Hezbollah Denies Pulling Fighters From Syria After Russian Exit and Arab States’ ‘Terrorist’ Designation

By Patrick Goodenough | March 16, 2016 | 4:12am EDT
Hezbollah fighters parade for a comrade killed in Syria. (AP photo)

(CNSNews.com) – Amid as-yet unconfirmed reports that Hezbollah is pulling fighters out of Syria, fallout continues over an Arab League decision designating the pro-Assad, Iranian-backed Lebanese Shi’ite militia as a terrorist group.

Citing “sources close to” Hezbollah, a southern Lebanon-based news service, Janoubia, claimed on Monday that the group has without warning begun withdrawing “hundreds” of fighters from Syria following the unexpected announcement of a pullback of Russian forces. Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Shi’ite militia from Iraq and elsewhere have been fighting in support of the Assad regime.

Hezbollah, which has yet to react officially to the Russian withdrawal, denied Janoubia’s claims, calling them rumors being spread “in the framework of futile psychological warfare.”

It suggested the claims of a Hezbollah pullback were the work of “foreign agencies” in coordination with Arab governments and terrorist groups.

Hezbollah has reason to feel particularly targeted by Arab governments right now: On Friday, Arab League foreign ministers meeting in Cairo declared Hezbollah a terrorist group, just days after the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) adopted the same position.

Syria’s Arab League membership has been suspended since 2011. The only member states among the other 21 to oppose the motion were Lebanon – Hezbollah is part of the government, with seats in the cabinet – and Iraq’s Shi’ite-dominated government. (Tunisia appears to be backpedaling on the issue.)

Lebanon’s opposition came from Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil, the head of a Lebanese Maronite faction that is closely aligned with Hezbollah, who in an Arabic Twitter post on Saturday argued that designating Hezbollah as terrorists was incompatible with the Arab Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism.

That 1998 document stipulates that “all cases of struggle by whatever mean

s, including armed struggle, against foreign occupation and aggression” is not terrorism. Hezbollah claims to be fighting against Israeli occupation.

Ironically, many of the Arab states who now call Hezbollah a terrorist group are supportive of Hamas, and justify that support on the same basis as Bassil was alluding to in the case of Hezbollah – that fighting against occupation is not terrorism.

(The Arab stance is mirrored in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s convention on combating international terrorism, which states that “armed struggle against foreign occupation … shall not be considered a terrorist crime.”)

The Arab League move against Hezbollah comes against the background of the regional rivalry between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran – Hezbollah’s key patron – which support opposing forces in Syria and Yemen.

Hezbollah leaders accused Saudi Arabia of leading the campaign to blacklist it. Several Iraqi Shi’ite lawmakers told Hezbollah media outlets the move was a result of Saudi-Israel collaboration.

The Arab League decision comes amid a crackdown in several Gulf states against suspected Hezbollah operatives or sympathizers.

Bahrain deported several Lebanese nationals last week, and seven people have gone on trial in the United Arab Emirates, accused of forming a cell linked Hezbollah. Two of the seven are Emiratis, one of whom is a police officer accused of providing military information to Hezbollah, according to a report Tuesday in the Abu Dhabi-based Al-Ittihad daily.

On Sunday, the Saudi interior ministry issued a the U.S. will not follow the Saudis’ lead. Spokesman John Kirby argued last week that U.S. taxpayer support for the Lebanese national army “is essential to help diminish the role of Hezbollah and its foreign patrons.”

Kirby also said the U.S. has raised its concerns with Riyadh over the aid cutoff.

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