The group’s loyal followers appear enthusiastic about the new battle, with supporters talking of waiting lists to sign up to fight alongside Assad’s forces. But analysts question how long the movement’s near-monopoly on support among Lebanon’s Shiites will last as it pitches ever deeper into a long and logistically draining war — and draws in fragile Lebanon with it.
The decision by Hezbollah, a long-standing ally of Shiite Iran and Syria, to send thousands of men to Syria is a risky bid to ensure the survival of its axis of support. Geographically, Syria has long been a conduit for Iranian-
supplied arms to Hezbollah. Politically, Hezbollah’s alliance with Syria has helped protect the movement from charges that it is merely an Iranian proxy.
But the new mission, which pits Hezbollah against a largely Sunni Syrian opposition, has a sectarian flavor and is quickly deepening divides in Lebanon.
Since Nasrallah dramatically pledged Hezbollah’s all-out support for Assad in a May 25 speech, there have been near-daily signs of the Syrian war spilling over into Lebanon. On Monday, a Sunni cleric who has spoken out in support of Hezbollah said he narrowly escaped assassination when gunmen opened fire on him in the southern city of Sidon. A day earlier, Hezbollah militants and rebels battled near Baalbek in the Bekaa Valley, the first serious clashes on Lebanese soil since the conflict in Syria erupted more than two years ago.
For the moment, Hezbollah’s popularity among its supporters appears unwavering. At the Rawdat al-Shahidayn cemetery in Beirut’s southern suburbs, the dead from Syria are buried under the floor of a brightly lighted room next to those who have died fighting Israel. In one corner, floor tiles had been removed and a shovel rested on the side of a freshly dug pit that awaited the body of the next fighter to be laid to rest.
Ali Fadl sat on a plastic chair at his brother’s graveside as his widowed sister-in-law, wrapped in black, rocked back and forth in prayer. “This is not painful. Everybody hopes for martyrdom,” he said. “Whatever Hasan Nasrallah says, we do. We do not question.”
‘It’s a huge risk’
Hezbollah was formed in 1982 with the stated aim of waging “resistance” against the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. Even after Israel completed its withdrawal in 2000, the group has continued its campaign against Israel.
Hezbollah has grown into a formidable political movement with a well-armed paramilitary force known for its prowess in guerrilla warfare and generally thought to be stronger than Lebanon’s army. But the foray into Syria is uncharted territory for a group used to fighting on the defensive.