Syria’s faultlines extend into Lebanon and Palestine

Israel/Palestine
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Hezbollah fighters celebrating their return from al-Qusayr (photo, Nehme Hamie)

The civil war in Syria is reverberating all over the Middle East – nowhere more than in neighboring Lebanon, where the fighting has spilled across the border and inflamed already tense sectarian divisions. But events in Syria are also the subject of intense disputes throughout the region, as individuals and political-religious organizations are drawn to take sides in the conflict. It is hard to have any conversation here without the subject of Syria coming up, whether among religious or secular Lebanese, in Palestinian refugee camps or in everyday encounters here in Palestine/Israel.

The usual narrative in Europe and America of “democratic reformers” confronting a dictatorial al-Assad regime was always an oversimplification. A French archaeologist I met in Jerusalem, who had worked in Syria, told me about a colleague who had joined the rebellion and then switched back to supporting the regime. Her friend reported that even in Dera’a two years ago, where the “democratic” revolution supposedly began, demonstrators were already receiving payments from Saudi Arabia.

As the conflict is increasingly portrayed as a sectarian battle between “Sunni” and “Shia” Muslims, these distortions continue. In fact, the religious-sectarian aspect of the war is rather asymmetrical. The principal political divide is now between Islamists and their backers in the Gulf monarchies, who see the struggle as a religious battle, and secular Muslims allied to the Shia powers who view the conflict in political and strategic terms.

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During a recent visit to Lebanon earlier this month, on my way to Amman and Jerusalem, I had the chance to observe some of the military and political aspects of the Syrian conflict first-hand.

A Lebanese friend of mine, who is a part-time journalist, invited me to visit his village in the northern Bekaa Valley. Few tourists may be arriving these days to visit the impressive Roman ruins of nearby Baalbek, but there is plenty of coming and going over the Syrian border just a few miles away.

Every community around here has contributed fighters to the battle in Qusayr. In the village of Taraya, where I stayed, the Hezbollah combatants were returning exhilarated from their big victory in al-Qusayr over what they term “fanatics” and foreign soldiers. Most of the Shia-populated villages are firmly in support of Hezbollah and the Assad regime. In the hills nearby, there are Sunni villages, which I did not visit, supporting the other side in the Syrian war.

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Martyr banners in Britel, near Baalbek

The Hezbollah fighters were cocky about their exploits in al-Qusayr, but there was a cost too. Hezbollah admits to 94 killed (“martyred”) in the nearby fighting, along with an undisclosed number of wounded. The towns around Baalbek are draped with banners commemorating the martyrs –six from Britel and three from nearby Taraya, when I visited. Many funerals have been held in recent days and the traditional mourning tents are still up. Britel has also been the target of sporadic rocket and mortar fire from pockets of rebel supporters, either in the hills nearbyor from just across the border.

A few days earlier, Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrullah visited the villages around here to congratulate the fighters and pay tribute to the fallen. People say that Nasrullah also participated personally in the al-Qusayr fighting. Whether true or not, every veteran of the fight showed me cell-phone pictures of the bearded Hezbollah leader in full combat gear and carrying an assault rifle — and some recent eye-witness reports lend credence to this story.

Despite the losses, enthusiasm and pride are the emotions displayed by most of the Hezbollah fighters and their families. However, no one I met spoke about the war in religious terms, except to express indignation at the “Takfiris” on the other side – that is Sunni Muslims who label religious dissenters, Shia and otherwise, as non-Muslim apostates who are condemned to be killed. Chilling videos of the gruesome results of this extremism have been widely circulated on the Web.

The version of the battle from the Hezbollah soldiers consistently downplayed the fighting spirit of the anti-Assad forces. People said that when the preliminary maneuvering around al-Qusayr was completed, the actual assault and capture of the town was quick and easy. “They ran like rabbits” was the typical refrain of the Hezbollah fighters belonging to the elite “Nukhba” unit based in Taraya. The fighters claimed that nearly all the casualties on their side were caused by snipers and booby traps, rather than in the actual assault on al-Qusayr.

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Abu-Ali, wounded at al-Qusayr

I spoke with a wounded fighter named Abu Ali spoke in his house, where he is recuperating from serious shrapnel wounds that nearly shattered his right leg. He said he had been a Hezbollah fighter since the 1980’s and was ready to return to the battle in Syria when his wounds healed. Many of his comrades are now on their way from al-Qusayr to join the fight in Aleppo. Abu Ali’s 83-yer-old mother Zainab chimed in that she is ready to fight and be martyred in Syria also if God wills it. Abu Ali’s children and the continuous stream of visitors expressed the same sentiments. People in Taraya say their village sent 500 men to fight in al-Qusayr.

Another fighter, Ahmad, was home in Taraya for some rest between bouts at the front in Syria. Like many Hezbollah soldiers, he typically spent three weeks fighting alternating with one week at home, although he was reticent about going into more detail. Ahmad, age 38 and with three children, said he had fought with Hezbollah since his teenage years.

The inhabitants of Taraya belong to a large Lebanese “tribe” known as the Hamie and say they are originally of Kurdish origin. The Hamie claim to have arrived in Lebanon as soldiers with Salahaddin (Saladin) in the 12th century and are Intensely proud of their martial history. Most of the Hamie are Shia, but, confounding the stereotypes of strict sectarian divisions, my friend Nehme explained to me with pride that there were also Sunni, Christian and Druze branches of the clan. Nehme’s own wife is Roman Catholic.

Though intensely loyal to Hezbollah and imbued with the especially Shia respect for martyrdom, the people in Taraya are also surprisingly relaxed about other religious observances. Contrary to the image of black abaya-clad Shia women in Iran and parts of Lebanon, many of the women in Taraya are completely uncovered in their homes or outside — often showing off the blond hair which people say is a feature derived from their Kurdish ancestors.

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Grandmother Zainab, mother of the wounded man, is on the left; on the far right her granddaughter Zainab — who seemed a little embarrassed to having her picture taken wearing the abaya — was marrying an Iranian imam’s son the next day. In between, Zainab’s son Ahmed, who is a military policeman in the Lebanese National army, and his wife Nahed.

Hashish production is a thriving cottage industry here and the inhabitants of Taraya are not averse to smoking some of their own product either. Lebanese Arak liquor is also available (sometimes discretely, sometimes openly) during social gatherings and celebrations. Live and let live seemed to be the religious attitude most common in these Bekaa villages – and also in the Shia neighborhood of South Beirut, where I stayed – contrasting markedly with the practice of Sunni extremists in other parts of Lebanon.

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Field of hemp in Taraya:  the plants are harvested in the fall and processed into hashish cakes during the winter.

The vacationing fighter Ahmad said that Hezbollah military leaders are already studying the terrain in the Golan Heights in preparation to take the battle to the Israelis. “After al-Qusair we’re coming to Golan, then Palestine. With God’s help, Al-Quds (Jerusalem) with be free.” Whether this is serious or mere bravado is hard to tell.

Certainly an attack on Israeli forces occupying Golan would be no easy step and could ignite another large-scale war like the one in 2006 that resulted in more than a thousand dead Lebanese (mostly civilians) and severe damage to the Lebanese infrastructure. The Shia villages in the South and the Dahiya neighborhoods of Beirut suffered near total destruction.

But Hezbollah is also under strong political and popular pressure to live up to its mission as the Lebanese Resistance to Israel, rather than just a factional participant in and inter-Arab civil war in Syria. Whether this will result in renewed hostilities in Golan or on the Israeli border remains to be seen. But both sides are preparing for that eventuality. Most likely they will continue their proxy war on Syrian soil.

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Palestinians, meanwhile, are sharply divided on the issue of the Syrian war, with volunteers said to be fighting on both sides. Occasionally, especially in the very polarized Ein al-Helwe, there has been violent conflict between the factions in the refugee camps.

In general, the breakdown of loyalty among the Palestinian is between religious supporters of the Sunni rebels (including, some say, Hamas) and more secular individuals or leftist political parties. Few Palestinians – or secular Lebanese for that matter – express any fondness for the Assad regime, but increasingly they fear the consequences of victory by religious extremists in Syria.

This view is increasingly widespread not only among Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, but also in the Occupied West Bank and Palestinian communities within 1948 Israel. Friends of mine who were initially enthusiastic supporters of the anti-Assad rebels now tend to see the struggle in strategic terms of US and Israeli interests in weakening an Arab nationalist regime.

As usual, Palestinians are caught in the middle.

Jeff Klein is a retired local union president and long-time peace and solidarity activist who is visiting Lebanon and Palestine this month to do research. A version appeared on Jeff’s blog “At a slight angle to the universe

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