Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Syria dishevels Lebanon's Shia

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

It’s always been incautious to speak of Lebanon’s Shia as a politically homogenous, monolithic entity, and perhaps never more so than today, when despite the dangers imposed by an authoritarian leadership, the voices of dissent that have always existed are multiplying to an unprecedented extent as a result of the events in Syria. In consequence, experts interviewed by NOW Lebanon say that prominent Shia parties – Hezbollah chief among them – have embarked upon an extraordinary campaign of political and religious coercion in an attempt to maintain their iron grip on the community.

“Naturally, people are still scared to voice their condemnation of the Syrian regime in public,” said Ali Haidar, a Shia journalist from South Lebanon. “But in private, there are many who have started doing so. And on the Internet too, we’ve seen many Facebook groups, such as ‘Southerners with the Syrian Revolution,’ in which Shia are expressing discontent with the regime, and how Hezbollah has handled everything. Their numbers may not be large – usually each one gets one or two thousand supporters – but they’re growing, and their condemnations are powerful.” Expatriates, too, are often at odds with the party’s position: “As well as the leftists, and the educated elites, those who live outside the South, or the [mainly Shia Beirut suburb] Dahiyeh, or Lebanon altogether, tend to be more vocal in their negative opinions,” Haidar said.

Accordingly, Hezbollah has launched a major campaign in defense of the regime, painting the Syrian uprising not as a democratic movement but as a threat, first to the party itself, and second to the Shia community as a whole. Ali al-Amin, a Shia journalist for al-Balad, told NOW Lebanon that, “Since they can’t defend the Syrian regime as a democratic or law-abiding government – because it so obviously isn’t one – Hezbollah has instead encouraged the Shia to think of [the Syrian uprising] as a conspiracy, not only against Syria but also against the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon. Moreover, they’ve managed to turn the situation from a battle between oppressor and oppressed into one that targets the very existence of the Shia. Thus the people are confused; because while they can’t support a regime that is killing its own people, nor can they support an opposition that they’re being told is targeting their sect.”

Haidar agrees, adding that this maneuver has taken on an explicitly religious character, to the point of asserting that the downfall of the regime will have theologically calamitous implications for the Shia. “There has actually been a fatwa issued, by Iran and passed down through [Hezbollah Shura Council cleric] Sheikh Muhammad Yazbek, stating that it is haram [forbidden by Islam] to watch any television channel other than Al Manar, Addounia TV and OTV. In fact, it’s long been part of their ideology that any information coming from outside party-approved sources is a lie. Moreover, the Shia have been instructed that it is takleef, or an Islamic duty, to condemn the Syrian uprising. To truly understand this, one has to understand the al-Jafr book [a mystical Shia text], to which everything taking place in Syria is being related by the clerics. In short, the Shia are being told that if [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad falls, it will precipitate the arrival of the [occulted Imam] Mehdi, and the community is not supposed to be ready for that yet.”

At the same time, however, the party has subtly adjusted its stance on Syria in what may be an attempt to regain the loyalties of dissenters. As the author and columnist Nicholas Noe wrote in a recent article in Foreign Policy, “After one year of doubling down on their support for [Assad], Lebanon’s Hezbollah has finally shifted its public position […] [Nasrallah is now] frank in equating the opposition and the Assad regime, urging – even pleading for – a negotiated political solution.” According to Amin, “They’re moderating their position because their rosy image in the Arab world is being tarnished. They’re stressing the narrative of dialogue and reform to try and give an impression of impartiality. Furthermore, they’re avoiding getting themselves into any further internal Lebanese conflicts so as not to jeopardize their hold on the cabinet.”

Haidar, on the other hand, sees a foreign hand in this shift. “Nasrallah is not an autonomous leader; he’s a field commander. He simply takes orders – from Syria, but primarily Iran – and implements them. Even the decision about joining in the suppression of the Syrian revolution isn’t made by him. If there has been any moderation in his stance, it’s been directed by the Iranians, who are trying to relegate Syria to a side issue, given their preoccupation with the bigger question of the nuclear program.”

Perhaps surprisingly, given the extent of the coercion outlined above, neither expert interviewed believed the fall of the Assad regime would have serious detrimental consequences for the country’s Shia parties. “[Amal leader] Nabih Berri has long held a grudge against the Syrians, whom he suspects of plotting against him,” said Haidar. “For example, they wanted to put [former General Security chief] Jamil al-Sayyed in his place as parliament speaker before the Hariri assassination. So the fall of the regime wouldn’t necessarily be unwelcome for him. It might even be to his benefit, as he might lead the next political phase.”

As for Hezbollah, “Even if the regime falls, they’ll still have Iran,” said Haidar. “And the Syrian border would likely stay porous for a long time afterward, as it did in Iraq. It could work to their benefit as well.”

“They would have to adapt their strategies and their ways of doing things to some extent,” said Amin. “But there’s unlikely to be as great an inversion as many people seem to think.”

Luna Safwan contributed reporting to this article.

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