After Qusayr

Hezbollah’s involvement in fighting the Syrian regime’s war in Qusayr represents a turning point for Sunni-Shia relations in Lebanon. While sectarian violence there has escalated significantly since war broke out in Syria, Lebanon’s troubles are in fact rooted in Hezbollah’s repeated violation of the country’s sectarian balance over the past eight years; the overt killing of Sunni rebels in Syria is just the latest–though perhaps the most egregious–example.

When Hezbollah openly sided with the Syrian regime after it was implicated in killing popular Sunni leader Rafik Hariri in 2005, it began undermining the delicate sectarian social contract on which Lebanese coexistence is based. Hezbollah was visibly uncomfortable with the sectarian implications of defending Hariri’s likely killers, and publicly blamed the assassination on Israel instead. Had this been an isolated incident targeting a major Sunni politician, it may have been possible for relations to recover and both sects to continue tolerating one another in Lebanon. However, chances for Sunni-Shia reconciliation faded amid continuing assassinations of Sunni figures and their allies after 2005, and following a Hezbollah-led assault on Sunni areas of Beirut in 2008.

It is significant that some Lebanese Sunni leaders tried to respond militarily against Hezbollah in the lead-up to the May 2008 conflict–an idea that was quickly discredited by the poor combat performance of Sunni militants at that time. After their resounding defeat at the hands of Hezbollah, Lebanon’s Sunnis temporarily accepted their own weakness, calculating that they could not stand up to it militarily. However, they never accepted that the Shia party would control Lebanon’s politics by force.

Indeed, the phrase Hezb al-Shaitan (the party of Satan)–used by Sunni Arabs opposed to Hezbollah–was in use among Lebanese Sunnis well before the outbreak of war in Syria and its recent assault on Qusayr. However, Hezbollah’s Lebanese opponents (and perhaps its allies as well) probably did not expect Hezbollah to publicly announce its direct involvement in Syria’s civil war]. Perhaps they assumed or hoped this would have been a step too far for a militia seeking to project itself as a resistance movement fighting Israel, rather than a key player in a growing regional sectarian conflict.

The Lebanese have been somewhat dishonest with themselves about the threat Hezbollah poses to the political and social fabric of their country. This is understandable, as coming to terms with Hezbollah would require recognizing the fundamental incompatibility between Lebanon’s sectarian balance and the party’s strategic and ideological priorities. Hezbollah is a party with a well-defined and well-articulated mission: to protect and continue the Islamic resistance against Israel, the West and their Sunni Arab allies at all costs. The party has never concealed its objectives or its allegiance to the supreme leader in Iran. It is true that Hezbollah’s shrewd Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah, pledged not to use arms against the Lebanese, but this could never have been reconciled with protecting the Islamic resistance. It was always possible and ultimately inevitable that other Lebanese–and now Syrians–would try to undermine the resistance agenda by threatening Hezbollah’s military autonomy.

Winston Churchill defined a fanatic as “one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.” In a sense, Hezbollah’s killing of Sunnis in Syria was the unavoidable result of its single-mindedly following the resistance ideology to its logical conclusion. It could not have been otherwise. After Qusayr, Hezbollah’s rivals and supporters alike must come to terms with the near inevitability of violent confrontation between Lebanon’s Sunni and Shia. This has grave implications for non-Muslims as well: by politically supporting Hezbollah and the Syrian regime and clinging to a dubious ‘alliance of minorities’, minorities in the Levant have turned their fear of persecution by an empowered Sunni majority into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Lebanon’s Sunnis currently lack the military capability to threaten Hezbollah, but there is no shortage of recruits for a conflict with the Shia, and the region is increasingly awash in small arms. The weapons needed to instigate sectarian bloodshed need not be heavy or sophisticated, especially if civilians are targeted, as is likely. While many mainstream Lebanese politicians lack the appetite for a civil war, this is because Hezbollah cannot afford one given its military commitments in Syria and its opponents cannot fight one at an acceptable cost. Sunni leaders’ willingness to develop a military option against Hezbollah in 2008 demonstrates that there is little opposition in principle to a military confrontation, and there will be even less opposition in light of direct Hezbollah involvement in fighting Sunnis in Syria.

One could argue that Hezbollah’s participation in the Syrian war and the spread of sectarian violence into Lebanon are yet more reasons for the United States to distance itself from the chaos in Syria. It is understandable to recoil in the face of complex and dangerous situations, but in this case, it is not acceptable. There is a way to decrease the likelihood of civil war in Lebanon and the escalation of sectarian blood-letting in Syria in the long term: help restore sectarian balance in the Levant, and create the space for a Sunni-Shia relationship based on something other than brute force.

If the United States calculates that a Hezbollah and regime victory in Syria would reestablish stability in the region, it is mistaken. It will do quite the opposite. No enduring regional peace can be built on coercion alone, which is exactly the approach Iran, Hezbollah and Syria have adopted. It is very unlikely that a regime victory would lead to the establishment of anything less repressive than the order the rebels are seeking to overthrow; an even crueler, more paranoid, and now vengeful regime would almost certainly arise, leading to yet more violence in both Syria and Lebanon.

The United States must decide whether the ongoing collapse of the Levant into political chaos and sectarian bloodshed is an outcome it can accept. If not, the only hope of preventing it is to establish a just peace among the belligerents, based on sectarian coexistence and power-sharing. This requires strengthening the less unsavory elements of the Syrian rebellion, to give them leverage to negotiate a political settlement with the regime and its allies.

By neglecting the crisis in Syria, the United States has empowered the very groups least likely to seek a fair and lasting peace in the Levant: Hezbollah and its fanatic Sunni counterparts in Syria and Lebanon. Simply leaving the next US administration to deal with it is irresponsible and unwise. It is possible that arming, training, and organizing the least-bad rebel groups may not prevent an indefinite sectarian war in the Levant, but it is the best of the poor options available. It is time to move the policy debate forward, away from paralyzing worry over possible outcomes to addressing the worst-case scenario that is already playing out.

Faysal Itani is a fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.  Photo Credit

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