Hezbollah shifts attention from Syria fight to battle virus

Lebanon's Hezbollah group has mobilized the organizational might it once deployed to fight Israel or in Syria's civil war to battle the spread of the novel coronavirus in the country

BEIRUT -- In the streets of Beirut's southern suburbs, Hezbollah paramedics and volunteers on trucks and on foot sprayed disinfectants on shops and buildings. At a hospital where it once treated its wounded fighters, the group's medical staff set up beds for a center to deal with coronavirus patients.

Hezbollah says it is turning the organizational might it once deployed to fight Israel or in the civil war in neighboring Syria to battle the spread of the virus pandemic in Lebanon.

Since then, Lebanon has recorded nearly 480 cases and 12 deaths.

"Until when are we going to remain the victims of Hezbollah's bullying?" former Cabinet minister May Chidiac said in a tweet during the weeks before flights were stopped. "This is new proof they control the fate of the nation," added Chidiac, who later tested positive for the virus after returning from Paris.

In the past few years, Hezbollah angered many in Lebanon for intervening in Syria's civil war to back the Iranian-allied government in Damascus. During Lebanon's wave of protests late last year, some protesters denounced Hezbollah as part of a ruling elite they wanted removed. The U.S. increased sanctions on the group, and Lebanon's financial meltdown has left the government, dominated by Hezbollah and its allies, flailing for solutions.

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has been giving regular televised speeches on the pandemic, a sign the group feels it must show it is stepping up.

"We should feel that we are in a battle and we should fight this battle," he said in a recent hour-long speech.

Hezbollah has an advantage in that, along with being Lebanon's strongest military force, itboasts the greatest organizational and services might in the country.

The group has mobilized 24,500 members and volunteers for an anti-virus campaign aimed at helping the government and the Health Ministry, said Hashem Safieddine, a senior official in the group. The ministry is run by a minister chosen by Hezbollah.

During a tour for journalists in Dahiyeh, the densely-populated southern Beirut suburb that is Hezbollah's stronghold, members of the group's civil defense department, wearing uniforms, masks and gloves, sprayed streets. Volunteers delivered boxes of food to low-income residents.

At Saint George Hospital, which Hezbollah is turning into a center for coronavirus patients, staff were setting up the first floor with new beds.

Safieddine said Hezbollah is bringing to bear some of the capabilities it had prepared in case of a new war with Israel. That includes thousands of doctors, nurses and field staff, as well as 100 ambulances. The group's Islamic Health Society plans to set up testing centers.

"We are soldiers at the service of the Health Ministry," Bilal Assaf, an official with Hezbollah's Civil Defense, told the Associated Press.

The campaign, heavily touted on Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV, is so far limited to its traditional areas of support.

In Lebanon's fragmented, sectarian political scene, Sunnis and some Christians sharply oppose Hezbollah's political power and ties to Iran. A few political factions from other sects have launched anti-virus programs, preparing clinics or passing out aid, but they can't match Hezbollah's funding and organization.

"Hezbollah wants people to know that it is a special project, a project that is above the state" said Ali Hamadeh, a political writer at An-Nahar newspaper who is often critical of the group.

In Iraq, the Iran-backed, mainly Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces were similarly accused by some Iraqis of helping spread the virus by balking at stopping traffic with Iran. The PMF has led sterilizing campaigns and has offered to bury victims of the outbreak.

But Hezbollah has come under far harsher criticism. Its ally Iran has been the nation in the Middle East hardest hit by the pandemic, which has killed nearly 2,900 there and infected more than 40,000.

In an analysis, Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre said the outbreak presents serious challenges for Hezbollah, diverting its attention from Syria, but it might also present an opportunity.

Given the “weakness of public institutions, the group once again has the chance to showcase the strength of its governance services and social welfare networks,” Jane's said.