Western powers remain hesitant of the idea of supporting, in an official manner, the uprising in Syria. But with the rise of new and effective Islamist militant groups in the war, world leaders should take time to reflect on the lessons they learned in another of the Middle East’s major civil conflicts.
In 1982, Lebanon was burning. From Beirut to the border with Israel following the Operation Peace for Galilee invasion, the predominantly Shiite population of South Lebanon was forced to bear the brunt of the fighting between the Israeli Defense Forces and armed Palestinian groups, enduring not only Israeli ground operations and bombing campaigns but PLO intimidation, murder and kidnappings as well. The Maronite-dominated Lebanese government, which had ignored and politically marginalized the Shiites since the signing of the National Pact in 1943, had lost control of the country to disparate sectarian militias. As a result, social services, local infrastructure and basic living conditions in these communities were in complete disarray.
Enter the Islamic resistance.
Stepping in to take advantage of the security vacuum in Lebanon’s southern region, a conglomeration of Islamist factions that would in 1985 become Hezbollah developed an effective, well-supplied and well-trained military wing to push Israeli forces out of the South. What distinguished the proto Hezbollah from its counterpart groups, however, was its appreciation for the strategic importance of popular support. Its leaders realized that by sustaining the otherwise helpless population they could use a base of civil allegiance to advance their ideological and political interests. Accordingly, the group quickly devoted significant attention and funding to developing its Social Services Section. From collecting garbage, running grocery stores and managing veterans affairs to maintaining schools, hospitals and agricultural development projects, the Islamist group began to operate a growing number of social service branches that far outpaced the capabilities of the Lebanese government. What began as a loosely organized Islamic militant group in 1982 eventually grew to become what is now the most effective social, political and military organization in Lebanon, and arguably the strongest and most multifaceted guerilla force in the hemisphere.
In Syria, the radical Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra has also recognized the strategic advantage to be gained from a supportive social landscape. Though it has been operating in Syria for little more than a year, it has already successfully distinguished itself from bands of disorganized Free Syrian Army fighters accused of looting, intimidation and warlordism in the country’s northwest. Jabhat’s own social services wing, Qism al-Ighatha (Department of Relief), distributes blankets, propane gas and food to civilian communities free of charge. Unlike many FSA groups, whose desperation has forced them to target only those regime installations that offer a large bounty of food or ammunition, Jabhat possesses the means—thanks to wealthy and ideologically aligned international benefactors—to attack militarily significant targets.
Because of its battlefield successes and attention to public service, Jabhat’s recruitment is high and its presence is spreading. Its flags and marked vehicles are appearing in greater numbers throughout the central and northwestern provinces. Its popular support is steadily increasing in the wake of its designation as a terrorist organization by the United States Treasury. And although such international isolation may indeed serve to prevent Jabhat’s political ascendance after the fall of the Assad regime, for the present time the group is reaping the benefits of its well-rounded strategic and social policy.
In this regard, Syria’s 2013 is beginning to very closely resemble Lebanon’s 1982. Then as now, a singular and respected military organization has emerged from amid a great number of less effective armed groups to help a population fatigued by violence and an incompetent government of religious “others.” As Western governments continue to temporize when it comes to addressing the growing instability in Syria, we must remember that history—recent history—has provided us with a strong lesson about socially conscious Islamist militant groups.
We are still dealing with the consequences of Hezbollah’s formation and influence, and we should be wary of Jabhat al-Nusra’s growing popularity. By supporting, even if only financially, certain moderate units of the Free Syrian Army, the US can help stem the expansion of Jabhat’s armed wing and diminish the organization’s influence in favor of a force more likely to foster a democratic and religiously diverse future Syria. Spending money and materiel in this way to undermine Jabhat al-Nusra now may save the West from spending human lives to combat it in the future. At the very least, it will curb the growing power of yet another Islamist militant group in the Levant.
Dan Layman works at the Syrian Support Group based in Washington, DC
This article was amended. It originally implied that Hezbollah had completely formed in 1982, whereas the group formally declared its existence in 1985.