Hezbollah, Syria and the Arab Uprisings

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This article was originally published on Pluto Press: https://plutopress.wordpress.com/2016/10/26/hezbollah-syria-and-the-arab-uprisings/

We (Pluto Press) recently published ‘Hezbollah: The Political Economy of Lebanon’s Party of God’, Joseph Daher’s analysis of the Lebanese party argues that Hezbollah are misunderstood and to understand them better we must position them within socio-economic and political developments in Lebanon and the Middle East. In this comprehensive article, written exclusively for the Pluto blog, Daher examines the changing tone of Hezbollah’s support for people’s movements in the Middle East, arguing that their continued support for the Assad regime in Syria has been the main determinate on their opinion.  More broadly, this article seeks to disprove the theory that Hezbollah’s political activity is grounded in revolutionary spirit and is imbued in the economic and political apparatus of the Middle East.

In the last few weeks, the leader of Hezbollah, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, has reiterated his vow to maintain Hezbollah’s “jihad” in neighbouring Syria and declared that “there are no prospects for political solutions” in the country, “the final word is for the battlefield”. All this, in spite of the human and material costs of bombing by Russian and Assad’s regime airplanes in Aleppo. This rhetoric is matched by Hezbollah’s military activity. Currently, Hezbollah fighters are participating in the offensive against the liberated neighbourhood of Aleppo,[1] alongside regime forces and Shi’a fundamentalist militias sponsored by the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI).

In spite of this, Hezbollah is still considered by large swathes of people as defending the “oppressed” throughout the region, it is even believed to be advancing the revolutionary processes of the Middle East and North Africa. This is an illusion we must challenge. It is imperative that we accurately see the record of the Lebanese Islamic Shi’a movement (Hezbollah) towards various uprisings and pay close attention to Syria where Hezbollah played a determinant role in support to the authoritarian Assad regime.

The uprisings are part of the resistance project

In early 2011, Hezbollah officials were claiming that the Arab uprisings were part of their project of resistance. During a massive rally in support of the Arab uprisings, organised by Hezbollah in Dahyeh, Nasrallah made a speech in which he voiced his support to the Arab people and their revolutions and sacrifices, but failed to mention the first demonstrations, occurring a few days before, that would become the Syrian uprising. The uprising would be severely repressed by the Assad regime with the support of Hezbollah.

In the same speech, Nasrallah made stark condemnations of the ‘conspiracy theories’ being deployed to explain events in the region. He was critical of Bahraini sectarianism and accused some in the Arab and Islamic world of remaining silent about the injustices and repression suffered by the people of Bahrain, attributing this silence to the fact that the Bahraini persecution mostly effected the country’s large Shi’a population. He went on to condemn the League of Arab States and all regimes that had sent armies to defend the Bahraini government and crush the popular movement.[2] Nasrallah at once stressed the reality of these popular movements[3] and denounced suppressions by the regimes of the region towards the legitimate popular demands. Through these declarations, we see Hezbollah’s official discourse start to evolve. By discounting the beginning of the uprising in Syria Hezbollah’s allegiances with Assad is revealed and Hezbollah’s position on Sunni and Shi’a sectarian tensions in the regions becomes clear.

Hezbollah’s changing tone and attitude regarding the uprisings

In September 2012, Hassan Nasrallah explained the contradictory positions of Hezbollah according to the on-going events in the region, especially in Syria. He declared that the party’s position is based on two decisive criteria: first the Syrian regime’s stance on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the readiness of the regime to engage in reform.[4]Nasrallah stressed that the Syrian regime opposition to the Israeli state – and support of the Palestinian resistance – was the reason why the Western and Arab countries were together engaged in toppling the Syrian regime.[5] The flood of weapons, supplied by newfound Western allies, were intended ‘to make Arabs and the Islamic World forget about the Palestinian cause’. An argument that neglected to consider the fact that no organised armed resistance occurred in the first months of the Syrian revolutionary process,[6]and that the popular resistance was largely peaceful.

Hezbollah showed initial support to Yemen’s bid to depose the dictator Ali Abdallah Saleh in 2011. Saleh eventually stepped down in November 2011 after mass protests and a solution negotiated by Saudi Arabia and the United States. The negotiations meant that the Yemeni regime remained intact with the inclusion of some political forces. Saleh, nevertheless, continued to benefit from the allegiance of a significant part of the security apparatus and army, while he continued to act as Chairman of the General People’s Congress, in addition to being granted legal immunity. At the end of March 2015, a massive military intervention called ‘Decisive Storm’, led by Saudi Arabia, began under the pretext of opposing the Houthis, a northern Yemeni group whose beliefs resemble Shiism. The Houthis had taken total control of the Yemeni capital Sanaa in January 2015 where there had been a significant Saudi military presence and ‘Decisive Storm’ sought to depose them. Hezbollah’s position was to oppose the Saudi led military intervention in Yemen and support the Houthis, their opposition to the Saudi kingdom outweighed their opposition to Yemen’s former dictator Saleh, who had only recently reconciled with the Houthis[7]. Saleh had previously declared the popular movements were revolutions that existed only in the media and led by the United States from an office in Tel Aviv[8]  and was a former ally the Gulf monarchies and the United States during the so called ‘war against terrorism’. To this day, Hezbollah continues to condemn Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen and to support the Saleh allied Houthi forces.

In Egypt, Hezbollah welcomed the removal of President Mohamed Morsi, presumably because it removed a regime sympathetic to the Syrian opposition, Egypt’s new ruler al-Sisi was received positively by Hezbollah, owing to his support for the Syrian regime.[9] The official visit to Cairo in October 2016 by Syria’s National Security Bureau chief Ali Mamlouk demonstrated the rapprochement between the two regimes. In the beginning of 2015, Hassan Nasrallah had asserting the importance of Egypt as a key regional anchor of stability[10] and celebrated al-Sisi’s premiership. al-Sisi’s authoritarianism flourished, under him the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as, various democratic and progressive groups and individuals were repressed. He enforced a harsh blockade on the Gaza Strip, criminalising Hamas and classifying them as a terrorist movement, which provoked no intervention from Hezbollah. By the end of 2013, Hezbollah’s political activities were chiefly concerned with trying to stabilise the situation in Lebanon and restore relations with local and foreign political actors. An incident, wherein Hezbollah’s media arm (the Lebanese Commmunication Group) apologised to the Bahraini regime for its biased coverage of the people’s uprising, only to be contradicted by Hezbollah’s party leadership, suggested confusion inside Hezbollah’s organigram. Occurring at the same time as a rapprochement between the Qatari regime and Hezbollah, it is possible that LCG wrongly anticipated a similar reconciliation with the Bahraini government or that Hezbollah’s initial enthusiasm towards various Arab uprisings had dissolved.

Following the seizure of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, under the grip of ISIS in the beginning of June 2014, which caused 500,000 people to flee, Nasrallah pledged that Hezbollah was ready to sacrifice martyrs in Iraq five times more than what it sacrificed in Syria in order to protect shrines, noting that Iraqi holy sites ‘are much more important’ than Shi’a shrines in Syria.[11] The presence of members of Hezbollah in Iraq was increasingly attested in tasks of command and coordination in the fight against ISIS. Hassan Nasrallah admitted in February of 2015 that Hezbollah was in Iraq and it was engaged in fighting ISIS.

As we can see, the official discourse of Hezbollah and its cadres on the regional popular uprisings had increasingly changed since 2011. The optimism of the beginning had faded away and given way to a rather reactionary outlook and hostile attitudes towards the revolutionary processes. They were supportive of regimes in Qatar, Yemen and Egypt that were evading reforms desired by the people and their stance on the Palestine Israel conflict had been compromised by their continued support and reluctance to speak out against the Egyptian regime. Nasrallah’s March 2011 discourse was reversed completely and the two decisive criteria that informed Hezbollah’s attitude towards the uprisings had been compromised. This leads me to believe that the catalyst for Hezbollah’s position on the events in the region was clearly the beginning of the popular uprising in Syria.

Hezbollah’s deep intervention in Syria

In May 2011, during Hassan Nasrallah’s first speech on Syria, he condemned the overthrow of the regime in Syria, which he characterised as “the spine of the resistance”, was in American and Israeli interests.[12] These accusations persisted and Nasrallah indicted the West, Israel, ‘moderate’ Arab regimes and even Al Qaida of collaborating to overthrow the Assad regime.[13] In addition to this, Nasrallah claimed that Hezbollah’s support for the Syrian regime was for Hezbollah and the Shi’a, but also for Lebanon and all its various religious communities against the threats of Takfiri ‘terrorist’ forces.[14]

In this context, Hezbollah then intervened militarily alongside the Syrian regime’s armed forces. Since mid-2011, Hezbollah began training thousands of Lebanese and Syrian youths in several combat camps.[15] Nicholas Blanford wrote: ‘by early 2012, it was becoming public knowledge within Lebanese Shi’a circles that some Hezbollah fighters were being sent into Syria’.[16] Hezbollah’s presence was confirmed with the first ‘martyrs’ in Syria, as soon as June 2012.[17] Hezbollah announced the death of its soldiers while performing their ‘jihadist duties’, a standard phrase used by the group when announcing deaths of fighters in circumstances other than direct combat with Israel.[18]

In the middle of 2012, Hezbollah was increasingly accused of providing technical and logistical support to Damascus and helping some of Syria’s Shi’a population to develop their own self-defence militias.[19] Hezbollah also opened training camps outside the city of Baalbek in the Bekaa Valley, close to the Syrian border, to train youth from various religious sects. While the highest percentage of the trainees in these camps are Shi’a, their purpose was to develop similar self defence militias as in Syria.[20] In November of 2013, Hassan Nasrallah finally publicly acknowledged Hezbollah’s presence in Syria and added that ‘the presence of Hezbollah fighters on Syrian soil aims at defending Lebanon, the Palestinian cause, and Syria, which defends the resistance’ and ‘as long as there is a purpose for our presence there, we will remain there’.[21] Hezbollah’s increasing military role in Syria took various forms ranging from veteran Hezbollah fighters commanding squads of Syrian soldiers, essentially acting as Non-Commissioned Officers (NCO), to the less experienced Syrian regular troops in street fighting.[22] They also took care of the training of some pro regime militias known as ‘popular committees’[23], and of some of the new recruits in the Syrian army.[24] In the years 2014 and 2015, Hezbollah established the Syrian Shi’a militia group in Syria called Quwat al-Ridha. The Lebanese Islamic movement was responsible for organizing, training and equipping the group of around 20,000 members, which is mostly composed of Shi’a Syrians from the province of Homs.[25]

Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria alongside the Assad regime was increasingly presented to its supporters and more largely to the Lebanese Shi’a population as an ‘existential battle’ against the Sunni extremists qualified as ‘takfiris’.[26] This feeling among the Shi’a population was particularly strengthened following the multiple attacks by jihadist groups targeting Lebanese Shi’a populated areas and more particularly Dahyeh since 2013.  This discourse increasingly went hand in hand with a religious and sectarian Shi’a propaganda among its members to legitimize and justify its military intervention in Syria, while reports signalled that Hezbollah soldiers wore headbands adorned with ‘O Husayn’, an exaltation to Husayn ibn Ali, a revered Shia figure.[27]

Hezbollah further presented their military intervention as a way of protecting Palestine and the resistance against Israel. In the Summer of 2015, Nasrallah declared that ‘for sure the road to the liberation of Jerusalem passes through Qalamoun, Zabadani, Homs, Aleppo, Deraa, Sweida, and Hasakeh; that’s because if Syria (the Assad Regime) is lost, Palestine would be lost too’.[28]

In September 2015, Nasrallah welcomed Russia’s military expansion and airstrikes in Syria in support of the Assad regime, saying it was the failure of a U.S.-led campaign against Islamic State that had forced Moscow’s hand.  At the start of 2016, Hezbollah fighters took part alongside the Syrian army, backed by Russian air strikes and Iranian-supported Shi’a sectarian militias, in the conquest of the city of Aleppo and its countryside, which was previously divided between opposition and regime-held sectors. Hezbollah also played a key role alongside Syrian regime soldiers in the siege of Madaya, a village of 40,000 near the border with Lebanon that was under a blockade from July 2015 to mid January 2016.

Hezbollah continues to provide crucial support to the Syrian regime’s army, alongside Iranian sponsored forces and the Russian air force. In June 2016, Nasrallah declared that the conquest of Aleppo was a fight to defend Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan against the American Takfiri project.

Estimates of Hezbollah fighters in Syria since 2013 numbered between 7,000 and 9,000 including elite fighters, experts and reservists, at a time. They are rotating in and out of the country on thirty days deployments.[29] The party has published no official numbers for Hezbollah fatalities in Syria since the beginning of its military intervention, but according to various estimates they have exceeded the 1500.

Hezbollah’s claim to express solidarity with the oppressed of the world is largely based on Hezbollah’s political interests, which are themselves closely linked to Iran and Syria. This is why Hezbollah’s military confrontation with Israel, which has been at the core of its identity, has been subordinated to the political interests of the party and its regional allies. The armament of Hezbollah has been increasingly oriented towards objectives other than the military fight against Israel according to contexts and times. The defence of the “axis of resistance” has been used by Hezbollah as a propaganda tool to explain the policies and actions of the party, the most symbolic example being its military intervention in Syria under the pretext of defending the “resistance” against the “American-Israeli-Takfiri project”.

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Hezbollah: The Political Economy of Lebanon’s Party of God is available from Pluto here.

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Joseph Daher completed a Doctorate in Development Studies at SOAS, University of London, and teaches at Lausanne University, Switzerland. He is the co-editor of Penser l’émancipation (La Dispute, 2013) and co-author of The People Demand: A Short history of the Arab Revolutions (Counterfire, 2011). He is founder of the blog Syria Freedom Forever, and a Syrian/Swiss leftist political activist.

—————–

[1] Not controlled or dominated by Assad forces and jihadist forces, such as so-called Islamic State and Fateh al-Sham – formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, although this latter has few hundreds fighters, between 400 and 700 out of more than 8,000, in East Aleppo

[2] Ibid

[3] Ahed News (Al-), ‘Sayyed Nasrallah on the Ceremony for Consolidation with the Arab Peoples on 19-03-2011’, March 19, 2011. http://www.english.alahednews.com.lb/essaydetails.php?eid=13713&cid=452#.Vds49CT3Bss

[4] Ahed News (Al-), ‘Sayyed Nasrallah: US Blackmailed Al-Assad, Hand Us Resistance Head… We End Crisis’, September 4, 2012. http://english.alahednews.com.lb/essaydetails.php?eid=20897&cid=513#.Ud0x-RYWl34

[5] Ibid

[6] The Free Syrian Army was not established before August of 2011. (O’Bagy 2013)

[7] Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, ‘Yemen: IDPs facing international neglect’, August 2010. http://www.internal-displacement.org/assets/library/Middle-East/Yemen/pdf/Yemen-August-2010.pdf

[8] Jazeera (Al-), ‘Washington tad’u Salih lil-Istijaba li-Sha’bihi’, February 3, 2011. http://www.aljazeera.net/news/arabic/2011/3/2/واشنطن-تدعو-صالح-للاستجابة-لشعبه

[9] International Crisis Group (ICG), ‘Lebanon’s Hizbollah Turns Eastward to Syria’, May 27, 2014. http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/Middle%20East%20North%20Africa/Iraq%20Syria%20Lebanon/Lebanon/153-lebanon-s-hizbollah-turns-eastward-to-syria.pdf, p. 10

[10] Mayadeen (Al-), ‘Al-Sayyîd Nasr Allâh lil-Mayyâdîn; sârukh “fâteh 110” tirâz qadîm muqârana bimâ numlikuhu al-yawm’, January 15, 2015. .http://www.almayadeen.net/ar/news/lebanon-nTCX90g_DkKC0aQhATmO3A/السيد-نصرالله-للميادين–صاروخ–فاتح-110–طراز-قديم-مقارنة-

[11] Maria Abi Habib, ‘Shiite Militias Decamping From Syria to Fight in Iraq’, The Wall Streer Journal, June 17, 2014. http://www.wsj.com/articles/shiite-militias-decamping-from-syria-to-fight-in-iraq-1403051977

[12] Muqâwama (Al-) al-Islâmiyya, ‘Maharjân hâshed li-Hizb Allâh fî al-Nabî Shît fî ‘aîd al-muqâwama wa al-tahrîr 2011’, May 25, 2011. http://www.moqawama.org/essaydetails.php?eid=20819&cid=141#.VHrhTN7A1ss

[13] Manar (Al-), ‘Al-Sayyîd Nasr Allâh: mutamasikun bil-silâh.. wa sanathâ`ru li-mughniyya thârân mucharifân’, February 16, 2012. http://www.almanar.com.lb/adetails.php?eid=185439

[14] Ibid

[15] Fouad Itani, ‘Haythu iufashil Nasr Allâh’, Now Media, August 12, 2014.  https://now.mmedia.me/lb/ar/analysisar/559886-حيث-يفشل-نصرالله

[16] Nicholas Blanford, ‘Why Hezbollah has openly joined the Syrian fight’, The Christian Science Monitor, June 23, 2013. http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2013/0623/Why-Hezbollah-has-openly-joined-the-Syrian-fight

[17] Hisham Ashkar, ‘Funerals Hezbollah Fighters Syria 2012-2014’, Mostly Off, March 29, 2014. https://docs.google.com/a/soas.ac.uk/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0Am1WLKyxQY2ldEtQQzVBaE5KOU5tS0VIM1pJU2RYRnc&usp=drive_web#gid=0

[18] Blanford, ‘Hezbollah role in Syria grows more evident’

[19] International Crisis Group (ICG), ‘Lebanon’s Hizbollah Turns Eastward to Syria’, p.1; Orient le Jour and AFP, ‘En Syrie, le Hezbollah a acquis et professe une précieuse expérience antiguérilla’, April 16. 2014. http://www.lorientlejour.com/article/863267/en-syrie-le-hezbollah-a-acquis-et-professe-une-precieuse-experience-antiguerilla.html

[20] Monitor (Al-), ‘Hizb Allâh: Inshâ` muqâwama dud “al-Dawla al-Islâmiyya’, August 27, 2014. http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/ar/contents/articles/originals/2014/08/hezbollah-resistance-arsal-counter-islamic-state-attacks.html

[21] Manar (Al-), ‘Nuss khitâb al-Sayyîd Nasr Allâh fî zikra ‘Ashurâ` fî mal’ab al-râiyya fî al-Dâhiyya al-janubiyya’, November 25, 2013. http://www.almanar.com.lb/adetails.php?eid=356806

[22] Blanford, ‘The Battle for Qusayr: how the Syrian regime and Hizb Allah tipped the balance’

[23] Samia Nakhoul, ‘Special Report: Hezbollah gambles all in Syria’, Reuters, September 26, 2013. http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/09/26/us-syria-hezbollah-special-report-idUSBRE98P0AI20130926

[24] Orient le Jour and AFP, ‘En Syrie, le Hezbollah a acquis et professe une précieuse expérience antiguérilla’

[25] Farahmand Alipour, ‘Syrian Shiites take up arms in support of Assad’s army’, Al-Monitor, August 27, 2015. http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/08/syrian-shiite-militia.html#ixzz3lQxXNYZE

[26] Orient le Jour and AFP, ‘Marchands de légumes, commerçants ou étudiants, les hommes du Hezb fiers de combattre en Syrie’, April 12, 2014. http://www.lorientlejour.com/article/862890/-marchands-de-legumes-commercants-ou-etudiants-les-hommes-du-hezb-fiers-de-combattre-en-syrie.html

[27] Blanford, ‘The Battle for Qusayr: how the Syrian regime and Hizb Allah tipped the balance’

[28] Ahed News (Al-), ‘Kalima al-âmin al-‘âm li-hizb Allâh al-Sayyîd Hassan Nasr Allâh fî maharjân yawm al-quds al-‘âlamî’, July 15, 2015. http://www.alahednews.com.lb/112961/149/كلمة-الأمين-العام-لحزب-الله-السيد-حسن-نصر-الله-في-مهرجان-يوم-القدس-العالمي-2015#.VfLPniT3Bsu

[29] Alami, ‘Meet one of Hezbollah’s teen fighters’; Orient le Jour and AFP, ‘En Syrie, le Hezbollah a acquis et professe une précieuse expérience antiguérilla’; Marissa Sullivan, ‘Middle East Security Report 19, Hezbollah in Syria’, Institute for the study of War, April 2014. http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/Hezbollah_Sullivan_FINAL.pdf

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