An unprecedented and slickly-produced video is being circulated around Shiite areas of Lebanon showing alleged Shiite combatants fighting in Syria. The video’s production and open dissemination highlight how fighters outside Syria are jumping into the country’s ongoing civil war – and growing more bold about it.
According to Lebanese sources close to the militant Shiite Hezbollah, the combatants seen in the video are a mix of Hezbollah members and Iraqi Shiites, but the video was produced in Iraq.
Hezbollah’s leadership has played down persistent reports that its fighters are helping defend the beleaguered regime of President Bashar al-Assad. But the video, which was clearly made with the consent of the combatants, appears to reflect the growing conviction within Shiite circles in Lebanon that the war in Syria is no longer one between an embattled autocratic regime and a grassroots opposition but a sectarian confrontation against the emerging and increasingly influential Salafi Jihadist groups that view Shiites as heretics and Hezbollah as an enemy.
“I don’t feel that Hezbollah is defending the regime. They are defending themselves because once the regime goes, they are next,” says Ali, a glazier and staunch Hezbollah supporter from southern Beirut.
The conflict in neighboring Syria presents Hezbollah and its Iranian patron with a strategic dilemma. Assad’s Syria represents the geopolitical lynchpin that binds Hezbollah to Iran and is a core component in the “Jabhat al-Muqawama” or “Axis of Resistance,” the pan-regional alliance challenging Israel and Western ambitions in the Middle East. If Assad falls and is replaced by a moderate Sunni regime that turns away from Iran and towards Saudi Arabia and Turkey, Hezbollah could become isolated on the Mediterranean coast and potentially threatened by a Sunni resurgence in the Levant.
Sources in the Syrian opposition, the rebel Free Syrian Army, and Western embassies concur that Hezbollah is participating in some fighting and also training regular Syrian troops in urban warfare tactics and turning the pro-regime Shabiha militia into an effective paramilitary force.
In October, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah admitted that some members of the party were fighting to defend a string of villages just inside Syria that are populated by Lebanese Shiites.
Initially, there was some unease among Hezbollah supporters over the party directly assisting the Assad regime in its brutal suppression of a popular uprising. Some fretted that Hezbollah’s image as a champion of the oppressed would be tarnished and that fighting in Syria would distract its attention from the struggle against Israel.
Hezbollah involvement debated
In October, Fawwaz Traboulsi, a Lebanese political scientist and author, called on Hezbollah to withdraw its forces from Syria.
“I appeal to them for the sake of Palestine; for the sake of preserving the credibility of the party and the role of the Islamic Resistance [the party’s military wing] in the Arab-Israeli struggle; for the sake of preserving the honor of the weapons of the resistance, so that they may continue waging their jihad against the Israeli enemy only,” he wrote in an opinion piece published by Lebanon’s daily As-Safir newspaper.
However, as the conflict in Syria has intensified, atrocities reportedly committed by the rebels combined with the rise of extremist Sunni groups appear to have diminished misgivings previously felt by some Lebanese Shiites at Hezbollah’s presence in Syria. Radical Salafi jihadist groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, the largest and militarily the most successful of the rebel groups in Syria, are regarded by Hezbollah as a potent threat because of their Takfiri ideology which treats Shiites as heretics.
“It’s not a secret anymore [about Hezbollah in Syria]. Hezbollah may not be talking about it openly but everyone knows they are going over there,” said a Lebanese Shiite who lives in the Hezbollah stronghold of southern Beirut but asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the subject.
Still, Hezbollah fighters are not the only Lebanese playing combat roles in Syria. Several hundred Lebanese Sunnis have joined various rebel Free Syrian Army units, and clandestine logistical support networks for the rebel forces have been established in parts of north and northeast Lebanon.
Key Shiite tomb
The video shows fighters in the Sayyida Zeinab quarter of southern Damascus, a key battlefront in the struggle for the Syrian capital. Sayyida Zeinab is the site of the tomb of Zeinab, the Prophet Mohammed’s granddaughter and daughter of Imam Ali, the founder of the Shiite sect. The golden-domed tomb is a major pilgrimage site for Shiites.
The rousing combat video carries in the corner of the screen a logo of a furled green banner and the name “the Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigades,” which could refer to a small Iran-backed faction that launched sniper and roadside bomb attacks against US and coalition troops in Iraq between 2005 and 2008. The Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigades subsequently became part of Kataeb Hezbollah, one of a handful of Iran-supported factions described by the US as “Special Groups.” US officials have accused Iran and Hezbollah of training the Iraqi Special Groups, and Kataeb Hezbollah was designated by the US as a foreign terrorist organization in 2009.
Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah referred to the Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigades in a speech in 2007 as one of several groups that “confirm the existence of vast strong and effective resistance on the Shiite level” in Iraq.
Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television station was the first to broadcast many of the Iraqi group’s combat videos. The Iraqi origins of the Sayyida Zeinab video are also illustrated by a fighter gazing reverently at a poster of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, father of current prominent Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, who was murdered by the regime of Saddam Hussein in 1999.
An almost identical version of the video circulating in Lebanon was uploaded to YouTube on Dec. 30, 2012 by “Saydanas,” who appears from previous uploaded material to be an Iraqi Shiite who follows the Sadrist line.
The 4 minute 5 second video carries footage of fighters in combat stances, firing AK-47 rifles, sniper rifles, and rocket-propelled grenades, interspersed with iconic Shiite images. The film is set to a backdrop of a stirring martial song “O Zeinab.”
One shot shows five uniformed fighters armed with an assortment of weapons sitting on a street with a caption reading “the resting place of the fighters who are defending the holy site of Zeinab.” The film concludes with the caption “produced and directed by the unknown soldier.”
Evidence of Hezbollah
There is no mention of Hezbollah in the film and it is not possible to confirm that the militants shown are from the Lebanese organization. But there are small clues suggesting that the fighters belong to Hezbollah, or at least have received training from the organization. For example, most of the fighters featured hold the AK-47 by the magazine when firing rather than the wooden grip beneath the barrel, a Hezbollah method that is supposed to allow them to swing the weapon more quickly. Another hint is that the fighters fire their AK-47s in semi-automatic mode rather than fully automatic, a technique taught to Hezbollah combatants to improve accuracy and save ammunition.
Although the faces are blurred out to prevent identification (another Hezbollah trait), they appear to range in age from late 20s to mid 30s, conforming to reports that most of the Hezbollah men deployed to Syria are combat veterans rather than raw recruits.
Sayyida Zeinab has become an important battleground in the ongoing struggle for Damascus. It represents a wedge of regime-controlled territory in southern Damascus where rebel forces are attempting to form a homogenous opposition belt extending through the northern, eastern, and southern suburbs. Sayyida Zeinab also holds a significant emotional appeal for Shiites given the presence of the shrine which served as the inspiration for the stirring combat video.
“I think Sayyida Zeinab is really important to Iran, even beyond the current fight,” says Joseph Holliday, a senior research analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War. “Certainly it has huge operational significance right now … the neighbourhood is an island of regime control in Damascus’ southeast.”
A Western diplomat with contacts within the regime and opposition confirmed that Hezbollah militants were fighting in south Damascus. He added that if Sayyida Zeinab were to fall, “the FSA would be one big step closer to having jumping off positions for an attack on the city center.” The diplomat adds: “It could be quite a crucial battle with all those Hezbollah around.”