Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah’s decision to fight openly alongside the Syrian regime will increase Lebanon’s involvement in Syria’s conflict, despite a policy of neutrality, analysts say.
But despite inflaming tensions, the country is unlikely to face serious instability as a result, because none of its political forces have an interest in such a scenario for now, they say.
“Hezbollah’s public involvement is no longer the world’s worst-kept secret, and now we are in a crisis where the Lebanese are not only politically divided... but also militarily divided,” Ghassan al-Azzi, a professor of political science at the Lebanese University, told AFP news agency.
“Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian crisis now involves all of Lebanon because we’ve heard from the other side calls to fight jihad alongside the opposition to the Syrian regime,” he added, referring to Lebanon’s Sunni community.
On Tuesday, 18 Hezbolllah fighters were reportedly killed by Free Syrian Army fighters during a battle in the western city of Qusayr, activists said.
The area surrounding Qusayr is of key strategic importance because it runs along the border with Lebanon and is near the route running from Damascus to the coast.
But the battles come despite FSA spokesman Louay al-Mokdad saying the opposition army will respect Lebanon’s independence and sovereignty .
However, in an interview with Al Arabiya, Mokdad also said the FSA would react to Hezbollah shells that are coming across the borders.
Asked if the FSA can keep up a battle on two fronts with both the Syrian regime and the Lebanese Shiite militants, the FSA spokesman said, “We have to defend ourselves and our people.”
It is widely accepted that the fall of Assad – a strong ally of Hezbollah – would weaken the Party of God, which uses Syrian routes to transfer its weapons.
This week, senior Hezbollah official Nabil Qauq defended the group’s actions in Syria, where its elite fighters are reportedly leading the battle in parts of the Qusayr area of central Homs province near the border.
He said the group’s members were carrying out “a national and moral duty” to defend Lebanese citizens living in border villages inside Syria.
In response, two Salafi Sunni Lebanese sheikhs urged their followers to go to Syria to fight a jihad (religious war) in defense of Qusayr’s Sunni residents.
“There is a religious duty on every Muslim who is able to do so... to enter into Syria in order to defend its people, its mosques and religious shrines, especially in Qusayr and Homs,” Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir told his followers.
For now, experts say, such calls on the part of Lebanon’s Salafis are largely bluster because the movement is far from able to wield either the arsenal or the fighting forces of Hezbollah.
“There is an imbalance of forces in [Lebanon],” London-based expert David Butter told Al Arabiya, referring to Hezbollah whose military power is stronger than that of the country.
There are “political red lines” and Lebanese officials want to refrain from tipping the scales of the already fragile situation in the country, Butter from the Chatham House said.
Some would argue that Lebanon is still recovering from its 15-year civil war and, now, the Syrian conflict has reignited sectarian tension in the country.
Butter added that Hezbollah fighting in Syria and their backing of the Syrian government is one of the main reasons behind skirmishes along the Lebanese-Syrian border.
According to Christopher Phillips, another London-based analyst at Chatham House, Lebanon has different players that have acted with impunity for years.
He added, however, that there was “war weariness” in the country and reluctance for aggression and antagonism.
“Wise heads are prevailing, and Hezbollah has made sure to keep its distance,” he told Al Arabiya.
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