BAALBEK-HERMEL, Lebanon: Concerns are rising among Shiite residents in Baalbek-Hermel over the ongoing border clashes between Hezbollah members supporting Shiites in Syrian villages and Syrian opposition fighters.
As clashes continue along the border, rumors about the dangers posed by the Syrian extremist groups fighting alongside the Syrian opposition are causing anxiety among the district’s Shiites, who look to Hezbollah for protection.
A new political movement is beginning to coalesce in light of the tense situation, one that is not only openly critical of Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian war, but advocates on behalf of the impoverished region, which is on the brink of economic crisis.
Those at the forefront of the nascent movement are in the midst of making contacts and holding meetings, though some members acknowledge their limited powers of influence in the district, as the majority of Shiite residents consider Hezbollah the only capable protector in the face of extremist groups within the Syrian opposition.
Political Shiite activist Hasan Mazloum criticized Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian crisis and said it would negatively impact Shiites in Baalbek-Hermel because they are surrounded by a Sunni majority. He said he believed Hezbollah was defending the Syrian regime with all its military and financial capabilities for self-preservation.
According to Mazloum, the new movement consists of four major groups that include former Hezbollah Secretary-General Sheikh Sobhi Toufeili, who has many Shiite supporters. The second party in the movement is Baalbek-Hermel Choice, a group of notables from the region that has already reached out to other prominent figures, Mazloum said.
The third party is Baalbek’s Residents Gathering, which is currently working to organize meetings with representatives from the Lebanese Forces and the Future Movement. The fourth party in the movement, according to Mazloum, is the Al-Jaafari Al-Imami Gathering, which includes prominent clan figures from the Jaafar, Meqdad, Tlais and Nassereddine families. This particular group is working to form a religious Shiite school in the region.
Mazloum was not convinced an effective coalition could be formed to counterbalance Hezbollah and convince the party to reconsider its role in the Syrian crisis largely because the Shiite majority would consider their critical stance an act of disloyalty.
He added that the political parties currently working to confront Hezbollah don’t have the financial means and don’t enjoy credibility among Shiites in Baalbek-Hermel. He said these political parties were better off criticizing Hezbollah for not developing the region despite the fact that its MPs have been representing it for over 20 years.
Residents are not only concerned over the fighting along border towns, but also about the deteriorating economic situation in Baalbek-Hermel, an impoverished area where 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. The worsening economic conditions in the area, which lacks essential infrastructure, has been overlooked by the government for decades.
Baalbek’s Residents Gathering member and former Mayor Ghaleb Yaghi considers Hezbollah’s support for the Syrian regime contradictory to core Shiite beliefs that reject acts of injustice, including those endured by the Syrian people. He said their support would cost Hezbollah’s reputation, which was formed when fighting against the Israeli occupation in the 1980s and 1990s.
“Hezbollah’s role in the Syrian crisis will have immense negative implications for the Shiite sect in Lebanon, especially in Baalbek-Hermel, where residents are suffering from deteriorating economic conditions and internal instability, which has been reflected in a recent wave of kidnapping-for-ransom schemes,” he said.
Baalbek-Hermel Choice member Ali Hamadeh, the son of late former Speaker Sabri Hamadeh, who hails from Hermel, also criticized Hezbollah’s actions in Syria since the uprising began two years ago.
“These actions have been the cause of the hostility between the Syrian people and the Shiites in Lebanon, especially because Hezbollah not only expressed its political stance [in support of the Syrian regime] but was also involved in the bloodshed of the Syrian people.”
He described Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian war as a “grave mistake,” one that would have devastating implications for the Baalbek-Hermel region and the Shiite sect in general because it undermines Lebanese-Syrian social and economic relations.
Hamadeh added that taking a neutral stance toward the Syrian crisis was best because it would salvage relations between both countries and those between Muslim sects in Lebanon.
Neutrality would also protect Lebanon from the dangerous consequences of the Syrian crisis. Hamadeh voiced his belief that many Lebanese who lived through the Civil War also shared his sentiments, as did some Shiite notables in Baalbek-Hermel.
“This stance should be expressed vigorously to force Hezbollah to withdraw its involvement in the Syrian crisis,” he said.
According to Hamadeh, there are a number of Shiite figures in the region exerting efforts to openly express their criticism of Hezbollah’s role in the Syrian war and to demonstrate that there are other opinions within the Shiite sect.
However, he maintained that the lack of adequate state-sanctioned security that could effectively protect residents against attacks remained the main barrier for the new movement to make headway.
“Because they are absent, residents resort to the protection of sectarian forces,” Hamadeh said, referring indirectly to Hezbollah.
The head of the Reconciliation Committee for the Border Villages Ali Zeaiter said the main concern of his committee was to preserve coexistence among Lebanese and Syrians, minimize losses and ensure dialogue was ongoing among residents from both sides of the border.
“There are citizens from both sides of the border who are making efforts to restore stability and [restore] peace whenever clashes erupt,” he said, “although I am doubtful whether these efforts will suffice because the real decision-making power rests in the hands of the fighting forces on the ground and their political leaderships, which operate outside the region.”
He added that Hezbollah had informed him that its fighters would not interfere in the clashes between the Syrian opposition and the Syrian regime as long as the armed groups affiliated with the opposition did not attack Shiite villages near the border.
Zeaiter emphasized that the presence of the Nusra Front among the opposition fighters was the main problem and accused them of instigating clashes with Shiite villages within Syria, prompting Hezbollah to intervene.