In a statement to Al Manar TV, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah gave his clearest admission to date that the Shi’ite Islamist group is offering active support to Syrian government troops and other pro-regime forces.
Nasrallah declared that “Syria has real friends in the region and in the world who will not allow Syria to fall into the hands of America or Israel or the Takfiris,” referring to a particularly extreme brand of Sunni Islamism. Although the uprising against the Assad regime began as a largely secular movement, the involvement of Islamist powers such as Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, as well as the superior military prowess and discipline of Islamist rebel groups, have contributed to a shift away from the more secular “Free Syrian Army” battalions and towards Islamist ones, including Al Qaeda-linked groups such as the “Nusra Front.” Syria’s porous border with Iraq is also seen as a factor, as Al Qaeda cells from the latter have reportedly been migrating westward to take part in the civil war with the intent of establishing an Islamic Caliphate.
Although Hizbullah has never officially admitted to sending its fighters to the Syrian battlefield, the number of Hizbullah members returning dead or wounded from Syria has increased in recent months, and the group is thought to have lost around 180 men in operations obliquely described by its spokesmen as “jihadi duties.”
In his speech, the Hizbullah leader alluded to the main motivations for his group to involve itself in the Syrian conflict. The first – as expressed by his references to America, Israel and Sunni Muslim powers, indicate the Hizbullah’s strategic concerns about the “day after”, should the Ba’athist regime in Damascus fall. The “Shia” alliance between Iran, Syria and Hizbullah would be seriously threatened by such an eventuality, and find themselves exposed in the face of what Hizbullah perceives as a dual threat from Israel and Western powers on the one hand, and Sunni Arab powers – led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar – on the other.
But Nasrallah also hinted towards a number of more sectarian and religious motivations for his group’s interference in the Syrian civil war. His explicit threat that “If the shrine [of the Muslim prophet Muhammed’s granddaughter Sayida Zeinab] is destroyed things will get out of control,” reflected a religious, sectarian element to the conflict that is further reflected by the concentration of Hizbullah forces around majority-Shi’ite villages bordering Lebanon, and its repeated claims that Sunni-led opposition forces have repeatedly targeted the local population. The shrine to Sayida Zeinab is revered by Shi’ite Muslims, but such shrines are viewed as paganism by more puritan Sunni groups. Nasrallah’s reference to the 2006 bombing of the Shiite al-Askari shrine in the Iraqi city of Samarra indicated his fear that such groups could target Shi’ite holy shrines which until now were protected by the Assad regime. Bashar al-Assad himself is a member of the Allawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’a Islam.
However, Nasrallah also sought to assure the Lebanese domestic audience that his group would not export the Syrian conflict to Lebanon – a country considered to be a religious and sectarian tinderbox, and which has already experienced a number of deadly clashes between pro- and anti-Assad gangs. Syrian opposition groups recently threatened to take the fight to Hizbullah in Lebanon, and secular and anti-Hizbullah politicians have roundly criticised the Shi’ite group for its support for the Syrian regime.
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