Wednesday, September 10, 2014

As sectarian tensions rise, Hizbollah must recalculate

It has become more apparent in recent months, as sectarian tensions in Lebanon have risen, that Hizbollah is losing control of the situation domestically.

The party’s vaunted strengths have always been exaggerated. Hizbollah has shown an ability to manipulate sectarian divisions to its advantage, but with the emergence of Sunni jihadist groups along the Lebanese border, such as ISIL and the Jabhat Al Nusra, the fear that these may encourage Sunnis in Lebanon to oppose Hizbollah has increased.

The party is currently caught up in a grinding battle in Syria’s Qalamoun region, which runs alongside the Lebanese border in the Beqaa Valley. Unconfirmed reports suggest Hizbollah may have up to 5,000 combatants in the battle. It’s impossible to verify such a figure, but Qalamoun is vital to the party because it controls access to Lebanon, in particular to Shiite villages.

Hizbollah’s involvement in Qalamoun began last year, when it played a central role in retaking the town of Qusair on behalf of the Syrian regime. But thousands of rebel combatants were allowed to leave the town, and redeployed elsewhere in the area to fight another day. Long an inaccessible border area facilitating smuggling, Qalamoun is both large and difficult to control. Hizbollah is caught in a quagmire there.

A complicating factor is that Arsal, a large Sunni town along the border in the northern Beqaa, had become a weapons transfer point and rest place for Syrian rebels and jihadists. Hizbollah has sought to push the Lebanese army into closing off access to the town, which reports on Wednesday suggested had been completed, to weaken its foes in Qalamoun. This has only thrust the army deeper into the Sunni-Shia conflict, a dangerous step for a national institution with a sectarian mix.

In recent weeks, two soldiers captured by ISIL in Arsal’s hinterland have been decapitated. They were part of a larger group of soldiers and policemen caught during fighting around the town weeks ago. ISIL and Jabhat Al Nusra want to exchange them for Islamists imprisoned in Lebanon’s main Roumieh prison.

In response, the relatives and coreligionists of the soldiers took matters into their own hands, closing roads and demanding that the government do something. More ominously, after a soldier was killed last weekend, Shiites began kidnapping Sunnis in the Beqaa, provoking retaliatory abductions that threatened to spiral out of control.

As Sunni-Shia relations worsen, Hizbollah must reconsider its options. Within its own community it has portrayed itself as a barrier against jihadists, and some Christian villages in the Beqaa, fearing an onslaught by ISIL, have allegedly asked the party for weapons. Hizbollah has been able to defend its entry into Syria’s war as an effort to fight takfiris.

The claim is nonsensical, but what Hizbollah has not been able to explain is how it would act if fighting breaks out in Lebanon between the party and armed Sunni Islamists, and then spreads. The risks are high, especially as other Sunnis, from young men among the Syrian refugee population to armed Salafist groups in the Palestinian refugee camps, could enter the fray.

The outbreak of a sectarian conflict in Lebanon, besides leading the country to ruin, would also force Hizbollah to repatriate its combatants now in Syria. This, in turn, would weaken the regime of Bashar Al Assad, which the party has vowed to help sustain – both as an Iranian priority and its own.

Yet Hizbollah has done little to lessen tensions with the Sunnis. Partly, that’s because it does not have tight control over the Shia, especially in the Beqaa Valley, where tribal relations tend to erode Hizbollah’s influence, but it’s also because conciliation is not a part of Hizbollah’s DNA. The party has often preferred resorting to violence when compromise was more beneficial.

Today there is discernible fear among Lebanon’s Shia that they may be vulnerable to Sunni extremists. That’s not surprising, as the community has witnessed the high toll of casualties Hizbollah has suffered in the past year in Syria, with no end in sight. This has encouraged Hizbollah to pursue a game of divide and rule at home, to safeguard itself and its community, without making any concessions on the issues it regards as vital.

The party appears not to be considering ending its combat role in Syria, a principal source of Sunni-Shia hostility. Nor has it toned down its rhetoric against its March 14 rivals in Lebanon, led by the mainly Sunni Future Movement. And to maintain its domination over the Shia, the party has mobilised the community, exploiting its existential anxieties but also creating an environment unsuitable for appeasement.

Even Hizbollah’s reputation as an effective enemy of Israel took a hit during the recent war in Gaza. Everyone could see that the party was too overstretched in Syria to open a Lebanese front, as Hamas officials had requested. Instead, today Hizbollah appears as little more than a sectarian Shia party.

Nor does Hizbollah have any path out of this predicament. In an effort not to lose its main Christian ally, Michel Aoun, the party has backed Mr Aoun’s refusal to send his bloc to parliament and elect a president, unless he is guaranteed of winning himself. The ensuing vacuum, along with social unrest in recent weeks, has added to worries that the state is near implosion.

Hizbollah’s brinkmanship has been reckless. The party has succeeded in pursuing its agenda in Syria, but at what price? It surely wants to avoid a Lebanese sectarian conflict, but everything about its behaviour makes one more likely.

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