Is brutality just good propaganda for Hizbollah?
If there has been one constant in the Syrian crisis, it is the brutality demonstrated on all parts of the ideological and political spectrum. The latest group called out for heinous activities in Syria is Hizbollah, Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Shia Islamist group, a key ally of the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad.
Rebel groups, activists and Syrian refugees say that Hizbollah and its allied Iraqi Shia militias have engaged in widespread abuses in Syria, including massacres.
Some refugees have alleged that fighters from Hizbollah and other Shia combatants have committed rapes.
Until recently, however, there was little to no hard data to back up many of these claims. Some observers believed that Hizbollah’s military professionalism, greater than that of its more brutish counterparts in the Syrian army and allied militias, puts Hizbollah fighters above egregious human rights abuses.
But a tape purporting to show Hizbollah fighters executing wounded Syrians may offer a countervailing viewpoint, and show just how sadistic and sectarian Syria has become.
First posted on YouTube by the NewLebanon.info news site, the film in question is under two minutes long. Pro-Hizbollah critics of the tape contend that the clip uses edited audio, that the fighters in question do not belong to Hizbollah and that the uniforms the men wear do not match Hizbollah regular issue.
The clip’s defenders, however, claim the fighters’ clothing, yellow and green ribbons and headbands are definitive proof that the rifle- wielding men on the tape are Hizbollah. However, both narratives have holes in them.
Green and yellow ribbons and headbands are nothing new on the Syrian battlefield. Positive identifications require more than uniforms and accoutrements. Syria’s Republican Guard has worn ribbons of yellow, green, pink and red, and so have a multitude of Shia Islamlist militias backed by Iran and filled with “foreign fighters”. So have Ba’ath Party militias, Hizbollah and Syria’s National Defense Forces.
The woodland-pattern type of camouflage clothing the men wear does match types used by Hizbollah and its allied militias, but this is not enough to prove Hizbollah involvement.
The real heart of the tape, which offers more solid confirmation, comes from the audio recordings of the fighters’ conversations. One phrase, “fi sabil Allah” – meaning “In the path of Allah” – is shouted numerous times.
This phrase is used by Sunni and Shia jihadists alike, but is a popular slogan for Hizbollah, which uses it in everything from musical recruiting videos to martyrdom announcements.
A prominent bit of the film’s commentary, demonstrating a Hizbollah link, is a statement made by a fighter named “Hajj” when one of his teammates kicks a man on the ground. Hajj says: “We are performing our taklif and we are not seeking personal vengeance.”
“Taklif”, short for taklif al-sharii, is a key underlining principle in the ideology, linked to the Iranian revolution, known as wilayat al-faqih (the Absolute Guardianship of a Shia Islamic jurist). Taklif al-sharii allows the lead jurist, in this case Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, to issue a religious obligation that his followers must obey. The fighter’s statement was made more damning by the fact that he said it in the Lebanese style of Arabic.
In a column for the Arabic daily Asharq Al Awsat, journalist Diana Moukalled asked why Hizbollah has not responded to the charges that its fighters were filmed executing these prisoners.
She made note of a film taken at the end of the battle of Qusayr, last June, when Hizbollah was filmed raising a Shia banner over a Sunni mosque.
Hizbollah immediately argued, via its Al Manar media outlet, that this film was part of a plot to make the group appear sectarian. Reaction was muted.
But this new film’s contents have wounded Hizbollah’s carefully structured image, and the wound has started to fester.
But while Hizbollah’s silence on the issue has led to many questions, it may also serve another strategy: Hizbollah and its allied Shia groups have increasingly been using photos and videos of killed or injured Syrian rebels for propaganda purposes.
A number of Hizbollah’s allies, including Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Kata’ib Hizbollah and their Syria-based front militias, have all published numerous gory images and films on their Facebook and YouTube pages.
On one occasion “Hahahahahaha” was posted with a photo of a rebel fighter with fatal injuries to the torso.
In other cases, mounds of blood-soaked and bullet-pocked dead rebels, piled in a desert, are referred to as “crushed rats”.
The goal behind posts such as these is to promote a message demonstrating how the “Islamic Resistance” – a term used by all Iranian-backed Shia Islamist allies – is consistently merciless in punishing the rebels. The brutal carnage depicted helps Hizbollah and its allies convey that in an increasingly ruthless war, they have no problem with viciously destroying their foes.
As the war for Syria drags on, it should come as no surprise to onlookers that even the best-trained and best-equipped forces can act ferociously.
For the Shia Islamist fighters of Hizbollah, the Syrian civil war is not simply a war of survival or about the continuance of their ideology.
They believe their orders come from a higher authority, and so may increasingly be obeyed via the extremes of violence that are now commonplace in Syria.
Phillip Smyth is a researcher at the University of Maryland. He focuses on Lebanon and Syria and specialises in Shia militias in Syria