Identity, Equality, Unity
BEIRUT, Lebanon — They are sworn enemies who insist they will never work together, but in practice, Hezbollah and the United States are already working — separately — on a common goal: to stop the extremist Islamic State from moving into Lebanon, where Hezbollah is the most powerful military and political player and currently shares with Washington an interest in stability.
Weeks after Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group and political party, helped repel an Islamic State attack on the town of Arsal on the Syrian border, new American weapons are flowing to help the Lebanese Army — which coordinates with Hezbollah — to secure the frontier. American intelligence shared with the army, according to Lebanese experts on Hezbollah, has helped the organization stop suicide attacks on its domain in southern Beirut.
“The international community has an interest in isolating the Syria crisis,” Mohammad Afif, Hezbollah’s newly appointed head of public relations and a media adviser to its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said last week in a rare conversation. In the course of the informal hourlong meeting, he shed light on how the party views the often contradictory tangle of alliances and interests in Syria’s civil war, many of them in flux as President Obama contemplates expanding his military campaign against the Islamic State from Iraq into Syria.
“All have an interest to keep the peace” in Lebanon, Mr. Afif said, but added, “Everyone has their own ways.”
There are signs that Hezbollah, which the United States lists as a terrorist organization, may see the fight against the Islamic State as an opportunity to gain legitimacy by making the case that it is standing against terrorism.
“We need to open up a new page with the world media, with the Arabs and internationally,” declared Mr. Afif, a former director of Hezbollah’s Al-Manar channel. He seemed to be starting the process by becoming the first senior Hezbollah official in years to speak at length with The New York Times, in the party’s bright, airy, new external media relations office.
Even the premises suggested a new attention to outreach. The department’s previous cramped quarters had contrasted more sharply with the gleaming studios of the Hezbollah-owned news media that speaks directly to its followers.
For now, though, Hezbollah officials are paying close and wary attention to what the United States is doing to repel the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, in the region.
While skeptical of American intentions, they are waiting to see if they can benefit from American firepower turned against the most alarming new foe they have faced in years, say several Lebanese analysts with contacts in the group.
“What Hezbollah wants to see is a genuine, honest, sincere American military campaign against ISIS,” said Ali Rizk, an expert on Hezbollah who has translated some of Mr. Nasrallah’s speeches for the news channel al-Mayadeen. “But you have to stress the word genuine,” he said.
Hezbollah and the United States, deeply antagonistic over Israel and other regional issues, deny any hint of an alliance.
That is especially true in Syria, where even as both condemn extremists, their broader goals and views sharply diverge.
Hezbollah is an indispensable battlefield ally of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, who has long provided the group with a crucial conduit for arms from Iran. The United States is ramping up aid to relatively moderate Syrian insurgents bent on ousting Mr. Assad, and says it will not cooperate with him or his allies Iran and Hezbollah.
Mr. Afif, the Hezbollah official, emphasized that Syrian officials will view American attacks without coordination as aggression, and that Hezbollah disapproves of Lebanon’s entry into a United States-led coalition. But he added, “Of course, Syria benefits from hitting the terrorist groups.”
He spoke of the United States as having finally come to its senses about the threat of extremism in Syria. Though Syria’s conflict began with demonstrations and “just demands,” he said, extremism raised its head early, abetted by the West in its eagerness to oust Mr. Assad.
“We yelled, ‘Terror, terror, terror,’ and no one believed us,” Mr. Afif said. “Later, they find out this is the truth.”
He added, addressing Americans, “This beast which you raised up, as in past cases, you find it’s dangerous for you.”
As much as Hezbollah rejects American influence, its top priority right now, the analysts say, is to defeat the Islamic State. The group’s fighters may have shocked the West with the beheadings of two Americans and a Briton, but they have beheaded scores of Shiites, viewing them as apostates who deserve death. And the Islamic State is making inroads in poor and disenfranchised Sunni areas in Lebanon, a country with a freewheeling cultural diversity, a Shiite plurality and a large Christian population that all provide tempting targets.
That prospect troubles both Hezbollah and the West, which has long made Lebanon a focus of its interests in the Middle East.
One of Hezbollah’s main concerns is that the American effort, relying on allies like Saudi Arabia that Hezbollah views as propagators of extremism, will not be sufficiently serious, analysts say. Like Syrian officials, it wonders whether the real intention is to attack Mr. Assad’s forces.
“They are not counting on the Americans,” said Kamel Wazne, an analyst who studies Hezbollah and American politics.
But Mr. Rizk said that America’s entering the fray could bring not only de facto American collaboration with Hezbollah, but also covert coordination through intermediaries, perhaps Iraqi security forces.
He noted that a top Iraqi security official visited Damascus on Wednesday as the United States scrambled to build its anti-Islamic State coalition, and that in Iraq, American-backed Kurds have worked against the group with Iranian-backed Shiite militias.
While the United States cannot ally publicly with Hezbollah without angering allies and appearing to take sides against Syria’s Sunni majority, Mr. Rizk said, “What happens underneath is something totally different.”
With American drones in the air and Hezbollah fighters on the ground, he said, each can argue “there is not official coordination, but two people doing different things for the same goal.”
His view, Mr. Rizk said, is that “if the strikes are confined to ISIS, Hezbollah, even if it might not say so in public, would welcome them.”
Mr. Assad’s opponents blame Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria on behalf of the government, against a primarily Sunni uprising, for inflaming sectarian tensions and fueling Sunni extremism. Mr. Assad’s repressive government, they say, is the magnet bringing jihadists to Syria. But by the same token, the United States faces difficulties persuading the opposition to fight the Islamic State instead.
Hezbollah supporters argue that only it, along with Mr. Assad and Iran, can be counted on to fight extremists, in part because they are Shiites, and vulnerable as a minority Muslim sect. Pro-government fighters from the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiism that forms Mr. Assad’s base, are also increasingly rallying around Shiite identity, using Shiite religious symbols and slogans alongside Syrian flags.
Hezbollah has clashed little with Islamic State fighters in Syria, fighting around Damascus and near the Lebanese border, where the militant group is less prevalent. But it often fights the Nusra Front, the Qaeda affiliate in Syria, as well as less extreme, Syrian-led insurgents.
The analysts said Hezbollah might move its fighters east to battle the Islamic State in its strongholds, though Mr. Rizk said it would keep its role quiet and portray the fighting as being done by Syrian forces.
Mr. Wazne said the United States, having decided Sunni jihadists are its top threat in Syria, should rethink Hezbollah.
“Hezbollah is not representing an imminent threat against the world,” he said. “It represents a threat against Israel, as Israel represents a threat against Lebanon. But Hezbollah is not going to threaten the U.S. and Europe. Nobody said Hezbollah is cutting off heads.”