October 2, 2013 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1021

Rift In Hizbullah And Among Its Shi'ite Supporters Due To Its Military Involvement In Syria

October 2, 2013 | By E. B. Picali*
Syria, Lebanon | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1021


Hizbullah's military involvement in the fighting in Syria alongside the Syrian regime has caused a rift within the organization and among its supporters in the Lebanese Shi'ite population, who form the main base of its popular, political, and military might in the country.[1]

Throughout the years, Hizbullah built up its strength within the Shi'ite population, and especially among Shi'ites living in the Dahiya (its stronghold in the south of Beirut) and in the North Beqaa Valley and South Lebanon, by using the carrot and stick approach: on the one hand utilizing threats and intimidation, and on the other hand providing economic, social, and religious services that created a dependence on the organization and allowed it to tighten its grip on this public and recruit many of its members to its militia under the slogan of resistance to Israel.

The criticism and reservations expressed by the pro-Hizbullah Shi'ites regarding the organization's fighting in Syria is motivated by two main reasons. First, the fighting in Syria is seen as an act that contradicts the organization's claim that its weapons are only meant to fight Israel. Second, there are serious concerns that involvement in Syria could drag Lebanon into a Shi'ite-Sunni sectarian war, at a high cost to the Shi'itepopulation. These reservations naturally harm Hizbullah's public and political standing among the public on which it leans and from which it draws much of its strength.

There have even been recent reports that Dahiya residents have expressed anger at Hizbullah following two bombings that were perpetrated in the area, most likely in response to Hizbullah's fighting in Syria. The organization, which claimed that the bombings had been carried out by Islamist elements within the Syrian rebels, and which feared more attacks, had to increase its security in the Dahiya, including by setting up dozens of roadblocks. Lebanese media, especially those identified with the March 14 Forces, reported that Dahiya residents and merchants were furious about the roadblocks, which disrupted their lives.[2] Muhammad Nazzal, a columnist for the daily Al-Akhbar, which is close to Hizbullah, wrote: "We can easily see that some Dahiya residents love Hizbullah and are willing to make sacrifices for it on many fronts, but they will not follow it in everything and to the end. This is a reality of which Hizbullah is well aware."[3]

This document will review the rift within Hizbullah and the criticism heard among its Shi'ite supporters over its military involvement in Syria, as well as the organization's methods of dealing with this criticism.

Funeral of a Hizbullah fighter (Al-Mustaqbal, Lebanon, May 15, 2013)

Criticism Of Hizbullah's Fighting In Syria

Many reports in the Lebanese media, both pro- and anti-Hizbullah, alongside other diverse indications, point to a rift within the organization, and especially to criticism by a sizable portion of its Shi'ite supporters regarding its military involvement in Syria.

Reports On A Rift In The Organization

Hizbullah itself is making efforts to convey an impression of internal unity, and is working to prevent the exposure of internal disagreements, which is why reports on this matter are few and very general. On June 11, 2013, Hiyam Al-Kusaifi, a columnist for the daily Al-Akhbar, which is close to Hizbullah, wrote: "It is no longer a secret that there have been many debates within internal [Hizbullah] circles in light of disagreements regarding its level of involvement [in Syria]."[4] In an interview with the Lebanese TV channel Al-Mustaqbal, former Hizbullah secretary-general Sheikh Subhi Al-Tufaili, who opposes the Iranian regime and Hizbullah's Syria policy, noted that there was opposition within the organization to fighting in Syria, saying: "Generally speaking, Hizbullah is firmly opposed to the war, but a decisive Iranian decision [forced] it to participated in it."[5]

A July 2, 2013 report in the daily Al-Safir implicitly exposed disagreements, or at least skepticism, among Hizbullah members regarding the organization's Syria policy. According to the daily, in a meeting held by Nasrallah on July 1, 2013 with organization officials, he said: "The coming days will prove that the [organization's] choice in the last two years in Lebanon and Syria was the right one."[6] On July 4, hinting at Nasrallah, the daily Al-Mustaqbal reported that he had "held many meetings with his staff, in which he clarified his position, in light of the multitude of objections and criticisms on their part regarding internal and regional matters."[7] On July 7, 2013, the Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat also reported, citing an Arab source, that, due to criticism within the Shi'ite population, Hizbullah had decided to send a delegation to Iran in order to clarify that it can no longer bear the implications of its military involvement in Syria.[8]

It should be mentioned that, back in October 2012, the British Daily Telegraph reported on disagreements within the organization between the military wing, which it claimed supported the involvement in Syria, and the political wing, which rejected this involvement. It also cited Shi'ite sources as saying that these disagreements had led to the cancellation of the organization's triennial conference, in which the organization's leadership is selected and its policy determined.[9]

Shi'ite Public Begins To Criticize Hizbullah Openly

Unlike the reports on the disagreements within the organization, which are few, the criticism from the Shi'ite supporters are more numerous and open, despite Hizbullah's attempts to suppress them. These reports indicate resentment and anger over the organization's involvement in Syria. This was also indicated in an article by the head of the board of directors of the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, Ibrahim Al-Amin, who wrote that "Hizbullah's involvement [in Syria] is unacceptable to a substantial number of its supporters in Lebanon."[10] According to an article in the daily Al-Safir, Hizbullah supporters believe that the organization "cannot continue totally ignoring [internal] Lebanese matters and focusing entirely on regional topics while maintaining the support of the [Shi'ite] sect."[11]

According to analysts cited by the daily Al-Mustaqbal, which is known for its objection to Hizbullah, this criticism is not expected to lead to Hizbullah members leaving the organization or rebelling against it, or to a loss of loyalty by its close circle. These analysts note that the criticism of Shi'ites in the Beqaa is more substantial and outspoken than the more minor criticism by Shi'ites in the Dahiya. The reason for this difference, they say, is the tribal makeup of the Beqaa population, which grants it more independence and power vis-à-vis Hizbullah. Another reason for the difference in criticism has to do with to the different attitude of each element towards Syria: While the Shi'ite Dahiya residents see Syria as the country that helped liberate South Lebanon, Shi'ite Beqaa residents suffered greatly at the hands of the Syrian army and security apparatuses.[12]

Families Of Hizbullah Casualties Furious At The Organization: We Have Nothing To Do With The Fighting In Syria

Initially, reports on criticism among the Shi'ite population were anonymous,[13] but later on, and as Hizbullah casualties in Syria increased, more and more Shi'ite supporters of the organization began making their opinion known openly in the Lebanese press, though these critics are not very numerous. Naturally, the majority of this criticism appeared in anti-Hizbullah press, especially the daily Al-Mustaqbal, which represents the March 14 Forces. The following are examples of these testimonies:

In April 2013, Al-Mustaqbal quoted a young Shi'ite woman named Rabab from a town in the Tyre area, whose brother was killed while fighting with Hizbullah in Syria. She said: "We have nothing to do [with the fighting in Syria] aside from [the fact that] a large number of our best sons have been killed there."[14] The daily also pulished the story of Rakia, the mother of a Hizbullah officer from Baalbek who was killed fighting in the Al-Qusayr area. On the eve of her son's burial, she incessantly cursed the organization's leadership, and later she travelled to the Dahiya with the aim of meeting Nasrallah and questioning him. Her request was denied, but she nevertheless voiced her question: "Is Jawad, the son of Nasrallah, [fighting] on the Syrian front just as his son Hadi had [fought] on the southern front [against Israel]? Or does [Nasrallah keep him from going to Syria because] he knows that anyone who dies in that war is not a martyr?"[15] In late April 2013, the daily reported on a protest rally held by parents of Hizbullah fighters outside the organization's Shura Council building in the southern Dahiya, in which they demanded to know the fate of their sons, whom the organization claimed had been sent for military training in Iran.[16]

On June 19, 2013, Al-Mustaqbal interviewed an injured Hizbullah fighter, 'Abbas Mansour, who said: "I will not go back to Syria... The Syrians can defend their own land. When the takfiriyyoun[17] [meaning the Salafi militants] come to Lebanon, defending [it] will become a shari'a duty, [but not before]." The daily also interviewed Mansour's mother, who said: "I will not send him there again, and they can do whatever they want to us." She added that mothers of Hizbullah fighters have repeatedly asked to meet with Nasrallah in order to express their objection to their sons' participation in the fighting in Syria, but were denied.[18] On May 7, 2013, Al-Mustaqbal TV reported on a brawl in the town of Jwaya: supporters of Hizbullah and Amal (Hizbullah's Shi'ite ally) clashed with Hizbullah members who were trying to erect a memorial to a Hizbullah activist who had been killed in Syria and buried in the town one month earlier.[19]

As said, the reports on bitterness by the families of fighters appeared mainly in anti-Hizbullah media, but occasionally also appeared in media known for supporting Syria and Hizbullah. An example is a report in the daily Al-Safir, which is close to Syria, on May 24, 2013, which quoted a father whose son had been killed fighting for Hizbullah in Al-Qusayr. He told a Hizbullah MP that the Syrian rebels "have the right to resist the [Syrian] regime."[20]

Headstones of Hizbullah fighters (Al-Mustaqbal, Lebanon, June 19, 2013)

Questioning Hizbullah's Path

Alongside these reports, there are also many expressions of dissatisfaction and doubt among Hizbullah members and supporters regarding the correctness of the organization's conduct. One prominent example of this is families of casualties questioning whether their sons are considered martyrs – meaning, whether they had died while performing a religious duty – and demanding clarifications on this point from the Hizbullah leadership. Al-Mustaqbal reported that a Shi'ite mother from Baalbek, named Hadija, had asked a Hizbullah official in her town whether her son was considered a martyr, and that other bereived mothers, such as Rakia from Baalbek, had explicitly stated that those killed in Syria were not considered martyrs.[21] According to the daily, the doubts among the Shi'ites of the Dahiya are also reflected in the terminology they use. While, during the 2006 war with Israel, Hizbullah activists were called 'the youth of the resistance,' now they are just called 'fighters.' Additionally, casualties of the 2006 war were called "martyrs," while the casualties of the current war are simply called "casualties."[22]

Doubts regarding the justness of the war are also reflected in the character of the funerals, as a Dahiya resident told Al-Mustaqbal: "In the past we would greet the 'martyrs' [killed fighting against Israel] with cheers and would throw rice. Today we greet them with moaning and weeping."[23]

Yet another indication is the multitude of articles in the pro-Hizbullah press, especially the daily Al-Akhbar, to justify the organization's involvement in Syria.[24] One example is an article by the head of Al-Akhbar's board of directors, Ibrahim Al-Amin, from June 2013, which addressed Hizbullah supporters in an attempt to convince them. Al-Amin's arguments reflect the nature of the criticism. He wrote: "The blood [of Hizbullah fighters] spilled [in Syria] was not in vain. The fighters who went there are not mercenaries."[25]

Hizbullah Responds To The Criticism

Attempts To Justify Fighting In Syria And Silence Criticism

Hizbullah is very worried about losing popular support from the Shi'ite public, which is the base of its political and military power in the country, and is therefore making efforts in two areas: convincing the Shi'ite public that its fighting in Syria is justified, and silencing – or at least minimizing – the criticism.

One of Hizbullah's main steps in fighting the criticism is increasing its propaganda via sympathetic dailies to justify the fighting in Syria. The dailies Al-Safir, and especially Al-Akhbar, have published many articles and columns supporting the organization's military involvement in Syria and portraying families of the dead as convinced of its righteousness. In these articles, the military involvement is portrayed as a "no choice war" that has been forced on the resistance. In addition, Hizbullah emphasizes the presence of Islamist and jihadist movements in Syria in order to scare the Lebanese public and cause it to unite around Hizbullah. In a speech on May 25, 2013, on the anniversary of the IDF's withdrawal from South Lebanon, Hassan Nasrallah said: "The rule of takfiri groups over Syrian provinces, especially those close to the Lebanese border, is a danger to Lebanon, the Lebanese people, and the Lebanese resistance."[26]

As for silencing the criticism, Hizbullah is working to achieve this in many divers ways, including by hiding information, exerting psychological pressure, granting financial aid to the families of martyrs, harping on fear of the Islamists, and also by terrorizing and intimidating the populace.

Until recently, Hizbullah tried to hide the fact that its activists were being killed in Syria, and would bury its dead in Lebanon in secret without stating where the fighter had been killed, saying only that they had died "while carrying out jihadi duties."[27] During this time, Hizbullah concealed the facts even from the fighters' own families, as evident from a rally held by parents of Hizbullah fighters outside the organization's Shura Council demanding to know where their sons really were.[28] Rabab, the sister of a dead fighter, said that she had believed her brother to be in Iran, undergoing training.[29] On May 22, 2013, Al-Mustaqbal reported that Hizbullah was preventing the foreign press from interviewing the families of the dead.[30]

Another means undertaken by Hizbullah is to pressure the bereaved mothers psychologically, as a Lebanese Shi'ite told Al-Mustaqbal: "When a [Hizbullah] activist is killed in Syria, dozens and hundreds of women arrive at the mother's house, day and night, to help her. They do not lament [the son], but rather encourage the mother to accept his death because he is in Paradise and she should therefore rejoice... The environment pressures her, and she refrains from asking where Hizbullah takes our children in its war in Syria."[31]

Hizbullah also silences criticism by handing out money. Al-Mustaqbal reported, citing sources in South Lebanon, that Hizbullah gives financial compensation to the families of the dead.[32] The Lebanese website Now Lebanon, which is known for its opposition to Hizbullah, reports, quoting a South Dahiya resident, that Hizbullah has tripled its fighters' wages in order to encourage shirkers to join the fighting in Syria.[33] Al-Mustaqbal reports that the organization has halved the pay of those refusing to join the fighting.[34]

Terrorizing And Intimidating Critics

In addition to the above, Hizbullah also employs terrorism and intimidation against its public critics, in order to minimize opposition and out of fear that the criticism may gain traction on social media. It should be mentioned that reports on terrorizing refer mainly to Shi'ites who were known to oppose Hizbullah even before it joined the fighting in Syria, but remained silent back then out of fear. Now that criticism of the organization is increasing even among its supporters, they have become bolder and dare to state their position publicly.

Al-Mustaqbal has reported several times that Hizbullah torches the homes of its critics, threatens their families, arrests them, prevents them from returning to their villages, and even threatens to execute them. Articles published by the daily state that more and more Shi'ites log on to the Facebook pages of Shi'ite personalities known to oppose Hizbullah and express criticism of the organization – but do so under assumed names, out of fear of reprisal. According to Al-Mustaqbal, Hizbullah tracks its opponents and the families of dead fighters, and plants activists in funerals in order to prevent the families from expressing their feelings in public.[35]

The story of Marwa 'Aliq – the niece of Shi'ite journalist Rami 'Aliq, who left Hizbullah in the 1990s and became its opponent – sheds light on the terrorism employed by Hizbullah. Marwa, a young Shi'ite woman from the town of Yohmor Al-Shaqif in the Al-Nabatieh area, wrote on her Facebook page: "Oh, the sons of Al-Nabatieh, Baalbek, Al-Hermel, the South Dahiya, Iqlim Al-Tuffah, Tyre, Bint Jbeil, and Marj Ayyoun, who are sent to die in vain in Syria: Your fathers' tears are more precious than Bashar Al-Assad and his [entire] family; your friends' tears are more precious than a thousand tyrannical regimes, and your mothers' tears are more precious than the Tomb of Zaynab [in Damascus, which is defended by Hizbullah]." Marwa later apologized for her statements regarding the Tomb of Zaynab, but her apology was not enough. A body called "The Brigade of Sayyidah Zaynab Lovers [in] Yohmor Al-Shaqif" issued a communiqué calling to excommunicate her father, and masked men attacked the family home and car. Marwa herself closed her Facebook account and the family left the town, fearing that the young woman's reputation would be harmed. Al-Mustaqbal, which presented Marwa's story, stated that many Hizbullah opponents refrain from voicing their views on Facebook out of fear that Hizbullah would hack their private accounts and expose their positions.[36]

Marwa 'Aliq (image: Al-Mustaqbal)

Another example of Hizbullah's intimidation methods can be seen in a report from Al-Akhbar on a protest held by the Lebanese Belonging Movement – an anti-Hizbullah Shi'ite stream led by Ahmad Al-As'ad – on June 9, 2013, outside the Iranian embassy in Beirut, protesting Hizbullah's involvement in Syria. During the protest, one participant, Hashem Al-Salman, was shot by an unknown man. The report indicates that, during the protest, Hizbullah supporters beat Al-Salman's friends, and that all the residents of Salman's hometown of 'Aadloun in South Lebanon "fear the rule of a single opinion [i.e. Hizbullah's] in the South." The daily cited Al-Salman's family as saying that Hizbullah had warned Ahmad Al-As'ad to not attend Al-Salman's funeral, but he did.[37]

* E. B. Picali is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1] On the criticism of independent Shiites in Lebanon against Hizbullah's involvement in Syria, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 938, Independent Shi'ites In Lebanon Challenge Hizbullah, February 22, 2013.

[2] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), September 14, 2013.

[3] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), September 13, 2013. The fury over the roadblocks escalated to violent clashes between Palestinians from the Burj Al-Barajneh refugee camp, which is close to the Dahiya, and the Hizbullah activists manning the roadblocks. Another violent clash occurred between Hizbullah activists manning a roadblock in Baalbek in northeastern Lebanon and Sunni clans on September 28, 2013. It should be mentioned that Hizbullah recently transferred management and supervision of the roadblocks over to the state, most likely in order to ease tension with the residents.

[4] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), June 11, 2013.

[5] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), April 25, 2013.

[6] Al-Safir (Lebanon), July 2, 2013.

[7] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), July 4, 2013.

[8] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), July 7, 2013.

[9] Daily Telegraph (London), October 27, 2012.

[10] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), April 23, 2013.

[11] Al-Safir (Lebanon), July 11, 2013.

[12] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), April 23, 2013; May 1, 2013.

[13] For example, see two articles in the daily Al-Mustaqbal on May 15 and 16, 2013, which include criticism by unnamed South Lebanon residents.

[14] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), April 10, 2013.

[15] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), April 30, 2013.

[16] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), April 30, 2013.

[17] Meaning those who practice takfir, i.e., accuse other Muslims of apostasy.

[18] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), June 19, 2013.

[19] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), May 8, 2013. About one week later, the daily reported that many Amal supporters in the south were displeased with Hizbullah's involvement in Syria. Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), May 15, 2013.

[20] Al-Safir (Lebanon), May 24, 2013.

[21] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), April 30, 2013.

[22] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), April 23, 2013.

[23] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), April 23, 2013.

[24] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 980, Lebanon Openly Enters Fighting In Syria, June 13, 2013.

[25] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), June 8, 2013.

[26] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), May 25, 2013.

[27] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 916, Struggle Between Forces Within Lebanon Is Reflected In Their Involvement In Syria, January 3, 2013.

[28] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), April 20, 2013.

[29] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), April 10, 2013.

[30] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), May 22, 2013.

[31] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), May 1, 2013.

[32] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), May 1, 2013.

[33], May 10, 2013.

[34] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), May 24, 2013.

[35] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), May 31, 2013; June 5, 2013.

[36] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), May 23, 2013.

[37] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), June 11, 2013.

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