On February 24, the Saudi Arabian-owned Al Arabiya news network posted a video of what it claimed was a meeting last summer between Hezbollah commander Abu Saleh and Houthi forces in Yemen. The video shows a man in military fatigues addressing a group in Lebanese-accented Arabic about training for assassination operations inside Saudi Arabia, including a specific attack against an unnamed Saudi commander of border forces.
The current war in Yemen began with the country’s unsuccessful political transition following the ouster of longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Disenchantment with the post-Saleh political arrangement turned to civil war, pitting Houthis, a Zaidi Shia religious movement, and the former president against the country’s central authorities. Saudi Arabia, which intervened in support of the central government, claims that it is also a proxy war, one in which Houthi forces have been supplied and trained by Iran and its most successful proxy militia, Hezbollah. Officially Lebanon’s Hezbollah denies these accusations, but as Amarnath Amarasingam and I learned during a recent trip to Beirut, the group is playing a very active role. Read more here in Foreign Affairs.
Hezbollah’s entrance into the Syrian conflict to help support the floundering regime of Bashar al-Assad has cost it dearly. An estimated 1,300 of its fighters have been killed, a large portion for an organization that has fielded only 6,000 to 8,000 combatants in Syria. Social services, key to Hezbollah’s populist program in Lebanon and crucial to many within its Shia constituency, have been reduced to pay for the conflict. The military strain has even forced the group to recruit teenagers for domestic security roles and offensive operations in Syria.
While the group has had to adjust to many pressures from the Syrian conflict it has also benefited, both due to the combat experience and the entrance of a new and powerful ally. Moscow’s decision to intervene in Syria this past September on behalf of the Assad regime has brought with it a number of tactical and strategic benefits that have and will continue to bolster Hezbollah in Syria, at home and in any future confrontation with Israel. For more read my piece in Carnegie Endowment’s Sada journal.
As I write this post it has been reported by The Daily Star that militants near the Lebanese town of Arsal have killed two soldiers, almost immediately after the army had secured two captured soldiers. For now it seems like the al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra is responsible, prompted by the arrest of one of their commanders. The troops were attacked at the Wadi Hmayyed checkpoint on the outskirts of this Sunni town, located in the Shia-dominated Bekaa Valley, on the border with Syria. Whether locals were involved or it was the work of Syrian jihadists, or a mixture of both, this event is further evidence of the deepening cleavages between the state and Lebanon’s Sunni population.
The civil war, which has ranged next door and will celebrate its morbid fourth anniversary next March, has put intense strain on the Lebanese state. Sunnis, who have suffered under Syrian occupation during and after the civil war, viewed the uprising in 2011 as a chance to change the political dynamic in Lebanon. With the regime of Bashar al-Assad gone, so they thought, a Sunni government in Damascus would allow them to reverse Hezbollah’s prominence in the political sphere, and eventually, its monopoly on violence–a monopoly that should be reserved for state institutions.
The Syrian revolution faltered: a lack of leadership on behalf of the West; competing regional Sunni powers backing different proxies; the ensuing power vacuum exploited by al-Qaeda and now its dangerous offshoot the Islamic State; and the oil wealth of rich Gulf donors and their alacrity to back Salafi groups, turned an opportunity for mainstream Sunni politicians into a quagmire with dangerous consequences.
Now, over three years into the conflict, Sunni politicians have begrudgingly come to accept the fact that the Syrian revolution threatens to pull the Lebanese state into another civil war, one that would see the rise of Salafi militants within the country, and further threaten their control over the poorest rungs of Sunni society. By signing onto the security plan, which de-facto includes a cooperative relationship between the military and Hezbollah (which is fighting on behalf of the regime in Syria and created the catalyst for spillover into Lebanon, with Sunnis wanting to take out their revenge within Lebanon) these politicians have helped put the state in direct opposition to downtrodden Sunnis and the groups they back.
For more on this dynamic and the current state of Sunni-government relations in Lebanon read my piece for Carnegie Endowment’s Sada: Middle East Analysis, entitled Securing Lebanon, Widening Divides.