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By Justin Salhani
BEIRUT, Lebanon – Checkpoints erected by Hezbollah following a destructive pair of car bombings in Beirut’s southern suburbs this summer were handed over to Lebanese security forces this week.
The two bombs, detonated in early July and August, shook the residents of southern Beirut where Hezbollah, a Shi’a political party and militia, enjoys widespread support.
Hezbollah responded by setting up armed checkpoints and deploying increased security around the suburbs, as well as in the eastern region of Baalbek and the southern region of Nabatiyeh.
Formed in 1982 with Iranian funding to oppose the Israeli invasion and subsequent occupation of southern Lebanon, Hezbollah is widely regarded as one of the strongest military powers in the Middle East. The group has also drawn criticism in the past for acting as “a state within a state,” a reference to Hezbollah’s ability to wage military operations without the approval of the Lebanese government, as was done in a month-long war against Israel in 2006.
Hezbollah however, maintains that Lebanon is unable to properly defend its citizens, using the example of the 1982 Israeli invasion to justify its intervention. Hezbollah used the same argument when it erected the checkpoints following the August car bombing.
“Hezbollah ran the checkpoints because the state wasn’t capable,” said Qassem Kassir, a political analyst knowledgeable about Hezbollah, from his office in Beirut’s southern suburbs. “When Hezbollah knew the state was ready to take over they passed them the checkpoints. Hezbollah still has security in those areas but they are separate from the state security forces.”
But with the increased security measures came a new set of problems, such as waiting at checkpoints run by self-appointed authorities, that angered portions of the population. Last month, members of the Shiyyah family, a local Sunni clan, twice exchanged gunfire with Hezbollah members stationed at a checkpoint in Baalbek, in east Lebanon. The clash left four men dead and five wounded. Both sides suffered casualties.
“These checkpoints were creating negative interactions between people in [the southern suburbs] and Hezbollah,” said Dr. Imad Salamey, a professor of political science at the Lebanese American University in Beirut.
Salamey also believes Hezbollah has political motivations for handing over the checkpoints. “From that perspective Hezbollah removed itself from increasing frictions and awarded more security responsibility to the Lebanese state and security apparatus,” he said.
“If any breaches happen instead of looking like a security failure they can blame them on the Lebanese government. It’s a win-win situation,” he said, adding that Hezbollah’s withdrawal from the Syrian conflict would be the first step toward preserving security for residents of the area.
Hezbollah, however, does not appear ready to withdraw from the Syrian conflict. Their deployment is considered to have played a key role in reversing many opposition fighters’ gains against embattled Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, a staunch ally of Hezbollah.
“Syria has always provided Hezbollah with military support and that is why Hezbollah is in Syria,” said Kassir. Al-Assad is one of Hezbollah’s and Iran’s closest allies. Keeping him in power would ensure the survival of channels between Iran and Lebanon where Hezbollah enjoys support and can operate freely.
Kassir says Hezbollah initially entered the conflict to protect Lebanese citizens living in west Syrian villages and Shi’a religious sites but are now there to fight takfiris, a term typically used to describe ideological Muslims who believe in the use of violence against different faiths.
Hezbollah initially recognized the need to change the Al-Assad regime’s policies, said Kassir, but because of foreign meddling from countries such as Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, it has decided to fully back the Syrian Army. The Syrian opposition has become increasingly radical over the last year, as radical foreign fighters from around the world have flocked to the country.
Radical militias continue to emerge and are thought to be receiving funding from Persian Gulf states. Despite this development, western nations and Hezbollah’s opponents in Lebanon have repeatedly denounced the party’s involvement in Syria and continue to call for its withdrawal.
Both Al-Rai and Al-Akhbar, a Kuwait-based newspaper and a Lebanese daily, respectively, defend Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, reporting that the group, in cooperation with the Syrian regime, is gearing up for an offensive against rebel-held villages near the Syrian-Lebanese border, including Qalamoun, Zabadani and the Sunni village of Arsal, where many armed rebel fighters are reported to be taking refuge.
And with the recent bombings in southern Lebanon, many believe Hezbollah has become even more entrenched in its determination to fight Islamic extremist factions in and around Syria.
Justin Salhani is The Atlantic Post’s Lebanon Correspondent based in Beirut. Marie-José Azzi contributed reporting from Beirut.