Hezbollah: From ‘national heroes’ to war criminals?
HEZBOLLAH’S fall from grace was loud and clear earlier this month, in the aftermath of the massacres in the town of Qusayr, a town on the Syrian-Lebanese border about 30 kilometers southwest of the city of Homs, Syria’s third largest city.
On 5 June, Qusayr fell to the marauding forces of the Syrian regime and its irregular but ruthless militias. Hezbollah provided the shock troops for the assault on the town.
“Sectarian cleansing” soon followed the fall of Qusayr, as the victorious hordes went through the town’s neighborhoods and surrounding villages to root out suspected opponents. The attacks gradually took on an ominously sectarian character, targeting Sunni Muslims, who constitute the majority of population in that area.
Last week, the town of Talkalakh to the northwest, also on the Lebanese-Syrian border and about 45 kilometers west of Homs, fell under the onslaught of the allied forces of the regime, Hezbollah and other militias.
Now the city of Homs itself, Syria’s third largest city, is under siege by the same forces. This is not the first siege Homs in the two-year conflict, but earlier attempts by the regime to take and hold the city had failed. This time, its forces have been supplemented by Hezbollah and Iranian forces. If Homs falls, its inhabitants will face another humanitarian disaster of unprecedented proportions.
Seven years ago, Hezbollah managed to create an image in Lebanon and the Arab world for its fighters as national heroes who stood up to Israel in a ridiculously uneven war. They stood their ground enough to prevent a complete rout and deny Israel the victory it sought. Hezbollah’s powerful public relations machine compared that feat favorably to past failures of Arab regular armies to repel Israeli attacks.
Then, in the summer of 2006, Hezbollah was portrayed as a group of dedicated national heroes. Soon after that “victory,” Hezbollah fighters strode into west Beirut to assert its power in a district of Beirut that had hitherto eluded its tight grip. West Beirut was the Lebanese capital’s most vibrant district, a culturally diverse area, which Hezbollah saw as a threat to its monolithic vision of Lebanon.
Since then, Hezbollah has continued its descent toward an openly sectarian militia. The latest attacks in Syria have demonstrated that its fighters are not well trained in the rules of war, which forbid mass killings and torture and set clear rules about safeguarding civilians during war. As a force fighting in a foreign land and allied with a regular army (the Syrian Army), Hezbollah is clearly bound by those rules. The International Criminal Court should be monitoring its conduct within Syria, with a view to prosecute those who are suspected of committing the war crimes we all watched on our TV screens.
Hezbollah is no stranger to international justice. For years, it has shielded a number of its members who are being sought by the International Tribunal on Lebanon in connection with the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and other Lebanese officials and political figures.
Hezbollah clearly coordinates its positions with the regimes in Iraq and Syria, in a clearly choreographed fashion, but seems to get its instructions from Iran.
Iran today calls the shots in Syria. It has been unmasked as the real force behind the Syrian regime.
However, while Hezbollah is largely seen a derivative player, it has been recently implicated in some of the worst fighting since the onset of the struggle. For example, in early May, there were credible reports that its fighters joined with the regime and its allied militias in perpetrating two massacres in the village of Al-Baidha on May 2 and in the nearby town of Banias on the Mediterranean coast on May 3. A total of 149 civilians were butchered in the two massacres. Activists posted videos on the Internet showing killed, mutilated and burned bodies of the victims. The attack appeared to be part of an attempt to force non-Alawite residents to flee, to make it possible to establish a sectarian based entity on the coast.
Shortly thereafter, Hezbollah intensified its involvement in the Syrian conflict. It had been of course involved in numerous activities against the Syrian opposition along the Syrian-Lebanese border, on both sides.
After months of denials, its secretary-general admitted on April 30, 2013 that his forces had been involved inside Syria as well, in what he described as “defensive” action around holy places. However, in a long speech last week, he threatened to unleash the full force of his group if the Syrian regime’s survival ever became threatened. In his ominous warnings of a sectarian war that Hezbollah would reluctantly wage, he all but abandoned his earlier posture as a non-sectarian player.
Hezbollah may have taken comfort from Western countries’ hesitation about allowing the Syrian resistance to arm itself against the superior arsenal of the regime. Iran and Russia have doubled their efforts in supporting the regime, which is desperately trying to reverse the gains made by the opposition.
Hezbollah, a group no longer hindered by maintaining a non-partisan image, is now raiding Syrian villages to cleanse them from the regime’s opponents, especially members of the Sunni community, which has borne the brunt of Hezbollah’s attacks.
The battle for Homs is raging now. The outcome may become a turning point for the Syrian crisis. Hezbollah’s fate has now become irreversibly tied with the future of this crisis.