Their chant is strong and loud and can be heard in the night from every tiny alley of Dahieh, the large and predominantly Shiite suburb in southern Beirut. Their plaintive melodies are accompanied by the sound of them beating their chests, a symbolic punishment to commemorate the death of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, at the battle of Karbala in the Islamic year 61 (680 A.D.).
Hundreds of youths dressed in black meet together annually in a large hangar while thousands of yellow Hezbollah flags and green Amal movement flags flutter on nearly every balcony and storefront.
Dahieh is Hezbollah’s headquarters in Beirut. It became a densely populated suburb in the decades since thousands moved to the capital from southern Lebanon, where Israeli troops arrived in 1982 and regularly clashed with local shiite militias until they left in 2000. During the 2006 war, Israel shelled most of Hezbollah’s buildings in Dahieh, thereby damaging a large part of the neighborhood and inadvertently transforming Dahieh into a symbol for the Islamic resistance.
“No enemy was ever able to conquer this area” explains Jamal Cheaib, a Lebanese journalist and former fighter who spent here all his life. “Even during the civil war, neither Israel nor the Lebanese Forces (Christian militias who fought Shiite militias) ever made it here, even though the frontline was very close.” Attacks of the past several years — a series of raids led by ISIS and similar groups against Hezbollah’s strongholds in Lebanon – has terrorized locals and motivated Hezbollah to enter Syria to fight and defeat ISIS on the battlefield there.
The same chants of Dahieh can be heard 100 kilometers to the Southeast, outside Damascus. Sayydah Zaynab is a suburb of the Syrian capital that grew around the mausoleum of Zaynab, the granddaughter of Muhammad who is venerated as a saint by Shiites. Even during wartime, thousands of pilgrims travelled here from all over the world to pray — and to fight. At the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011 the mausoleum was targeted by terrorist attacks – all by various factions that wanted to eliminate the Shiite presence from the region.
Following the Lebanese Path
This mobilized thousands of shiite fighters from Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Europe to settle here and protect Zaynab’s grave. These volunteers are under the supervision of Hezbollah, of which some are also members. The presence of the shiite militias has successfully protected their holy site and has deeply altered the local society. Hezbollah continues to strengthen its presence not only as a militia but as an alternative welfare state to that of the Syrian government.
The entrance of the neighborhood is controlled by armed young men wearing the symbols of Hezbollah. The tiny streets and the billowing yellow flags bring to mind Dahieh and the plaintive chants that not only come from the mosques but also from the endless graveyards, where many women, young and old alike, stay to witness the arrival the young fallen soldiers. Many of them were their brothers, their husbands, their fathers or their sons.
Most inhabitants of Sayydah Zaynab were Sunnis before the war, but now almost everyone left here is Shiite. When Hezbollah took the control of this area it facilitated the migration of shiites coming from all over Syria. Even when they represented less than 2% of the total population, they were targeted by the attacks of the rebel factions.
That is what happened to Fadi Hasan, a Syrian citizen loyal to Hezbollah originally from the city of Busra al Sham on the Jordanian border. When the war started his shiite community didn’t immediately take sides. But when the rebels started shooting and denouncing them as non-believers, Fadi and his friends had no choice. They took up arms and started defending their homes and families.
It was a difficult situation. With no training and just a few rifles, they were going to be defeated quickly. In that moment, however, Hezbollah came to the rescue. They sent weapons, medicine and money from Lebanon and started to train young men to fight. Despite these efforts, Busra al Sham was conquered by the rebels in 2015, forcing Shiites to leave. Many of them moved to Sayydah Zaynab, where has Hezbollah provided them with houses, salaries, medical assistance, jobs, welfare and education.
Fadi is among them. Having given up fighting he now works for the “Martyrs of Sayydah Zaynab Foundation”, taking care of the families of the fallen, which is a part of the wide local welfare system. His office is right beside the one of an Iranian bonyad, a network connected with Iranian mullahs that donates apartments, assistance, education and scholarships to locals. The money comes from Iran, and Hezbollah does the local administration.
Hezbollah is successfully penetrating Syrian society around Sayydah Zaynab, much as it still does in Dahieh and in many other areas of Lebanon. This is part of its ideology: it is not only an armed faction but it also believes in the need to build a militant society to resist the attacks of Israel and its proxies.
They began in Lebanon as a militia fighting the “Zionist enemy”. Today they are the strongest parliamentary party in Beirut. In Syria, they are now beginning as a militia and alternative welfare system, in contrast with the rebels, whom they denounce as Israeli proxies. Could Hezbollah become a stable political player in Syria? “We do not know,” says Fadi. “Everything is possible”.
The Syrian war seems to slowly be reaching its end and Assad’s regime may no longer require such a strong military presence of foreign fighters on its soil. But what about the welfare system those foreign fighters have helped establish? Would it also disappear with the retreat of Shiites militias? If so, then the government will remain interested in having Hezbollah on its territory to support its very delicate attempts to mend the deep fractures that the war created inside the Syrian society.
Iranian interests will be very well represented in the Syrian political system and Syria will keep serving as a gateway for Iranian missiles that Hezbollah positions on its border with Israel in Lebanon. Tensions between Israel and its neighbors, therefore, will not diminish anytime soon. “Israel knows what you are doing and where you are doing it,” as Binyamin Netanyahu said to Hezbollah during his last speech in front of the United Nations.
He added that “Hezbollah is deliberately using the innocent people of Beirut as human shields” and showed a map of the exact location where, according to Israeli intelligence, the Shiite movement is positioning nuclear weapons in the southern suburbs of Beirut, between Dahieh and the Palestinian refugee camp of Shatila.
In Lebanon and Syria the social consensus for Hezbollah grows thanks to the religious education, welfare system and and military defenses that it provides and binding both countries to the Iranian interests. And exacerbating tensions with Israel.
Photo: STR / AFP
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