Sunday, June 9, 2013

“After Qusayr, we are coming to Golan, then Palestine"

Hezbollah fighters returning home to  their villages in the Bekaa Valley after their victory in Syrian al-Qusayr, had that to say when I spoke with them during a visit to the Baalbek area yesterday.  Al-Qusayr is just a few miles and a short drive from here.

Elite Hezbollah fighters celebrating their return from al-Qusayr

The defeat of the US and NATO supported rebels in this strategic Syrian town can scarcely be comforting to the Saudi and Gulf states which were supplying the anti-Assad forces, nor to Israel next door, which has been occupying the Syrian Golan region since its capture, along with the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 War.  (Despite the lazy adoption of Zionist terminology by many Western reporters in referring to Golan as “Israel” the formal annexation of the Syrian territory has not been recognized as legal by any country.)

But the Syria War has also sharpened the tensions that already existed inside Lebanon itself. This has been a deeply divided country (some would use quotation marks around the word) since its creation by French colonialists after the First World War and the achievement of independence in the 1940’s.
The French split off a “Greater Lebanon” from Syria as their protectorate, incorporating substantial populations of Sunni Muslims in the coastal cities and Shia peasantry in the villages of the South and the Bekaa valley along with the Christian and especially French-allied Maronite Catholics concentrated in Mount Lebanon. 

In recent decades Christian domination of the state has been on the wane through emigration and population decline relative to the Muslim communities.  Demography is so sensitive to the political balance in Lebanon that there has not been an official census since the 1930’s.

Like it or not, every faction in Lebanon seems compelled to take a stand relative to the conflict in Syria.  In fact to many Lebanese (and officially to all Syrian governments), Lebanon itself is a country without legitimate independence from its larger Syrian neighbor.  There have been demonstrations in the capital of Beirut almost every day in support of one side or the other in the Syrian war. Especially in the northern city of Tripoli, but also sporadically elsewhere, the sides have come into open armed conflict.  So far Beirut itself has been largely spared from major violent confrontations,, though there have been sporadic rocket attacks and assassination attempts here in the capital and in Sidon to the south as well.

These factional divisions are little in evidence here in the northern Bekaa valley, where most of the Shia-populated villages are firmly in support of Hezbollah.  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 and most the combatants are returning with pride and cocky bravado after their big victory last week over what they term Sunni Muslim fanatics and foreign soldiers.

Martyr banners in Britel, near Baalbek

But there was a cost too.  Hezbollah admits to 94 killed (“martyred”) in the al-Qusayr fighting, along with an undisclosed number of wounded.  The towns around Baalbek are draped with banners commemorating the martyrs – 6 from Britel and three from nearby Taraya, when I visited.  Many funerals have been held in recent days and traditional mourning tents are still up.   A few days ago, Hezbollah leader Sayyid Hasan Nasrullah visited the villages around here to congratulate the fighters and pay tribute to the fallen.  Nasrullah is also said to have 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.

Despite the losses, exhilaration and pride are the emotions displayed by most of the Hezbollah fighters and their families.  The version of the battle they gave 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.

Abu-Ali, wounded at al-Qusayr

One wounded fighter named Abu Ali spoke to us 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. 

Zainab, Abu-Ali’s mother, age 83

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 the widespread Lebanese clan known as the Hamie and are originally of Kurdish origin.  Intensely proud of their warlike history, the Hamie claim to have arrived in Lebanon as soldiers with Salahaddin (Saladin) in the 12th century.

Though intensely loyal to Hezbollah and imbued with the deep Shia respect for martyrdom, the people in Taraya are also surprisingly relaxed about other religious observances.   Contrary to the image of chador-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.  Hashish production is a thriving local cottage industry and the inhabitants of Taraya are not averse to smoking some their own product either.  Arak liquor is also (sometimes discretely, sometimes openly) available during social gatherings and celebrations.

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, as well as the devastation of Shia villages in the South and the Dahiya neighborhoods of Beirut.

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 an inter-Arab civil war in Syria.  Whether or not this will result in renewed hostilities with Israel remains to be seen.  But both sides are preparing for that eventuality. 

May 25 was just celebrated as “Resistance and Liberation Day” marking the anniversary of the Israeli withdrawal from Southern Lebanon under military pressure from Hezbollah in 2000.   June 5-11 commemorates the “Naksa” or defeat in the 1967 War which began the Israeli rule and colonization of the West Bank and Syrian Golan Heights.  And next month will see the 7th anniversary of the 2006 war in which Hezbollah fought mighty Israel to a standoff -- which enormously raised the prestige of the group in the region.  However, the fighting in Syria has tarnished that reputation somewhat, at least among Sunni Arabs, and led to a troubling split with the leadership of Palestinian Hamas.  A re-orientation of the battle toward Israel could be seen as extremely advantageous to Hezbollah, even if it also raises the stakes and risks considerably.
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In Taraya, near Baalbek, the evening before the wedding.

Grandmother Zainab, mother of the wounded man, is on the left; on the far right her granddaughter Zainab, the bride-to-be -- who seemed a little embarrassed to having her picture taken wearing the chador; she 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.  That’s natural blond hair!
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This is a photo of the father (now deceased) of Abu-Ali, the Hezbollah fighter from Taraya, wounded in al-Qusayr:
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And this is Ali, the 4-year-old son of Ahmad, another fighter from Taraya, who just returned from al-Qusayr.  Note the blond hair!


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