BEIRUT — Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri says the nation’s militant Shia movement, Hezbollah, is risking the “fate of the nation” by taking on an expanded front-line role in neighboring Syria’s civil war.
The warning from Hariri comes a week after Hezbollah guerrillas from Lebanon, fighting beside Syrian government troops, led the attack on Qusair a strategic Syrian town on the main highway into Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. The government’s capture of Qusair is considered a major blow to the Syrian rebel movement, which has been trying to oust President Bashar al-Assad.
Hezbollah, the militant arm of a Shia Muslim movement considered stronger than Lebanon’s own army, has been closely allied with Assad, whose Alawite religion is an offshoot of Shia Islam. Most Syrian rebels belong to the Sunni branch of Islam.
The United Nations estimated about 93,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war, which has been going on for more than two years. On Thursday, the Obama administration in Washington said it had concluded that Assad’s forces had been using chemical weapons in the fighting and that the United States would begin helping to arm the rebels.
Hariri said on Thursday the Hezbollah leader, Sheikh Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, was engendering Lebanon by dragging it into the conflict next door. Nasrallah, He said, was acting as though he was Lebanon’s head of state by “allowing the borders to be opened for thousands of fighters to take part in the Syrian war.”
Upsetting the political and religious balance
The fear is that Hezbollah’s prominent role in Syria will upset the delicate political and religious balance in Lebanon, where Christians and Sunni and Shia Muslims have maintained a fragile truce since ending a bloody civil war of their own 23 years ago.
Indeed, sectarian tensions already have been boiling over in Lebanon, which has seen episodic clashes in the north between Lebanese Sunnis who back the Syrian rebels and Shiites who back Assad.
Foreign aid agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are reviewing their evacuation plans and, say relief workers, several are stocking up on body armor for their employees.
“Security for our workers has become one of the biggest challenges we face in the Bekaa Valley,” says William Barakat of the U.N.’s World Food Program.
Hariri is the businessman son of the late Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, whose assassination in 2005 almost plunged Lebanon into civil war. Hariri said he couldn’t “hide the fact that my feelings of apprehension over the nation’s fate during this historic moment far surpass the feelings of concern we all lived through” after his father’s slaying.
In recent weeks, Hezbollah has redoubled its military engagement in Syria and thousands of Lebanese Shia fighters were at the forefront of the Syrian government’s capture of Qusair last week after a three-week siege.
Fear of retaliation inside Lebanon
One of the biggest fears among regional analysts is that Hezbollah’s engagement in Syria will encourage Syrian rebels to strike Hezbollah inside Lebanon. The Free Syrian Army’s military commander, General Salim Idris, warned recently that his rebel fighters might begin targeting Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon.
A further danger is that Sunni Muslim fighters from Jabhat a-Nusra, an al-Qaida affiliate that has been battling against Assad, will also take the fight to Hezbollah inside Lebanon.
“You have got two of the most vicious factions in this war facing off,” says Jonathan Schanzer, a Middle East scholar and vice president at the Washington D.C. think tank, Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
The increasingly sectarian nature of the Syrian crisis is raising fears of a more widespread Sunni-Shia confrontation. On Thursday, Muslim clerics representing 70 influential Sunni organizations meeting in Cairo issued a call for a holy war against Assad and his Shiite allies.
Concluding the Cairo meeting, Mohamed Hassan, a leading Egyptian preacher, made a televised statement saying that Assad was waging “war on Islam” and urged the faithful not only to aid the mainly Sunni rebels, but to wage jihad.
“Jihad is necessary for the victory of our brothers in Syria - jihad with mind, money, weapons; all forms of jihad," Hassan said.