Friday, 6 February 2015

Arabs lose patience with Hezbollah

A new and defiant spirit is abroad in the Arab world.  Not so very long ago Hamas and Hezbollah, though widely defined as terrorist organizations, were the heroes of Islam, the front line against Israel.  For any Arab state openly to criticize the “Palestinian resistance” would have been unthinkable.
That sacred cow has been slaughtered.  Within the past few weeks not only has Hamas’s military wing been branded a terrorist organization by Egypt, but Hezbollah and its leader have been roundly condemned by the Arab League itself.  Neither move indicates any sudden rush of affection for Israel.  Both were a response to activities by those bodies deemed unacceptable by their Arab co-religionists who, in a changing atmosphere, now feel able to voice their criticisms openly.

Sustained and supported by Hamas, the Ansar Bait al-Makdis terrorist organization, which is allied to Islamic State (IS), has been spreading death and destruction throughout the Sinai Peninsula.  It uses Hamas-controlled Gaza as its launch pad.  Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is dedicated to defeating it. Outlawing Hamas is part of his strategy for doing so.

As for Hezbollah, a self-acknowledged puppet dancing to strings pulled by Iran’s ayatollahs, it has usually escaped the hostility felt for Iran by most of the Arab world. But that hostility is real enough, for Iran’s policies fill most Arab states with alarm – its political ambition to dominate the region, its religious aim to substitute the Shi’ite for the Sunni tradition of Islam and, in pursuit of these objectives, its outright bid to become a nuclear power. With the old constraints on censuring Hezbollah weakened, the organization has been at the receiving end of a barrage of criticism from within the Arab world in the past few weeks – pressure it could well have done without.  For it is currently subject to considerable stresses on its own account.

A major burden for Hezbollah stems from its involvement, at Iran’s behest, in military operations in support of Syria’s President Bashar Assad.  With something like 5,000 fighters on the ground in Syria, and in excess of 600 killed on active service, Hezbollah’s involvement in a military adventure on behalf of a foreign power has led to outright criticism within Lebanon, even from within the Shi’ite community.

Hezbollah’s reputation within Lebanon has also suffered because of the retaliatory action taken against it by anti-Assad forces.  In short, it has been receiving a taste of its own medicine. Tactics it has used against Israel namely lightning strikes and the kidnapping of soldiers are being inflicted on its own forces­ by IS fighters and those of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra.  Both organizations have secured enclaves inside Lebanon along its border with Syria.  This faces Hezbollah with the necessity of finding troops to man yet another military front, in addition to its operations in Syria and its permanent stand-off with Israel in southern Lebanon.

These pressures perhaps explain why Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was distracted enough a few weeks ago to wander into a diplomatic minefield. 

Bahrain, an island paradise set in the Gulf off the coast of Saudi Arabia, presents something of a dilemma for Iran and its allies.  While the Bahraini ruling house is, and always has been, Sunni Muslim, the bulk of the population adheres to the Shia tradition of Islam.  Iran would dearly love to bring Bahrain fully into its so-called “Shia crescent”, and typically, in pursuit of this objective, has been facilitating and financing terrorist activity within the kingdom in order to undermine the government.

In November 2014, Sheikh Ali Salman, the Shi’ite head of Bahrain’s ‘main political opposition group, the al-Wefaq Islamic Society, led a protest and boycotted the national elections. He was arrested and charged, among other matters, with agitating for a change of government by force, fomenting hatred and inciting others to break the law.

Nasrallah was unrestrained in his condemnation.  Maintaining that the people of Bahrain were calling for their legitimate rights including “an elected parliament that the people elect and not a parliament half of whose members are appointed,” he denounced Bahrain’s regime as “tyrannical and oppressive”.  He also alleged that in order to change the country’s majority-Shi’ite population, the authorities were encouraging an influx of Sunni foreigners into the country and were naturalizing Sunnis from across the region.

The reaction to Nasrallah’s speech was swift and devastating.

Lebanon's chargé d’affaires, Elias Assaf, was summoned to the Bahrain foreign ministry, asked to condemn “hostile statements made by terrorist organization Hezbollah's secretary-general,” and to take legal measures against him. Nasrallah’s words, he was told, constituted an interference in the internal affairs of Bahrain and the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Shortly afterwards the foreign ministers of the Arab League issued a joint statement expressing their total opposition to Nasrallah’s “repetitive interference in the internal affairs of Bahrain.”  Strongly condemning his remarks as “a clear and unacceptable interference” in the kingdom’s internal affairs,” they called on the Lebanese government to follow their lead and condemn Hezbollah outright.

They went further. Plainly exasperated by Hezbollah in general, and its activities in Syria in particular, the Arab League set up a special meeting in Cairo.   Subsequently Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi announced that the League condemned all forms of foreign intervention in Syria, especially that of the Lebanese resistance movement Hezbollah, which was acting in support of Iran’s ally, President Assad.

Aware of the country’s fragile political balance, Lebanese foreign minister Gebran Bassil dissociated himself from the decision to condemn Hezbollah.  The Bahraini minister of foreign affairs, Khaled bin Ahmad, was scathing.  The Arab League’s statement regarding the “terrorist” Nasrallah, he asserted, was “clear as day,” and Lebanon must “stand with its brothers, as they stood by it.”

His words found an echo within Lebanon.  Naila Tawini, a Lebanese member of parliament, writing in the journal Al-Nahar, deplored Nasrallah’s intervention in Bahrain’s affairs. “Perhaps now that he is immersed in the Syrian and Iranian crises, he decided to return and stir things up at home. Whatever it is, we must not let him interfere with our efforts for a national dialogue.”

Writing in the international Arabic newspaper published in London, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Abdul Rahman al-Rashed was, if anything, even more caustic about Hezbollah, referring to its “dirty involvement in the Syrian civil war and its brutality within Lebanon…The once-admired organization,” he asserted, “has turned into a villain.”

What has led to this new Arab confidence in condemning the terrorist organizations it was once heresy to criticize?  Perhaps the unutterable brutality demonstrated time and again by IS, and especially the gruesome manner in which it recently chose to slaughter the Jordanian pilot, Muath al-Kasaesbeh, is inducing genuine revulsion in the Arab world for those who not only indulge, but glory, in terrorism.  Let us hope so.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 8 February 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 7 February 2015:

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