(CNSNews.com) – Hezbollah has hailed the retaking of a strategic rebel stronghold in Syria as a blow to the U.S. and Israel, but behind the bluster, the Lebanese Shi’ite terrorist group has taken a huge gamble in providing open and substantial military support to the Assad regime, fueling sectarian sentiment across the volatile region.
In the process of helping President Bashar Assad recapture the town of al-Qusayr, Iranian-backed Hezbollah has attracted the anger of Arabs including the leaders of the Gulf states, prominent Sunni sheikhs and commentators, and radical jihadists, including those affiliated with al-Qaeda.
Al-Qusayr fell to Hezbollah-backed Syrian forces on Wednesday after weeks of fierce fighting. The town near the Lebanese border had been controlled by rebels for more than a year.
Amid celebrations in Hezbollah’s support base in the southern suburbs of Beirut, Hezbollah deputy leader Naim Qassem hailed the outcome as a victory over the “America-Israeli scheme.”
The picture looked very different in the Gulf, however, where the governments of the six Gulf states early this week agreed to blacklist Hezbollah and take measures against it. Bahrain’s foreign minister told reporters that all six countries – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait – “are convinced that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization.”
Both within and beyond Syria’s borders, the conflict is both spotlighting and evidently widening the Sunni-Shi’ite divide that dates back to a succession rift after the death of Mohammed in the seventh century.
Hezbollah and its patron, Iran, are Shi’ite and Assad belongs to the Alawite sect of Shi’ite Islam. U.S. officials said Iranian and Iraqi Shi’ites were also involved in the fighting in al-Qusayr.
Arrayed against the Assad regime and its Shi’ite allies are mostly Sunni rebel groups, among them Salafist jihadists including the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front. The opposition is supported by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey – all Sunni countries.
In a speech almost two weeks ago, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah lashed out against jihadists including al-Qaeda, whom he said were “dominating” the anti-Assad opposition.
Jihadists subsequently answered the challenge. A leader of the Jordanian Salafist movement, Mohammed Shalabi, told the al-Hayat newspaper this week that fighting Hezbollah was now a top priority for his group, which he characterized as closely allied to the al-Nusra Front.
A group of Egyptian Sunni radicals, including the brother of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, also issued a call for Sunnis everywhere to take up arms against Hezbollah and its allies.
Last weekend prominent Sunni scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi – a Qatar-based Egyptian who is president of the International Union of Muslim Scholars and regarded as the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader – said every Muslim trained and capable of fighting should make himself available for jihad against Assad and Hezbollah.
Addressing a rally in Doha, Qaradawi raised the sectarian rhetoric to a new level by labeling Hezbollah (which means Party of Allah), the “Party of Satan.”
“The leader of the party of Satan comes to fight the Sunnis,” he was quoted as saying, adding that Iran wants “continued massacres to kill Sunnis.”
“Iran is pushing forward arms and men, so why do we stand idle?”
On Thursday the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz Al-Asheikh, welcomed Qaradawi’s stance, and urged Arab governments and Islamic scholars to act against Hezbollah.
“We urge all politicians and clerics to take substantial measures against this repulsive sectarian group and all those backing it so as to deter this aggression,” he said in a statement. “It was revealed beyond doubt that it is an ‘agent’ party bringing nothing other than disgrace and ignominy.”
The growing anti-Hezbollah sentiment was also evident in leading Sunni media outlets.
“Qusayr was destroyed and its people were displaced. But the price that Hezbollah and Iran paid there is much higher than the cheap blood they had already paid in town,” Al-Arabiya television general manager Abdulrahman al-Rashed wrote in a commentary Thursday.
“The price is a shift in political concepts amongst the Arab public. The enemy today is Hezbollah and Iran. The desire to liberate Syria from its regime and from Iranian, Iraqi and Hezbollah forces supporting it is currently stronger than ever.”
Al-Rashed’s article appeared in Asharq al-Awsat, a London-based daily regarded as one of the Arab world’s two or three most influential newspapers.
In an editorial the English-language Saudi Gazette said Nasrallah “clearly had little idea of how, by throwing in its lot with the hated Assad, Hezbollah would unmask itself in the Arab world as an Iranian cipher.”
The paper praised the Gulf states’ decision to blacklist the Shi’ite group.
“No longer will Hezbollah be able to present itself convincingly as a champion of any Arab cause,” it said. “No longer will it be able to pretend that its men are dying for the rest of the Arab world.”