Shiite militants from Hezbollah will keep fighting in Syria’s civil war alongside president Bashar al-Assad’s forces as long as necessary, the group’s leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, has declared.
Hezbollah has helped turn the tide in Mr Assad’s favour this year, leading the recapture of the town of Qusair and fighting alongside his forces south of Damascus and in the northern city of Aleppo.
“As long as the reasons [to fight in Syria] remain, our presence there will remain,” Mr Nasrallah said yesterday in a speech in front of tens of thousands of Lebanese Shiites marking the religious ceremony of Ashoura in southern Beirut. “Our fighters are present on Syrian soil … to confront all the dangers it faces from the international, regional and takfiri [infidel] attack on this country and region,” he said, referring to the foreign Islamist rebels fighting in Syria.
The 30-month-old civil war has polarised the Middle East between Sunni Muslim powers such as Turkey and the Gulf Arab states, who support the Sunni rebels, and Shiite Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah, who back Mr Assad. The president belongs to the Alawite faith, an offshoot of Shia Islam.
As well as drawing Shiite and Sunni fighters into Syria from Lebanon, the conflict has raised sectarian tensions within the Mediterranean state, as violence has spilled over the border and brought the country to political deadlock.
Prime minister Najib Mikati resigned in March but his designated successor has failed to form a new government.
Mr Nasrallah said any bid by Hezbollah’s Sunni-led opponents to link a deal for a new cabinet with demands for its withdrawal from Syria would be futile. Hezbollah had two ministers in Mr Mikati’s government.
“Anyone who speaks of Hezbollah’s withdrawal from Syria as a condition to form a new government … is imposing a crippling condition,” he said, and the organisation would not bargain the region’s future “for a few useless cabinet portfolios”.
Former prime minister Saad al-Hariri said Mr Nasrallah’s loyalty to Tehran and Mr Assad endangered Lebanon.
“Hezbollah chose to sacrifice Lebanon’s sovereignty, dignity, and national unity for the sake of Bashar al-Assad and to execute the decision of the Iranian leadership to protect this regime,” he said in a statement. “It is a choice that history will curse.”
Mr Nasrallah, whose well-armed and trained fighters battled Israel during a 34-day war in 2006 and whose predecessor and top security official were both assassinated, has often delivered speeches via videolink from secure and undisclosed locations.
His comments on Thursday marked his second public appearance in 24 hours, after a speech on Wednesday evening when he accused some Arab countries of standing alongside Israel in opposing attempts to reach an international agreement with Iran over its nuclear programme.
“What is the alternative to an understanding between Iran and the countries of the world? The alternative is war in the region,” Mr Nasrallah said on Wednesday night.
Yesterday’s Ashoura procession in Beirut, when Shiites mark the death in battle more than 1,300 years ago of the Prophet Mohammad’s grandson Imam Hussein, passed off peacefully.