BEIRUT — Hezbollah’s leaders were taken aback by the controversy over the evacuation of hundreds of Islamic State (ISIS) members and their families from Lebanon to the Syrian city of Abu Kamal on the Euphrates River.
The operation was in motion by August 29 but stalled, running into serious setbacks along the way. Billing the operation as “the second liberation,” Hezbollah’s leaders drew parallels between their present achievement and the liberation in May 2000 of southern Lebanon from Israeli occupation. Instead, they received an extremely angry backlash within their own constituency and from regional allies in Syria and Iraq.
The Lebanese were very unhappy with the deal because it allowed ISIS fighters to freely leave Lebanon with no trial or accountability. Lebanese Shias, who form the backbone of Hezbollah, were visibly upset, having suffered from ISIS car bombs and terrorist attacks that spread havoc within the Shia community. At a bare minimum, they wanted revenge against ISIS by finishing off its last remaining pockets in Lebanon.
The backlash became exceptionally bitter when it was revealed that nine Lebanese soldiers abducted by ISIS in 2014 were dead, returning home in wooden caskets.
Adding insult to injury, Hezbollah announced that it had traded the approximately 600 ISIS fighters and their families for the remains of one Iranian officer named Mohsen Hojaji, who had been taken hostage by ISIS and executed last August. Senior Lebanese officers were said to be complaining in private that the deal was a grave insult to the Lebanese Army, which should have been allowed to terminate the ISIS fighters, claiming they were prevented from doing so by Hezbollah.
In Syria, criticism was exceptionally high, although never on an official level, with activists in the pro-regime camp asking why the terrorists were being allowed safely into Syria on air-conditioned buses, as if the war-torn country didn’t already have its abundant share of jihadis.
Residents of Abu Kamal, who have been suffering from ISIS occupation since 2014, were furious that their city was becoming a dump site for regional terrorists, just like Idlib in north-western Syria.
The US-led forces in the region pledged to never allow ISIS out of Lebanon alive and inching towards victory in the jihadist group’s self-declared capital of Raqqa, shredded the main highway to Abu Kamal, stranding the 17 buses in the Syrian Desert.
Hezbollah objected and so did the Iranian Foreign Ministry, claiming there were civilians, including elderly men, pregnant women and children, on board. If the United States struck the convoy, they warned, “a terrible massacre” would occur. Members of the Syrian opposition snapped back, accusing Hezbollah of hypocrisy for showing compassion for the families of ISIS members.
In Iraq, Prime Minister Haider al- Abadi — an ally of Hezbollah — was no less critical, saying: “Honestly speaking, we are unhappy and consider it incorrect.”
Transferring the terrorists to the Iraqi border was “an insult to the Iraqi people” he added, which could seriously undermine his own army’s efforts in eradicating ISIS from Iraqi towns and cities. A handful of jihadis reportedly slipped away from the stranded buses and found their way to Iraqi cities north of the Euphrates. They shaved their beards and melted into the tribal society, creating jihadi cells that could strike again.
Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah came out with an unapologetic speech, firmly defending his decision to transfer the terrorists from Lebanon to Syria. He said he had personally visited Damascus to discuss details of the transfer with Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Hezbollah apparently believes that the storm will soon pass once the Lebanese find something new to argue about.
The reasons behind pushing for such a controversial deal are numerous, but Hezbollah’s main motivation is to go down in history for making Lebanon an ISIS-free country, regardless of what short-term effects this agreement would trigger within Lebanese society.
Secondly, Hezbollah knew how important it was for Iran to receive the remains of its dead officer and promised to achieve that on its behalf.
Third, Hezbollah’s leaders probably reckoned that the ISIS fighters would never reach Abu Kamal, figuring that either the Americans or the Russians would eliminate them along the way.
Even if they did, these fighters would soon be annihilated in Abu Kamal, once the operation for its liberation starts after ISIS is fully ejected from Raqqa by the Syrian Democratic Forces or from Deir ez- Zor by the Syrian Army.
Since entering the Syrian war zone in 2012, Hezbollah has paid little attention to its critics and cares very little for what is being said about it on the streets of Beirut or beyond in the Arab world. Clearly from its support for the agreement, it remains firmly convinced that it has done the right thing and even if it hasn’t, nobody will lift a finger to stop them, mainly because nobody can.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and author of Under the Black Flag (IB Tauris, 2015). He is a former Carnegie scholar and founding chairman of the Damascus History Foundation.
Copyright ©2017 The Arab Weekly