BEIRUT: Hezbollah has scaled down the Resistance Brigades in Sidon by half but has not disbanded the group, despite media reports to the contrary, sources with knowledge of the issue told The Daily Star Wednesday.
“The decision to minimize the role and number of the fighters doesn’t mean that the Brigades are dismantled and discarded as a security arm of Hezbollah,” a political source in Sidon said. “Rather, it means that the party is seeking to organize it more and redefine its role and keeping its members under control.”
The Resistance Brigades was formed by Hezbollah in 2009 and is comprised of mainly Sunni supporters from Sidon.
Hezbollah recently decreased the number of the Resistance Brigades fighters from about 500 to between 200 and 250 and purged its ranks of troublemakers who were exacerbating tensions with the local community.
The remaining fighters are “disciplined” and have undergone military and education sessions, said a source close to the party. The sources added that among the fighters excluded were several men of religion.
Local residents confirmed that at night armed fighters can still be seen patrolling the neighborhoods where they live, mostly in the neighborhoods of Abra, Old Sidon, Villat and Taamir.
Several local sources said that Hezbollah was reconsidering its security strategy in the area after its primary antagonist, the firebrand Sheikh Amhad al-Assir, was driven out of Abra.
In June, the suburb of Abra was the scene of a military crackdown on Assir after his supporters attacked and killed several soldiers at an Army checkpoint. Assir was a fierce critic of Hezbollah and accused the Resistance Brigades of spying on him. Some Assir sympathizers have accused Hezbollah of inciting the incident that would be his downfall.
Other sources said that Hezbollah was merely seeking to hand off some of its security burdens in Lebanon in order to focus on Syria, pointing to the group’s recent decision to hand over all its security posts in Beirut’s southern suburbs, Baalbek and Nabatieh to the security and military forces.
A third opinion put forward by another source linked the dismantling of the Brigades directly to the thaw between Hezbollah and the Popular Nasserite Organization.
“This relationship was strained because of Hezbollah’s political cover and financial support for the Brigades, which came at the expense of the organization and its influence and image in the city,” the source explained.
The source went on to say that following the 2009 municipal and parliamentary elections in which the PNO and its leader Osama Saad lost to the Future Movement, Hezbollah decided to reconsider its support for the PNO and redirect its attention and resources to other allies in the city.
“Afterward, it decided to form the Resistance Brigades which was constituted mostly of fighters and supporters of the PNO in several Sidon neighborhoods,” the source said.
“This decision nearly led to the collapse of the PNO after the remaining members complained of the money and growing influence enjoyed by their old comrades under the new command, whereas Saad was not even able to pay them their salaries because Hezbollah stopped supporting him,” the source added.
The mounting tensions between the two parties led to fierce clashes in January in the Nazlet Sidon area between the Brigades and PNO. One officer in the Brigades was killed and both parties sustained casualties.
Since then, residents have increasingly complained of regular disturbances and thuggish behavior by Brigade fighters.
Sources told The Daily Star at the time that police were reluctant to document the incidents.
The sources added that these types of security incidents occurred almost daily, suggesting that the group was becoming more confident in their authority in the city.
As the Brigades threatened to spiral out of control, Saad was summoned for a series of meetings with high-level Hezbollah officials, including Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah.
The meeting resulted in the formation of a joint committee dedicated to improving relations between the two parties and isolating “impurities.”
The committee took a series of practical steps to revive the alliance, and the PNO was included once more in Hezbollah’s budget.
But Hezbollah continues to hedge its bets, said the political source, who warned against confusing the Brigades’ influence with that of Hezbollah itself.
“The Brigades are one of several security groups affiliated with Hezbollah,” the source asserted. “Some are known and others are secretive, such as the security cells loyal to Hezbollah within the PNO which is overseen by one of the close aids of Saad who is described by senior members of the PNO as the liaison officer between the two parties.”