Hezbollah’s invasion of Syria over the past few months, ostensibly to fight against Sunni extremists from Al Qaeda, has essentially transformed Syria’s conflict into a regional sectarian war.
But another story has been brewing. Far from the border town of Qusayr, which was captured earlier this month by Hezbollah and fighters loyal to Syrian president Bashar al Assad, the regime apparently went on a recruiting drive in the Shiite villages north of Aleppo.
A leaked YouTube video [[below]] (viewed more than 200,000 times in the past week) showed a town hall meeting led by General Mohammed Khaddour, reportedly the top commander of the Syrian Army in Aleppo. Khaddour was flanked by a Baath party official and by Waheed Akkad, Aleppo’s governor. He proceeded to explain his plan to steer local militias from Nubl and Zahraa, two Shiite villages in Aleppo, into the umbrella Syrian Army corps.
Against a backdrop of sectarian Shiite chants, Khaddour said that the army needed experienced fighters from the towns in order to break through the Free Syrian Army’s siege of Minnigh airport, which is the last (and therefore crucial) Assad base in the region north of Aleppo.
“We will raise the flag of Hussein in Minnigh and fight under his banner,” Khaddour said, referring to the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson (who is revered by Shiite Muslims).
Khaddour offered permanent government jobs to the men who joined the campaign on Minnigh, and promised to resolve any pending problems that residents of the town might have with the embattled central government. “Nubl and Zahraa will become the capital of rural Aleppo,” he said, to loud cheers.
The general also promised the people of Nubl and Zahraa that they could keep some of the tanks and ammunition recovered from Minnigh, essentially giving the villagers a stake in the spoils wrought by his army.
But there were men in the crowd who weren’t taken by the rhetoric. They challenged the general with questions and comments.
Khaddour said he would bring 250 soldiers to the battle and wanted to augment those forces with civilians from Nubl and Zahraa. He asked local militia commanders to gather 50 or 100 men per unit.
At that point, an unidentified man challenged him, saying the local commanders weren’t experienced officers — they were mere carpenters, drivers and day laborers. Khaddour responded that each group of amateurs would be led by a military officer or commander from the so-called National Defense Army, the name for the re-branded Shabiha paramilitary.
Another man immediately shouted that the ragtag National Defense couldn’t be considered a military organization.
The Nubl recruitment drive, and the Syrian Army’s alleged reliance on foreign fighters from Iraq, Lebanon and Iran, suggest that the Syrian Army’s traditional reserves have been depleted, though it’s unknown the exact number of defections.
Insofar as a regional war is flaring up among Sunnis and Shiites, and Qusayr was a major salvo.
In Qusayr, five miles north of the Syrian-Lebanese border and midway between Homs and Lebanon, sectarian tensions erupted last week as the battle for supremacy ended with a victory for Hezbollah and the Assad regime. Hezbollah fighters declared the predominately Sunni city, which has now largely been destroyed, as Shiite. They raised a banner for Hussein in the main square.
Many Syrians, and Arabs, expressed a sense of betrayal by Hezbollah, which had widespread support in the Arab world for its years of resistance against Israel. One image that went viral shows the people of Qusayr providing free food and welcoming Shiite refugees from Lebanon who fled after Israel invaded in 2006, compared to Hezbollah supporters in southern Lebanon passing out sweets to celebrate the victory in Qusayr in 2013. The banner in Lebanon read “Qusayr has fallen,” while the sign in Qusayr in 2006 said: “Our Lebanese brothers, you are among family.”