It’s perhaps just a case of terrible inertia on the part of those gunning for a now Jihadist-driven rebel victory over the incumbent regime in Syria. But a string of recent territorial gains by the Syrian army and allied Hezbollah forces in strategically located villages on Syria’s western border, has produced a litany of criticism specifically directed at the latter.
The movement, a long-term recipient of Syrian military and diplomatic support, has all but abandoned its long favored stance in favor of a consensual political solution to the crisis upon the realization that al Qaeda-linked terrorist groups, led by Jabhat Al Nusra, have established a growing vanguard at the forefront of the battle.
As a result, Hezbollah has gradually escalated its role in the conflict, employing some of its irregular military capabilities to protect sensitive religious and military sites and, perhaps most importantly, to control a series of largely Shiite-inhabited villages in the adjacent Qusayr region of Syria.
It has three primary goals in mind.
First, it hopes to attenuate the vital conduits for supply that these jihadists and their so-called Free Syrian Army allies have used through Lebanon’s porous border with Syria.
Second, by having effective control of these villages, it can put an end to the sectarian killings, displacement, and looting of property that the rebels’ presence in these Hezbollah-sympathetic areas has brought about.
Finally, as a strategic consideration, the movement is gauging that if it doesn’t prevent the toppling of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, Hezbollah will eventually have to confront these Shiite-hating jihadists on its own—knowing full well that, emboldened by a victory over Assad, they won’t stop at Damascus.
But Hezbollah’s increasing involvement in the war – be it much to the chagrin of the largely Gulf Arab and Western-backed rebel opposition – needs to actually be understood in the context of another front in the fight to eradicate the biggest instigator of religiously-inspired mass murder since the start of the century: Al Qaeda.
It was over a year into the conflict before analysts began to seriously express caution about the unenviable choice between supporting the ousting of an authoritarian government and bolstering an amorphous web of al Qaeda-linked organizations.
Yet, remarkably, the threat seemed to have initially been subsumed in the drawing room wrangles of western policy makers.
But when visualizing a post-Assad Syria with these extremists at the helm become a necessity, it demanded a sense of expediency in knowing just what it might entail.
And perhaps the best indicator of this would have been found in some of their contributions to the conflict.
By March 2012, they claimed responsibility for 57 suicide bombings.
A year later, their latest batch would include rush-hour car bombings in areas where children travel to or from school.
But it doesn’t stop there. In the last few months, these extremist have decapitated soldiers and civilian government employees, threatened to cut off the hands of foreign captives, kidnapped minority religious leaders, desecrated religious shrines and officially pledged allegiance to al Qaeda.
By all indications, these radical jihadists will give no quarter, and go to any depth, to establish an uncompromising Islamic state governed by their version of Sharia law and sectarian identity.
By now, Hezbollah, and for that matter the Syrian regime that has become synonymous with using disproportionate force against the armed opposition, hardly stand alone in concluding that an extremist victory in Syria could be catastrophic.
Over the last few weeks, public officials from across the political spectrum have sounded warning bells about Syria’s drift toward extremism.
Neighboring Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has expressed similar alarm about the implications the Syrian conflict may entail if extremists succeed, and the Jordanian King Abdallah has explicitly warned of the potential for a Jihadi state emerging out of the conflict.
Even the British Foreign Minister William Hague, and ironically one of the most fervent advocates for arming the rebels, has admitted that Syria is now “the top destination” for jihadists across the world.
And despite recognition from even staunchly pro-Syrian analysts like the renowned editor of Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar newspaper, Ibrahim Al-Amin, that the country’s uprising began as a protest against poverty and oppression, leaders the world over are now even more terrified about the prospect of a jihadist-driven victory in what still remains a secular country.
Hezbollah at the forefront
But it begs the question as to why Hezbollah, regardless of whatever black-and-white terms with which one views the nature of the organization, should be condemned for playing a direct part in preventing a renewed metastasis of the world’s most notorious terrorist infrastructure?
The case is given further credence when even some of the most formerly anti-Assad right-wing intellectuals are now openly narrating that Assad’s retention in office would be the best possible outcome considering the extremist nature to which the conflict has now descended.
If the likes of Hezbollah—and by extension Iran and Russia—fail to succeed in keeping afloat a teetering Syrian establishment, it may well result in Syria becoming the first al-Qaeda-aligned Arab state.
A victory by these extremist forces could bring about an alliance with their equally vicious and like-minded counterparts in western Iraq, whose combined sway could engulf the volatile region into yet more ethnic, sectarian, and religious madness – the fault lines of which have been visible for some time.
Hezbollah’s direct involvement in the Syrian crisis has no doubt earned it a mixed reception. But yet this involvement, however reluctantly one may be to acknowledge it, remains the most formidable obstacle to the creation of a jihadist Syrian Arab Republic.
But either way, the situation is getting grimmer by the day.
The authoritarian regime of Bashar Al-Assad, along with some opposition elements, is now being accused of using chemical weapons. It has faced Israeli airstrikes on military research facilities, bomb attacks on government convoys, and increased Sunni-monarchical backing for the inclusion of Islamist fighters into the bloody conflict.
The synthesis of these factors—coupled with wider tensions between Assad’s main ally Iran and segments of the international community over the Iranian nuclear program—may culminate in far more ferocious actions on the part of those with whom the outcome of the conflict is increasingly becoming an existential one.