Update: Unwanted Ally: Hezbollah’s War on the Islamic State

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Commentary, February 15, 2016

The Western-led military coalition operating against the Islamic State organization in Syria and Iraq continues to wrestle with the implications posed by having Hezbollah as an active but entirely unwanted ally in the campaign. (1)

Hezbollah in SyriaHezbollah Position in Syria

Some indication of how the West intends to deal with the movement considering its designation as a terrorist group by many NATO partners was given in the text of the International Syria Support Group’s (ISSG) agreement to “cease hostilities” in Syria.(2)

Intended to be implemented within days, the agreement, which falls well short of a monitored ceasefire, allows for continued attacks on the Islamic State, al-Qaeda-backed Jabhat al-Nusra “or other groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United Nations Security Council.” (3) Hezbollah is clearly excluded as a continuing target as it is not a UNSC designated terrorist organization. This carefully worded document indicates the West and its ISSG partners will continue to ignore the presence of Hezbollah in the ground war against the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra rather than address the diplomatically difficult but nevertheless essential formation of a policy to deal with the Sunni extremists’ leading opponent on the battlefield. The continued absence of such a policy only invites uncontrolled military interaction that could easily and quickly expand the conflict.

In the meantime, Jordan is leading an ISSG effort to identify terrorist organizations active in Syria, but given the incredible variance among ISSG partners as to who or what actually constitutes a terrorist organization, these efforts are not likely to bear fruit.

Canada is the only coalition state so far to declare a policy on military interactions with Hezbollah in the region, simply stating that there will be no cooperation under a “no contact” policy. Ottawa has withdrawn its CF-18 fighter-bombers from the anti-Islamic State coalition as the new Liberal government of Justin Trudeau backs away from meaningful military commitments alongside Canada’s allies in favor of a “sunny ways” policy that does not involve killing terrorists or even depriving them of Canadian citizenship. Ottawa has announced plans to deploy 100 Canadian troops in Lebanon to act as advisers in the fight against the Islamic State organization. These behind-the-lines advisers in Lebanon and others in Iraq are intended to replace the Canadian bombing mission.

Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan was adamant that the advisers will work only with “the legitimate government of Lebanon,” but not with Hezbollah. Sajjan appeared to be unaware that Hezbollah parliamentarians and two cabinet ministers are part of “the legitimate government of Lebanon.” Although his statement is consistent with Canada’s designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, it remains that it is Hezbollah and not the Lebanese Army that is doing the vast bulk of Lebanese fighting against Islamic State forces, meaning the new advisory mission will have little impact and be an ineffective replacement for bombing runs on Islamic State targets. Those Lebanese Army units that are involved in anti-Islamic State activity along the Lebanese-Syrian border tend to operate joint patrols with Hezbollah, suggesting Canadian troops operating under Canada’s “no-contact” policy with Hezbollah will be restricted to advising rear-echelon formations.

Hezbollah’s campaign against Sunni extremists in Syria has received an important statement of support from Lebanese Christian presidential candidate Michel Aoun, a former Lebanese Army commander who noted that the Lebanese Army was simply not strong enough to defend Lebanon without Hezbollah’s assistance (Gulf News, February 7, 2016). Aoun is relying in some degree on Hezbollah support for his presidential candidacy (by constitutional requirement, Lebanon’s president must come from the nation’s Maronite Christian community), but is growing frustrated with Hezbollah’s somewhat leisurely promotion of his candidacy amidst suspicions in some quarters that Hezbollah would prefer to have no president at all.

Recent musings by Ali Akbar Velayati, Iranian adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, on the possibility of a formal alliance between Iran, Russia, Syria and Hezbollah were dampened by Russian officials, though the Russian presidential envoy to Afghanistan conceded: “In the hypothetical sense, [Velayati] is correct: if Hezbollah is doing what we’re doing, then we are principally allies” (Sputnik News [Moscow], February 3, 2016). Russia is still attempting to assure Israel (with whom it signed a defense agreement in September when the Russian intervention in Syria began) that it has no intention of strengthening Hezbollah with heavy weapons, but it clear that it is Russian-Hezbollah-Iranian ground-air coordination on the battlefield that has enabled the Syrian regime to make major strides against both extremists and Western-backed “moderate” rebels in recent weeks.

If the Saudis decide to intervene in Syria militarily in favor of the Sunni rebel groups supported financially by the Kingdom (as they are threatening to do, possibly with military support from Turkey and a number of Arab nations), clashes with Hezbollah and Syria’s Iranian advisers will be inevitable, finally transforming the simmering Sunni-Shiite feud into a full-blown battlefield confrontation. If the “cessation of hostilities” agreement fails, as it seems it must, the potential for massive escalation in Syria holds dire consequences for the entire Middle East.

Notes

1. See original article, “Unwanted Ally: Hezbollah’s War on the Islamic State,” Terrorism Monitor, January 22, 2016, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=988
2. ISSG members include the Arab League, China, Egypt, the EU, France, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, the United Nations, and the United States.
3. “Statement of the International Syria Support Group meeting in Munich on February 11 & 12, 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/12/syria-cessation-of-hostilities-full-text-of-the-support-groups-communique.

Unwanted Ally: Hezbollah’s War against the Islamic State

Andrew McGregor

January 26, 2016

“There is no future for ISIS. Not in war and not in peace.” These words were spoken not by Barack Obama or Vladimir Putin, but rather by Hezbollah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, whose Lebanese Shi’a supporters are engaged in a growing battle against the Sunni militants inside Syria (Press TV [Tehran], November 14, 2015). Despite this, few analysts have considered how Hezbollah’s commitment to defeat Sunni extremists in Syria would fit into a larger Western and/or Russian-directed military intervention to destroy the Islamic State terrorists, especially when the movement is itself considered a terrorist organization by many Western states.

Hezbollah Patrol in SyriaHezbollah Patrol in Syria

Nasrallah insists his movement is conducting pre-emptive military operations designed at preventing Sunni extremists from entering Lebanon, but many Lebanese (including some Shi’a) accuse Hezbollah of drawing the terrorists’ attention to Lebanese targets by acting at the command of the movement’s Iranian sponsors (Reuters, September 6, 2013; Jerusalem Post, September 6, 2013) .

Hezbollah (“the Party of God”) addresses these accusations in two ways: by stating that the Syrian intervention is intended to defend all Lebanese, and by describing the Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front as tools Israel uses to destroy regional opposition, thus bringing the intervention within the larger anti-Israel “Resistance” agenda that has formed the movement’s core ethos since its formation (Reuters, August 15, 2014).

Hezbollah is correct in one sense; Lebanon and its delicate ethnic and religious balance will indeed be in the Islamic State organization’s gun-sights if it succeeds in establishing a secure base in neighboring Syria. Nonetheless, since joining the war in 2013, Hezbollah has lost lives, resources, and most of the moral authority it once commanded even in Sunni communities in the Middle East after repelling an Israeli incursion into southern Lebanon in 2006.

There was relatively little in the way of confrontation between Hezbollah and the Islamic State organization for some time as Hezbollah tended to operate mainly in western Syria while the Islamic State is strongest in the more lightly populated east. This all changed when the Islamic State took the war to Hezbollah on November 12, 2014 by deploying a pair of suicide bombers against the Burj al-Barajneh district of southern Beirut, a mixed but largely Shi’a neighborhood where Hezbollah has a strong presence, killing and wounding scores of civilians. Eager to punish Hezbollah for its Syrian intervention, the Islamic State promised “the Party of Satan” much more of the same (al-Manar TV, November 12, 2015).
On December 3 2015, US Secretary of State John Kerry admitted that the Islamic State cannot be defeated without ground forces, but suggested these should be “Syrian and Arab” rather than Western in origin (Reuters, December 23, 2015). Washington’s efforts so far to assemble and train a politically and religiously “moderate” rebel army have been “a devastating failure” according to Nasrallah, who insists that air strikes alone will do nothing to eliminate the Islamic State organization (AP, September 25, 2015).

Who, then, should these ground fighters be? They will certainly not be British Prime Minister David Cameron’s mythical 70,000 “moderate” rebels (Independent, December 1, 2015). Saudi Arabia and the Gulf nations regard American-led efforts to restore order in Syria as ineffective and are unlikely partners in a Western-led military initiative; besides, their own resources are currently committed to the ongoing military struggle for Yemen. Syria’s Kurdish militias are capable, but have displayed little interest in campaigning outside their own traditional territories. This leaves regime forces and their allies as the only local groups currently capable of tackling the Islamic State in the field.
Saudi Arabia’s clumsy attempt to create a Saudi-led anti-terrorist military alliance of 34 Islamic nations – mainly by announcing its existence to the surprise of many nations the Kingdom claimed were members – further escalated tensions between Shiite and Sunni communities when it was observed that majority Shi’a nations like Iraq and Iran were noticeably absent from the list of members.

Though Lebanon’s Sunni prime minister Tammam Salam declared Lebanon was part of the alliance, membership was immediately rejected by Hezbollah and most Lebanese Christian parties, the latter correctly pointing out that Lebanon had no status as an “Islamic nation.” A Hezbollah statement claimed the Saudis were unsuitable as leaders of an anti-terrorist coalition as they were involved in state terrorism in Yemen and supported terrorist organizations there as well as in Syria and Iraq. The statement went on to question whether the new alliance would confront “Israeli terrorism” or instead target “the Resistance” (Hezbollah, Iran and Syria) (Al-Manar, December 17, 2015; AP, December 17, 2015). Salam claims to have since received assurances from the Kingdom that the Islamic State and not Hezbollah will be targeted, but vital questions remain concerning how the Sunni alliance would interact with Hezbollah and other Shiite forces on the Syrian battlefield (Daily Star [Beirut] Dec 16 2015). Saudi Arabia’s recent decision to execute Shaykh Nimr al-Nimr, a leading Shiite opposition leader, will only embitter the struggle between Shiites and Sunnis in Syria – Nasrallah described it as “an appalling event” (Reuters, January 3, 2016).

Hezbollah Fighter in Syria

Hezbollah Fighter in Action against Free Syrian Army (AP)

With growing calls for greater Western military intervention in Syria and even to set aside the anti-Assad rebellion in order to allow the Syrian Army to focus on the elimination of the Islamic State, it must be understood that at this point of the war there is no functioning Syrian Army that can be separated and deployed independently of Hezbollah and the Iranian military advisers now running Syrian Army operations.

With few exceptions, Syria’s war does not unfold in a series of set-piece battles, but rather in small actions, “a battle of ambushes, of surprise attacks” as one rebel colonel described it (Reuters, October 30, 2015). This daily war of attrition and a rash of desertions has greatly reduced the size and effectiveness of the Syrian national army. Now most operations are planned by Iranian and Hezbollah advisors using well-trained Hezbollah fighters to stiffen Syrian units in the field.

Hezbollah now has an estimated 6000 fighters in Syria, mostly experienced light infantry well-suited to the war’s pattern of small-level clashes punctuated by the occasional major battle. While losses have been heavy at times, the deployment has given Hezbollah valuable battlefield experience in operating on unfamiliar terrain and in cooperation with the regular forces of other nations (Syria, Iran and Russia).

Hezbollah’s war aims are both declared (protecting Shi’a shrines in Syria) and undeclared, the latter including keeping supply lines from Iran open, preserving the friendly Assad regime and keeping Sunni extremists (al-Nusra, Islamic State, etc.) from entering Lebanon. To mollify those who claim the Syrian adventure has little to do with the anti-Israel “Resistance” agenda, Nasrallah claims that Zionists and Sunni extremists have the same goal – “destroying our peoples and our societies” (AFP, October 18, 2015). The Hezbollah leader also insists that any political solution in Syria “begins and ends” with President Bashar al-Assad (AFP, June 6, 2014).

Though Hezbollah has a polarizing effect on Lebanese politics and a record of terrorist attacks, the movement, unlike the Islamic State organization, is no wild-eyed band of religious fanatics ready to slaughter everyone that does not share their religious preferences. As a political party with a strong social-welfare arm, Hezbollah’s leaders have deftly created a political alliance with Maronite Christian factions, secular Druze and even Shi’a of the Amal Movement with whom Hezbollah waged a bitter war in the 1980s.Lebanese sources indicate that Hezbollah began recruiting Christians, Druze and Sunnis for the fight against the Islamic State in late 2014 (Daily Star [Beirut], November 12, 2014). Nonetheless, opposition to Hezbollah within Lebanon cannot be understated.

To counter the political “normalization” of the movement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has proclaimed Hezbollah a global threat that has organized, with Iran, a terrorist network spanning 30 countries on five continents (AFP, July 28, 2015). Nasrallah, in turn, has emphasized the “ISIS monster’s” threat to Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, some of them important sources for private donations to the Islamic State and other Sunni extremist groups. According to Nasrallah: “This danger does not recognize Shiites, Sunnis, Muslims, Christians or Druze or Yazidis or Arabs or Kurds” (Reuters, August 15, 2015). Jews are notably absent from the Hezbollah leader’s list of ethnicities under threat as Hezbollah considers Israel’s Jews to be in league with the Islamic State terrorists.

Last month, President Netanyahu abandoned Israel’s traditional policy of refusing to confirm or deny involvement in foreign air-strikes, acknowledging that Israel was targeting Hezbollah arms shipments to prevent the transfer of “game-changing” weapons from Syria to Lebanon. When Israel believes it has missed a weapons transfer, it attacks Syrian arms stocks, inhibiting the Syrian Army’s ability to combat the Islamic State and other rebel groups (DefenceNews, November 18, 2015). Israeli airstrikes have not targeted Islamic State forces or installations in Syria; like al-Qaeda, ISIS appears reluctant to attack Israel directly, insisting that America must first be weakened and an Islamic state established in Iraq and Syria before Israel can be addressed (Arutz Sheva 7, October 7, 2014).

This reluctance to strike Israel only reinforces Hezbollah’s belief that there is cooperation between Israel and the Sunni extremists (Tasnim News Agency [Tehran], December 10, 2015). Bashar Assad himself has joked that no one can say al-Qaeda doesn’t have an air force when they have the Israeli Air Force to attack regime and Hezbollah positions (Foreign Affairs, January 25, 2015).

Last summer, Hezbollah and Syrian government forces succeeded in driving rebel forces from their last positions in the Qalamun region alongside the border with Lebanon after nearly two years of fighting. Islamic State and al-Nusra fighters had used the region for attacks within Lebanon. Since then, Hezbollah has intensified its war against the Islamic State and Assad’s other enemies in coordination with Russian airstrikes. Though initially criticized for focusing on Syrian Turkmen communities and American-supported units of the Free Syrian Army, Russia has expanded its target list to include the Islamic State, the Nusra Front and the Jaysh al-Islam militia.

So far, Russia appears to be tolerating Israeli strikes on Hezbollah targets, but has also been accused by Israeli military sources of supplying anti-ship cruise missiles to Hezbollah, whether directly or indirectly through Syrian middlemen (al-Manar TV [Beirut], January 15; Jerusalem Post, January 14). Moscow’s deployment of powerful S-400 ground-to-air missiles in Syria means Russian objections to specific air operations over Syria will have to be taken seriously. Russia and Israel have made extraordinary efforts to avoid running in to each other in Syrian airspace – the consequences of an accidental clash could be significant; a Russian military alliance with the “Resistance Axis” of Hezbollah, Syria and Iran would change the strategic situation of the Middle East. Russia has indicated it considers Hezbollah to be a “legitimate socio-political force” rather than a terrorist group, suggesting it is prepared to work with the group in Syria (Reuters, November 15, 2015).

Regardless of the number of “moderate” rebels in Syria, Hezbollah remains better trained, better armed and better led. The moderates cannot operate effectively against the Islamic State until and unless they can disengage from their conflict with the Syrian Army and the rest of the “Resistance Axis.” The West’s contradictory war aims in Syria have been noted by former UK chief of defense staff General David Richards, who suggests that the anti-Assad rebellion needs to be set aside in order to allow the Syrian Army, Hezbollah and their Iranian backers to focus on the elimination of the Islamic State (Guardian, November 18, 2015). However, this plan would require somehow persuading anti-Assad factions to abandon or postpone their struggle as well as cooperation with anti-Assad Kurdish forces to be successful, not to mention a degree of political flexibility in the Western allies that does not exist at present.

So what are the West’s options? Hezbollah might be persuaded to leave Syria if it was guaranteed that capable military forces (preferably not Western in Hezbollah’s view) would serve as their replacement in the defense of the Assad regime. There is little political appetite for this proposition in the West at the moment, despite an increasing number of voices suggesting that the Islamic State organization rather than Assad might be the most pressing problem in Syria.

An alternative is to try to find a means of combating the Islamic State on the ground without recognizing or coordinating with Assad/Hezbollah forces engaged in the same battle, a tricky bit of military manoeuvering that is likely to end badly.

A third option would be to confront Assad regime/Hezbollah/Iranian forces simultaneously with attacks on the Islamic State to create a “New Syria,” a move that would run a high risk of confrontation with Russia and Iran, incite international opposition and the expansion of the conflict well beyond Syria’s borders. The resulting power vacuum in the ruins of Syria would be worse than that experienced in Libya and would in the end pose a direct security threat to both the West and the Middle East.

To resolve the Syrian crisis it is essential either to come to terms with Hezbollah or to confront it, knowing in the latter case that the bulk of the movement and its leadership will remain in Lebanon with the means to strike back at its international antagonists. Ignoring its existence or its role in confronting anti-Shi’a Sunni extremist groups like the Islamic State will not be an option in any ground-based effort to crush Islamic State terrorists.

This article first appeared in the January 26, 2016 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

The Hezbollah Wild Card in the Conflict in Gaza

Andrew McGregor
August 7, 2014

The ongoing Israeli military operations in Gaza have benefitted from the knowledge that Israel’s northern border with Lebanon is not being threatened by the Shi’a Hezbollah movement of Lebanon, the senior partner in the anti-Israel “Resistance” movement. With Hezbollah occupied with its own military operations in Syria and Lebanon’s Beka’a Valley (and possibly now in Iraq), the frontier has remained largely quiet throughout Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” in Gaza, with the Lebanese Army and UN peacekeepers working to prevent rockets from being fired into Israel from southern Lebanon. In late July, Hamas’ political bureau deputy chief, Dr. Musa Abu Marzuk, appealed to Hezbollah to intervene in the Gaza conflict: “We hope the Lebanese front will open and together we will fight against this formation [Israel]… There’s no arguing that Lebanese resistance could mean a lot” (RIA Novosti, July 30).

Musa Abu MurzuqDr. Musa Abu Murzuq

Hezbollah was once able to present itself as the defender of Lebanon and the champion of the anti-Israeli Resistance, but circumstances prevent Hezbollah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah and the rest of the Hezbollah leadership from resuming these roles. Lebanon is now experiencing severe economic problems while hosting over a million refugees from the Syrian conflict. Hezbollah fighters are deeply engaged in the Syrian conflict as well as assuming an important role in preventing Sunni jihadists from Syria from operating in the hills surrounding the Beka’a Valley in north-eastern Lebanon (al-Arabiya, July 26; for Hezbollah attempts to reposition itself as an anti-terrorism force, see Terrorism Monitor, April 18). Other factors working against Hezbollah support for Hamas include local suspicion and resentment arising from Hezbollah’s Syrian intervention and the current strained relations between the two groups. There are also perceptions within Lebanon that Hezbollah has a controlling influence over the Lebanese military and security forces. These forces are currently overstretched and awaiting the supply of $1 billion worth of new French weapons in a deal financed by the Saudis (Daily Star [Beirut], August 5).
Nasrallah’s first public remarks on the current Gaza conflict were not made until July 25, when the Hezbollah leader warned Israel against going to the level of “suicide and collapse” by continuing its campaign in Gaza, while assuring “our brothers in Gaza” that “we will do everything we can to support you” (AP, July 25). Nasrallah elaborated on his remarks in an interview a few days later:

We in Hezbollah will be unstinting in all forms of support, assistance and aid that we are able to provide. We feel we are true partners with this resistance, a partnership of jihad, brotherhood, hope, pain, sacrifice and fate, because their victory is our victory, and their defeat is our defeat… As far as the situation on the battlefield goes, we are winning. Yes, the correlation of forces is beyond comparison, but we have men who are capable of stopping and vanquishing the aggressor (RIA Novosti, July 30).

Nasrallah had earlier made calls to both Hamas chief Khalid Mesha’al and Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Abdullah Shalah to express his support for their struggle against Israel (Daily Star [Beirut], July 22). Despite an increasing political distance between the Sunni Hamas movement and the Shi’a Hezbollah movement due to growing sectarian tensions throughout the Middle East (particularly in Sria) and Hamas’ ties to the now-deposed Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, there are claims that the military arms of the two movements continue to cooperate (Al-Monitor, July 24).

Islamic State Fighters in ArsalIslamic State Fighters in Arsal

The northeastern Lebanese border town of Arsal has been the scene of bitter fighting in recent days as Lebanese troops of the mechanized 5th and 6th Brigades and the light 8th Brigade move into the region to combat an estimated 4,000 Sunni gunmen of the Nusra Front, most of whom arrived from Syria (al-Manar [Beirut], August 4). Also operating in the Qalamoun region are Islamic State forces under the command of local amir Abu Hassan al-Filastini (al-Akhbar [Beirut], August4). Hezbollah is working alongside Lebanese Army troops around Arsal while also working with the Syrian Army to destroy Islamist forces (particularly the Nusra Front) operating in Syria’s Qalamoun region. Hezbollah is reported to be aided in the region by a group of advisors from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard who arrived there in mid-July (Daily Star [Beirut], July 22).

The anti-jihadist operations are intended in part to pre-empt a planned Islamist offensive (Laylat al-Qadr – “Night of Power) against Lebanese border villages intended to abduct hundreds of Lebanese citizens to give the jihadists a bargaining chip in obtaining the release of dozens of their comrades from Lebanon’s Roumieh Prison. Other residents of the region were to be slaughtered in order to provoke a sectarian conflict within Lebanon (Daily Star [Beirut], July 22; July 26; July 27). The planned operation came after an earlier scheme to enable a jailbreak by blasting the Roumieh Prison gates open with a car-bomb was foiled by Lebanese intelligence (al-Sharq al-Awsat, July 5). Lebanon’s Sunni Prime Minister, Tammam Salam, has ruled out any kind of political deal with the Sunni gunmen on the frontier (Reuters, August 4).

Fighting in the area began following the arrest of Imad Juma’a (a.k.a. Abu Ahmad Juma’a), leader of the Sunni militant Fajr al-Islam Brigade (allied to the Islamist Nusra Front). Juma’a recently declared his allegiance to the Iraqi-Syrian Islamic State and its leader, the self-declared “Caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (al-Akhbar [Beirut], August 4).

Hezbollah has cut the jihadists’ supply lines in the region between Qalamoun and Arsal while the Syrian Air Force conducts air-strikes against concentrations of gunmen in the mountains in anticipation of a major joint Hezbollah-Syrian Army-Lebanese Army operation to flush out the gunmen and eliminate their presence in the border region. While likely to be militarily effective, the prospect of Hezbollah operating closely with the officially secular Lebanese Army has alarmed many Sunni leaders within Lebanon. In addition, Arsal is predominantly Sunni and generally in sympathy with the Syrian jihadists, leading to the possibility of a joint operation as described sparking a sectarian confrontation within Lebanon (Daily Star [Beirut], July 31).

With most of its best fighting cohorts operating in Syria or northern Lebanon, Hezbollah is reluctant to renew hostilities with Israel at this time. A war on two fronts would not be sustainable, and Hezbollah is well aware that the Israeli Defense Forces have been using their repeated ground offensives into Gaza to develop the new methods and tactics necessary to avoid a repetition of their failure to overcome Hezbollah forces in 2006.

This article first appeared in the August 7, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

In a Shifting Political Landscape, Hezbollah Repositions itself as the Anti-Terrorist Defender of Lebanon

Andrew McGregor

April 18, 2014

The growing perception in the Arab Middle East that Syria’s military has recently gained the upper hand in Syria’s civil war over an armed opposition that includes a number of politically dangerous extremist groups is leading to a number of new diplomatic initiatives aimed at resolving the Syrian crisis in a manner that will ensure security and stability for its neighbors. In Damascus there is a new confidence, with preparations underway for presidential elections in July and the war expected to finish by the end of the year. In the Hezbollah headquarters in southern Beirut, movement leaders are working on efforts to overcome the party’s politically-damaging military intervention in Syria by repositioning Hezbollah as Lebanon’s first line of defense against Syrian-based jihadists and terrorists. According to Hezbollah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, “The problem in Lebanon is not that Hezbollah went to Syria, but that we were late in doing so” (al-Jazeeera, March 29).

Intervention in Syria

Hezbollah entered the Syrian conflict in 2012 by sending small numbers of fighters to protect the Shrine of Sayida Zaynab (revered by Shiites) in south Damascus. The Hezbollah deployment escalated sharply in April 2013 as the movement played a major role in the battle for al-Qusayr (al-Jazeera, April 6).

Inside the Shrine of Sayida Zaynab, Damascus

Militarily, the movement has had a number of notable successes in Syria in recent weeks, ranging from the mid-March capture of the rebel stronghold at the strategically vital town of Yabroud, close to Lebanon’s Beka’a Valley, to the April 9 capture of the Syrian border town of Rankous, part of an effort to consolidate control of the Damascus to Homs highway. Both operations were conducted in cooperation with forces of the Syrian national army. These successes permit Hezbollah and the Lebanese Forces an opportunity to secure the Syrian-Lebanese border from further suicide bombings and other attacks by Sunni jihadists operating in Syria. Syrian opposition forces crossing the Lebanese/Syrian border are already restricted to using the most difficult mountain routes to cross the frontier (al-Sharq al-Awsat, April 11).

Hezbollah is currently cooperating with the Lebanese Army in a security crackdown in the Beka’a Valley, home to a significant number of Shiites (Daily Star [Beirut], April 11). The region has witnessed numerous retaliatory attacks by Syrian opposition forces on Hezbollah operatives since the Hezbollah intervention began. There have also been a number of incidents of sectarian violence in northern Lebanon (particularly the port city of Tripoli) that the Lebanese Army is working to eliminate. Lebanese security forces have also warned of a recent infiltration by al-Nusra Islamist fighters into the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, where they are able to avoid ongoing security sweeps and plan bombings within Lebanon and Syria (Daily Star [Beirut], April 3).

Hezbollah deputy leader Shaykh Na’im Qasim says the recent battles in Syria have left the international community with a choice:

Either have an understanding with Assad to reach a result, or to keep the crisis open with President Assad having the upper hand in running the country… America is in a state of confusion. On the one hand it does not want the regime to stay and on the other it cannot control the militants which are represented by ISIS and al-Nusra. This is why the latest American position was to leave the situation in Syria in a state of attrition (Fars News Agency [Tehran], April 10).

Elsewhere, Qasim has noted that Assad retains the support of Syria’s religious minorities and suggests that political realities in the region must be addressed: “There is a practical Syrian reality that the West should deal with – not with its wishes and dreams, which proved to be false” (Fars News Agency [Tehran], April 12).

The Intervention and Hezbollah’s Domestic Standing

The former head of the opposition Syrian National Council, Dr. Burhan Ghalioun, predicts that Hezbollah will soon pull out of Syria due to heavy combat losses and growing dissent within the movement (al-Watan [Abha, Saudi Arabia], April 10). While possible, Ghalioun’s prediction runs counter to Hezbollah’s determination to preserve the Assad government for various reasons vital to the movement’s future success and overlooks Tehran’s importance in encouraging further Hezbollah operations in Syria. Nonetheless, Hezbollah has adapted its tactics to reduce battlefield losses by emphasizing reconnaissance and secure communications (AP, April 13).

Hezbollah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah believes there is a growing recognition within Lebanon and even his own movement of the necessity for Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria: “We do not face a problem with our people about our participation in Syria, on the contrary, there was a group that was hesitant, but it has settled its choice with us… I can say that some [anti-Assad] March 14 partisans support our involvement in Syria to protect Lebanon from terrorist takfiri groups” (Daily Star [Beirut], April 7).

Already strong in its military and social service divisions, Hezbollah is now seeking to expand its political influence in Lebanon beyond its representatives in parliament.  Nonetheless, Hezbollah pulled out of Lebanon’s national dialogue in March after President Michel Sulayman criticized the movement’s involvement in Lebanon. Shaykh Na’im Qasim has stated that the movement will rejoin the talks only if four conditions are met:

  • All parties must recognize that Israel is a threat to Lebanon
  • No single group can monopolize power in Lebanon
  • Political parties must resist linking the fate of Lebanon to the regional crisis
  • Presidential and parliamentary elections must be held on schedule (Daily Star [Beirut], April 5).

Hezbollah has also emerged as a major player in the selection of a new Lebanese president. The candidate of the Christian Lebanese Forces Party (part of the anti-Syrian March 14 coalition), Dr. Samir Geagea, is a traditional opponent of Hezbollah and Syria (with the latter being behind his 11 years spent in solitary confinement in a windowless basement cell). However, Geagea is now seeking a more collaborative relationship with Hezbollah, which he insists should abandon its weapons and become a full-fledged political party. A former militia leader, Geagea does not agree with Hezbollah’s argument that it must retain its weapons so long as the Lebanese Army is incapable of defending the nation against Israeli incursions:

They are not the ones to make that decision. Lebanon will be an effective state that makes decisions or it will cease to exist. They cannot make decisions on our behalf. Hezbollah cannot assume that weapons are the best way to protect Lebanon… Talking about resistance is no longer convincing… If you take a look at the military’s weapons capabilities as it currently stands, the military is more than 50 times better armed than Hezbollah… The military’s Special Forces (the Marine Commandos, Mountain Commandos and Strike Force) outnumber Hezbollah’s Special Forces two to one or more. Hezbollah’s constituency will be the greatest beneficiaries of a stable, secure state that will allow the Lebanese economy to recover and create new opportunities for development projects (al-Sharq al-Awsat, April 9).

Hezbollah, however, is supporting the as yet undeclared candidacy of Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) leader and former Lebanese Army commander General Michel Aoun for president (the office is restricted to Christians under Lebanon’s national pact; Aoun is a Maronite Christian). The movement is expanding its political role in Lebanon by building alliances with the Shiite Amal movement and other elements of the pro-Syrian March 8 coalition (which includes both Hezbollah and the FPM). Sayyid Nasrallah insists his movement is seeking a “made-in-Lebanon” president, chosen without foreign interference (al-Akhbar [Beirut], April 8).

The Anti-Terrorist Agenda

A generally pro-Hezbollah Beirut daily’s description of the movement’s current security role provides some idea of how Hezbollah is positioning itself as Lebanon’s first line of defense against “takfiri” terrorists:

The Lebanese army cannot succeed in its current and future plans without at least moral support from Hezbollah. It would not be possible to eliminate terrorist and takfiri groups in Syria without the party. Security actors are aware of the important intelligence role played by the party in uncovering bombs and networks aiming to terrorise Lebanon and ignite strife. The party and its allies form a heavy political force, making it impossible to take any major national political decision against the party or without it (al-Akhbar [Beirut], April 11).

According to Sayyid Nasrallah, Hezbollah is not a substitute for the state, “even in the matter of resistance. When the state becomes capable and strong enough to defend Lebanon, we in the Resistance will go back to our schools and our universities and affairs” (as-Safir [Beirut], April 8). There are few signs, however, that anyone in the Hezbollah leadership believes that time is near. In the meantime, movement officials emphasize the movement’s success in closing a number of car-bomb factories threatening Lebanon during recent Hezbollah military operations in Syria’s Qalamun region, close to the Lebanese border.

The Shifting Diplomatic Landscape

There are indications that Iran and Saudi Arabia are beginning to develop contacts with the goal of eventual discussions on the Syrian issue (al-Akhbar [Beirut], April 9). Nasrallah has stated he supports reconciliation between the two nations (as-Safir [Beirut], April 8). Iran is reported to be proposing a ceasefire, the formation of a national unity government, gradual transfer of presidential powers to a national government and finally presidential and parliamentary elections (al-Akhbar [Beirut], March 31). There is little doubt that Hezbollah would welcome any steps towards finding a Syrian solution; the movement’s participation in the conflict has come at an enormous human and financial cost to Hezbollah’s Lebanese constituency.

While the movement’s leadership maintains support for their role in Syria is actually increasing, it is also clear that Hezbollah’s commitment in Syria cannot be open-ended. While Nasrallah sees a turn-around in the fortunes of the Assad regime, he is also aware the conflict is entering a dangerous phase for his movement if no settlement is in sight: “In my opinion, the phase of bringing down the regime or bringing down the state is over… [The armed opposition] cannot overthrow the regime, but they can wage a war of attrition” (as-Safir [Beirut], April 7).

Hezbollah’s relations with Egypt also appear to be thawing after a complete breakdown during the rule of former Egyptian president Muhamad Mursi. With the discredited Muslim Brotherhood out of the way, Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy met with Hezbollah MP and Industry Minister Hussein al-Hajj Hassan on March 20. Hassan is said to have explained Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria as a response to the dangers posed by cross-border terrorism (al-Akhbar, March 31). While the groundbreaking meeting was far from an Egyptian endorsement of the movement, it did represent an important, if tentative, step towards improving relations and developing a more cooperative policy on the Syrian issue (Egypt opposes Hezbollah’s military intervention). With Egypt working closely with Saudi Arabia, its main financial backer during the political transition, and Hezbollah working closely with the Iranian regime, further talks could be the beginning of a gradual reduction in the dangerous tension between the often overlapping Shiite and Sunni spheres of the Middle East.

The Anti-Israeli Resistance

Hezbollah is aware that its military commitment in Syria could be interpreted as an opportunity by the Israeli military and has therefore remained active along the border with Israel to demonstrate it can still mount operations against Israel while supporting the Assad regime within Syria. Israeli strikes such as the air attack on two Hezbollah trucks carrying missiles in late February are politically useful to the movement, which characterizes such strikes as attacks on the Lebanese nation that confirm Israel’s “aggressive nature” (Daily Star [Beirut], February 27).

A Hezbollah attack on an Israeli unit in the disputed Shaba’a Farms region on the border was carried out on March 14 in response to an Israeli Air Force raid a week earlier (Jerusalem Post, April 11). Nasrallah said the attack “sent a message that the Resistance is still capable of fighting Israel” and added that the operation was “about deterrence” (as-Safir [Beirut], April 8).

Financial Distress?

There are signs that Hezbollah is undergoing financial stress at the moment due to several factors, most notably cuts in funding due to Iranian austerity measures. While the movement continues to receive financial assistance from the independent budget of Supreme Guide Ayatollah Khamenei, funding from the Iranian Foreign Ministry is reported to have stopped five months ago (al-Sharq al-Awsat, April 9).

A bipartisan bill before the U.S. House of Representatives, the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act (H.R. 4411), is designed to “cripple” Hezbollah and eliminate its threat to Israel by extending new financial sanctions, penalizing satellite providers carrying Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV and dual designations as a narcotics trafficking organization and transnational criminal organization  (Daily Star [Beirut], April 6). [1] Economic investments and an expanding commercial element are important sources of revenue for Hezbollah that may be threatened to some extent by the proposed U.S. legislation.

Hezbollah’s deployment in Syria is also a financial drain on the movement. While Iran covers the costs of the actual military deployment, the costs of responding to associated attacks by Sunni militants within Lebanon are borne by the movement, which also provides $50,000 in cash to the families of each Hezbollah member killed in Syria, as well as housing for those families who need it. The result has been cutbacks in various Hezbollah programs, especially allocations to media groups belonging to allied Sunni and Christian currents (al-Sharq al-Awsat, April 9).

Donations from the Lebanese Shi’a diaspora are another important source of funding, but this source is also under duress. On April 8, German authorities banned what they described as a Hezbollah front organization that had raised $4.5 million in Germany since 2007. The ban was accompanied by a series of raids as Interior Minister Thomas de Maziere explained: “Organizations that directly or indirectly from German soil oppose the state of Israel’s right to exist may not seek freedom of association protection” (Daily Star [Beirut], April 9).

Conclusion

Hezbollah is confident it can regain the respect and influence it had in the region after it repulsed the Israeli military in 2006 by positioning itself as not only an anti-Israel resistance movement but also a shield against (Sunni) jihadist groups preparing cross-border terrorist attacks in Lebanon. Overlooked in Hezbollah statements is the fact that it is Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria that attracts many (though by no means all) of these attacks. Though the movement is undergoing great stress from its military campaign in Syria and Western efforts to interrupt its funding, the movement has demonstrated great resilience in the past and is likely to support diplomatic efforts to end the costly conflict in Syria. Resolution in this sphere promises to bring greater regional acceptance for the movement and will enable it to continue its move from Lebanon’s political periphery to its political center in Beirut.

Note

1. See Rep. Mark Meadows, “Cut Off Hezbollah’s Lifeline to International Financing,” Washington Examiner, April 10, 2014, http://washingtonexaminer.com/cut-off-hezbollahs-lifeline-to-international-financing/article/2547025; Rep. Paul Cook, “Rep. Paul Cook Cosponsors Bills to Sanction Hezbollah, Block Terrorist from Entering the United States,” Press Release, April 9, 2014, http://cook.house.gov/media-center/press-releases/rep-paul-cook-cosponsors-bills-to-sanction-hezbollah-block-terrorist

This article first appeared in the April 18, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Hezbollah Devises Strategy to Deal with Syrian Fallout

Andrew McGregor

July 11, 2013

Despite condemnation for their military role in Syria from Sunni elements in Lebanon and abroad, the leader of the Shiite Hezbollah movement maintains that the movement is on the right path and its role in preserving the “Resistance” alliance against Israel will be justified in the coming days. According to a pro-Hezbollah daily, Shaykh Hassan Nasrallah told a closed door meeting of Hezbollah leaders and cadres that regardless of the escalation in fighting: “the results of what is happening will be in the interest of the Resistance forces… The coming days will confirm that the decisions made over the past two years were the right ones, be it regarding the situation in Lebanon or what is happening in Syria” (al-Safir [Beirut],  July 3). 

Nasrallah 2Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah (al-Alam)

The Hezbollah meeting came only days before a car-bomb wounded over 50 people in the largely Shiite Beirut suburb of Bir al-Abd on July 9. Though the explosion was widely interpreted as the fulfillment of promises by Sunni extremists fighting in Syria to target the Shiite suburbs of southern Beirut if Hezbollah failed to withdraw its military support for the Assad regime, Hezbollah MP Ali Ammar said the attack “clearly bears the fingerprint of the Israeli enemy and its tools” (Daily Star [Beirut], July 10).

Hezbollah’s intervention on the side of pro-regime forces in Syria is viewed by many Lebanese as a direct violation of the Ba’abda Declaration, a 2012 agreement between Lebanon’s rival March 8 and March 14 political coalitions that sought to preserve peace in Lebanon by keeping the nation out of “regional and international conflicts and sparing it the negative repercussions of regional tensions and crises” (Daily Star [Beirut], February 20).

Ahmad al-AssirShaykh Ahmad al-Assir (The Sun UK)

Many political factions in Lebanon were also alarmed by reports of Hezbollah’s participation in Lebanese Army operations against a Salafist extremist group in Sidon during a two-day battle over June 22 – 23. The incident began when militants under the command of Shaykh Ahmad al-Assir ambushed a Lebanese Army outpost in the Abra neighborhood of Sidon on June 22, killing 18 soldiers and wounding over 50 with a reported loss of 28 Salafist gunmen. Al-Assir is a vocal opponent of Hezbollah’s military support of the Assad regime in Syria and counts among his followers Fadl Shaker (a.k.a. Fadl Abd al-Rahman Shamandar), a former well-known pop-singer who renounced non-Islamic music to join al-Assir’s movement in 2011. Contrary to earlier reports that al-Assir and Shaker had been killed in the battle, two burned bodies believed to have belonged to the men were proven to be those of other militants following DNA testing and warrants were issued for the arrest of al-Assir and Shaker (al-Manar TV, July 3).

An independent Beirut daily claimed that the people of Sidon were convinced that the June 22-23 Abra action was “a military intelligence operation run by Hezbollah in collusion with the Lebanese Armed Forces” (Sada al-Balad [Beirut], July 3). The Sunni Lebanese Association of Muslim Scholars issued a statement maintaining that Hezbollah was not only involved in the Abra battle, but may have precipitated it: “It has been proved through facts, pictures, and the testimonies of the people of Sidon that the supporters of the party of Iran [i.e. Hezbollah] and the thugs of the Resistance Battalions joined the Lebanese Army in attacking the Bilal Bin-Rabah Mosque and its environs” (Saida Gate [Sidon], June 29).

Lebanese Minister of Defense Fayiz Ghusn insists that Hezbollah did not fight in Sidon, adding that the Lebanese Army has difficulty securing the border with Syria due to its obligation to deploy 15,000 troops in southern Lebanon in accordance with UN Security Council resolution 1701 (al-Akhbar [Beirut], July 1).

Prominent MP Ahmad Fatfat, a member of Sa’ad Hariri’s Tayyar al-Mustaqbal (Future Movment, part of the anti-Syrian March 14 coalition), complained in mid-June that the Lebanese Army had “begun to fall under the influence of Hezbollah,” claiming that Hezbollah fighters were able to pass freely through army checkpoints along the Syrian border (Daily Star [Beirut], June 16). Solidifying its partnership with the Lebanese army is important to Hezbollah, which is mindful of the possibility that Israel may take advantage of its Syrian distraction to take another shot at eliminating the Shiite movement after being repulsed in a previous attempt in 2006. Israeli Combat Intelligence teams are busy monitoring Hezbollah movements and seeking Hezbollah targets along the border region for use in the eventuality of a renewed conflict (Jerusalem Post, June 28).

Potential Lebanese Army cooperation with Hezbollah raises a dilemma for the United States, a firm supporter of the army but a dedicated opponent of Hezbollah. On a recent visit to Lebanon, U.S. deputy secretary of state William J. Burns condemned Hezbollah’s role in the Syrian conflict, saying: “Despite its membership in the Lebanese government, Hezbollah has decided to put its own interests and those of its foreign backers above those of the Lebanese people” (Daily Star [Beirut], July 1).

Reports that Hezbollah was also experiencing differences over domestic issues with General Michel Aoun, the leader of al-Tayyir al-Watani al-Hurr (The Free Patriotic Movement) and the March 8 political coalition, came to a head on July 10, when Shiite Amal leader Nabih Berri announced the withdrawal of the two Shiite parties (Amal and Hezbollah) from the coalition, which is otherwise composed of Christians, socialists and a number of small Sunni parties. According to Berri, the relatively amicable split will not disrupt coordination on foreign policy: “We agree with Aoun on strategic issues such as the Resistance and [the stand on] Israel but not on domestic issues” (Daily Star [Beirut], July 10). One of the main points of contention between the two factions of the now defunct March 8 coalition was the reappointment of General Jean Kahwaji as Lebanese Army chief, a move opposed by General Aoun and many others who suspect the general of being sympathetic to Hezbollah. The split comes as Lebanon attempts to form a new government this month under premier-designate Tammam Salam, who has already rejected Hezbollah’s demand for a veto over new government decisions (Naharnet [Beirut], July 3).

With Hezbollah under intense criticism from a wide range of political opponents, the movement has undertaken a new media offensive designed to use senior members to clarify the movement’s understanding of its role in Lebanon, its determination to combat “takfiri” extremists in Syria or Lebanon and its willingness to re-engage with all Islamic movements (al-Safir [Beirut], July 3). However, existing sectarian divisions within Lebanon mean Hezbollah will have trouble convincing non-Shiite Lebanese of the desirability of the movement turning its arms on fellow Lebanese (even takfiri extremists), while justifying its support of the Assad regime in Syria will prove even more difficult given the wide unpopularity of the Syrian government in many parts of Lebanon. Hezbollah’s main intention is to preserve the anti-Israeli “Resistance” movement through these difficulties, though the collapse of the March 8 coalition may be an early sign of emerging splits within the Resistance.

This article first appeared in the July 11, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Muslim Brothers’ Spiritual Leader Yusuf al-Qaradawi Condemns Hezbollah

Andrew McGregor

June 14, 2013

There are few more prominent preachers in the Islamic world than Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian Islamic scholar now based in Qatar, where he hosts a religious issues program on al-Jazeera with a viewership of 60 million and acts as the senior scholar for the popular website Islam Online. Often viewed as the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaradawi, like many Sunnis, was deeply impressed by the resistance the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah movement offered to an Israeli invasion force in 2006. However, Hezbollah’s decision to aid the Syrian regime, its military ally, in repressing Syria’s largely Sunni armed opposition, has seen its support in the Sunni community largely evaporate. Most damaging has been the reversal in opinion of al-Qaradawi, who has abandoned his former support for the movement to publicly denounce Hezbollah as the servants of Satan.

QusayrSyrian Troops Battle for Qusayr

For al-Qaradawi, the last straw was Hezbollah’s successful 17-day assault on the town of Qusayr, near the Syrian border with Lebanon. The recapture of Qusayr was a devastating blow to Syrian opposition forces that, while not necessarily decisive, may still represent a turning point in Syria’s internal struggle as it restores government control of the Damascus to Aleppo highway and access to the Alawite heartland on the Syrian coast.  Hezbollah deputy leader Shaykh Na’im Qassim described the battle as “a severe blow to the American-Israeli-Takfiri scheme,” reflecting Hezbollah’s belief that anti-Shi’a Sunni extremists are being funded and armed by Israel and the United States as part of an effort to topple the Syrian regime and thus weaken resistance to a renewed Israeli assault on Lebanon and the destruction of the Palestinian cause (Naharnet [Beirut], June 6).

In a May 31 sermon at the Umar bin al-Khattab mosque in Doha, al-Qaradawi called on all Muslims with military training to make themselves available to the Syrian opposition. Describing Hezbollah (“the Party of God”) as Hizb al-Shaytan (“the Party of Satan”), al-Qaradawi suggested that the Lebanese Shiite movement was acting as a proxy for Iran, which desired “continued massacres to kill Sunnis.” The Egyptian preacher went on to ask the Sunni community: “Iran is pushing forward arms and men [in support of the Assad regime], so why do we stand idle?” Al-Qaradawi went on to acknowledge he had made a critical mistake in defending Hezbollah against attacks against it by the religious leadership of Saudi Arabia after 2006 in the belief that Shiites and Sunnis must present a unified resistance to Israel: “It seems that the clerics of Saudi Arabia were more mature than me” (Naharnet [Beirut], June 2; al-Arabiya/AFP, June 2).

Saudi Grand Mufti Shaykh Abd al-Aziz al-Ashaykh thanked al-Qaradawi for his public reversal of opinion and adoption of the approach taken to Hezbollah (“this detestable sectarian movement”) by the Saudi religious leadership, noting that Hezbollah did not respect “ties of kinship or the covenant with the believers [i.e. Sunni Muslims]” (Arab News [Jedda], June 7).

The contradictions inherent in al-Qaradawi’s simultaneous support of Hezbollah and the Syrian opposition had gradually become apparent as the Syrian crisis worsened. On May 4, the Egyptian preacher denounced Hezbollah and Shiite Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki for their support of al-Assad and called on the Syrian army to defect to the opposition Free Syrian Army (al-Sharq Online [Doha], May 4).  Though he did not mention Hezbollah by name, al-Qaradawi had warned supporters of the Syrian regime of the consequences of their actions later in May during a controversial visit to Gaza: “Those who are arrogant on this earth, Bashar al-Assad, his followers and all those who support him with funds, weapons and men, from all countries, will be taken by God” (al-Aqsa TV [Gaza], May 10).

However, al-Qaradawi’s about face on the relationship with Hezbollah appears to have put him at odds with the leadership of the Izz-al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of the Sunni HAMAS movement that rules Gaza. According to reports carried an Islamist-sympathetic daily, the HAMAS military command sent a message to the movement’s Political Bureau rejecting al-Qaradawi’s approach, saying that the movement had benefited from the arms and military support it had received as a consequence of its alliance with Hezbollah and Iran, while “Arab money” from Saudi Arabia and Qatar had done nothing to advance the liberation of Palestine in comparison (al-Quds al-Arabi, June 6).

In April, the Syrian Ba’athist Party’s website denounced “the devil of sedition in Egypt, the named Yusuf al-Qaradawi” for issuing a fatwa calling for jihad in Syria and allegedly inciting assassins to kill Dr. Muhammad Sa’id Ramadan al-Buti, a noted ethnic-Kurdish pro-regime religious scholar who opposed Salafist ideology and was a noted critic of al-Qaradawi. Al-Buti was killed in a March 21 suicide bombing that left at least 41 other people dead inside a Damascus mosque (al-Ba’ath Online [Damascus], April 10).

In his May 31 Friday sermon in Doha, al-Qaradawi, using a pejorative term for the Syrian Alawites, described the “Nusayris” as non-Muslims, referring to the 1318 fatwa issued by the controversial Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyah (1263-1328), who said:

These people named “al-Nusayriya”… are greater disbelievers than the Jews and Christians. Nay, they are greater disbelievers than most of the polytheists, and their harm to the Umma (community) of Muhammad is greater than the harm of the disbelievers who are at war with Muslims, such as the Tartars, disbelieving Europeans and others” (Fatwa 35/145). [1]

Hajj Amin al-HusayniHajj Amin al-Husayni

In making this statement, al-Qaradawi chose to overlook the 1936 fatwa issued by Hajj Amin al-Husayni, the Mufti of Jerusalem, which ruled that Alawis were indeed Muslims, though there are indications this ruling was politically motivated rather than the result of research into the beliefs of the Alawis, a minority sect that has dominated the Syrian government and military since independence.

Last October, al-Qaradawi included Hezbollah in a list of “enemies” who threatened Syria and the “Arab nation” as a whole: “Iran is also our enemy, the enemy of the Arabs. Those killed in Syria have been killed by the Iranians, the Chinese, the Russians, and the Syrian army. The Iranians stand against the Arabs in order to establish a Persian Empire… The same applies to Hezbollah, which sends its men to fight in Syria, and come back in boxes” (al-Quds al-Arabi, October 18).  Al-Qaradawi repeated his description of Russians as “enemies to Muslims” in his May 31 Friday sermon delivered in Doha   (al-Arab [Doha], June 1).

These remarks brought condemnation from Iranian and Shiite sources, in which al-Qaradawi is routinely described as “the NATO Mufti.” Further criticism came from leading pro-Kremlin members of Russia’s Muslim community, including Mufti Mukhammedgali Khuzin, who said: “It is no secret that this man is a puppet in the hands of reactionary political circles displeased with Russia’s foreign policy” (Interfax, November 30, 2012). Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov suggested that “Qadarawi, as a scholar, would be well-advised to take up educational activities and not dabble in politics, leaving it to professionals” (Interfax, November 12, 2012).

Notes

1. Yvette Talhamy, “The Fatwas and the Nusayri/Alawis of Syria,” Middle Eastern Studies 46(2), 2010, pp. 175–194.

This article first appeared in the June 14, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor