At a Hezbollah rally in Machghara, Lebanon, Saturday, tens of thousands celebrate the 13th anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from Southern Lebanon. Photo by Morgan Till
MACHGHARA, Lebanon — At first, Saturday’s Hezbollah rally in this picturesque village in the Bekaa Valley had the feel of a gigantic open-air concert or campaign victory event. Tens of thousands who came to celebrate the 13th anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from Southern Lebanon were greeted by parking ushers in yellow baseball hats, Hezbollah youth scouts in bright blue, a 40-piece camo-clad military band of horns, clarinets and violins, and videos of triumphant Hezbollah fighters with martial rock music ditties like “Nasrallah, your victory over Israel shook the world.”
But while the fight against Israel was the theme, the conflict in Syria — and an attempt to blend the two battles — was in the air. Hezbollah’s media team stood up a 7-year-old boy in full battle fatigues and machine gun for cameramen to film. A giant banner quoted Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s defiant response to Israel’s threat to strike Syrian weapons caches in Lebanon: “Any idiocy committed, we will raze Tel Aviv and Haifa.”
It was no surprise. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had Hezbollah’s back in 2006 when the Shiite militia group fought its most recent, 34-day war with Israel. Now Hezbollah militias are breathing new life into Assad’s struggle to maintain his hold on power. Hezbollah forces are fighting alongside Assad’s predominantly Alawite Shiite troops in a strategic corridor along the Lebanon border. The Syrian ambassador was on hand for Saturday’s event, and the Iranian ambassador too, along with every Hezbollah party bigwig. And when Nasrallah appeared — by video only to minimize risk of assassination — he made clear that Hezbollah is in the Syria fight to stay. “I have always promised you victory, and I promise victory again,” he declared, as the flag-waving crowd cheered.
A poster of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrullah and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad greet arrivals at Hezbollah rally. Photo by Margaret Warner
How does a party that built its image at home and throughout the Arab world on “resistance” to Israel explain to the faithful why it’s now setting its guns on fellow Muslims in Syria?
Nasrallah tried to make the pivot seamlessly, saying it’s all part of the same larger struggle against Israel and the U.S. Hezbollah is fighting Assad’s mostly Sunni opponents in Syria not for sectarian reasons, he said, but to oppose extremists in their ranks who are backed by Israel and the U.S.
He characterized the Syrian opposition as dominated by extreme Islamist jihadists who are now trying to impose their influence throughout the post-Arab Spring Muslim world. “Libya and Tunisia are suffering from these groups,” he said. “This disease is coming to Lebanon. If we do not go to fight them there … they will come here.”
How did it play? Not well among many Sunnis, according to the tweeted response from the Muslim Brotherhood’s English language website: “#Hezbollah lost any credibility left & revealed its sickening sectarian face by deploying fighters to support a regime killing civilians.”
But here in the Hezbollah heartland Nasrallah’s message appeared to sell. I kept asking why. “If they come here, we will die. They don’t have the same religion we do,” 16-year-old schoolgirl Kowhar said. “They don’t have any mercy as we do.” A 64-year-old grandmother told me, “If we don’t fight them there, they will come here to get us. We are not like them. We do not slaughter people.” I pressed her to explain what she meant. “We are not going to eat our enemy’s heart,” she said. “We are not savages like them.”
Suddenly it was clear. She was referring to a YouTube video that went viral earlier this month of a jihadist Sunni resistance fighter, who calls himself Abu Sakkar, cutting open the chest of a Syrian soldier, ripping out his heart and biting into it.
Every political cause has its Abu Ghraib moment, when a few ill-chosen words or a revolting image boomerang to lethal effect. The most deadly underscore the public’s darker suspicions about the central figure. Photos of U.S. guards abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib confirmed to many Arabs and Muslims that the Americans were exploiting their post-invasion power in Iraq to humiliate Muslims.
Now it seems Syria’s predominantly Sunni resistance has met its Abu Ghraib moment — at least among Shiites in neighboring Lebanon. While the Syria conflict has been marked by brutality on both sides, beginning with the Assad regime’s prison torture cells, those weren’t caught on YouTube videos. Abu Sakkar’s gruesome stunt was, fanning fears that the Syria resistance has been taken over by Taliban-like fundamentalists who will aim at Lebanon next. Hassan Nasrallah and Hezbollah’s PR machine saw their opportunity, and they took it.