As Sunni jihadists battle it out with Shiite militias in Lebanon and Syria, the region lurches closer to all-out war.
- By Mitchell ProtheroMitchell Prothero is a writer and photographer based in Beirut.
BEIRUT—I first noticed a disturbing trend developing in Lebanon about six weeks ago, while working on a story about Sunni militiamen battling pro-Assad militants in the northern city of Tripoli. Gunmen were starting to be candid with me.
I’d spent the day with Sunni fighters organized around a small conservative mosque near the frontline neighborhood of Bab al-Tabanneh — guys I’ve known for about a year. I’d received a tip from an al Qaeda-linked cleric that these guys were transforming into a jihadist outfit, and I wanted to talk to them about it.
The new black flags around the mosque were a dead giveaway that the cleric’s information was good. The group was still friendly, lacking the uptight creepiness that often accompanies the most extreme Sunni groups — they showed me the new weapons they’d bought with money sent by sheikhs in Saudi Arabia, and openly admitted that they considered themselves part of the Syrian revolution. But now they were completely honest about the extent of their goals, and who their enemies truly were.
"We don’t distinguish between Syria and Lebanon anymore," Hajj Mohammed, the youthful militant leader told me. "We live under Shiite occupation just like the Syrians, and now are a finger in the fist of this jihad against Iran and their Zionist dog, Bashar [al-Assad]."
It doesn’t get much more blunt than that. But the meeting was about to take an even more interesting turn.
"This kid is from Syria. We found him on the street — he’s a refugee from Aleppo and has no money. He’s trying to get to his family in Beirut," the commander said. "Can you guys give him a ride to Beirut?"
I’m not in the business of providing logistical support to fighters in any conflict, but the kid seemed harmless and was clearly broke and exhausted. We agreed to help him to get to Beirut — if only to chat up a firsthand source who had just fled the fighting. In the car, I asked him what he did in Syria before he fled.
"I’m a fighter for Jabhat al-Nusra," he said in such a casual way it almost didn’t register, referring to the al Qaeda affiliate that has been branded a terror organization by the U.S. government. My Shiite driver almost swerved off the road.
Our young passenger nonchalantly explained how he came to join the radical Islamist outfit. He detailed how at his 18th birthday last year he approached his cousin, who commands a unit of Jabhat al-Nusra fighters in their home area, and asked to join. He fought through the summer and winter before having an argument with his commander, which caused him to quit and flee to Lebanon.
"I just found out that my cousin was killed three days ago," he said emotionlessly. "Now I feel like I need to go back."
My Shiite friend gently suggested to the lad that perhaps he shouldn’t be quite so candid with strangers in Beirut about being a member of a group that has been demonized by about a million Shiite residents of southern Lebanon. But the kid just shrugged and looked out the window. It seemed he had been fighting for so long — and seen so much death — that he couldn’t be bothered to lie.
Our young passenger wasn’t an outlier — many Lebanese and Syrians seem to have simply tired of trying to hide who they are and what they believe. And it’s not only Sunnis: Hezbollah has also thrown its full weight behind Assad in recent weeks. The self-described Party of God has recently launched an offensive on the western city of Qusayr, just a few miles from the Lebanon border, to help the Syrian army wrest it back from the rebels.
This battle has been a long time in coming. Syrian rebels took the city last summer, in the process gaining control of the highway linking Damascus and the Alawite communities along the Syrian coast still loyal to Assad. Hezbollah soon realized that the rebel seizure of Qusayr could also cause fighting to spill over into areas of the northern Beqaa Valley in Lebanon, populated by its Shiite supporters. The escalation began as Shiite villages just across the border in Syria formed self-defense committees — composed of thinly disguised Hezbollah fighters — to protect the area from the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), and began fighting for strategic high ground in the area.
Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria has expanded beyond that small region, and the Lebanese paramilitary group is now waging Assad’s war for him across Syria. Its intervention has prompted a furious reaction from Lebanese and Syrian supporters of the rebellion: Rockets have begun falling into Lebanon from Syria, aimed at Shiite areas the FSA is convinced provide military support for Hezbollah’s activities inside Syria. Rockets have begun to fall in the border region of Hermel on a daily basis, and on May 26 two rockets hit the Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs of Beirut — in an ironic twist, injuring only Syrian guest workers.
Victory hasn’t come easily for Hezbollah in Qusayr. In the first days of the operation, scores of funerals were held in Shiite villages throughout Lebanon, puncturing the veil of secrecy that normally shrouds the party’s operations. It became clear Hezbollah’s rank-and-file wanted the world to know about their sacrifice: Western journalists could merely wait in northern Beqaa for tell-tale ambulances to come across the border, follow them to a village, and be welcomed by the families, for the most part, at the funeral. The number of dead was stunning for a group that had developed a near mythical reputation for competence and secrecy.
Hezbollah hasn’t forgotten how to fight a war, but they are up against a determined rival armed with a superior knowledge of the battleground. Before the assault, commanders of the FSA’s Farouk Brigades, which are involved in the defense of Qusayr, told me via Internet chat that Hezbollah’s initial assaults on the area had completely isolated the Qusayr garrison.
"We’ve told them that no more help or men are coming, that they’ve had a year to prepare and that there were no lines of retreat," one commander told me. "If the regime and Hezbollah send enough men, they will probably take the city from us. So we told the brothers inside that they had to fight to the death. They responded ‘Allahu Akbar.’"
But Hezbollah’s success in cutting off any chance of retreat also means that they have forced their enemies to carry out that threat. It can be a dangerous position for any aggressor: After a year of preparing for a push to retake the city, a bunch of tough men with nothing to lose aren’t going to give up. The house-to-house nature of the struggle and the rebels’ home field advantage also make this close to the worst-case scenario for Hezbollah.
It shows. By the third day, as it became clear Assad’s offensive to retake the city was going to be harder than anticipated, I called a Hezbollah commander to see what I could learn.
This commander too had suddenly become shockingly honest. He said he was too busy with internal security operations to meet — most of the 300 men he commands in Beirut had been sent that morning into Syria as reinforcements to help the effort — but he’d answer some questions by phone. I was stunned: This source rarely tells me anything useful, and never by phone. Yet in a minute, he admitted his men were on their way to the fight and was now willing to answer questions on an open line.
I told him media reports were claiming that at least 70 Hezbollah fighters were killed and 100 wounded in the first few days of fighting. He paused.
"At least," he said eventually, before adding that alt
hough the fight was harder than anticipated, things were progressing as planned — just slower and at a higher price. "They’ve learned a lot and have prepared well to fight. They’ve studied our tactics," he added.
But Hezbollah’s problems are not contained to Qusayr. The party’s assault on the beleaguered city was the final straw for some of Lebanon’s Sunnis, who have long resented the Shiite movement’s sway over the country’s political scene. Within days, the worst fighting in years wracked Lebanon’s flashpoint city of Tripoli killing nearly 30 people and wounding more than 100.
One Islamist commander, while taking a break from fighting in his Tripoli neighborhood, told me last week that there were roughly 70 Lebanese Sunni fighters in Qusayr. His group had sent another 20 men in an attempt to support the city, but they couldn’t break Hezbollah’s lines, so returned to continue the battle in north Lebanon. "As long as Qusayr is surrounded, Jabal Mohsen will be surrounded," he said, referring to the Tripoli neighborhood dominated by Alawite supporters of Assad.
We were speaking while a group of mainstream Sunni politicians were meeting in a nearby mosque to attempt to broker a ceasefire between the city’s warring residents. By the time I returned home that night, however, another commander had sent me a text to explain the talks had fallen apart.
What we were witnessing was more than the collapse of one particular deal — as the fighting in Tripoli enters its second week, ceasefire after ceasefire has failed. It was the end of Lebanon’s political leaders’ ability to control the angry, well-armed men on the streets.
"[Lebanon’s Sunni elite] used to give us money to fight or to stop fighting depending on their needs in politics. But now with Syria like this, the army attacking us here, what good is the government at all?" the commander wrote. "We will make our own decisions now as Sunnis and Lebanese."
Once again, an honest answer. That’s what worries me.