Hezbollah's Syrian Adventure

As Sunni jihadists battle it out with Shiite militias in Lebanon and Syria, the region lurches closer to all-out war.

BEIRUT—I first noticed a disturbing trend developing in Lebanon about six weeks ago, while working on a story about Sunni militiamen battling pro-Assad militants in the northern city of Tripoli. Gunmen were starting to be candid with me.

I'd spent the day with Sunni fighters organized around a small conservative mosque near the frontline neighborhood of Bab al-Tabanneh -- guys I've known for about a year. I'd received a tip from an al Qaeda-linked cleric that these guys were transforming into a jihadist outfit, and I wanted to talk to them about it.

The new black flags around the mosque were a dead giveaway that the cleric's information was good. The group was still friendly, lacking the uptight creepiness that often accompanies the most extreme Sunni groups -- they showed me the new weapons they'd bought with money sent by sheikhs in Saudi Arabia, and openly admitted that they considered themselves part of the Syrian revolution. But now they were completely honest about the extent of their goals, and who their enemies truly were.

"We don't distinguish between Syria and Lebanon anymore," Hajj Mohammed, the youthful militant leader told me. "We live under Shiite occupation just like the Syrians, and now are a finger in the fist of this jihad against Iran and their Zionist dog, Bashar [al-Assad]."

It doesn't get much more blunt than that. But the meeting was about to take an even more interesting turn.

"This kid is from Syria. We found him on the street -- he's a refugee from Aleppo and has no money. He's trying to get to his family in Beirut," the commander said. "Can you guys give him a ride to Beirut?"

I'm not in the business of providing logistical support to fighters in any conflict, but the kid seemed harmless and was clearly broke and exhausted. We agreed to help him to get to Beirut -- if only to chat up a firsthand source who had just fled the fighting. In the car, I asked him what he did in Syria before he fled.

"I'm a fighter for Jabhat al-Nusra," he said in such a casual way it almost didn't register, referring to the al Qaeda affiliate that has been branded a terror organization by the U.S. government. My Shiite driver almost swerved off the road.

Our young passenger nonchalantly explained how he came to join the radical Islamist outfit. He detailed how at his 18th birthday last year he approached his cousin, who commands a unit of Jabhat al-Nusra fighters in their home area, and asked to join. He fought through the summer and winter before having an argument with his commander, which caused him to quit and flee to Lebanon.

"I just found out that my cousin was killed three days ago," he said emotionlessly. "Now I feel like I need to go back."

My Shiite friend gently suggested to the lad that perhaps he shouldn't be quite so candid with strangers in Beirut about being a member of a group that has been demonized by about a million Shiite residents of southern Lebanon. But the kid just shrugged and looked out the window. It seemed he had been fighting for so long -- and seen so much death -- that he couldn't be bothered to lie.

Our young passenger wasn't an outlier -- many Lebanese and Syrians seem to have simply tired of trying to hide who they are and what they believe. And it's not only Sunnis: Hezbollah has also thrown its full weight behind Assad in recent weeks. The self-described Party of God has recently launched an offensive on the western city of Qusayr, just a few miles from the Lebanon border, to help the Syrian army wrest it back from the rebels.

This battle has been a long time in coming. Syrian rebels took the city last summer, in the process gaining control of the highway linking Damascus and the Alawite communities along the Syrian coast still loyal to Assad. Hezbollah soon realized that the rebel seizure of Qusayr could also cause fighting to spill over into areas of the northern Beqaa Valley in Lebanon, populated by its Shiite supporters. The escalation began as Shiite villages just across the border in Syria formed self-defense committees -- composed of thinly disguised Hezbollah fighters -- to protect the area from the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), and began fighting for strategic high ground in the area.

Hezbollah's involvement in Syria has expanded beyond that small region, and the Lebanese paramilitary group is now waging Assad's war for him across Syria. Its intervention has prompted a furious reaction from Lebanese and Syrian supporters of the rebellion: Rockets have begun falling into Lebanon from Syria, aimed at Shiite areas the FSA is convinced provide military support for Hezbollah's activities inside Syria. Rockets have begun to fall in the border region of Hermel on a daily basis, and on May 26 two rockets hit the Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs of Beirut -- in an ironic twist, injuring only Syrian guest workers.

Victory hasn't come easily for Hezbollah in Qusayr. In the first days of the operation, scores of funerals were held in Shiite villages throughout Lebanon, puncturing the veil of secrecy that normally shrouds the party's operations. It became clear Hezbollah's rank-and-file wanted the world to know about their sacrifice: Western journalists could merely wait in northern Beqaa for tell-tale ambulances to come across the border, follow them to a village, and be welcomed by the families, for the most part, at the funeral. The number of dead was stunning for a group that had developed a near mythical reputation for competence and secrecy.

Hezbollah hasn't forgotten how to fight a war, but they are up against a determined rival armed with a superior knowledge of the battleground. Before the assault, commanders of the FSA's Farouk Brigades, which are involved in the defense of Qusayr, told me via Internet chat that Hezbollah's initial assaults on the area had completely isolated the Qusayr garrison.

"We've told them that no more help or men are coming, that they've had a year to prepare and that there were no lines of retreat," one commander told me. "If the regime and Hezbollah send enough men, they will probably take the city from us. So we told the brothers inside that they had to fight to the death. They responded 'Allahu Akbar.'"

But Hezbollah's success in cutting off any chance of retreat also means that they have forced their enemies to carry out that threat. It can be a dangerous position for any aggressor: After a year of preparing for a push to retake the city, a bunch of tough men with nothing to lose aren't going to give up. The house-to-house nature of the struggle and the rebels' home field advantage also make this close to the worst-case scenario for Hezbollah.

It shows. By the third day, as it became clear Assad's offensive to retake the city was going to be harder than anticipated, I called a Hezbollah commander to see what I could learn.

This commander too had suddenly become shockingly honest. He said he was too busy with internal security operations to meet -- most of the 300 men he commands in Beirut had been sent that morning into Syria as reinforcements to help the effort -- but he'd answer some questions by phone. I was stunned: This source rarely tells me anything useful, and never by phone. Yet in a minute, he admitted his men were on their way to the fight and was now willing to answer questions on an open line.

I told him media reports were claiming that at least 70 Hezbollah fighters were killed and 100 wounded in the first few days of fighting. He paused.

"At least," he said eventually, before adding that although the fight was harder than anticipated, things were progressing as planned -- just slower and at a higher price. "They've learned a lot and have prepared well to fight. They've studied our tactics," he added.

But Hezbollah's problems are not contained to Qusayr. The party's assault on the beleaguered city was the final straw for some of Lebanon's Sunnis, who have long resented the Shiite movement's sway over the country's political scene. Within days, the worst fighting in years wracked Lebanon's flashpoint city of Tripoli killing nearly 30 people and wounding more than 100.

One Islamist commander, while taking a break from fighting in his Tripoli neighborhood, told me last week that there were roughly 70 Lebanese Sunni fighters in Qusayr. His group had sent another 20 men in an attempt to support the city, but they couldn't break Hezbollah's lines, so returned to continue the battle in north Lebanon. "As long as Qusayr is surrounded, Jabal Mohsen will be surrounded," he said, referring to the Tripoli neighborhood dominated by Alawite supporters of Assad.

We were speaking while a group of mainstream Sunni politicians were meeting in a nearby mosque to attempt to broker a ceasefire between the city's warring residents. By the time I returned home that night, however, another commander had sent me a text to explain the talks had fallen apart.

What we were witnessing was more than the collapse of one particular deal -- as the fighting in Tripoli enters its second week, ceasefire after ceasefire has failed. It was the end of Lebanon's political leaders' ability to control the angry, well-armed men on the streets.

"[Lebanon's Sunni elite] used to give us money to fight or to stop fighting depending on their needs in politics. But now with Syria like this, the army attacking us here, what good is the government at all?" the commander wrote. "We will make our own decisions now as Sunnis and Lebanese."

Once again, an honest answer. That's what worries me.



Political Idol

A new reality television competition is booming in Beirut and Ramallah: democratic politics.

BEIRUT — When reality shows such as Arab Idol and Star Academy first hit the Middle East, an influential Saudi sheikh denounced them as "weapons of mass destruction that kill values and virtue." It wasn't just the shows' less-than-conservative social mores, the short skirts, or the racy lyrics -- the specter of democracy in their voting processes made authoritarian rulers nervous. Yet as political change sweeps the region, a new subset of the genre is being born: political reality TV.

The two places where the format is being pioneered -- Lebanon and Palestine -- are particularly in need of a political spark. Lebanon's elections, scheduled for June, are likely to be postponed due to wrangling over an electoral law and the ongoing war in neighboring Syria. Palestinians, meanwhile, haven't had presidential elections since 2005, due to the conflict between Hamas and Fatah. But now broadcasters are offering wannabe politicians a viable path to a political career -- on air, at least. 

The Lebanese show is called Al-Zaim ("The Leader") -- a word synonymous with tribal and political chieftains whose legitimacy stems from patronage networks rather than merit. The program's goal was to undermine these omnipresent figures by empowering the audience to choose a leader free from gerrymandered districts and religious affiliation. Local broadcaster al-Jadeed TV promised to fund the winner's political campaign as an independent candidate in the upcoming elections.

Over the course of 10 weeks, contestants had to fulfill several challenges, ranging from scrutinizing the effectiveness of municipalities and working with officials to implement a project to organizing demonstrations to negotiating a settlement between two clashing factions. There was no lack of drama -- at one point, contestants were chased by men with knives as they tried to bring together supporters of Lebanon's rival political groupings. Another episode saw contestants face off against angry armed gunmen in the streets of the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli.

"The main target was getting the contestants to go through challenges that many politicians never go through," explains Mazen Laham, the show's producer. Contestants received feedback from judges drawn from the worlds of business, politics, and media. But it was the Lebanese viewing public who then decided who should stay and who should go. The final five weeks of the show, once the pool of contestants had been whittled down, saw the challengers develop into full-fledged independent candidates, complete with electoral platforms that addressed Lebanon's most pressing issues.

The finale of Al-Zaim opened with dancers wearing Guy Fawkes masks -- adopted by young revolutionaries across the world. They are symbolic for what the show tried to achieve, says producer Laham. "It's all about revolution and for young people to be part of the parliament."

There's good reason a youth movement would gain traction among the Lebanese public. The average age of Lebanon's main political leaders hovers around 70, while the average age of the Lebanese population is 30. Even the young faces are representatives of old political dynasties: Nadim Gemayel, the second youngest deputy in Parliament at 31, is the son of former Lebanese President Bashir Gemayel and the grandson of Pierre Gemayel, who founded one of the country's most prominent Christian parties. The first paragraph of his biography proudly trumpets his family's credentials rather than his own accomplishments.

Al-Zaim is trying to break this political mold, offering those without family connections a chance to succeed in Lebanese politics. And yet the 15 contestants chosen for the show, in a concession to Lebanon's political reality, were largely representative of the country's sectarian composition. This was to accommodate viewers' sensitivities, said Karma Khayat, head of political programming at Al-Jadeed TV.

There was no lack of enthusiasm. More than 1,200 people applied to be on air and the ratings were very high for a political show, said Khayat. The program created quite a buzz, both at home and abroad. "Everywhere we went people were talking about it," she says.

In the end, it was unemployed development economics graduate Maya Terro who triumphed, winning the votes of the judges and the public, who texted in and cast ballots online. The 27-year-old had thought of running for office before, but didn't think it would be financially possible. It costs 8 million Lebanese pounds ($5,333) just to register as a candidate. "And then there's the campaign, which will cost millions," she explains. Terro, who hails from a mixed Christian-Muslim marriage, plans to focus her upcoming real campaign on secularism and she's crafted a catchy election slogan focusing on change and personal responsibility.

In a surprise twist during the show's May 7 finale, the judges announced that they would also fund the runner-up, Nicolas Harouny. Like many current politicians, Harouny -- a former member of the Lebanese Forces, a Christian militia active during the 15-year civil war and a current political party -- alluded often to this martial past, and included compulsory etiquette lessons in Lebanese schools in his 10-point electoral platform.

Terro, on the other hand, is the antithesis to traditional politics. Sporting a head full of curls, rather than a sleek Lebanese style, her speeches were peppered with dialect and slang. Rather than blame politicians for the failings of the Lebanese state, she turned the tables on viewers. "It's you, me, everyone else, sitting on their ass and cursing the government," she recalls. "Aren't you the one who voted for them?"

It worked. Terro went on to claim victory in the show's final round with 65 percent of the vote. She attributed her victory largely to the lack of a youth voice in politics. "Nobody represents us," she says. 

* * * 

In Palestine, too, reality TV is offering youth a platform to speak out. In a similar program called al-Rais ("The President"), all of the contestants are below the age of 35. "We wanted a program that would teach youth how to be political leaders and let them be part of political life," explains Raed Othman, the director of the independent Ma'an network, which broadcasts the show in the West Bank. (Contestants from the Gaza Strip participate via a video link.)

Like with al-Zaim, contestants are grilled by a panel of judges and challenged to complete tasks meant to shed light on their ability to handle high office. Last week, for example, the contestants had to officially greet a visiting president during a mock state visit, and were judged on their knowledge of protocol and etiquette. Suddenly, the contestants were subjected to a staged assassination attempt. While gunshots rang out, the key to completing the challenge was to display steady nerves. "If you are a president you have to act very calm and confident," says Waad el Fararjeh, the youngest contestant on the show at 21.

"We haven't had elections for 8 years," explains Othman, when asked why he made al-Rais. Now, viewers can vote every week in front of their TV sets until a winner is chosen at the end of June. The winnings are more modest than in Lebanon -- the victor will win a car, and be named as a youth ambassador for Palestine.

Bashar Farashat, who works for the European Union on youth issues, is one of the eight contestants still in the running. Entering Palestinian politics is near impossible, he claims, without joining Fatah or Hamas, the two main political parties in Palestine.

But emboldened by the show, he has started a new political party -- the Youth Party -- which advocates a two-state solution. "All of our political leaders are over the age of 50, there is nothing good for the youth in Palestine," he exclaims. "And as the youth, we form more than 60 percent of the population!"

Farashat's support for the two-state solution is shared by most of the candidates on the show -- a stark contrast to the 61 percent of Palestinians surveyed by Pew recently who say it would be impossible for a Palestinian state to co-exist with Israel. But Othman says the program is attempting to harness the political ideals of the future. "Through this program, we will start to read the Palestinian street for the next 10 years," he says.

Part of that new generation feels that there should be a greater role for women in politics. "I am trying to be a feminist, I want to change the view for women," says Fararjeh, the last remaining female contestant. "I want to say to everybody that even though we are women we are not less than men, we have abilities. We have minds, we think."

Both shows include women as judges. Lebanon's Al-Zaim actively promoted a role for women -- almost half of its original 15 contestants were female. "We wanted to show that women also can be part of the parliament, and to break this mentality that women can't be a leader," says producer Laham.

Terro also wants to show Lebanese voters that women have valuable contributions to make in Lebanon. She will actively be courting the youth and female vote during her campaign. It remains unclear whether the polls will open on the scheduled date of June 16, but if elected Terro will join a small but illustrious group: Currently, only four of Lebanon's 128 MPs are women, and all of them hail from political dynasties.

But some believe that rather than empowering women, al-Zaim used sex appeal to boost its ratings. The Lebanese program courted controversy by selecting singer Myriam Klink as one of its contestants. Khayyat, however, defends Klink -- best known for her curves and her hit single "Anter," about her pet pussy cat -- saying that she fit the show's criteria for leadership, and blames criticism on the same stereotypes the show is trying to break. (Not that it matters: Klink pulled out of the contest early, live on-air.)

Still, critics aren't so quick to label the show a revolution. Jad Melki, an assistant professor of media studies at the American University of Beirut, argues that while the show "brings some degree of intelligent discussion," it is trafficking in cheap thrills rather than political ideas. He worries that the shows will inevitably succumb to the baser instincts of reality television: choosing candidates on looks rather than political prowess. "It's really a cash cow for TV," Melki says of Al-Zaim.

Khayyat says that the show's aim in its first season was simply to break even. "The cost of the program is quite high, especially since it's a political show. Politics usually scares away sponsors," she says.

Nevertheless, some contestants are turning eyeballs into political clout. Four of al-Zaim's contestants have announced they, too, will run in Lebanon's next parliamentary elections. Farashat, meanwhile, says his youth party has received 3,000 emails from young Palestinians who are willing to volunteer. The candidates have been flooded with job offers, and any political party will be happy to field them as a candidate, predicts Othman. "They are stars," he says simply.

Both shows are planning to take their format across the border. Al-Zaim's Laham is currently in talks with both a production company and a TV station in Egypt, and thinks the program could work in Europe and the United States as well. Ma'an's Othman is exploring options to take the format to South America.

Both shows are scheduled to start their second season next year -- and Othman says interest in al-Rais is off the charts. "Thousands have applied already," he boasts.

Yet without elections to run in, the political empowerment remains confined to TV screens. And there's a long way to go before the real world mirrors that virtual reality, says Melki.  "It's not going to change politics unless we get tons and tons of programs and activities and a real electoral law that does not aim to preserve the status quo," he argues. "Then we can start talking about change and youth getting their voices in the parliament, not just on TV."

Facebook/Myriam Klink