San Jose, CA – As U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tours the Middle East to forge a so-called coalition of ‘builders’ with moderate Arab states in the region, the so-called coalition of ‘destroyers’ that include Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, which she is trying to weaken, is becoming more powerful.
Breaking up this coalition won’t be easy. The ties that bind these four actors together are stronger than ever before, especially between Syria and Hezbollah.
The war between Israel and Lebanon this summer may have caused Hezbollah to lose some of its military capabilities, but the organization has gained influence and popularity in the Arab world, particularly in Syria.
The Secretary General of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, recently held a massive victory rally in the devastated southern suburbs of Beirut. ‘We are today celebrating a big strategic, historic, and divine victory,’ Nasrallah told the cheering crowd. He said that contrary to Western claims, Hezbollah had gained popularity in region.
On a recent trip to Damascus, I witnessed first hand how Syrians have embraced Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese resistance group and political party, which the U.S., Europe and Israel designate as a terrorist organization.
In Syria, cars, trucks and shop windows now display pictures of Hassan Nasrallah.
A trip to the old, outdoor Hamidiya market in the heart of the capital will yield the same pushy street vendors as before, but now they sell Nasrallah key chains and yellow Hezbollah flags.
At the main gate of this market, a Hezbollah flag flutters atop a huge statue of Salah Addin Ayyubi, the Muslim warrior who recaptured Jerusalem in 1187 in a decisive triumph against the Crusaders.
When former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Al Hariri was assassinated last year, international pressure forced the Syrian army to withdraw from Lebanon after almost15 years of a harsh military occupation there. Many Lebanese accused Syria of being behind Hariri’s murder and were happy to see its forces leave.
For these reasons, I found it odd that the Syrian public, the majority being Sunni Muslim, has expressed so much support for the Lebanese people and Hezbollah, which is a Shiite organization.
But many Syrians, who perhaps feel as if they too are under occupation by their own authoritarian government, have always felt an affinity towards the Lebanese people.
Scores of Syrian citizens, including my own relatives, donated food, clothes and money to help the Lebanese. Donation stands still stand in front of mosques throughout the country. Many people opened their homes to refugees who fled from the fighting.
Throughout the war, text messages were sent to cell phones, inviting people to attend rallies in solidarity with the Lebanese. After the war, conversations in cafes and restaurants centered on how Hezbollah ‘brought the Israel Defense Forces to its knees.’
I enjoyed a good chuckle when a random cab driver, claiming to know sources close to Hezbollah, explained how the group out-smarted Israeli spy planes.
‘They changed the landscape to confuse the Israeli planes that were taking pictures from above,’ he said. ‘For example, a tree standing at the left of a building on one day, will have moved to the right of the building the very next day.’ Sounds like the beginning of an urban legend. I imagined large men wearing fatigues, strapped with AK47s and moving potted plants from one place to another in the dark of night.
In the city of Souweidia, an art festival was recently held to express solidarity with the Hezbollah resistance and to raise funds for the afflicted Lebanese. One festivalgoer told Abu Dhabi TV, ‘It was very painful to see Beirut falling. Then, Hassan Nasrallah and the Lebanese resistance came along and renewed our dream. We hope that this dream will materialize so we can achieve our ambitions.’
Other Syrians praised their young and ambitious president, Bashar Al Assad. He made a speech shortly after the war ended, expressing his support for Hezbollah. Assad also rebuked moderate Arab governments that were quick to criticize Hezbollah at the start of the conflict.
A Syrian engineer, who chose to remain anonymous, told me that President Assad, like Nasrallah, articulates popular Arab sentiment on international issues. I challenged him with the fact that Assad’s views and material support for Hezbollah has isolated Damascus internationally and hurt the country’s development. The engineer dismissed this. ‘At least Assad sticks to his principles,’ he said.
The narrow, tree-lined streets of Damascus are crowded these days with Iraqi, and now Lebanese refugees. But the atmosphere is celebratory. There is a general feeling by the public that the recent Israel-Lebanon war helped the Arabs regain their standing in the Middle East.
Many Arabs consider Hezbollah’s success in preventing Israel from carrying out an all out ground invasion in Lebanon and inflicting heavy losses on its army as the first major military victory for the Arabs in more than 50 years of sporadic conflicts. And the first defeat for Tel Aviv.
At the victory rally, Nasrallah put it plainly when he said, ‘We feel that we won; Lebanon won; Palestine won; the Arab nation won, and every oppressed, aggrieved person in this world also won.’
By forcing a retreat of the Israeli military during the 34-day war, perhaps Hezbollah has renewed that elusive Arab dream. But whatever that dream may be, Hezbollah will likely be in it, basking in its own glory and calling the shots from somewhere deep inside the southern suburbs of Beirut.