June 21, 2012
by Avi Melamed
While the world continues to witness the ongoing tragedy in Syria, there is another “mini-drama” simultaneously taking place in that country which is significant.
On May 22nd reports began to flow in from different sources that Lebanese Shiite pilgrims returning from Iran had been kidnapped inside Syria.
It seems that the sequence of the events was as follows:
On May 22nd two buses carrying Lebanese men and women entered Syria via the Salama crossing located on the Syrian-Turkish border.
Shortly after crossing into Syrian territory the buses were stopped by a group of armed militants. The gunmen arrested six men on the “Sadr” bus and five men on the “Bader AlKubra” bus and took them to an unknown location.
The rest of the passengers were detained by the kidnappers for a few hours and were then allowed to continue on the buses to the Syrian city of Haleb, located about 35 miles from the crossing. That same night those passengers were flown back to Beirut.
When Hezbollah’s TV station “AlManar” broadcast the news about the incident they interviewed the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, by phone. Nasrallah announced that the Lebanese government is “dealing with the incident” and emphasized that he was working together with the leader of the “Amal” organization (another Lebanese Shiite organization) to release the kidnapped as soon as possible.
A few days after the incident some Arab media outlets reported that the prisoners were expected to be released very soon and the Lebanese Minister of Interior made a formal statement announcing that the men were going to be imminently released. Some reports even stated that the men were already in Turkish territory and on their way back home.
In spite of the fact that the Turkish government denied the information, the good news resulted in scenes of celebration! There was joy and revelry in the streets of AlDahya – Hezbollah’s dominion in Beirut (you can read more about AlDahya in my article “Inside Hezbollah’s Private Dominion”) some families even rushed to Beirut’s airport to welcome the released captives.
But the kidnapped men were not released. The reports were inaccurate. The celebrations were replaced by bitter disappointment and frustration.
As of the writing of this article, none of the kidnapped men have been released and their whereabouts are unknown.
The identity of the kidnappers is unclear. Some reports and analysis would lead us to believe that they are part of the “Syrian Free Army” (or the “rebels” as they are often referred to in the international press) that is fighting Assad’s forces. But a spokesperson for the “Syrian Free Army” formally denies those reports.
On May 31, an unknown entity calling itself the “Syrian Rebels – Haleb Region” claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. The group announced that they would release the hostages after Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, publicly and formally apologizes for his support of the Assad regime.
Nasrallah replied via a televised broadcast in which he told the kidnappers that they had three options: “War, Peace or Love.” He urged the captors not to mix the events in Syria with the issue of the kidnapped men.
On June 9, the AlJazeera TV News Network published a short video of the 11 prisoners. This was the first sign of life from them since they had been abducted. The men briefly introduced themselves and declared that they were well and were being treated fairly. In fact, they described themselves not as a “Kidnapped” but rather as “Guests.” During the video one of the “guests” condemned the massacre in the Syrian town of Houla and expressed his support for the struggle of the Syrian people against Assad’s regime.
The video ends with a short written message by the captors. In this message they added a new condition for releasing the men: In addition to demanding that Nasrallah apologize, they announced that their “guests” (that is the term used by the kidnappers in the announcement) would be released when a civil state is established in Syria so that the prisoners could be tried in a court of law presided over by a new democratic Parliament. Given the current conditions in Syria, added the kidnappers in their announcement, it is possible that the “guests” may be handed over to one of Syria’s neighbors (it is not clear who they are referring to).
Even though the affiliation of the kidnappers is still unclear, there was a report published on June 18th that the commander of the kidnappers was injured and his deputy was killed following a bombardment by Assad’s forces next to the Turkish – Syrian border.
What do we know about the kidnapped?
Formal Lebanese spokespeople, including Nasrallah himself, refer to the kidnapped as “Lebanese Shiite Pilgrims.”
However, as time goes by, it seems more likely that the prisoners are in fact significant senior military and intelligence officials within Hezbollah.
Reliable information from a variety of sources indicates that at least four of the men are conclusively senior Hezbollah military and intelligence personnel.
The four that have been positively identified are:
Hasan Arzuni: Hezbollah’s Senior Intelligence Official in South Lebanon
Hasan Mahmud: Hezbollah Senior Weapons and Ammunition Official
Abbas Shueib: Head of Hezbollah’s Military Training Division
Ali Hussein Zreib: A member of Hezbollah’s Jihad Council
In addition, according to information supplied by various sources, but not yet conclusively verified, one of the kidnapped is a person named Ali Safa, the nephew of Hassan Nasrallah. One of the sources reported that Ali Safa was trying to escape by being disguised as a woman during the takeover of the bus. It’s possible that that piece of information refers to one of the captives, who on the video introduced himself as Ali Husein Abbas.
Hezbollah’s practical support of the Assad regime in oppressing the uprising in Syria is no longer a secret (you can read more about Hezbollah’s support for Assad in my article “Is War in the Middle East Inevitable?”). Therefore, one can safely assume that these senior Hezbollah people were not innocent pilgrims. They were on a mission to Iran, the goal of which was most likely to coordinate the joint operations of the Assad regime and its major allies – Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
In an interview aired by the Arab TV Network Aljadid, both the reporter and the relatives of Abbas Shueib and Hasan Mahmud, denied the two have any connection with Hezbollah.
A commander from inside the “Free Officers Group” (one of the rebel groups in Syria) announced that five of the kidnapped have already admitted that they are members of Hezbollah, and that they had surveillance devices in their possession when they were arrested.
Reports indicate that Turkey, and perhaps Iran and Qatar, are involved in a diplomatic effort to end the case. Yet, as of now, none of the men have been released. Moreover, it seems that the Turkish mediator is not optimistic regarding the chances for a positive and speedy resolution. He was quoted as saying “The kidnappers realize that they have a valuable asset in their hands and they will not give it up.”
No one knows how and when this will end. But one thing is very clear. This incident, for a number of reasons, puts Hezbollah and its leader in a very embarrassing situation:
The kidnapping of Hezbollah senior personnel is a massive blow to the organization.
The circumstances of the incident indicate the possibility that the kidnappers had accurate intelligence, in advance, regarding the identity of the passengers on the buses. If that is the case, it supports other reports that foreign intelligence agencies have deeply infiltrated the ranks of Hezbollah.
Though the kidnapped claim they are being treated fairly, one can assume they are undergoing grueling interrogations and are disclosing valuable information about Hezbollah.
This event takes place at the same time that Hezbollah is facing growing difficulties in Lebanon and throughout the region.
The abduction negatively impacts Nasrallah’s status and image in Lebanon, especially among his political base – the Shiites.
Nasrallah is still the unquestionable leader of Hezbollah – for now. But as time goes by, the families of the kidnapped are losing their patience. Reportedly, angry relatives of the men being held blocked the road to the Beirut airport and stoned a Hezbollah convoy. Hezbollah gunmen, according to one report, opened fire in order to disperse the protestors.
Reports indicate that the growing challenges Hezbollah is facing inside Lebanon, throughout the region, and on the international stage are generating increasing unrest and criticism towards Nasrallah’s leadership.
Reports also indicate there is a growing power struggle among different groups within Hezbollah. The kidnapping could potentially escalate and intensify the inner struggles and create major turbulence within the organization.
This incident is yet another mile stone in the rapid deterioration of Hezbollah and its leader’s image in the Arab world. That process has intensified over the last year due to Hezbollah’s support of the Assad regime. (In my article “Inside Hezbollah’s Private Dominion” I analyze the reasons that have led to the fact that in 2012 the Arab world by large loathes Hezbollah and its leader Nasrallah.) A clear manifestation of that hatred was made by the Tunisian president in a formal interview he gave recently in which he said that Hezbollah and Nasrallah are finished in the Arab world
In the eyes of the Arab world the kidnapped men are part of a murderous system which butchers innocent Syrians. It is no wonder then that many Arabs do not consider them as “kidnapped” but rather as “war criminals” who must face justice. Many Arabs simply demand they be executed.
The kidnapping incident, coupled with the fact that the kidnapped have not yet been released, may endanger Nasrallah’s leadership because it is putting him in a place he has never been before. Nasrallah is being publicly humiliated. It is important to understand why that point is meaningful.
Nasrallah loved to use the weapon of kidnapping and extortion – and he was good at it. He proved himself a sophisticated, manipulative, cynical operator and he played his cards well. Nasrallah always took pride in the fact that by using the weapon of kidnapping he was able to force Israel to release Lebanese imprisoned in Israeli jails. He was so skillful and confident in his abilities that he presented himself as the leader who will free not only Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails but will also free Palestinians imprisoned in Israeli jails.
Moreover, his use of kidnapping and extortion – mostly against Israel – resulted in enormous political dividends for him throughout the Arab world. Kidnapping Israeli soldiers and civilians made Hassan Nasrallah an icon in the Arab world – he was the leader who brought Israel to its knees time and again and his actions restored the lost Arab pride.
Now the tables are turned and he’s not used to this. Nasrallah, the serial kidnaper, the one who always made the demands and set the terms, is now on the other side and he’s being publicly humiliated on two fronts. The abductors are demanding a public apology and they are laying down the terms for the release of his people.
Hassan Nasrallah is getting a taste of his own bitter medicine. The incident is a humiliating slap in his face; he looks helpless, unable to release his own people – dependent upon the good will of mediators and is suffering yet another step in the process of his deteriorating image in the Arab world.
But, Nasrallah is a master of manipulation. He could very well reinvent the incident in a way that could restore his declining image. That depends on two things: How and when this case comes to an end….