The evolution of Hezbollah’s public discourse on its emerging role in Syria over the past year illustrates the organization’s deft ability to shape a narrative acceptable to its core Shia constituency to ensure its continued loyalty. Despite Hezbollah’s ideological and logistical ties to Iran, the party understood long ago that its survival as a powerful player in Lebanon was dependent on retaining the support of Lebanon’s Shia community.
When the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad broke out in March 2011, Hezbollah officials were initially dismissive and expected it to end quickly. By September 2011, rumors were beginning to circulate that Hezbollah fighters were operating in Syria and that slain combatants were being buried quietly in Lebanon. Hezbollah officials said that the accusations were “completely baseless” and an “attempt to incite political strife”. In November 2011, Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, articulated the party’s position more clearly, saying that the Assad regime was deserving of support — compared to the doomed regimes of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia — because of its stand against the United States and Israel. In February 2012, Nasrallah softened his tone, calling for dialogue between the Assad regime and the opposition.
However, in the summer of 2012 it became increasingly evident that Hezbollah fighters were beginning to play a larger role in Syria. Furthermore, there were whispers of unease from some Hezbollah cadres at why they were fighting fellow Arabs and Muslims on behalf of Assad.
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In October 2012, following the death of veteran Hezbollah combatant Ali Nassif in Qusayr, Syria, Nasrallah admitted that some party members were fighting in Syria but under their own volition. He referred to the presence of some 30,000 Lebanese Shias living in a cluster of villages north of the Bekaa valley inside Syria who were coming under attack by Syrian rebel groups.
However, that did not explain why funerals for dead fighters were occurring in the Bekaa valley and south Lebanon, far removed from the Shia villages in Syria.
The months ticked by, and more anecdotal evidence emerged of Hezbollah combatants serving inside Syria. In December, videos began circulating purportedly showing Hezbollah fighters deployed in southern Damascus around the prominent Shia shrine of Sayyida Zeinab, the daughter of Imam Ali.
Meanwhile, the Syrian rebel groups were beginning to display the traits of barbarity previously the prerogative of the Assad regime. Shooting captives and barbecuing the heads of dead soldiers or eating their lungs were hardly going to win friends and influence people.
The rise of Sunni jihadist factions such as Jabhat al-Nusra helped harden the views of many Lebanese Shias against the Syrian opposition. The Shias arguably constitute the largest sect in Lebanon, and they are certainly the most militarily and politically powerful, yet they are a minority in the Levant.
In April, Nasrallah took another step toward confessing Hezbollah’s role in Syria by stating that it was a duty for Shias to protect the shrine of Sayyida Zeinab from the destructive ambitions of the “takfiris”, a reference to Sunni extremists who view as apostates those that do not follow their interpretation of Islam.
On May 19, the Syrian army and Hezbollah launched a major offensive against Qusayr, an act that spiked Hezbollah fatalities in the days ahead. But far from holding low-key funerals, Hezbollah turned them into community events, closing off villages and neighborhoods and decorating the streets with pictures of each new martyr. The message was clear: martyrs falling in Syria are just as sacred as those who fell fighting Israelis. The cause is the same.
Nasrallah came clean on this in a speech on May 25 when he declared that Hezbollah had a duty to defend Assad’s Syria, “the backbone of the resistance”. If Hezbollah ignored this duty, the “takfiris” would come to Lebanon. Better to fight them there than here, he said.
Rhetoric aside, there is, of course, a cold, political logic in play that has Hezbollah, Iran and the Assad regime fighting in Syria for their collective survival and the sustenance of the “axis of resistance”. But Hezbollah’s leaders have carefully crafted a narrative in response to unfolding circumstances in Syria, which for now appears to have secured the understanding of most Lebanese Shia. However, they may find it a challenge to continue winning the benefit of the doubt as the conflict in Syria worsens in the months ahead and more martyrs are returned to the villages of the Bekaa and South Lebanon.
Nicholas Blanford is the Beirut-based correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and The Times of London