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.

News
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
people
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Sport
Christiano Ronaldo enjoys his opening goal
champions leagueLiverpool 0 Real Madrid 3: Ronaldo and Benzema run Reds ragged to avenge thrashing from their last visit to Anfield
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
News
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
News
Wilko Johnson is currently on his farewell tour
people
Voices
New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
voicesRenée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity, says Amanda Hess
News
Let’s pretend: KidZania in Tokyo
educationKidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day
Life and Style
CHARGE BOOSTER: Aeroplane mode doesn't sound very exciting, but it can be a (phone) hacker's friend. Turning on the option while charging your mobile will increase the speed at which your phone battery charges
techNew book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are starring together in civil rights drama Freeheld
film
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

Solutions Architect - Permanent - London - £70k DOE

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

General Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: Great opportunities for Cover...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?