referring to Lebanon’s Sunni community.
This week, senior Hezbollah official Nabil Qauq defended the group’s actions in Syria, where its elite fighters are reportedly leading the battle in parts of the Qusayr area of central Homs province near the border.
He said the group’s members were carrying out “a national and moral duty” to defend Lebanese citizens living in border villages inside Syria.
But Wadah Charara, a sociology professor at the Lebanese University, said there was little reason to think the inflamed rhetoric would produce serious domestic instability for Lebanon.
“The impact of the Syrian crisis on Lebanon is worrying, and there may be some incidents, but the general political trend is towards stabilisation and not upheaval,” he said.
Charara, an expert on Hezbollah, said it was forced to publicly acknowledge its role in the conflict by the rising number of deaths among its fighters in Syria.
“It’s a ‘common sense’ policy. In the last year, the party has published photos of some of its activists killed in Syria, but the phenomenon gained momentum with the increasing number of deaths and burials. They couldn’t hide it anymore,” he said.
The movement began explaining to the Shiite community, its base, that it was acting to defend 13 Lebanese Shiite villages inside Syria, which it said were coming under rebel attack.
In addressing the broader public, the movement is trying to maintain the capital it acquired for its “resistance” to Israel during a devastating 2006 war.
“They explain that their fight against jihadists, who are presented as the ‘allies of imperialism and the United States,’ is part of a consistent attitude, not a drift,” he said.
They say “we maintain the same line by fighting against Israel and against the enemies of the Syrian people,” he added.
“But in fact, Hezbollah had no choice,” added Azzi, saying the group’s loyalty to a regime that has long offered it support and aid forced its hand.
“In any case, it couldn’t abandon its alliance with Syria because it’s a question of life or death,” he added
According to Charara, Hezbollah has around 20,000 fighters, between 5,000 and 7,000 of them battle-hardened forces, and has deployed between 800-1,200 members to fight in Qusayr.