Tensions endure between Amal and Hezbollah
BEIRUT - There is no outward evidence of division between Lebanon’s main Shia factions — the Amal Movement and Hezbollah — but a closer look reveals that many in Hezbollah feel that the partnership between the groups does not accurately represent the true balance of power within Lebanon’s Shia community, given Hezbollah’s popularity and military strength.
There is little love lost between members of the two groups, which share a bloody history, including fighting on opposing sides during Lebanon’s civil war in the 1980s. Although the two groups have since made up and are members of the same March 8 political alliance, tensions remain.
Hezbollah members have little faith in their Amal counterparts and the group says that its alliance with Amal is no longer a strategic necessity, if it ever was. As for the Amal movement, it too has concerns, with many members angry that it has been supplanted by Hezbollah.
The old guard view the Amal Movement as the originator and Hezbollah as a secondary branch. For them, Hezbollah is nothing more than an Amal offshoot. They recall that Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, as well as many other Hezbollah senior figures, grew up as part of the Amal Movement before turning against it.
One major bone of contention is the enduring mystery surrounding the fate of Amal founder Musa al-Sadr and the contradiction between Sadr’s hopes and views and the Islamic Revolution in Iran, a cause that has been subsequently embraced by Hezbollah. A new book by Columbia University Professor Andrew Cooper (The Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran) asserts that Sadr’s disappearance in Libya in 1978 came as part of a conflict between Sadr and the men who would soon take over Iran.
“What is new is that the moderates were trying to come up with a strategy to outmanoeuvre Khomeini and one of the ideas was for Musa al- Sadr to come back to Iran,” Cooper told the New York Times. According to him, Ruhollah Khomeini the late supreme leader, may have been behind Sadr’s disappearance from Libya, amid fears of his relationship with the soon-to-be-deposed shah. More than four years after the collapse of the Qaddafi regime, the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of the Amal Movement leader remain a mystery.
Cooper’s book can be added to other documents and revelations regarding Sadr’s disappearance and many in Amal will not be surprised by Cooper’s findings.
Returning to the Lebanese situation, it is clear that what Sadr wanted for Lebanon’s Shias differs widely from the objectives Hezbollah is pursuing. Hezbollah has turned into an overt agent of Iran and its sole interest is promoting the Khomeinist principle of velayat-e faqih (Guardianship of the Jurist).
The bloody conflict between Hezbollah and the Amal Movement in the 1980s was part of a wider proxy war between Damascus, which was supporting Amal, and Tehran, which has always supported Hezbollah.
The bloodletting did not stop until the balance of power in the region changed enough to permit an Iranian-Syrian settlement, with Tehran taking the reins. This started with Hezbollah’s hegemony over Shia decision-making in Lebanon, despite talk of an Amal-Hezbollah “alliance”. This was a translation of Iranian hegemony over Syria, again despite empty talk of alliances.
Hezbollah, at Tehran’s behest, is directly embroiled in the conflict that is raging in Syria, fighting directly alongside Syrian troops and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Amal leader Nabih Berri flatly refused to involve his own group in the conflict, despite Amal’s historic ties to Damascus. Berri does not believe that Syria, under President Bashar Assad, is a continuation of Hafez Assad’s Syria, even if he has expressed his solidarity with the Assad regime. Berri does not believe that the collapse of the Assad regime represents an existential threat to Lebanon’s Shias. That is the difference between Hezbollah and Amal.
In addition, Berri enjoys a broad margin of communication with all of Lebanon’s political factions, including those that oppose Damascus. Berri is able to communicate with Arab capitals that oppose the Assad regime at a time when an increasing number of regional and international bodies have designated Hezbollah a terrorist organisation. Berri has prioritised Amal’s role as defender of Shia rights in Lebanon at a time when Hezbollah is more concerned with events beyond Lebanon’s borders.
From the outside, the Hezbollah- Amal alliance appears to be going strong but it is clear things are moving below the surface.