The film was shocking for more than its sadistic contents. Accusations of Lebanese Hizballah carrying out massacres and executions have been part and parcel of the pro-Syrian rebel narrativefor some time. Yet, despite claims of that variety and daily doses of ultra-violence pouring endlessly onto the web for the past two years from pro-rebel and anti-Assad sides of the spectrum; little, in terms of videotaped human rights violations by Hizballah or by their allied Syria-based Iraqi Shia militias, could be found online.
Owing in large part to these groups’ Iranian-proxy status and clear religiously-based order, the aforementioned Shia Islamist organizations function in a far more militarily professional manner. Additionally, Lebanese Hizballah and their Iranian-backed Iraqi cohorts, operate advanced messaging and propaganda initiatives. In turn, this has allowed for them to successfully present their narratives and images to a wide audience.
Furthermore, there has been some criticism regarding the veracity and authenticity of the video clip. In part this is due to claims that the audio for the clip could not be verified and may be taken from other sources.
Nevertheless, after close analysis, this clip may be the first substantial video evidence demonstrating Lebanese Hizballah and/or other Shia militia (primarily staffed by Iraqis) groups in Syria of conducting blatant human rights abuses.
This piece will attempt to go through the evidence presented in the video by assessing the main data-points and other factors which have been at play in Shia militia circles and details found in the video:
- Uniforms, headbands, and ribbons worn by the fighters.
- The Lebanese accent of the shooters and those speaking
- The discussion of Iranian revolutionary concepts adopted by Hizballah.
- Trends in Hizballah and among fellow Iranian-backed Shia Islamist groups for filming and photographing dead rebels.
- Assessing where the video originated.
- An increase in the posting of brutal images featuring dead rebels by Shia Islamist groups in Syria.
A Rough Transcript of the Film
With the traffic from short wave radios and the lack of visible speech by particular fighters, the task of writing a highly accurate transcription was made somewhat difficult. Additionally, I did not write what was being said during the radio transmissions. Regardless, this is what could be picked-up:
Fighter to other militants: “Move it! Move it! Move it!” The fighters run around a van to the vehicle’s trunk. (0.01-0.05)
Radio traffic (0.05-0.14)
A chant from off camera: “fi sabil Allah” (0.11)
The fighters pull what appear to be wounded men, most likely Syrians, from the back of a van or minibus. There’s heavy radio traffic obscuring what the fighters are saying. (0.12-0.30)
A fighter says: “Fi sabil Allah” (0.20-0.21)
Three men are pulled from the back of the van. (0.20.-0.35)
One of the men is immediately shot. (0.35-0.37)
Another man is pulled from the van. (0.37-0.54)
A supposed militant says: “Bring him down.” (Meaning a man from the back of the van). (0.44)
A more hushed voice chimes in and says: “Hold on! Wait! Wait!” (0.53-0.54)
This man is shot multiple times in the head. (0.57-1.01)
Screaming voice off camera: “O guys!” (1.01)
Another fighter’s voice: “Enough” (1.02)
Said by another person (possibly the cameraman or a fighter to another fighter. Even added to the video’s context it can be viewed as a compliment or as sarcasm): “You’re a tough one.” (1.05-1.06) (some have speculated that the accent used is Syrian, still this section of speech is not definitive enough to be deemed Syrian).
One of the fighters: “That one is mine…The killer of the martyr Yahiya is mine!” (Meaning the fighter had selected a person on the ground to shoot) (1.06-1.10)
Another fighter says: “I am *inaudible* on my own (1.10-1.12)
In the background another fighter says: “Hizballah” (1.10-12)
Another voice (possibly a fighter): “Why are you using this rhetoric?” (1.12-1.13)
What appears to be wounded a man is pulled from the back of the van. (1.11-1.16)
Another Militant: “O! For the martyr Yahiya!” (1.16-1.19)
Inaudible speech in background (1.16-19)
A clearer voice says: “Come, come.” (1.16-1.19)
The fighter who pulled down the man kicks him and is stopped by another militant. (1.16-1.20)
Fighter referred to as ‘Hajj’ (speaking Lebanese dialect): “Wait. Wait. We are performing our taklif and we are not seeking personal vengeance.” This fighter goes off camera and another comes to the fore and shoots the man on the ground. (1:23-1:36)
Another fighter off-screen says: “fine, fine, Hajj. fi sabil Allah.” (1.28)
Another militant: “No! The martyr Yahiya! No!” (1.29-1.35)
A rifle is fired by a militant who comes into frame at the man writhing on the ground (1.35-1.38)
Off-screen militant: “Move it [“yallah”, in Lebanese slang], let’s go.” (1.38-1.40)
Criticism of the Clip
Found on some pro-Assad and pro-Hizballah websites was a piece criticizing the movie by Mr. Ahmed M. Yassin. In an interesting twist, the author blames the Syrian army and/or the National Defense Forces (a Syrian state-supported militia-style group trained by Iran and Hizballah). He also correctly states that the actions of those in the video would constitute a war crime.
Yassin starts out by saying the radio transmissions are taken from a clip involving Hizballah fighters in Qusayr and their headquarters in May, 2013. These clips were provided in the article. When compared, it is extremely hard to tell whether there is any credibility to this criticism. Additionally, if the radio traffic was faked, that would necessitate the other audio sections were also added later. Still, the author does not come to this conclusion. Plus, the audio tends to match with the actions seen in the film.
Yassin added to this by claiming the uniforms seen in the video do not match the type worn by Hizballah. According to the author, this was due to the green and brown colors not being as “dark” as some previously utilized by Hizballah. An example from the 2006 Hizballah-Israel War is offered as supporting evidence for this claim. Additionally, the author also claims that the pants are not the same as those Hizballah. However, rationally speaking, it’s not hard, nor is it unheard of fighters (in professional or paramilitary organizations) altering their uniforms. (See explanation covering uniforms used by Hizballah and other Shia militias below).
The piece also stated that “fi sabil Allah” would not be used by an ideologically educated Hizballah fighter in the context of “killing” (a term used during the film) for Allah. Only “fighting” in a justified and sanctioned war for Allah (see explanation below regarding this phrase). Though, this minor linguistic distinction appears to be more about splitting hairs, rather than establishing the statements made in the video as spurious.
Where Did the Video Come From?
The clip was first uploaded to a YouTube account belonging to a website called NewLebanon.info. This site appears to present itself as a more independent (as opposed to being tied to the main Shia parties, Hizballah or Harakat Amal) Shia-oriented news provider in Lebanon.
After the video was posted, NewLebanon.info published a piece defending its authenticity. In it, they argued that even if the audio was added later, defenders of Hizballah had no explanation for the material shown in the video. This form of defense also leaves holes for further criticism, particularly regarding the images presented in the video. Essentially, NewLebanon.info’s case rests on the assumption the fighters shown were Hizballah members. However, with the little information available, sans audio, it would be impossible to confirm whether the fighters were from Hizballah or not.
The Ayatollah’s New Clothes
Some viewers of the video have come to the conclusion that the fighters shown in the clip must be Hizballah members due to the presence of yellow ribbons tied to their battle fatigues. While this sounds like an argument based on an odd piece of minutia, Syrian rebel groups, their supporters, and onlookers have repeatedly stated that yellow ribbons are a clear identity marker for Hizballah members in Syria.
Additionally, one of the fighters in the video is wearing a green headband as he drags wounded and possibly dead bodies from the back of a van. This may be another sign he may belong to a Shia organization.
It is true that the variety of Shia militia groups backing the Assad regime have been photographed and recorded wearing plain headbands or those featuring religious slogans (most often, they are colored black, green, red, or yellow).
Additionally, there is quite a lot of history of yellow ribbon decorations symbolizing Khomeinist causes. In the early 90s, Iranian protesters would go to Mecca and protest the U.S. and Israelwearing their yellow ribbons and bands.
More recently, Hizballah fighters have also been recorded in Syria with yellow-ribbons tied to their uniforms. In Lebanon, the group used yellow-ribbon wearing street-toughs when intimating and attacking their Shia opposition. Members of the Iranian-backed Iraqi Shia groups, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, often feature their fighters in Syria wearing these types of adornments. Liwa’a ‘Ammar Ibn Yasir (see videos marked: “LAIY Fighters With A Captured Rebel & Engaged In Combat” and “LAIY Fighters Record Syrian Rebels They Killed”), another Shia militia group formed primarily from Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Kata’ib Hizballah members, has also been filmed with their members wearing green headbands featuring Shia religious slogans and yellow ribbons.
The emphasis on these color combinations has roots which trace back to Hizballah’s official party colors, yellow and green, which are featured on the group’s flag (though, in most occasions, yellow is more normally associated with Hizballah). Green also finds its place into the color spectrum of Shia Islamists since it is the color of Islam and the Ahl al-Bayt (the descendants of the Prophet Muhammed to whom Shia pay special devotion).
While markers such as these serve as interesting circumstantial evidence pointing to Lebanese Hizballah involvement, they are hardly enough to establish that fighters from Hizballah or Iraqi Shia militia members were in the video. Shia militia groups operating in Syria and militias directly controlled by the regime of Bashar al-Assad have donned many different styles of colored ribbons as identity markers. Members of Liwa’a al-Imam al-Hasan, a primarily Iraqi Shia militia which operates in conjunction with Hizballah in Rif Dimashq, has been recorded wearing red and yellow ribbons. Assad’s own Ba’ath Party militia, Kata’ib al-Ba’ath and the National Defense Forces have also been shown wearing red (in an ironic twist, the video link actually has a Lebanese Hizballah song playing in the background) and yellow ribbons.
Ribbons and headbands aside, there is also the issue of the taped fighters’ uniforms. The pattern, appears to be modeled off of or an actual U.S. M81 Woodland Pattern Battle Dress Uniform (BDU). This uniform type is seen quite regularly on Lebanese Hizballah members and with other Shia militiamen operating in Syria. Additionally, Woodland Pattern types are widely available across the Middle East. Hizballah’s main backer, Iran, has even manufactured its own varieties. This style of uniform is also commonly worn by Hizballah and other Shia militias fighting in Syria.
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