While attention in the Syrian crisis is directed mainly towards the attacks on Hezbollah bases in Syria and the problem of chemical weapons use, in the battlefield itself a dramatic struggle is developing between more conventional forces that barely makes major headlines. This struggle is out in the open and its results can be seen on Lebanon's TV screens: funerals one after the other of Hezbollah fighters that went to do battle in Syria and came home in a coffin.
Two years after the outbreak of war in Syria, the Shia movement is a significant force fighting alongside the Damascus regime. They see it as a holy war against extremist Sunni organizations, which form the strike force of the rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad. The number of Hezbollah fighters killed is already nearly 40, and it is rising all the time. Unconfirmed reports from Beirut say that most of Hezbollah's best quality forces can be found in Syria with only the reserves back in Lebanon.
The fighting in Syria is neither on a whim or some passing adventure from Hezbollah's point of view but rather a strategic choice. The decision was taken in Beirut and Tehran despite having the potential to bog down the movement in the Syrian mire for several years.
What forced the movement's hand was a series of attacks on Shia targets led by a car bombing carried out by Sulafist Sunnis in a predominantly Shia neighborhood of Sayyidah Zaynab in southern Damascus. This neighborhood contains one of the holiest Shia shrines in Syria - the tomb of Zaynab, the grandson of Mohammed. Rebels also attacked a series of Shia villages along the Lebanese border that left Hezbollah no choice but to rush to their defense. The main part of Hezbollah's campaign is being waged against Sunnis Muslims in Syria that identify with Al Qaeda led by Jabhet Al-Nusra (the Savior Front).
The number of Hezbollah dead and their names is downplayed by the movement. This contribution in blood for Assad is also repayment for his critical support for Hezbollah in morale and arms during the Second Lebanon War with Israel in 2006. This is in contrast to Assad's former friends in Hamas who have betrayed the Syrian president and abandoned Damascus despite the warm embrace he has given them for so many years.
However, Hezbollah's contribution is costing them blood and major embarrassment. Its opponents in Lebanon use the situation to present Hezbollah as Assad's blood brothers, a bloodthirsty movement that has sold out on its purity of principals and betrayed its oppressed citizens for solidarity with its neighboring country. Even within Hezbollah's support base, the Shia community, there is criticism that their finest sons are fighting a war that is not their own.
Hezbollah's leaders tell their people that they are defending the sacredness of the Shia religion. They insist that this is not part of the Iran-Alawi axis but a mission to save their Shia brothers in Syria and the holy grave of Zaynab. From time to time in these disputes reference is made to the treacherous battle at Karbala in 680 when the two sons of the Imam Ali were murdered by the Muslim armies.
To bereaved fathers Hezbollah's leaders explain that their children fell in a holy war. Better to defend the grave of Zaynab now and not reach a point when the grave is destroyed by Al Qaeda which will ignite a war of destruction between Sunnis and Shias.
Achievements in the battlefield
In a speech last Wednesday Hassan Nasrallah declared, "Syria has good friends in the region. The world won't let it fall into the hands of the Americans, Israelis and infidel Jihad groups." He massage was directed at Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other Sunni countries that back the rebels. For Nasrallah, this is an all-out war within Islam not a struggle between this or that regime.
For this reason, Hezbollah is in no rush to threaten action against Israel following the Israel Air Force attack in Syria in broad daylight on Friday. Hezbollah currently has a greater mission to save Syria. The complication of a confrontation with the IDF would deflect from the strategic choice to save their man in Damascus. And indeed in recent weeks the Syrian regime has reported achievements in the battlefield and its self-confidence is significantly rising.
Good evidence of this is Assad's decision to chemical weapons in areas inhabited by civilians. A regime that crosses red lines set for him by Washington does not feel it is reaching the end of the battle. Assad has Hezbollah's best fighters by his side and Iran and Moscow supplying weapons and diplomatic support. Together with them, Assad thinks he has a chance to win the battle of his life and he also feels secure enough to rile the US.
The author is the Arab Affairs correspondent for “IDF Radio" (Galei Zahal).
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on May 6, 2013
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