Hezbollah announced the death this weekend of seven of its fighters in Syria during fighting in southern Aleppo. Among them was a curious name: 19-year old Muhammad al-Kabash, a Sunni from Sidon.
Some outlets have reported that Kabash was part of the Hezbollah-run paramilitary force, the Resistance Brigades (Saraya al-Muqawama). It is widely known that Hezbollah recruits members from sects other than the group’s Shiite base – Sunnis, but also some Druze and Christians – into the Brigades. While Brigades recruits have featured most prominently in Lebanon against Hezbollah's “internal enemies” and in the border regions of eastern Lebanon, recruits are also deployed across the border in Syria.
Kabash's father, Sheikh Khodr al-Kabash, claims his son was not a member of the Brigades, but rather a regular fighter with Hezbollah who had been deployed in Syria for three years. The elder Kabash proudly professes to receiving money from Hezbollah and Iran, and is a member of the Gathering of Muslim Scholars (Tajammu’ al-‘Ulama al-Muslimin), a pro-Iranian network of Sunni preachers and sheikhs. Iran’s then-ambassador to Lebanon set up the Gathering in 1982 to undermine the traditional Sunni political class and religious establishment, and to bring together Shiites and Sunnis in line with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolutionary vision.
Khodr Kabash is also a member of the Unitary Current of Revival (Tayyar al-Nahda al-Wahdawi), formed in 2011 in Sidon. The Current’s president, Sheikh Ghazi Hneineh, who is also member of the Gathering, is also a member of the Islamic Action Front (Jabhat al-‘Amal al-Islami), another Hezbollah- and Iran-aligned consortium of groups representing Tehran’s network in northern Lebanon.
The Front was founded by the late preacher Fathi Yakan (formerly of al-Jama’a al-Islamiya) in 2006 to support Hezbollah during its war with Israel that year, and included the leaders of the factional remnants of the Islamic Unification Movement (Harakat al-Tawhid al-Islami). Also formed in 1982, the Movement was an Iranian asset (also backed by Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization), which, between 1982 and 1985, became Tripoli’s most formidable force during the Lebanese civil war. Its leader was a regular guest in Tehran.
The template for these groups has been the same since the Islamic Republic’s founding – to create the veneer of cross-sectarian unity around Iran’s regional designs. For Hezbollah, they are particularly useful amidst heightened sectarian tensions stoked by the organization’s ongoing operations in Syria.
Indeed, this was precisely the message the staunchly pro-Hezbollah Shiite sheikh, Afif Nabulsi, delivered to Kabash. His son’s “martyrdom,” he said, “proves that Sunnis and Shiites are one spirit in the fight against takfiri terrorism.”
The young Muhammad al-Kabash, then, did not represent a new Hezbollah inroad into the Sunni community. Rather, he was part of an old Iranian network of influence in the service of the Islamic Republic.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets at @AcrossTheBay