The heart of Hezbollah's people's army

The Lebanese civil war in Syria

While part of Western opinion is lobbying for a military intervention in Syria, everyone seems to be distracted from the real targets: the Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran. MO* reporter Pieter Stockmans penetrated the fog of war and travelled for a month through the source of mobilization of the Syrian regime and Iran: the three “Hezbollah states” in Lebanon.

Jamal Jeshi keeps his prayer mat and Koran in a tree on the terrace. Overlooking the valley shrouded in olive trees, he is praying for the faith of the Shia population and the soul of his son, Ali. The living room is decorated with a life-sized poster of Ali depicting a winged coffin and the Hezbollah logo, and a poster of the Shiite cleric Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah Secretary General since 1992. He and the Iranian Ayatollah Khamenei are the only ones authorized to call for a holy war and to decide on the use of Hezbollah’s arms.

The Jeshi family is dressed in black. Jamal talks freely about his son: ‘Ali was the first martyr of Jouayia to fall in Syria. Now he is the son of the entire village. His picture is everywhere.’ The houses in southern Lebanon serve as a bulletin board of bearded old leaders and armed young martyrs. Yellow flags of the Islamic resistance color the large grey expanse of building blocks on the mountainside behind Tyre.

As a mother who lost two sons, Rabaab is dying on the inside, but religious doctrine is filling her with new strength: ‘Our suffering pales in comparison to imam Hussein’s, who lost his family in the massacre of Karbala. We are proud to sacrifice for the Shia community, following their example.’ (The Prophet did not appoint a successor. Following consultation, his best friend Abu Bakr was chosen. However, a group of Muslims disagreed and wanted to keep the leadership within the family. They elected the Prophet’s nephew and son-in-law, Ali, as their leader. This group of followers of Ali became the Shias, the others the Sunnis. The insurrection of Ali’s son Hussein was repressed in 680 in Karbala, Iraq.)

Ali Jeshi had already been to Syria nine times. Every time he had left a video message in which he explained his motives. ‘In the name of God, Imam Ali and our homeland I am going to protect our religion against the enemy. If I would not go there, they would come here.’ Ali was echoing the discourse of his leaders, Hassan Nasrallah and the Iranian Ayatollah Khamenei. In early 2013 they called for a holy war against the Syrian rebels.

Jamal’s eyes are glowing with pride looking at his son in military uniform on the computer screen. His blind faith in Nasrallah is solid as a rock, even though his son did not die in his own land against Israel, but against Syrian rebels abroad.

Rabaab is eager to explain the whole story, when a stranger enters the living room. ‘If you want to talk about this subject with these people, you are going to need to ask permission from Manar TV’, he conveys to us kindly, convincingly playing his role of Hezbollah agent. With a forced smile Rabaab accepts that her mouth is gagged and that Ali’s story belongs to the party. Jamal apologizes for the way things work around here.

According to Hazem al-Amin, an independent Shiite journalist from the southern village of Chakra, the Shia-Islamic “Party of God” founded in 1982 by Lebanese and Iranian religious leaders attempted to transform the Shias from a hospitable people into distrustful militants.

‘But just ten minutes after the man left, the couple is already breaking the imposed gag order, speaking freely about their son Ali. Little Batoel is looking rather sad. Rabaab denies that Batoel is suffering from her father’s absence. ‘For the first time she has the highest marks at school. She is trying her very best because her father is watching her from paradise.’

Later she admits: ‘Everyday I cry and I do not want Batoel to witness that. She has to see her father’s death as a positive thing.’

Instrument of Iran

Picking a martyr from the many street posters is dead simple; entering the house of a fallen Hezbollah fighter on the other hand, is not done. Especially since the popular army is at war. Moreover, Ali Jeshi was a big fish: he was the personal disciple of Imad Moughniyeh, one of the highest military leaders of Hezbollah who was killed in Syria in 2008.

About an hour later we are presented with the bill. ‘Cease your inquiries. You are getting caught up in something bigger than yourself’, an anonymous voice on the phone threatens. Big brother is watching us.

‘The Southern Lebanese are living under totalitarian control. The party is registering every family, where they live, who they are, what their profession is. You better go to Jarjouaa, an ex-communist nest where you can find small cracks in the wall’, Nasser Hamoud had advised us.

Nasser Hamoud is the southern coordinator of the anti-Syrian Future Movement of the assassinated prime minister Rafiq Hariri, a Sunni leader who attempted to bring down sectarianism and who still enjoys popularity among Sunnis, Christians and secular Shias. The movement lost much of its influence since the assassination of Hariri.

Jarjouaa is located about 20 kilometers southeast of Sidon, where church bells and muezzins echo through the hills. Hezbollah-posters are constantly recurring elements in the streets of every village - whether they are Shia, Sunni, Christian-Shia or Christian-Sunni (there is no village where Shias and Sunnis are living together).

‘Sunnis supporting the Syrian rebels better keep quiet here. But to me too, as a secular Shia, the omnipresence of Hezbollah feels like an occupation’, professor Mouhammad Ali Moukallad explains. He’s inviting his friends over for dinner. The grey eminences are being silenced since Hezbollah eliminated the communist resistance and then monopolized the anti-Israeli resistance.

‘In 1982, as a member of the central committee of the Communist Party, I was living in a flat near the mosque where Hezbollah was secretly set up’, Moukallad says. ‘After an agreement between Iran and Syria, Hezbollah eliminated the communist resistance leaders. I had to escape to Paris. Until today, Southern Lebanon is a one-party state.’

In 2009, Moukallad ran for parliament. ‘It was a symbolic act. I told the voters that I wasn’t taking part in the elections in order to get elected, but to demonstrate that there are other ways within the Shia community. However, nobody dared to receive me. Hezbollah had spread rumors that I was a spy for Israel and that everyone who’d vote for me would be considered a traitor to the resistance.’

Moukallad is determined to continue his kamikaze campaign in the 2014 elections. ‘This time I really want to oppose’, he says. ‘Hezbollah is going to self-destruct in Syria, Assad will fall, Iran will weaken, and Hezbollah will turn into a regular Lebanese party instead of the Syrian-Iranian army in Lebanon. That will force them to compromise.’

Sayyed Hani Fahs, one of the few critical Shia voices, is sharing this analysis. He is facilitating talks between Iran and the Syrian opposition. ‘I do not consider Hezbollah itself to be the problem, but rather the weapons they possess. Since Israel retreated from Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah no longer needs to maintain an armed militia. Fighting alongside Assad is unmasking them as an instrument of Iranian politics. I tell Nasrallah and Khamenei: reason takes you further than muscle power. Strengthen the resistance by engaging all Syrians in an alliance.’

Neither Moukallad nor Fahs are harboring any ambition to address adherents of Hezbollah. ‘The religious Shias are not ready for secular politics. They behave like an Iranian diaspora in Lebanon, as subjects of the Iranian Ayatollah Khamenei, rather than Lebanese citizens’, Fahs explains. Just like the secular Shias, the secular Sunnis of the Future Movement are anxiously waiting for the fall of Bashar al-Assad.

But they cannot cooperate. ‘Everyone willing to cooperate with us is being stigmatized as pro-Israel by Hezbollah’, says Nasser Hamoud of the Future Movement. ‘Politically we are sidelined, while fundamentalist Sunni imams like Ahmad Assir are heating up our electorate by preaching sectarian hatred against the Shias.’

Hamoud, Moukallah and Fahs share a dream: to solve the conflict between Shias and Sunnis by taking power away from religious leaders and to reduce the influence of Iran and Syria in Lebanon. But the loyalty of Lebanese Shias to the Syrian regime and Iran is strong. There is no place where this is more tangible than in Baalbek.

Assad, president of Baalbek

Driving from Beirut into the Beqaa Valley, one can see Syria in the distance, but the border is little more than a line on a map. Militia and weapons are moving back and forth. The Hezbollah intelligence service is having its hands full. Since the party is fighting alongside the regime in Syria, more security incidents have been occurring in the Beqaa Valley.

Tourists are staying away. Moustafa Ossmans’ hotel is as desolated as the Roman temples of Baalbek. Nonetheless he remains confident: ‘Tourists will return when we win the war. Nasrallah always keeps his promises. Hezbollah will wipe everything clean. Yesterday they pulled over a car on the speedway in Hermel that was packed with weapons. A couple of weeks ago they intercepted suicide terrorists.’

On the broad avenue where Ali and Sadeq are enjoying the soothing music of an open-air bar, like-minded young guys are demonstrating the noise their sports cars are capable of producing. Ali, a future engineer, and Sadeq, a marketing student, both like fast cars, girls, guns and… Imam Hussein. Sadeq bares his chest, on which the Imam’s face is tattooed. ‘His father Ali should have succeeded the Prophet’, he says.

Then he jumps to present-day Syria as if the current conflict and the one 1,400 years ago are the same. ‘In Syria the Sunnis once again started a war against us. They are fighting against the president and they want to wipe out every trace of the Shia faith.’

From a speeding car sounds an impassioned voice. ‘People are burning Hassan Nasrallah’s speeches on discs and listen to them in their cars. He and the president are defending the Shias. We Shias feel a worldwide connection’, Ali explains. The slogan “Together towards freedom” underneath the poster depicting Nasrallah and “the President” Assad suddenly takes on a sectarian connotation.

While Ali as a Lebanese is explaining why the Syrian Bashar al-Assad is his president, the Syrian waiters – Sunnis, sympathizing with the rebels – come to take our order. The waiters: servants today but favored by a dictatorship of the majority tomorrow? Ali and Sadeq: bursting with confidence today but victims of historical revenge of a Sunni majority demanding a bigger piece of the pie tomorrow? Ali looks at the familiar portraits of his leaders. ‘I cannot imagine a life without their protection’, he says.

Ali and Sadeq are spending their summer evenings at the house of their rich friend Basjir. They are smoking water pipe, listening to AC/DC and showing off their machine-guns. Every family in Baalbek is armed. Protection of the marijuana fields and resistance against the authorities are a part of the local culture. Armed conflicts between rivalling clans are far from unusual.

According to Ali this might be one of the reasons why a lot of Hezbollah fighters originate in Baalbek: they have a strong sense of honor, they are easily provoked and they know how to handle weapons.

A seat at the negotiation table

Ali shows us a video. A crowd is carrying the coffin of a Hezbollah martyr through the streets of Baalbek, people are shooting their guns in the air. ‘We demonstrate our honor and power. Nobody messes with the Shias’, he says. Suddenly Sadeq fires his machine gun into the pitch-black night sky; the deafening noise drowns out the muezzin. In this valley, honor and religion are keeping a regime in the saddle protecting a besieged minority by armed militia. Sectarian fear is compelling young men to risk their lives without any perspective of a positive outcome. Their leaders Khamenei, Nasrallah and Assad are awakening the fear sleeping in the hearts of the Lebanese Shias, and building the pride of belonging to the Shia nation, so that they would join the ranks of Hezbollah for the battle in Syria.

Volunteers are plenty. Ali was one of them, but he was not selected because he had to stay at home with his family. One of his childhood friends of his was among the chosen ones. ‘Of course I am scared to lose him, but I will be happy for him if he can be a martyr,’ Ali says. ‘He is willing to talk to you, but during his military training he cannot be seen with foreigners.’ One only gets to see Hezbollah fighters once they have died, on the ever-present posters. Through modern technology however, we are able to circumvent this issue.

‘Nasrallah said that extremist Sunnis pose an even bigger threat than Israel’, the anonymous fighter tells us through WhatsApp. ‘We have to stop them in Syria before they gain too much power and we lose ours. They are collaborating with Israel to weaken us. I am not a terrorist. I am defending my religion and my country against Western imperialism. If Assad would fall, yet another domino in the anti-Israeli resistance axis would crumble. We are the last ones still fighting for the liberation of Palestine.’

‘Our faith in God is growing with each martyr. We are only getting stronger’, are the final words that appear on Ali’s iPhone. Is this a hidden message to the West, that in the event of a Western military intervention in Syria, the response will come from Lebanon and Iran?

Journalist Hazem al-Amin is arguing that Hezbollah is not taking care of things in Syria for Assad, but for Iran. ‘With Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, Iran is demanding a role in the negotiations about the future of the Middle East. They are defending the results of thirty years of political Shiism against the United States of America. They helped the Shias in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon rise from a marginalized group to a powerful player. With a cocktail of religious, political and socioeconomic fears Hezbollah is mobilizing their Syria fighters ‘

Lebanon is paying a high price for that. If the intelligence services of Hezbollah declared code red in the Beqaa Valley, they are in complete disarray in the capital. Syrian rebels are hitting Hezbollah in the beating heart of their stronghold Southern Beirut. The once untouchable Hezbollah is vulnerable.

The beating heart of Hezbollah

On 9 July 2013, a car bomb explodes in Bir el-Abed, the heart of the capital of Hezbollah. After this attack, nobody is willing to talk to foreigners anymore. Joined by the famous journalist Diana Moukalled, member of a prominent Shia family from the south, we are driving through Khandak el-Ghamik, a Shia neighborhood in the centre of Beirut.

‘What I am doing now is not without risk. In just a few seconds every group of men you see here on the street, for example those standing by that Syrian flag, might start acting as agents of the party’, she says. Nervously she scans the area. ‘Smuggling a bomb into this neighborhood requires detailed information. Thank God nobody died, but the message could become more deadly if Hezbollah would not withdraw from Syria.’

Hassan Illeik, a pro-Hezbollah journalist from the southern neighborhoods, is arguing that all the dead and injured of Hezbollah, all the dead in Syria and the instability of Lebanon, is the unavoidable collateral damage of a necessary decision. ‘If we would not fight in Syria, the price would be even higher: Syria would be gobbled up by Israel. Instinctively people are sensing that the weakening of Hezbollah would be a victory for Israel.’

Ahmed Moussa, a charming taxi driver from Haret Hraik, disagrees. ‘Hezbollah is feared, not loved. They are defending a terrible dictator. And if the West would attack Syria, Iran would ask Hezbollah to fire missiles on Israel. And once again we would pay the price. Do you think we would like a new Israeli bombing campaign? People are afraid to say this out loud. If Hezbollah had not kidnapped the Israeli soldiers in 2006, nothing would have happened here. You see all the new building blocks? All of that was destroyed.’ In Bir el-Abed we can see traces of more recent destruction: the car wreck is still there.

Ahmed arrived in the south of Beirut in 1983, after working as an usher at the American airbase in Saudi Arabia. ‘I love Americans’, he laughs. ‘Certainly you will find people who do not like foreigners, but they are brainwashed.’

A visit to the southern Beirut neighborhood of Ouzai, in the home of pro-Assad Shia refugees from the Syrian town of Homs, is showing us just how strong the thought police is over here. The sight of a bunch of foreigners in this popular neighborhood is causing a woman to run down hysterically from the fourth flour of a building block and to start shouting at us, ‘Spies! Spies!’

It only takes a couple of minutes for an angry mob to surround our car. We are being taken aside for interrogation by undercover Hezbollah agents. ‘What are you doing here? What is your profession? Where are you staying? Who is that journalist? Where are you from?’ Najaf, a holy Shia city in Iraq. Our translator is Shia, Hezbollah is a Shia movement. You are free to go.

Outside another portrait of the Syrian president is displayed, and yet another one in front of Weam Wahhab’s office in Ouzai. Wahhab is a Lebanese ex-minister who founded his own pro-Syria party in 2006.

‘The Syrian army and Hezbollah are trying to protect the people against Islamic terrorism’, he says, an explanation similar to the one given by the refugee family from Homs, who were pointing fingers at “terrorists” while the missile that turned their house into dust was actually fired by the Syrian Air Force.

On 15 August 2013, a second car bomb explodes in South Beirut. 27 people are killed and another 200 injured. The longer Hezbollah’s time in Syria, the higher the price they are paying. That is why the ever-invisible Hezbollah agents are stepping out of the shadows: suddenly they are guarding checkpoints in South Beirut, armed but still in civilian clothes. 23 August 2013: this time two car bombs are detonated next to Sunni mosques in the northern city of Tripoli. 47 people are killed, 800 severely wounded. Inhabitants are blaming Hezbollah, who are denying any responsibility.

Are we returning to the Beirut of the nineties with car wrecks, ruined buildings and armed militia? Lebanon, country of institutionalized division, of the sleeping civil war awoken by the big powers as soon as their regional interests are threatened? I began this research with the central question ‘What is the impact of the Syrian civil war on Lebanon?’ I end it with the following: ‘What is the impact of the Lebanese civil war on Syria?’

See accompanying photography reports by Xander Stockmans here: The SouthBaalbek, Beqaa ValleySouth Beirut

Pieter Stockmans is an investigative journalist. He realizes a long-term project on the Middle East and North Africa. Follow him through these channels: Between Freedom and Happiness facebookpage, Worldblog MO*, Twitter (in Dutch)

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