Syrian conflict creates sectarian pressures on Lebanon, Hezbollah

 

Beirut

The Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah has spent months trying to tread a narrow line, balancing its support for the Syrian government with its responsibilities as Lebanon's dominant political force. But increasing tensions inside Lebanon have underscored obstacles to having it both ways.

More than at any time in recent years, Hezbollah is facing scrutiny inside Lebanon, even from some once-loyal backers, mostly because of increasing signs that it has become a partisan in a Syria conflict that has become deeply divisive in Lebanon.

The sharpest criticism has come since the Oct. 19 car-bomb assassination of Maj. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, a Lebanese intelligence chief aligned with the Sunni-led bloc that is opposed to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. While Hezbollah has denied allegations that it played any role in the attack, the incident brought shrill calls from its rivals for the toppling of the current Lebanese government in which Hezbollah and its allies hold a majority.

Some of the group's closest political allies, including Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, have appeared to be wavering in their support. And some Shiite Lebanese clerics have spoken out in recent weeks in favor of supporting the Syrian opposition, a position at odds with Hezbollah and its close ties to the Syrian government.

Hezbollah not only commands a well-trained and well-armed militia, which is widely seen as the best fighting force in the country, but also runs a strong political party with members in parliament. In the days following the assassination, however, Hezbollah kept a particularly low profile, even when enraged Sunni gunmen hit the streets of Beirut after Hassan's funeral.

It was a particularly muted response from a bombastic group.

"You know how we find out that Hezbollah is under pressure?" asked Hilal Khashan, a professor in the political science department at the American University of Beirut. "They remain quiet. They are keeping a very low profile during these days. There is already pressure on Hezbollah and the pressure is mounting."

Since the beginning of the crisis in Syria last year, Hezbollah has been in a bind. The group presents itself as the champion of the downtrodden, but as the conflict next door got bloodier and bloodier, with thousands dying, the group could not back down from its support for Assad. "Hezbollah right now is facing an existential threat in Syria," Khashan said.

Syria has not only given Hezbollah steadfast political support, but Syrian territory has also been used to send rockets and conventional arms overland to Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon. If the Assad regime goes, Hezbollah would lose its primary logistical chain for arms, leaving it isolated in the event of any conflict with Israel.

Not everyone within the organization agrees with the die-hard support for Assad or the bloody crackdown against Syrian civilians.

"Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis there have been some negative voices in Hezbollah that don't want to be so much identified with the regime" in Syria, said Timur Goksel, a political science lecturer at the American University of Beirut who was a member of the United Nations monitoring team in Lebanon for many years.

These dissenting voices will become louder within Hezbollah's ranks now that the Syrian conflict is spilling over into Lebanon in a serious way, analysts say.

At the same time, Hezbollah's political rivals in Lebanon are out for blood, especially a Sunni-led bloc still inflamed by painful memories of the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in a car-bomb attack in 2005. The group has vowed to topple the government led by Prime Minister Najib Mikati, which could significantly weaken Hezbollah's political power.

"We are targeting Najib Mikati, but we mean Hezbollah," said Nouhad Mashnouk, a member of parliament with the bloc opposed to the Syrian government.

Both Hariri and Hassan were key leaders of the Sunni Muslim community, and their violent deaths have deepened the sectarian divide between Shiite and Sunni Muslims in Lebanon. Last year, a special tribunal indicted four Hezbollah members for the assassination of Hariri.

The conflict in Syria has similarly pitted the two communities against each other because many Lebanese Shiites support the predominantly Alawite Syrian government, while most Lebanese Sunnis support the Sunni-led Syrian opposition.

The key to the survival of the current government is Jumblatt, a notoriously unpredictable political figure who frequently switches allegiances. Jumblatt openly accused Assad of carrying out the assassination of Hassan, and the withdrawal of his support could lead to the formation of a new government in which Hezbollah does not hold a majority.

Hezbollah has shown little tolerance for governmental challenges to its authority in the past. When the government tried to shut down Hezbollah's private telecommunication network in 2008, their fighters hit the streets and took over most of Beirut.

It's not only the internal challenges that are a concern to Hezbollah. Naim Qassem, the deputy leader of the organization, warned last week that there should not be any international meddling in the investigation of Hassan's death.

"Any attempt to give this case an international dimension will not be of any help," Qassem said in an interview with Iran's Islamic Republic News Agency on Tuesday.

On Thursday, an FBI team landed in Beirut to assist the Lebanese government with the investigation of the bombing. And some Lebanese have asked that the case be referred to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, although that would require a vote from Lebanon's Council of Ministers, a step that the current government is unlikely to take.

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebookA powerful collection of reportage on Egypt’s cycle of awakening and relapse
Arts and Entertainment
Sheeran arrives at the 56th annual Grammy Awards earlier this year
musicYes, that would be Ed Sheeran, according to the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
AKB48 perform during one of their daily concerts at Tokyo’s Akihabara theatre
musicJapan's AKB48 are one of the world’s most-successful pop acts
News
Ian Thorpe has thanked his supporters after the athlete said in an interview that he is gay
people
News
The headstone of jazz great Miles Davis at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York
news
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll has brought out his female alter-ego Agnes Brown for Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie
filmComedy holds its place at top of the UK box office
News
newsBear sweltering in zoo that reaches temperatures of 40 degrees
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Kathy Willis will showcase plants from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
radioPlants: From Roots to Riches has been two years in the making
Arts and Entertainment
TV The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
Arts and Entertainment
Eminem's daughter Hailie has graduated from high school
music
Arts and Entertainment
Original Netflix series such as Orange Is The New Black are to benefit from a 'substantial' increase in investment
TVHoax announcement had caused outrage
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

News
One Direction star Harry Styles who says he has no plans to follow his pal Cara Delevingne down the catwalk.
peopleManagement confirms rumours singer is going it alone are false
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing Executive

£23000 - £26000 per annum: Charter Selection: Charter Selection are working wi...

Systems Manager

£55000 per annum + Flexible reward package: Real Staffing: A well known London...

HR Advisor - 6 months FTC Wimbledon, SW London

£35000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor - 6 Months Fix...

4 Week - Solidworks Draughtsman - Gloucstershire

£20 - £25 per hour + competitive: Huxley Associates: Huxley Engineering is cur...

Day In a Page

Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

Meet Japan's AKB48

Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
In pictures: Breathtaking results of this weekend's 'supermoon'

Weekend's 'supermoon' in pictures

The moon appeared bigger and brighter at the weekend
Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor