At a rally on Monday, a top Hezbollah official said the Lebanese Shiite militant group, a key military ally of the Syrian regime, is ready to intervene in Iraq to fight the advancing Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
“We know how to confront your plan in its own home, and how to topple all your delusions,” said Mohammad Raad, head of its parliamentary bloc, adding that any group that exploits the current chaos in Iraq to advance its own political goals would fail “when our people in Iraq overthrow” ISIS.
Also this week, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said he was prepared to “sacrifice for Iraq five times as much as we sacrificed in Syria for the significantly more important holy places … as long as we have the spiritual leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, nothing will happen to our holy places across the world. We will be where we are needed.”
Also on Monday, it was widely reported in Lebanese media that a car bomb that exploded on Monday in the southern suburbs of Beirut – targeting a hospital treating Hezbollah fighters injured in Syria – had been detonated by a member of ISIS.
Hezbollah fighters have been crucial to the Syrian regime’s victories in southern Syria since they first joined the fight against opposition factions there – including the al-Qaida linked extremists of Jabhat al-Nusra – last summer.
We asked Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, to weigh in on the fallout of a Hezbollah move into Iraq.
Syria Deeply: How likely is it that Hezbollah will be further drawn into the fight against ISIS in Syria, and now in Iraq?
Rami Khouri: A year and a half ago, Nasrallah said that the main reason Hezbollah was going into Syria is to fight Salafist groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. That was given as the main reason – to defend the regime, but also to stop these Salafis and to prevent their spread around the region, and especially to stop them from coming to Lebanon.
If that [was the goal] then they obviously haven’t done a very good job, because [ISIS is] the fastest-growing ideological group now in the region. They’ve gone into Iraq … they control territory, they have money, they have lots of weapons, they’re getting more recruits. The long-term challenge to the region is to fight these groups not just militarily but by having better governance in the region and more normal, stable productive societies that will drive these groups out.
But in the short run, the actions of Hezbollah are suggesting that the battles that are taking place in Syria – with Hezbollah and the Assad regime on one side, and extremist groups on the other – are spreading around the region, and there’s signs of that with the recent bombings in Beirut and the situation in Iraq.
Syria Deeply: What would Hezbollah’s involvement in Iraq actually look like?
Khouri: It really depends on where the ISIS forces are and who their allies are, and what situation they’re in on the ground. If ISIS is trying to hold large territory and create a state or a kind of sovereign entity, then Hezbollah would have a much more difficult battle on its hands.
If it did get involved in Iraq, the assumption must be that it would be in small, practical moves in certain areas – to liberate important towns, or facilities like oil refineries. There would presumably be more conventional forces – whether they’re Iraqi or Iranian or American or Saudi – using available air power to hit ISIS as well. So it would be small, limited but important battles that need [Hezbollah’s help] to be won.
Syria Deeply: Is there truth to the widespread reports that ISIS was behind Monday’s car bombing in south Beirut?
Khouri: Presumably there’s some truth to it. The theory is that [the bomber] was headed to the southern suburbs to hit some hospitals where some Hezbollah guys were being treated after being injured in Syria. This is what’s being reported in the press – how accurate it is, we’ll find out.
Syria Deeply: What would involvement in Iraq do for Hezbollah’s popularity at home in Lebanon? What effect would it have on the group as popularity for involvement in Syria wanes?
Khouri: Getting involved in Iraq now would clearly increase the chorus of criticisms and complaints by many of its supporters. A lot of people say, “Look, we support you because you resist Israeli occupation, you liberated the south and you deter Israel and others from attacking Lebanon,” and they see the group’s activities in Syria and Iraq as being a tangential diversion from its core mission [to protect Lebanon]. You also have several hundred Hezbollah soldiers who have been killed in Syria – young men who have been brought back and buried – and people are grumbling about that.
But the core support for Hezbollah [remains] very strong. Its supporters are mainly Shiite Lebanese, and they will continue to support it. So the criticism about what it’s doing [in Syria] is annoying for Hezbollah, but not at all instrumental in leading it to change its policy there. For them, fighting any threat to the Syrian regime – [including] these Salafist extremist groups – is an existential threat it has to fight.