“You’re traitors,” said Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah to Muqtada al-Sadr, the separatist Iraqi Shi’ite leader. The accusation was the climax of the bitter dispute that developed between the two Shi’ite leaders after Sadr flatly refused Nasrallah’s request to send fighters to the battle in Syria.
The Kuwaiti weekly Al-Seyassah − which this week published details about the dispute as related by a Shi’ite leader who deserted Sadr’s ranks − also reports that Sadr accused Nasrallah of a desire “to crush what is left of Iraqi national unity. The involvement of Iraqi Shi’ites in the war in Syria means a civil war in Iraq. If you want to endanger Lebanon that’s your business, but you have no right to endanger the Shi’ites in Iraq.”
Leading Shi’ite clerics in Iraq have adopted a similar stance, thus far forbidding any Iraqi involvement in the war in Syria, neither on behalf of the regime or Hezbollah. Iraqi commentators assert that Nasrallah is in distress. His forces, which number some 50,000 fighters, are not sufficient for fighting in the Syrian city of Al Qusayr − guarding positions they have already captured − and at the same time defending the organization’s bases in South Lebanon and protecting the southern neighborhood in Beirut (a Hezbollah stronghold) as well as Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley region.
“Those missions are too big for the organization to handle, which is the reason for calling on Sadr for assistance,” wrote a Lebanese commentator. At the same time, other pundits believe Nasrallah’s ambition is to establish a “Shi’ite army” composed of the fighters of the Iraqi Mahdi Army and his own forces, who would be under Nasrallah’s command and funded by Iran.
Sadr’s refusal to help Nasrallah in Syria is also a slap in the face to the Iranian regime, especially after the Mahdi Army − which is commanded Al Sadr and numbers about 60,000 fighters all over Iraq − was initially funded by Iran and received military training from Hezbollah members. Now, though, Sadr is involved in a political battle inside Iraq, in which he aspires to bring down Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (an ally of Iran). In this he is supported by members of the Sunni minority, who are conducting a violent and determined struggle against the Iraqi government; that is also the reason for his refusal to help Hezbollah.
Incidentally, that doesn’t mean there are no Mahdi Army fighters in Syria. According to Sadr, though, they are independent activists, or fighters who abandoned the Mahdi Army after Sadr decided to put a freeze on its bellicose activities in Iraq.
This explosive relationship between Sadr and Nasrallah disproves, at least to some extent, the claim that Hezbollah’s campaign in Syria is a Shi’ite war against Sunnis. Additional evidence that the war is not necessarily sectarian is the fact that many members of the government forces − according to some estimates, about 60 percent of the soldiers − are Sunni. Explanations for their failure to desert and join the Free Syrian Army range from fear of their commanders, to fear for the lives of their families, to certainty of the government’s victory.
Among the rebels − the vast majority of whom are Sunni − there are also bitter internal disputes. Even in the Syrian political opposition that operates outside the country, Sunnis are finding it difficult to form a unified bloc. That’s not to say there is no sectarian war in Syria or settling of accounts based on sectarian identity, but this is first and foremost a battle for domination and survival.
In the war for survival, Nasrallah finds himself in a narrow and suffocating trench. Criticism against him in Arab countries is deep and widespread. His political rivals in Lebanon opposed his dragging the country “to its destruction” due to his participation in another country’s war, according to Saad Hariri, the Sunni former Lebanese prime minister. Leading Shi’ite cleric Ali al-Amin called on Nasrallah to withdraw his forces from Syria in order to prevent a sectarian war in Lebanon.
Bisan al Sheikh, a columnist for the London-based daily Al Hayat, reminded Nasrallah that he had admitted to making a mistake after the Second Lebanon War. “Now in Syria he is fighting against a country where there is no occupier, and he is not protecting holy Shi’ite sites. As far as he’s concerned, this is a war for life or death − just like the war against Israel in 2006. Will he admit his mistake this time, too?”
On Wednesday, one of the Syrian opposition websites reported that there is rebellion even among the ranks of the organization’s fighters in Syria. One of the leading fighters, Hussein Abu al-Fadl Tufayli − the nephew of former Hezbollah leader Subhi al-Tufayli − apparently decided to desert along with a group of soldiers. But it’s hard to know whether the desertion (if in fact it took place) stems from the deserter’s “change of heart” or is a result of family pressure, since his uncle has been one of Nasrallah’s harshest critics for decades, and is a vociferous opponent of Hezbollah intervention in Syria.
For Nasrallah, this really is a war of life or death, and his participation is not only a goodwill gesture or a repayment to Syria and Iran for years of support. A Sunni Syria − not to mention a Syria controlled by radical organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood (currently the largest group in the opposition) − means a severance of the logistical and economic lifeline that operated regularly between Iran and Hezbollah via Syria.
It also means that Nasrallah will lose his ability to threaten to attack Israel, because without Syrian military backing, that would be suicidal for him. That means that even his legitimacy to bear arms “in order to defend Lebanon” in lieu of the Lebanese Army will become irrelevant. And even if he continues to be a strong and influential political force thanks to the large arsenals that are still in his possession, he will have an uphill battle against those who are demanding that he be disarmed. Although Nasrallah won’t give up his weapons in the absence of a proper government military force in Lebanon that is capable of confronting him, any threat will be made out of weakness.
Nasrallah ostensibly has no option other than the victory of Syrian President Bashar Assad and a continuation of Iran’s influence in Syria. He can play around with a dream to the effect that radical Sunni forces would agree to cooperate with him in a war against Israel, but for decades even Al-Qaida activists have explained that they have no ideological, religious or tactical basis for cooperation with the Shi’ites. Their war in Iraq against the Shi’ite regime only reinforces this ideological and strategic approach. It’s unlikely that they will abandon their ideology even in order to fight Israel alongside Hezbollah.
That’s why Iran and Russia are attributing such great importance to the international conference that was scheduled to convene in Geneva this week but looks increasingly like being delayed until later in the summer. They hope to secure a diplomatic solution to the crisis that would leave Assad in power − even if only for a transition period − and would also guarantee Hezbollah’s continued survival. The understanding between Russia and the United States − to the effect that the latter won’t oppose Assad’s remaining during the interim period, and won’t demand that he be removed prior to diplomatic negotiations − may be good news for Iran and Assad, but the Syrian opposition is still opposed and continues to demand that Assad be removed prior to any negotiations.
Also still unclear is Iran’s status at the mooted conference. The United States and France still oppose Iranian participation, but Russia is insisting and Iran is demanding to be a participant. “Iran plays an important role in Syria, and we must take advantage of that in order to help to achieve a diplomatic solution,” said Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov, who is not even opposed to Israeli participation in the conference. At the same time, he refused to call on Hezbollah or Iran to withdraw their forces from Syria.
At present, it is also unclear what the Free Syrian Army will do following its Tuesday ultimatum to Lebanon to withdraw Hezbollah forces from Syria within 24 hours. There is tension in the air, due to the heated military dialogue between the United States − which ordered the preparation of a plan for creating no-fly zones in Syria − after Russia announced that it would send S-300 antiaircraft missiles to Syria following the announcement by the European Union, led by Britain and France, that it would lift the arms embargo on Syrian rebel forces.
All this is taking place ahead of a presidential election in Iran (on June 14) that is likely to determine Western policy toward the country and its nuclear program. Will an attack against Syria be the message, or will giving in to Iran on the Syrian issue be the bait? At least Nasrallah has something to look forward to.
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