The looming US-led campaign to confront the Sunni militants of the Islamic State (IS) presents a quandary for the Shiite militants of Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Hezbollah, which once dubbed the US the “Great Satan,” now has a shared interest with Washington in wanting to destroy IS in both Iraq and Syria. The group views all Shiites as apostates, and is trying to take down both the Syrian and Iraqi governments, which Hezbollah supports.
But the outcome of a sustained military campaign by a US-led coalition against IS may not benefit Hezbollah in the longer term.
If IS is effectively neutralized in Syria and Iraq, the main beneficiaries could be the more moderate Syrian rebel groups, strengthened with promised Western support in training and possibly arms, since they could focus on fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The regime, with support from Hezbollah, has concentrated its efforts on defeating other rebel factions and treated with ambivalence the rise of IS in eastern Syria.
“The moderate rebels are still the only ones who actually committed and fought the Islamic State,” says a European diplomat in Beirut who asked not to be named. “The [Assad] regime has restricted its operations to a number of mostly useless airstrikes.”
On the other hand, if IS is able to survive the US bombing campaign and expand its territorial control, it would pose an even greater threat to Hezbollah, some of whose fighters are presently deployed along Lebanon’s northeastern border with Syria to battle a few thousand IS and Jabhat al-Nusra militants. Jabhat al-Nusra is an Al Qaeda affiliate.
In the past two years Hezbollah has repeatedly warned of the threat to Lebanon, the region, and Christians and Muslims from Sunni extremists. The Shiite party has used the refrain "better to fight them there than here" to justify its military intervention in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime.
“Day after day, it is becoming clearer to Lebanon, Arab, Muslim and international communities that there is a need for Hezbollah to remain in Syria,” said Sheikh Nabil Qaouk, a senior Hezbollah official, on Monday.
Hezbollah and Assad suspicions
The US insists that it won't coordinate its anti-IS campaign with Damascus, spurning the regime's overtures. In response, Hezbollah officials, as well as its allies in Iran and Iraq, have dismissed President Barack Obama's vows to form a coalition to “degrade and ultimately destroy” IS.
“Those who delve deeper into the American stance will notice that Americans accept [IS] in our region while trying to prevent it from spreading to their country. Terminating [IS] is not being considered at all,” Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hezbollah’s deputy leader, told Lebanon’s As Safir newspaper last week.
Echoing conspiracy theories in Iran, Hezbollah officials have long argued that IS and Jabhat al-Nusra are creations of the US and its allies in the Gulf, which use them as tools for regime change in Syria.
“The takfiri danger was created by the so-called new Arab democracies which have financed and armed the [jihadist groups],” said Hussein Hajj Hassan, Lebanon’s industry minister and a Hezbollah official. Takfiri is a term used to describe Sunnis who view as apostates all those that do not adhere to their strict interpretation of Islam.
Lebanon is on the frontline of IS expansion in the region. Local media reports this week claimed that IS has established 40 covert cells in Lebanon consisting of three or four militants each. Lebanon suffered a spate of suicide car bomb attacks between November 2013 and the end of March, mainly targeting Shiite-populated areas where support for Hezbollah runs high.
Since then there has been a lull, apart from three suicide bombings at the end of June. But many Lebanese fear that the IS militants and their allies are simply biding their time. The perceived danger posed by IS has even dampened the long-running and bitterly divisive debate in Lebanon on the fate of Hezbollah’s formidable military.
“I used to be against Hezbollah keeping weapons and wanted them to hand them to the Lebanese army,” says Rita Sfeir, a Christian woman from north Lebanon. “Now I am more concerned about the Islamic State and I’m thinking at least Hezbollah has weapons to defend us from those butchers.”