Nasrallah, Sectarianism, Syria -- and How to Understand It All

05/01/2013 03:16 pm ET | Updated Jul 01, 2013

Hassan Nasrallah, the General Secretary of the Hezbollah terror organization in Lebanon, is a self-styled hero. He credits himself with a "win" over Israel in the summer of 2006 conflict between Israel and his army. He publicly admitted that, had he known the results of the conflict, he would not have started it. He is not seen in public -- he is always hiding somewhere, in Beirut or elsewhere -- so he is the first leader in modern history who claims victory from the depth of his bunker. Adolph Hitler, as we all know, was hiding in a bunker, but there he perished. Nasrallah still promotes his own personality cult from the depth of his bunker, but in his case, the self-promoted legend is unraveling while he is still alive, and trying to kick as well.

The bearded sheikh is one of the victims of the Arab Spring. Instead of siding with the clamor for democracy which engulfed the Arab world, he chose to simply be what he has always been -- a sectarian figure, a Shi'ite leader in the service of Iran and Bashar Assad. The Shi'ite leader was suspected of being exactly that for a long time, thus losing a lot of popularity points in Lebanon, where, for a while, he was portrayed as a national hero for his standing up to Israel in 2006.

The Syrian civil war was the occasion in which the façade became simply impossible, and the sheikh, obeying the orders of his Iranian masters, started sending his well-trained and equipped soldiers to Syria to come to the help of the besieged Bashar Assad. Not a popular cause in Lebanon, not in the rest of the Middle East, and not even among the Sh'iites of Lebanon, until very recently, the very loyal troopers of the sheikh. Things are going poorly for the sheikh and his masters. His army bleeds heavily, particularly in the Homs area, where it is engaged in heavy fighting with the Syrian Sunni rebels. According to Sheikh Subhi Tufayli, formerly no. 2 in Hezbollah, and now an implacable foe of Nasrallah, Hezbollah casualties are well over 100, not a small number for an army of thousands.

Clearly, the number keeps mounting, and in South Lebanon, the Sh'iite hinterland, it is a common sight to see convoys of Hezbollah ambulances bringing the bodies of "shahids" to burial. Bad news to Nasrallah, so, in his time of predicament, he turns to the old game of "blame Israel," but to no avail. Very few people in Lebanon, as well as in the rest of the Arab world, buy this old, tirelessly-used commodity.

Why blame Israel, they ask, when even Bashar Assad does not do that? So, the sheikh went a step further, inflaming tension with Israel, by initiating provocative actions at a time when the Israelis are on their guard to prevent the transfer of chemical weapons to his irresponsible hands.

But yesterday, the "heroic," hiding sheikh, no more the current-day incarnation of Abu Ali, the mythological Arab folk hero, said the truth, perhaps for the first time in many years. He referred to the takeover of Zainab tomb in Damascus and its partial desecration by the Sunni rebels, and warned [whom exactly?] of "grave consequences."

This is where the loyal readers of this blog deserve an explanation. Zainab was the granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad, and was one of the few survivors of the massacre of Imam Hussein in 680 A.D, a cataclysmic event which is considered the beginning of the Sh'iite-Sunni split. Zainab was buried in Damascus, and her tomb became a site of Sh'iite pilgrimage. Many Iranian pilgrims flocked to Damascus since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, as part of the Syrian-Iranian alliance. The poor Syrians were happy to get the tourists, the zealot Iranians to fulfill a religious commandment and all was rosy and cozy. But no more, and finally the Sh'iite Sheikh, Hassan Nasrallah, said it all openly and clearly. I am Sh'iite first and foremost, and I defend Sh'iite honor in Damascus.

Something else is needed in place here, so that we get the entire context. I bet that very few in the west were informed today about that part of Nasrallah's speech. It is a shame, because this remark is so illuminating about the sectarian nature of the fighting in Syria, about the role of past history in today's events; in sum, about a very significant feature of the current and most likely future Middle East situation.

A lot of the press, as well as many ordinary people, are so captivated with the notion that the Middle East crisis is all, or almost all, Israelis and Palestinians. No, it is not. It is there, it has to be solved, the sooner the better, but it will do nothing to remove the legacy of the old days when Zainab was alive and then died, and all that has happened since then. Ask Hassan Nasrallah about that, and believe him, at least this time.