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Heightened Sectarian and Political Tensions: Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Shiite Coalition

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With the involvement of Hezbollah (the powerful Lebanese Shiite movement) ratcheting up in various cities throughout Syria by fighting alongside Assad's forces and against various rebel groups, the number of attacks in Lebanon, particularly Hezbollah's military bases and the areas where supporters of Hezbollah and Hassan Nasrullah reside, have increased as well.

A series of kidnappings, bombings, explosions, and clashes between Hezbollah and other groups has rattled Lebanon in recent months. Hezbollah's involvement in the Syrian conflict has led to a spillover of Syria's civil war into Lebanon. As result, this has significantly aggravated Lebanon's underlying political and sectarian divisions. In other words, Lebanon has become vulnerable to a potential governmental and institutional paralysis, as well as outbreaks of broader violence among various domestic or foreign factions in Lebanon.

Most recently, Hezbollah fighters reportedly assisted in an offensive military operation in the strategic Qalamoun Mountain region of Syria, resulting in some initial gains for the Assad regime with this swelling offensive move. Militarily speaking, after Nasrullah publicly announced that Hezbollah will be supporting Assad's regime against who he called "terrorists", Takfirism (or Israeli and US-backed conspirators) Hezbollah forces have succeeded in shifting the balance of power and direction of some of the Syrian battles in favor of the Assad regime.

The issue with Hezbollha's involvement in the Syrian conflict though, is that after almost every victory that the group has clinched in Syria, Lebanon has been attacked.

Early Tuesday, after the offensive military operation in the strategic region of Qalamoun, a vehicle packed with explosive materials was detonated at a Hezhollah military post in the Bekaa Valley. According to Lebanon's National News Agency, this explosion caused casualties among Hezbollah members as well. In addition, according to the Lebanese local channel Al Manar, a Hezbollah-affiliated entity, the explosion hit the military post in the town of Labweh north of Baalbek, which is considered to be the focal point for Hezbollah fighters to enter and exit Syria. Moreover, a few months ago, twin car bombings struck the south of Beirut in neighborhoods where Hezbollah has a considerable amount of supporters.

Besides the ideological conflict, Syria is a strategically critical area for Hezbollah because Damascus is a useful land bridge for delivering military equipment from the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Two Concentric Circles of Sectarian War

First of all, it is worth noting that Hezbollah's involvement in impacting the direction of the 32-month-old Syrian civil war in favor of the Assad regime, takes not only a regional dimension, but also a domestic facet.

At a time when Lebanon needs a unified government in order to preserve security, protect its borders, respond to the demands of its citizens, address and strengthen its economy, Hezbollah's involvement in the domestic Syrian war has worked to revitalize the Lebanese sectarian conflict between the Shiites, sympathizers of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrullah, and the opponents of Hezbollah's actions and policies.

According to several reports and accounts, the Lebanese people have shown significant concern that their country is once again falling into the battlefield of a protracted civil war (such as the one which lasted for almost 15 years, ending in the 1990s), along with facing the possibility of a governmental collapse. It has been difficult to prove whether the domestic attacks or explosions in Lebanon have been carried out by Syrian rebels or the forces in Lebanon that oppose Hezbollah's involvement in the country. People are concerned that Lebanon will regress into a battleground between Hezbollah and other domestic and regional forces. In other words, Lebanon's social, economic, and political fate will be determined by Hezbollah's actions in the Syrian civil war.

This issue has without a doubt contributed to the sharp decline of Hezbollah's popularity, not only in Lebanon but also across the Arab world. While Hezbollah, in the climax of its popularity, was perceived as a resistant group that fought Israeli forces, it is currently viewed as the military arm and puppet of both the Assad regime and the Iranian leaders, specifically for their ideological and geopolitical agenda to maintain Assad's presidency at any cost, allowing Shiite ideology to prevail over the Sunni majority.

Hezbollah and Iran are seen as the responsible political actors in keeping Assad and the Syrian regime in power. The first dimension of the sectarian conflict -domestic sectarianism seen in Shiite/Sunni tensions-- has not only been intensified in Lebanon, but also domestically in other Arab countries including Syria and Iraq.

Ideological: Shiite Regional Coalition

More fundamentally, Hezbollah's determination to fight in support of the Syrian regime forces has led to a second set of issues manifested in regional tensions. The economic, political, military, and advisory assistance of Hezbollah, and its patron, the Islamic Republic of Iran, has turned the Syrian domestic conflict into a regional, ideological, and sectarian conflict across the region between the Shiite coalition and other ethno-religious groups.

Reportedly, Shiite fighters from across the region have been fighting in Syria, assisting the government forces in their battle against the rebels and other civilian groups. Multiple credible videos and reports have shown that the involvement of Iranian military
officers (particularly from Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps) in the training of military officers and soldiers of the Syrian regime. It is also believed that approximately 5000 Shiite volunteer fighters from Iraq are currently operating in the Syrian civil war.

This ideological conflict has grown from merely a geopolitical conflict, spreading to other platforms. For example, a leading Shiite Muslim cleric from Qum in Iran-- widely followed by Iraqi, Lebanese, and Iranian Shiite militants-- has issued the first Fatwa, a public religious edict, indicating that Shiites are permitted to fight in Syria's civil war alongside President Assad's military forces and against the rebels. Grand Ayatollah Kazim al-Haeri was one of the mentors of the radical Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq.

This fatwa along with the mounting number of this type of messages by Iran, Hezbollah and other Shiite clerics, will likely heighten the sectarian and political tensions already present in the domestic affairs of each country, and across the region, by pitting Muslim rebels against members of Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Majid Rafizadeh, a scholar and political scientist, is president of the International American Council on the Middle East. He can be followed at @majidrafizadeh or reached at rafizadeh@fas.harvard.edu

This article was first appeared on Alarabiya.