‘The sense of danger is growing and the popular sentiment is more accepting our fight against the militants [who stoke] Islamic division.” Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, has been doing the media rounds, giving an interview to Lebanese dailies and speaking out about the threat of ISIS. In doing so he is laying his cards on the table, condemning Turkey and Qatar and committing himself in a bid to be a regional leader. It is a dangerous game that the region should pay attention to. The spark that led to Nasrallah’s decision to seek media attention was a short-lived ISIS “invasion” of Lebanon that began in early August when a Syrian-born Islamist gang leader named Imad Ahmad Jomaa was detained by the Lebanese Army near the town of Arsal, which is near the Syrian border in central Lebanon. It is a predominantly Sunni area and has been a base for various anti-Assad forces since 2012. Many Syrian refugees have streamed into the area since then.
Over time the area became a microcosm for the changing fortunes of the Sunnis fighting the Syrian Hezbollah and Iranian-backed regime. Initially “Free Syrian Army” members found refuge in the area. Later it became a staging area for members of Fatah al-Islam, an Islamist group whose origins were among Palestinians living near Tripoli. Jomaa had also been a Free-Syrian army fighter-turned member of the Nusra front, an al-Qaida-linked group in Syria. Then Jomaa swore allegiance to ISIS and this prompted a crackdown by the Lebanese Army, which arrested and sought to detain 43 other members of his organization. Gun battles ensued, the Lebanese Army shelled Syrian refugees, and dozens of people were killed.
In a speech marking the August 14th end of the 2006 Lebanon war, which Hezbollah considers a major victory over Israel, Nasrallah claimed “we have to believe that there is a real existential danger threatening us all.” In his speech he burnished Hezbollah’s reputation as a shield of Lebanon and all its constituent groups. “This danger does not recognize Shia, Sunnis, Christians, Druse, Yezidis, Arabs or Kurds. This monster is growing and getting bigger.”
He claimed that Hezbollah’s decision to intervene in the Syrian civil war and help Assad had prevented ISIS from conquering Lebanon.
“Had we not fought in Qusair [northern Syria near the Lebanese border], ISIS would have reached Beirut and the coast,” he said, using the same terminology of “resistance” that he always uses in describing Hezbollah’s role in fighting Israel. In this case it is “forward” resistance, invading Syria in order to “resist” ISIS.
He also accused ISIS of being an agent of ‘takfir’. This term is interesting because it is often used by Shi’ites and especially Iranian-affiliated media to describe those who spread sectarianism or hatred between Muslims; but is used as a synonym for any Sunni-based Islamist group, such as al-Qaida or Salafists. There is a growing view among scholars such as Larbi Sadiki, a commentator at Al Jazeera, who writes “today, Islam’s most worrying clash is within; the artificial Sunni-Shia divide is claiming tens of thousands of casualties.”
But is Nasrallah really reinventing himself as a unifying force in the Muslim world? ISIS proves a remarkable boon for the Shia extremist, allowing the turbaned and bearded radical to position himself as a “moderate” who is “defending Lebanon.” Thus while the Lebanese Army hunts down Sunni radicals, Hezbollah operated unfettered in Syria with its bases in Lebanon and its arms flow from Iran guaranteed.
And this is what it fears from ISIS, a break in the land bridge to Iran, among other things.
In trying to draw attention to the takfiris, Nasrallah claimed that “wherever there are followers of the [takfiri] ideology there is ground for ISIS and this exists in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Gulf.” He made an accusation against Qatar and Turkey for supporting ISIS while at the same time leaving Saudi an “out” by claiming Saudi actually fears ISIS. Now we can see the map that Nasrallah has drawn. He wants to position Qatar and Turkey on one side of an equation, where Saudi is a Sunni positive balancing force, and Hezbollah, Iran and Syria are on the other side of the balance.
WHAT ABOUT the West and Israel? Nasrallah accused the UN of being a paper tiger. “UNIFIL [the UN force in Lebanon] can’t even protect itself,” he said. He claimed that ISIS was serving US interests “even if they don’t know it” and that ISIS is part of a “conspiracy,” part of a “battle of life and death, similar to the resistance against Israel.” He points out that ISIS actually “serves the objectives of Israel.” This Mossad-US-ISIS conspiracy theory is relatively common in parts of the Islamic world today.
Nasrallah’s dangerous game is positioning himself against Qatar and Turkey in the regional struggle for power. He is trying to pry Saudi Arabia, a traditional guarantor of the special status of Lebanon (it brokered the Taif agreement in 1989 to end the Civil War), into his camp as well. It is not a surprise that former prime minister Saad Hariri returned to Lebanon on August 8th, nor that he has pledged $15 million to rebuild Arsal; nor that he announced a $1 billion grant from Saudi Arabic upon his return. Nasrallah is correct, there is a conspiracy.
But the conspiracy is his own making, to burnish his credentials. Lebanon still does not have a president. Nasrallah cannot become president (the position is reserved for a Christian), but this bearded extremist wants to show he can lead Lebanon, as a “shield” for its minorities. ISIS is certainly worse than Nasrallah, but make no mistake, he is not playing peacemaker, but rather power aggrandizer. A clash with Qatar and Turkey may be coming down the line and his “dangerous game” may play out differently than he thinks.
Follow the author at @sfrantzman