Hizballah’s War of Shadows With Saudi Arabia Comes Into the Light

As the sectarian violence of Syria's conflict spills over, the proxy struggles between Lebanon's influential Shi‘ite organization Hizballah and the staunchly Sunni Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have turned into open war

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Khalil Hassan / Reuters

Lebanon's Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah addresses his supporters during a religious procession to mark Ashura in Beirut's suburbs on Nov. 14, 2013

Speeches by Hizballah head Hassan Nasrallah are usually predictable affairs. Each time he speaks, be it in front of the podium or from a secure, undisclosed location, the bearded, turbaned and bespectacled leader blends fiery rhetoric, anti-Western exhortations and bombast in a familiar pattern designed to inspire his followers, fire up new recruits and strike fear into enemy Israel. But in an interview with Lebanese TV station OTV late on Tuesday night, he went radically off script, zeroing in on a new target for his rhetorical darts: Saudi Arabia.

Nasrallah rarely mentions Saudi Arabia by name, only referring to the monarchy in vague terms in order to maintain plausible deniability. But that all changed on Tuesday, when he accused Saudi agents of being behind the suicide-bomb attack on the Iranian embassy in Beirut last month that claimed 23 lives. (The assassination of a senior Hizballah commander on Wednesday, though the assailants remain unknown, deepened the group’s sense of embattlement.) In doing so he has openly declared a war that has long been fought in the shadows, first in Lebanon where Hizballah-allied parties are at a political impasse with the Saudi-backed Future Movement of Saad Hariri, and now in Syria, where Hizballah, with Iranian assistance, is fighting on the side of President Bashar Assad against Saudi-backed rebels. “This is the first time I have ever seen such a direct attack [by Nasrallah] against Saudi Arabia,” says Lebanon-based political analyst Talal Atrissi. “This was the formal declaration of a war that has been going on in Syria since Saudi first started supporting the rebels.”

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In a wide-ranging interview that lasted more than 2½ hours, Nasrallah defended Hizballah’s role in Syria, claiming that without it Lebanon would have already descended into Iraq-style sectarian violence: “What is the future of Lebanon, should Syria fall into the hands of the armed groups? If we had abandoned our responsibilities … Lebanon’s eastern border with Syria would have been infiltrated by armed groups, and there would be have been hundreds of explosive-rigged vehicles sent to … Lebanon.”

And he crowed about the successful conclusion of initial nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West, saying that it strengthened Iran, and as a result Hizballah. But he returned to the subject of Saudi Arabia multiple times, declaring that it was Saudi that was prolonging the agonizing civil war in Syria, not the Syrians themselves, or even Hizballah. “Saudi Arabia is determined to keep on fighting until the last bullet and last drop of blood.”

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The group behind the embassy bombings has not yet been identified, though a Lebanese offshoot of al-Qaeda claimed responsibility. Nasrallah, in the interview, said the group was directly financed by Saudi intelligence, something that the Saudis have vehemently denied. Nasrallah only cited vague intelligence for his claim, but that is immaterial, says analyst Atrissi. By blaming Saudi for Lebanon’s and Syria’s problems, Nasrallah has seized on a moment of Saudi weakness and isolation to deflect growing criticism about Hizballah’s role in Syria. Saudi disgruntlement over the Iranian nuclear negotiations has put it at odds with traditional Gulf allies that were quick to praise the process. Furthermore, the Saudis have been the most recalcitrant about Syrian peace talks slated for Jan. 22 in Geneva. The Saudis say they won’t accept any Iranian role and are skeptical that the talks will bring peace. Instead they insist on continuing to back the rebels in the hopes that the opposition can gain more leverage.

“Saudi Arabia doesn’t have the same influence in the Gulf as it used to,” says Atrissi. “So Hizballah has seized on this weakness to advance its own cause.” In Lebanon the open declaration of war may only manifest in a continuation of tit-for-tat car bombings, he says. But in Syria, it’s about to get a lot more serious. Nasrallah forecast the same thing. “I predict there will be harsh confrontations between now and Jan. 22 on several fronts,” as Saudi-backed rebels do everything they can to gain ground and make the regime look weak and prevent the talks from taking place, he said. Those attempts, he added, will fail. What he didn’t need to say is that Hizballah is likely to be doing the exact same thing for the Syrian regime, guaranteeing a bloody two months to come.

— With reporting by Hania Mourtada / Beirut

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