Hassan Nasrallah on Syria

On Syria's 11th Friday of protest, dedicated to the spirit of the great Syrian hero Youssef al-Azmeh – who stood in Maysalun with his small band of patriotic soldiers and defied the huge might of France's colonial army, preferring death to servitude – I think of all the brave men and women in my country who are having a Maysalun moment once again. 

More than 10,000 of them are being held in horrific conditions in Assad's jails, where they are subjected to the most brutal torture and humiliation; thousands are unaccounted for, rounded up by Assad's goons and Shabbiha gangs. A thousand more have been murdered in cold blood by this cruel but dying regime.

Tens of thousands of Syrians are under siege in their own villages, towns and cities, as the regime attempts to starve them into submission, by cutting off their food, water, electricity and medical supplies. Their martyrs lie uncollected in the street, because the regime's snipers shoot those who attempt to bury them – as though Syria had turned into an ancient Greek tragedy, rather than a country. Young men who attempt valiantly to smuggle some tinned food into besieged towns have their brains blown out by Assad's security thugs, who film themselves laughing and pointing at the bloody mess they have so criminally made, calling it "the brains of traitors".

There are sinister similarities here with what many of us lived through during the Israeli siege of Beirut in 1982, which left an entire civilian population in extreme duress – starved of the most basic necessities -- and subject to artillery, tank and sniper fire. 17,000 Lebanese and Palestinians died as a result of that Israeli invasion and occupation, which only ended 11 years ago. The tragic consequences for Lebanon are with us still.

The Israelis were finally sent packing – their military operation a failure – by the Lebanese resistance, and its Shi'a fighters in particular. To commemorate that victory over far greater military odds, the chairman of Hizbullah, Hassan Nasrallah gave his usual annual speech on 25 May, in the Bekaa Valley this time.

As ever, it took on the mythic pageantry of a Passion Play. Nasrallah began by urging his many listeners to suffer the few hours of their wait in the burning sun to hear him, as a way of sharing the burning experience of all those who suffered and sacrificed so greatly to bring this occasion about.

He then broke his long, long silence on the popular intifada in Syria, only to side totally and categorically with the killers in the Syrian regime. As a Syrian watching this, who knows what great popularity Nasrallah once enjoyed in her country, where photos of him were on display everywhere – making his the only face ever allowed to be added to the Assad iconography of Father, Son and Holy Ghost – or Hafiz, Bashar and the departed Basil – so depravedly and cynically modelled on Christian religious belief. I felt viscerally that something had shifted irrevocably as the chairman uttered his unfortunate words. No wonder that his image was torched almost at once after this speech in Deraa and Muaddamiyya and Homs and Hama and Bou Kamal and other centres of our intifada.

For in the past bitter weeks, we Syrians have patiently suffered colossal losses and privations and injustices. We have been alone, so very alone, as the world closed ranks against our cry for freedom and dignity. Israel and Iran, the two Cyclopses fighting it out in our area, both feared the fall of the house of Assad, and in their different ways, worked to succour the regime. 

Certainly in the first few weeks, Qatar kept its Aljazeera network silent against Assad's barbaric crimes, for reasons still unclear, when it had striven to give us every exhilarating detail of the great uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. 

Turkey desperately kept seeking to convince us– and itself – of Bashar's prowess as a reformer, despite all the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. 

The United States and Britain did the same, with Hillary Clinton and William Hague uttering mealy-mouthed support for Assad, to give him and themselves wriggling room. 

All the neo-Orientalists and "specialists" on Syria – those I have denounced as the "Shabbiha of the pen" – added their strident voices to bolster up the infernal machine of Syrian official propaganda. We Syrians expected this of all of these, but retained a dim hope that Nasrallah – who had taken such a long time to utter concerning our country and its suffering people, though he had been more than eloquent in his insistent support for the intifada in Bahrain, would support our peaceful and long overdue protest too. We say to him that we too support our Bahraini brothers and sisters, and not because we Syrians might be Shia or Sunni, but simply because we are human beings, who hate injustice and oppression wherever they might occur, having been the recipients of them for 41 years.

We who blanched at the suffering of the detainees in the Ansar concentration camp in the south of Lebanon, cannot understand how Chairman Nasrallah might think that the suffering of our own political prisoners – being held in at least the same inhuman conditions as those in which the Israelis held Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners – is somehow less important. 

Is a torturer morally different if he is Israeli or Arab, Jewish or Muslim, Shi'a or Sunni? Is the rotten food that is presently being thrown at our incarcerated men and women, that no hungry dog would touch, suddenly become ambrosia because it is dished out by the "steadfast regime" of Bashar al-Assad, that great fighter of Israel? Who failed to even so much as squeak when Israeli planes were bombing our interior, and circling merrily above his own kitsch palace? Who, as he crushes his countrymen and women so brutally and foolishly, runs crying to the Americans to help him re-open negotiations for peace with Israel at any price, unleashing his financial Rottweiler, Rami Makhluf, to scaremonger among American supporters of Israel in the Wall Street Journal? Is this the"dawlat al-mumana'a" that chairman Nasrallah urges us to preserve at any cost?

Hassan Nasrallah eventually moved on from praising Assad's regime to threaten anyone – either within Lebanon or outside of it – who might think to seek to confiscate Hizbullah's missiles. We say to him in all politeness that this matter is an internal Lebanese affair, that concerns no one but the Lebanese government, which his party is very much a part of. 

But we the Syrian people – who he dismisses so contemptuously as being non-existent ("Show us this Syrian people, so we can side with them!" he sneers) do really wish that someone could confiscate his bombastic oratorical missiles, which he has seen fit to deploy against us so savagely, not even thinking that our many, many fallen martyrs might at the very least deserve his prayers for their departed souls.

I write in disappointment, not in anger. Chairman Nasrallah would have done much better to stay silent on Syria, to preserve some shred of his once great reputation as a defender of the oppressed and occupied. But heroes are only human, and the higher they are held up, the more dramatic is their fall from grace. Sooner or later, their clay feet emerge from under their robes, as the Classical dramatists of Ancient Greece described so vividly and so universally in their tragedies.

Posted by Rana Kabbani, 29 May 2011.