Syrian rebels playing with ‘Hezbollah’ fire

Syrian rebels playing with ‘Hezbollah’ fire

Amid the tacky reports on whether the Sunni Syrian rebel groups have hit positions of a Shiite Lebanese militant group in northern Lebanon late last week, the forces fighting against Damascus have recently seemed to be unable to see that they are about to spark a fire that will not only blaze through them but also the entire region.

The skirmish between the Syrian opposition and Lebanon’s strong militant group Hezbollah has had a long history since the latter is historically allied with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad due to their common regional strategic interests and alliances, as well as foes. However, the “silent” discontent of the opposition turned violent lately, with armed rebel groups fighting under the Free Syrian Army (FSA) umbrella, mainly the wayward al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra, entering into fights with Hezbollah on the Syrian-Lebanese border, reportedly killing dozens from both sides.

Encouraged by the U.S-led anti-al-Assad camps’ accusations against Hezbollah, the top rebel commanders accused the Damascus ally of militarily aiding al-Assad’s troops in their fight against the armed opposition forces by issuing threats against the group’s regionally influential leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, who they accused of being a “criminal” and “leader of Shabiha.”

Unfazed by the Syrian rebels’ threats, Nasrallah neither confirmed nor denied the Hezbollah operations reportedly aimed at protecting the Lebanese community that was divided on the two sides of the artificially drawn boundary between Syria and Lebanon, but hinted at “self-defense” of young Lebanese men for their community against the Syrian rebels. Declaring that his group was ready for a fight in Syria if needed one day, Nasrallah nevertheless added that that day was not today.

The importance of Nasrallah’s well-arranged words escaped the Syrian rebels, particularly al-Nusra, which reportedly harassed border towns home to Lebanese, Syrians and minorities, thus sparking a long-sought inevitable clash with the group. However, the Syrian rebels’ move to turn their growing vendetta into a new front with Hezbollah could return to them at heavy cost. This is because the Lebanese militant group further fostered its military capacity since its war with a more sophisticated enemy than rebels, namely Israel, and especially after the Syrian crisis.

That being said, Hezbollah is also not entirely immune to a possible threat since the rebels are now led by defectors from the Syrian army, which knows the group’s weak points. Also, a possible conflict on the border would put the weapons routes from Syria to Hezbollah on hold and that is why Hezbollah’s main motivation in Syria is not only to protect the Lebanese but also the roads leading to the gates of the militias.

In addition to the possible grave damage in a new front with Hezbollah, the Syrian rebels’ challenge against the militias has further fueled the concerns over a regional instability with the civil war in Syria now at risk of spreading well over the borders. But a war spilling over from Syria has long been a possibility for Lebanon and local politicians swiftly moved to capitalize on it with Western-backed politicians accusing Hezbollah of endangering Lebanon’s security by getting involved in the Syrian crisis.

By putting “national security” high on agenda, the anti-Assad camp in Lebanon is actually aiming at Hezbollah’s military capacity, which is a huge threat to them and their allies. The risk of a Syria spill over also stands for Turkey but for Lebanon, a country that suffered from a civil war and has still failed to find a remedy to ethnic-based political structure and society, the stakes are even higher. Hence, Hezbollah has so far adopted a role in which it has been wise enough not to be dragged into the Syrian quagmire and, to a larger extent, an all-out-war based on a deeply divided, fragile regional situation.