Inside Hezbollah: fighting and dying for a confused cause
In the nine months since Hezbollah admitted it was waging war in Syria, the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia has made dramatic, strategic battlefield gains for the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. Not so long ago, he was on the back foot.
The Shia Muslim Party of God – bankrolled, trained and armed by Tehran – claims its “timely” intervention on behalf of the Syrian dictator is in Lebanon’s national interests.
There’s no doubt that Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, is under orders from his Iranian paymasters to do their bidding in defence of their Shia Muslim ally, al-Assad.
But Nasrallah and his lieutenants continue to claim that the blood of their “martyrs” is being sacrificed in defence of the homeland.
Many Lebanese – among them, Sunni Muslims and Christians and 15 other officially recognised faiths – profoundly disagree.
They have watched aghast as the expansion of Hezbollah’s international “martyrdom project” brought bombs to Beirut and began to harden sectarian sentiments. Lebanon is still in post-trauma recovery from its own civil war which left 100,000 dead. The physical scars of this are still evident, even in the heart of modern Beirut.
Above: Photo gallery – Channel 4 News meets Hezbollah
But neither the car bombs nor the regular delivery of body bags containing young fighters killed inside Syria – nor, indeed, the increasingly shrill tone of commentaries in Beirut’s daily papers – have dissuaded Hezbollah from pursuing a war it’s clearly under orders to fight and is convinced it will win.
Aside from contributing to an alarming escalation in the Syrian conflict, Hezbollahs’s opening up of the Syrian front and its resolute ride to al-Assad’s rescue is also a dramatic departure from Hezbollah’s raison d’etre: resistance to Israel.
Waging war against a different brand of Islam is not what the Party of God was set up to do, 32 years ago. Hezbollah is avowedly anti-sectarian. But its Syrian adventurism has triggered rising anger among moderate Lebanese Sunnis, many of whom once supported Hezbollah’s resistance and even voted for its politicians.
In Hezbollah’s Martyrs’ Mausoleum, in the heart of Dahiyeh, the south Beirut district controlled by the party, two tombs sit side-by-side, near the middle.
On their caligraphised marble slabs stand plastic flowers and garlanded photographs of the soldier, “martyrs” whose lives and violent deaths they celebrate.
One of these tombs belongs to Hadi Nasrallah, a Hezbollah special operations commander and son of the Hezbollah leader.
He was killed by an Israeli mortar in south Lebanon during the 33-day war between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006. (His remains are not buried there apparently; Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah refused to do a deal with the Israelis to get his son’s body back.)
Next to his marble slab though, is that of his best friend, Rabii al-Saabi, also a former Dahiyeh resident. One of al-Saabi’s surviving friends talked fondly of him to me. He still can’t quite believe he is gone.
He was killed last year, in Syria, in the assault on the town of al-Qusayr, gateway to Homs. (In that battle, Hezbollah achieved in three weeks what the Syrian army had failed to achieve in 18 months, at the reported cost of more than 100 Hezbollah dead.)
There is no difference in the level of respect accorded these Syrian “martyrs”. Each battlefront is considered as worthy as the other, when it comes to the “martyrs”.
I asked my teenaged Hezbollah minder if he wanted to fight, even if it meant dying “for the cause”.
“It is my wish,” he smiled, earnestly. It made no odds to him whether he died in battle with “Zionist aggressors” or those they provocatively and perjoratively brand “the Takfiris”. This is their term for extreme Sunni jihadis, prepared to kill anyone who doesn’t see the world as they see it.
The ‘American project’
In a Dahiyeh coffee shop, in the shadow of a huge poster-portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini, I join a group of men sitting talking and smoking and nudging their prayer beads. I ask them what it’s like living there, with the all-pervasive fear of another big car bomb. “Grim,” they say.
It doesn’t take long to get onto the subject of the ubiquitously despised Sunni “Takfiris”.
In a mind-warping logical leap, their two enemies – Israelis and Sunni jihadis – were adeptly conflated. I was confused, I said. And again, they explained, as though I was a little bit stupid, that the “Takfiris”, and the Zionists, are all part of an American conspiracy – “the American project” – to defeat the true Party of God, so both must be, and will be, defeated.
The war in Syria has made nonsense of the adage “your enemy’s enemy is your friend”. Hezbollah is fighting for Assad against Salafists jihadis. Yet both Shia and Sunni militants would consider the state of Israel their enemy.
Israel, meanwhile, bombs Syrian regime targets, even though the Israelis consider al-Assad infinitely preferable to a failed state with a bunch of jihadis in power. But the Salafist rebel groups are all fighting each other anyway.
And to stop Hezbollah getting its hands on Iranian missiles, Israel bombs them too. The reality is that Hezbollah is is actually doing Israel’s dirty work for them, although obviously, they would never agree.
What a mess. Everyone is fighting everyone else.
And there’s a terrible dawning fear in Lebanon that it is next.
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