How the Syrian Civil War Has Transformed Hezbollah

How the Syrian Civil War Has Transformed Hezbollah

How the Syrian Civil War Has Transformed Hezbollah

The Lebanese Shiite militia, which has played a central role in defending the Assad regime, is now a powerful regional player.

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Beirut, LebanonThe rattle of tracer fire jolts a cellphone camera resting in the gun hole of an upper-level apartment on a shelled-out east Aleppo street. Moments after the Hezbollah fighter has fired incendiary ammunition into the neighborhood below, it’s enveloped in flames.

In another fighter’s video from the battle of Aleppo last fall, a burst of machine-gun fire erupts as Hezbollah militiamen charge forward and take up positions behind pockmarked walls. They shoot indiscriminately at an unseen enemy, which they say is the rebel force Jaysh al-Islam.

In stills taken by a Hezbollah fighter on the front lines of the Aleppo countryside just before the cease-fire was declared on December 30, fighters from Hezbollah (the Party of God) operate tanks flying the flag of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus. The images provide a glimpse at how the most consequential battle of the Syrian war looked through the eyes of the conquering forces—and they indicate how crucial Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia has been in defending the Assad regime.  

The destruction the Syrian government and its allies brought to east Aleppo changed the course of the nearly six-year civil war. Indeed, it could mark the beginning of the end of what started in 2011 as a popular revolution against an authoritarian regime. By laying siege to the unofficial capital of the revolution—indiscriminately bombarding it into rubble, starving and displacing its residents, and committing massacres—Assad’s counter-revolution seems to have ensured the government’s future.

Abu Hussein has been on the front lines of Assad’s strategy and features prominently in the footage and photos from Aleppo that he flips through on his phone. He is a Hezbollah commander in charge of a rapid-intervention unit of 200 fighters. They participated in the regime’s retaking of Aleppo last year as well as the ongoing fighting around Palmyra. The boisterous militant, who uses a nom de guerre because he is not authorized to speak to the media, contends that Hezbollah has been the Assad regime’s backbone, changing the course of the war on the ground.

“We are fighting like a conventional army and more,” Abu Hussein brags, sitting at a kitchen table this past February in Dahiya, the Shiite southern suburb of Beirut and center of Hezbollah support in the Lebanese capital. He depicts the militia as a conventional army in Syria, one that has vastly changed from the days when Hezbollah guerrilla fighters drove occupying Israeli troops out of Lebanon with hit-and-run attacks and hidden bombs.

Hezbollah commanders at the heart of the battle for Aleppo have told The Nation that their forces led the ground efforts in the offensive and carried out target selection for the Russian bombing campaign. The war has transformed Hezbollah, altering its domestic political priorities and alliances.

Hezbollah was originally funded and inspired by the Iranian Revolution, forming in the early 1980s, in the midst of Lebanon’s civil war, to fight Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon and its collaboration force, the South Lebanon Army. Emerging primarily as a guerrilla group in 1985, Hezbollah is now a dominant Lebanese political party and a fighting force immersed in proxy battles across the region.

In the wake of the rebels’ defeat in Syria’s largest city, Russia, Iran, and Turkey have established a negotiation process that should secure a future for the Assad regime. Although Hezbollah is not officially at the table, it continues to control vast tracts of land in Syria and shapes the political climate through its fighters on the ground and its coordination with Russian air power. However, splits have emerged between Iran and Russia over whether to focus on a military or political victory for the Assad regime.

“We are with the Iranians,” asserts Abu Hussein, arguing that the war will only conclude with a military victory. He acknowledges that Hezbollah’s fighters constitute the bulk of the Iranian-backed forces currently engaged in hostilities around Damascus, which also include Iraqi Shiite militias.

“We have no other choice” but to side with Iran, says the fighter, who took up arms against Israel in the 1990s and has become a seasoned veteran of the Syrian war over the past five years. “We are under their command.”

Since its entrance into the war on behalf of the regime in 2012, Hezbollah has played an increasingly central role in helping Assad stay in power and recapture territory from rebel forces. As the Syrian Army faced defections and desertions, Hezbollah stepped in to hold the line and—after Russia’s direct entrance into the war in late 2015—start regaining ground that Assad had lost.

Commander Bakr, the pseudonym of a leading Hezbollah fighter, describes working in joint operations rooms with Russians, the regime, and Iranians across Syria, where he says that Hezbollah was the leading force in the regime’s ground campaign in east Aleppo.

“Aleppo is an international war that the future of Syria depends on,” he says, sitting in a living room in Dahiya. Bakr was stationed in an Aleppo operations room at the height of the battle and commanded an urban fighting unit throughout the campaign.

“Usually I leave for Syria with 120 men,” he contends, declining to use his real name because he is not authorized to talk to media. “Now I will go back with 500 men.” He says the coordination with Russia is close, and that Hezbollah operates as eyes on the ground, selecting bombing targets for Russian warplanes.

“Usually we bomb and fire on a place for two hours before going in,” Bakr says, describing the prelude to the regime’s final push in Aleppo. “Now we have bombing for 24 hours.”

Bakr dismisses questions about whether Hezbollah selected hospitals for the Russians to bomb. He rejects the numerous reports, footage, and photos of such bombings as “terrorist propaganda.”

As for the Syrian Army’s seeming dependence on foreign fighters, he is restrained in his criticism. “It’s not the same Syrian Army as it was five years ago,” is all he will say. Abu Hussein is far more blunt, dismissing the role of Assad’s forces. “Bashar al-Assad is only a name; we are controlling everything in Syria,” he says, referring to Hezbollah, Russia, and Iran.

Both Hezbollah commanders say they have collaborated with the Syrian Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), in areas where they have common interests against the rebels. Commander Bakr claims that, at times over the past year, Hezbollah directly coordinated with the US-backed leftist Kurdish liberation forces as they advanced along Turkey’s border.

“We share intel…everything,” he says of Hezbollah’s cooperation with the YPG in Aleppo province. “These people will take from whoever will serve their interests.”

Kurdish forces control vast tracts of territory in northern Syria, where they have implemented a program of radical local democracy—and where they have also been accused of expulsions against Arab Syrians and human-rights abuses against Arabs as well as Kurdish political opponents. Originally supportive of the Syrian Revolution and still officially opposed to the Assad regime, the YPG has focused on taking control of Kurdish areas and fighting the Islamic State (ISIS, or Daesh). It has rarely fought against regime forces.

A year ago, as the Russian Air Force bombed Aleppo’s countryside to shatter rebel forces that were primarily loyal to the 2011 revolution, the YPG joined the assault against the rebels in order to capture territory for itself.

Now, as the Turkey/Russia-sponsored negotiations move forward, both Hezbollah and the YPG are absent from the table. But at least Hezbollah has Iran, its main backer, involved to protect its interests. “There are differences between what the Russians, Syrians, and Iranians want,” Bakr says, coyly referring to the shifting and treacherous geopolitics.

Hezbollah’s expanding regional commitments are perhaps best exemplified by Assir, a pseudonym of one of the fighting force’s high-ranking trainers and field commanders. Like Commander Bakr, Assir met with The Nation in Dahiya, between Aleppo deployments. Having fought all over Syria and most recently in Aleppo during the final regime advance there, he personifies the way the war has transformed Hezbollah.

Assir joined the organization’s armed wing because of the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon and spent decades resisting occupying Israeli troops. By 2015, he says, he was training Iraqi Shiite militia forces, Yemeni Houthi rebels, and even elite Syrian forces in Lebanon. As Hezbollah increasingly expanded its militarily into Syria, it also increased its contribution to the armed campaigns of Iranian allies around the region. While Assir has hosted training camps for allies in Lebanon, Commander Bakr describes being sent to Iraq in 2014 to train the Iraqi Shiite militia Kata’ib Hezbollah, and to Yemen in 2015 to train and advise the Houthis.

In late 2016, Assir spent the battle of Aleppo commanding fighting units on the front lines. He acknowledges that his forces inflicted many civilian casualties in the fighting, but his justifications echo those made by Israel in its past attacks on Lebanese and Palestinian civilians. “The rebels use them as human shields,” he contends.

Assir said that Iraqi Shiite militias played an important part in the Assad regime’s ground advance in Aleppo, but he claimed that Hezbollah led the fight and was the deciding force in ground operations. “There were a lot of Iraqis, but we call the shots,” he boasted. “Most of the push is led by Hezbollah.”

Both Assir and Commander Bakr are cautiously optimistic about the Trump administration, and both said they had feared the potential impact on the war of a Hillary Clinton administration. They believe that Trump’s leaning toward the Syrian regime and desire to work with Russia in Syria will improve Hezbollah’s regional position. And they see Trump’s rhetoric about destroying ISIS as a sign that he will focus US efforts on a common enemy, while they read his seemingly contradictory isolationist posturing as an indication that there will be less US interference in other regional flashpoints.

Abu Hussein, on the other hand, worries about what the Trump administration’s backing of Israel will mean for Hezbollah’s situation in Lebanon. He believes a US shift toward Damascus will facilitate the regime’s victory there, but he also believes that Trump will create a political context that will enable another Israeli war against Lebanon. “Trump could help stop a war and help start a war,” he says, referring to Syria and Israel.

In speech on February 12, Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, expressed a different view, referring to Trump as an “idiot” who “revealed the true face of the US administration.”

According to an American foreign-service official in the region, the US embassy in Lebanon is still not willing to discuss the current US position on Hezbollah, as they are still waiting for the Trump administration’s policy on the organization. “We want to take our policies from Washington, not set policies,” says the official.

While Hezbollah has used the Syrian war to redefine the movement’s political scope, regional influence, and combat skills, its fighters and their families are carrying the burden of a brutal, seemingly endless conflict. It is Hezbollah’s base that has paid the highest price—the blood of lost loved ones—for the organization’s military and political gains. As anxiety over casualties increased, Hezbollah worried about low public morale; as a result, public funerals for fighters killed in action became rare in Dahiya.

The impact on Lebanon’s Shiite community was exacerbated during the battle for Aleppo, says Abu Hussein. As more militiamen were deployed to take the city in bloody street fighting, more came home in coffins. “Families are asking what’s happened to their children,” he says. “People now ask why we are dying for the Syrians.”

Jaafar, an elite Hezbollah fighter who was previously stationed in Aleppo, refused to fight in Syria after his last deployment to the city in September, during the height of the siege but before the final advance. “We feel like we are puppets of the international community and we are slaughtering each other,” he says, declining to use his name out of fear of reprisal for discussing his refusal. Reservists and volunteers have previously spoken out about their reasons for refusing to fight in Syria, but not full-time recruits.

Jaafar, who joined Hezbollah in south Lebanon during the 1990s to push out Israel, started taking measures to avoid being sent back to Syria after seeing the Syrian Army abandon him and his unit on the battlefield during engagements with rebels in Aleppo. “I was fighting with Syrians and I don’t trust them,” he says sharply. “It’s not one incident, but one after another that made me decide to quit.”

The war in Syria and what he sees as Hezbollah’s shifting priorities has led Jaafar to believe that the risk of leaving his children fatherless is too high a price to pay for protecting Assad. “If it were Israel [in Lebanon] again, I would fight because it’s my country,” he says, to illustrate his belief that Hezbollah should focus solely on deterring foreign interference in Lebanon and attacks from its southern neighbor.

Hezbollah leader Nasrallah gained admiration across the Arab world for forcing an end to Israel’s two-decade-long occupation in 2000, and even more plaudits for repelling another Israeli invasion in 2006. These successes stirred broad support in a region in which pan-Arab solidarity had been waning.

After the Arab Spring revolutions erupted, first in Tunisia in late 2010 and then spreading to Egypt and across the region, Nasrallah at first cheered the popular uprisings. As protests in Tahrir Square brought down Egypt’s brutal and corrupt 30-year dictatorship, Hezbollah’s leader embraced protesters demanding an economically just and politically free Middle East.

Yet when those same demands erupted on Syrian streets in the spring of 2011, Nasrallah sided with Hezbollah’s—and Iran’s—ally in Damascus, Bashar al-Assad, and turned against the spread of revolution. A year later, Hezbollah was fighting alongside Assad’s forces in the civil war, thus becoming more embroiled in the regional sectarian conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. And with this involvement, the popular regional support that Hezbollah had earned for fighting off Israel collapsed.

As Hezbollah’s engagement in the region has changed, its domestic priorities and alliances have shifted. When the Syrian war started to spill into Lebanon, rebels, some of them jihadi extremists, gained territory in the Qalamoun Mountains along Lebanon’s border. After ISIS was joined by the Al Qaeda–linked Nusra Front in an incursion into the northern Bekaa Valley town of Arsal in August 2014, Hezbollah began building alliances with Christian communities near the border, supporting them with arms and helping them to form local militias to defend their towns.

The blast of rocket and artillery fire echoing from Syria is familiar in the Christian town of Ras Baalbek. Some of that firepower comes from the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and some from Hezbollah.

This border area is full of Lebanese soldiers and checkpoints, but Hezbollah’s forces keep out of sight. The only indications of any unofficial armed presence are small convoys of window-tinted black SUVs driving through border villages and along otherwise quiet roads. For more than a decade, the LAF has been receiving US support in order to strengthen it against Hezbollah, but now the two work hand in hand.

“Hezbollah helps us in every way necessary, especially with military support,” Rifaat Nasrallah, the Christian militia leader in Ras Baalbek, told me when I first interviewed him in June 2015. Sitting in a plush Hellenic-style living room across from a crucifix, which sat next to a photo of the Shiite cleric with whom he shares a last name (though no family connection), the wiry, gray-bearded local commander’s radio blared with updates from his 500-strong volunteer force. “Arsal [is] Sunni and the ones who supported them,” he continued, in reference to ISIS and Nusra, which had collaborated in assaulting the town the year before. (Nusra has since renamed itself Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham.)

His men entered the house at regular intervals to give him updates as he described receiving arms and training directly from Hezbollah. Although the Lebanese Shiite movement has long had non-Shiite units, called Resistance Brigades (first organized to expand the armed struggle against Israel’s occupation), militias like the one led by Rifaat Nasrallah are a product of the war in Syria.

A year after that interview, two double suicide bombings killed five people and injured 28 in the Christian town of Al Qaa on June 27 of last year. Nasrallah, from nearby Ras Baalbek, pledged that Hezbollah would expand its aid and involvement with local Christian armed groups. Al Qaa already had a local militia that was receiving Hezbollah backing; these volunteer fighters were the majority of those killed in the blasts when they confronted jihadist bombers at a checkpoint in the early hours of that June morning.  

“When our churches are under threat, of course we will coordinate with Hezbollah,” the Ras Baalbek militia leader told me in another interview just hours after the bombings. He talked about his patrons’ commitment to increased arms and training for these volunteer border forces, and his description of the Syrian war and its impact in Lebanon echoed the Assad regime’s rhetoric about a coalition of minorities “fighting off terrorism,” as well as its sectarian tone of allying against Sunnis. Along with his support for continued Hezbollah involvement in Syria in service to the Assad regime, Rifaat Nasrallah directed his anger resulting from the Al Qaa bombings at Syrian refugees in Lebanon—the vast majority of whom have fled the Assad regime and are simply seeking to escape the violence.

“We must block the border,” Nasrallah said, calling for an intensified effort to prevent refugees from crossing into Lebanon. “The UNHCR need to move the camps,” he added, referring to the UN’s refugee agency and playing to popular hostility against the estimated 1.5 million Syrians who have fled to Lebanon and often live in makeshift camps there.

As Al Qaa reeled from last summer’s devastating assault, politicians from Christian parties poured into the sleepy town and directed their rage at Syrian refugees. Inside the town hall full of mourners, Lebanese parliamentarian Elie Marouny echoed Rifaat Nasrallah’s condemnation of refugees despite coming from the opposite side of the political spectrum. (Nasrallah has pan-Arabist leanings, while Marouny represents the Kataeb, a right-wing Maronite nationalist party better known as the Phalange, which allied with Israel during Lebanon’s civil war and committed the infamous 1982 massacre of Palestinians in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.)

“Send them back to Syria,” Marouny said, standing near the door of the town hall where mourners were gathering, immediately placing collective blame for the attack on the residents of the nearby informal refugee camp of Masharih al-Qaa. Marouny’s vitriol echoed that of local residents, and after the authorities accused the terrorists of taking refuge in the camp before the bombing, a wave of local vigilante attacks on refugees, curfews, army raids on camps, and mass arrests of Syrians swept across the Bekaa Valley.

“We agree with what the politicians are saying about the refugees,” said John Namma, a resident of Al Qaa who is in his early 30s. Leaning on the counter of a convenience store up the street from where the bombings happened, he called for stronger collaboration with Hezbollah in the wake of the attack. “We consider Hezbollah neighbors and allies against terrorism.”

According to Imad Salamey, a political-science professor at Lebanese American University, Hezbollah has increasingly used the Syrian war to bolster its influence in Lebanon’s sectarian political system, playing on Christian fears to build a new alliance. Central to this alliance is opposition to the Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon and active marginalization of refugees.

“This is an old game played with new tools,” Salamey says, referring to Christian fears, dating back to before the 1975–90 civil war, of declining political influence resulting from shifting Lebanese demographics. “It was done in the past with Palestinian [refugees], and now the context of the Syrian civil war brings out fears of Sunni demographic dominance,” Salamey continues. He is referring to the fact that Syrian refugees, overwhelmingly Sunni and mostly sympathetic to the Syrian rebel cause, now make up more than a quarter of Lebanon’s population.

As a result, Salamey says, both Hezbollah and the Christian parties are determined not to allow Syrian refugees to reach even the precarious level of security or permanence approaching that of Palestinians. “They view these refugees as a demographic threat, despite the reality that they are vulnerable,” he says.

As hard-line Christian politicians call for expulsion, it appears that Hezbollah is looking for ways to push Syrians back across the border. In the town of Arsal, home to 50,000 refugees and the center of ongoing Hezbollah and LAF military cooperation, Abu Hussein says his party’s goal is to force refugees across the Syrian border into the Qalamoun Mountains.

“There will be a solution when we reach a deal with the Syrian regime to ship them over [the border],” he says, adding that town residents have so far prevented the forced displacement. “They are Sunni, and the Sunnis in Arsal may take it personally and see it as a sectarian issue.”

The alliance between Hezbollah and Lebanese Christians has now become the driving force in Lebanese politics. The election of Michel Aoun as Lebanese president last October, after more than two years of parliamentary deadlock, exemplifies how the war in Syria has reshaped local alliances.

Aoun, known for his bluster and informally called “the general,” is an unlikely ally with Hezbollah. A former prime minister and leader of the Christian Maronite Free Patriotic Movement, he launched a failed campaign to drive Syria from Lebanon in 1990, after which he was forced into exile in France. Now he is a strong supporter of Hezbollah and sympathetic to Assad. The foundation for Aoun’s reversal on Syria was laid in an accord that Hezbollah and Aoun’s party came to in 2006, followed by a meeting with Bashar al-Assad in Syria in 2009. “The president is open with us; he’s against the terrorists,” Assir says, referring to Aoun’s attitude toward the Syrian opposition.

Since Aoun came to power, military raids on refugee camps, arrests, and restrictions on Syrians in Lebanon have sharply increased. It is this ideological bridge that Abu Hussein, who has also served in the Bekaa Valley along the border, says is at the core of tight and intensifying cooperation between the LAF and Hezbollah.

“There is full cooperation; we are working together,” he says, about his organization’s relationship with Lebanon’s army. It’s a relationship that Salamey believes will only intensify during Aoun’s tenure.

“We will see more cooperation between Hezbollah and the army, and [Aoun’s] interest will be to protect Hezbollah here and in Syria,” notes the professor about a relationship that already involves intelligence sharing and military coordination on the eastern border. “Aoun in many way[s] will strengthen his alliance with Hezbollah and shield them from criticism, both international and domestic,” Salamey adds.

This bond seems to also include policy toward Israel. Following a February 17 speech by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, Aoun backed the Shiite militia. In that speech, Nasrallah predicted that war with Israel was unlikely this year, even as he underscored Hezbollah’s defensive and retaliatory capabilities, claiming the militia could hit Israel’s nuclear reactor in Dimona, in southern Israel, if attacked.

After Russia entered the war in Syria and began its close collaboration with Hezbollah, both Commander Bakr and Assir say, their organization has guarded Russian weapons depots in Syria and had access to stockpiles of arms. In previous interviews, at the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016, they described directly receiving long-range guided missiles, laser-guided rockets, and anti-tank weapons from Russia, adding to Hezbollah’s already vast supply of Iranian arms. Now a high-ranking Hezbollah commander in southern Lebanon says the group has moved Russian anti-aircraft weapons and long-range missiles from Syria to Lebanon’s southern border with Israel. 

It is in this context that Lebanon’s new president, who battled Palestinians as a general during Lebanon’s civil war, described Hezbollah’s forces as necessary so long as the LAF is unable to stand up to Israel on its own. Ironically, Professor Salamey says, the convergence of Christian interests with those of Hezbollah stems from the expanded political strength of Lebanon’s Christians after Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005.

Farmers’ fields across the Bekaa Valley have become home to many of Lebanon’s Syrian refugees. Their camps are made up of clusters of makeshift plastic tents dotting the landscape. It is their only protection against the elements, whether the cold and snow of winter or the blistering heat of summer. In the camps sprawling on the outskirts of the town of Bar Elias, the winter rains have created pools of stagnant, often garbage-filled water, which are used as playgrounds by children who are often lacking proper winter clothes.

Their parents, unable to work and often unable to travel because they’re unable to renew residency papers, huddle around wood-burning stoves in tents. Yet even these dwellings are not secure; Lebanese security forces regularly force camp residents to move farther away from the towns and main roads in a bid to keep them out of sight.

The camps are not officially recognized, and they host a population that Lebanon doesn’t formally acknowledge to be refugees. The residents exist in state of constant surveillance and disruption by the military.

“We are scared and hate the army,” says Asharaf, a resident of Camp Hossam, a collection of tents made from plastic sheets and scavenged material that sprawls across a farmer’s field in central Bekaa. “We never know when they are going to come,” he adds, referring to frequent raids on the community by the LAF.

Like most of the camp residents, Asharaf, in his early 20s, is from the Syrian city of Raqqa. He declines to use his name out of fear of reprisal against his family, who still live under ISIS control there. “Most of the people here ran away from ISIS, so they are not going to join them,” he says about his camp.

That fact didn’t save Asharaf from being detained briefly in an LAF raid on the camp in March 2016. He describes an ordeal that has become all too common for people living there.

“The army came at 6 am and surrounded the camp,” the soft-spoken man says. “They ordered women out of the tents and took any man with expired papers. They covered our faces and put us in trucks on our knees,” he recalls about his arrest alongside 50 other men from the camp. “They hit us on the way.” After being held in military detention and interrogated, Asharaf was released, along with most of the other men, without any charges.

The army justifies these regular raids as a necessary anti-terrorism measure; however, it generally uses expired residency permits, rather than terrorism-related charges, as the legal pretext to justify mass detentions.

For those picked up in the security crackdowns, it is the military, not the civilian, justice system that they face. From the moment they are detained, they see only soldiers, military interrogators, and, if charges are brought, military tribunals adjudicated by Lebanese officers. There is no due process, nor the kinds of protections received by those in the civilian judicial system.

In a January report on Lebanon’s broad use of military courts against civilians—both Lebanese citizens and Syrian refugees—Human Rights Watch describes the stifling of dissent and abusive treatment that in eight of 10 cases they examined led to forced confessions.

“Individuals tried before the military courts and lawyers describe a range of detainee rights and fair trial violations,” reads the rights group’s report, titled “It’s Not the Right Place for Us.” The violations include “interrogations without the presence of a lawyer, ill-treatment and torture, incommunicado detention, the use of confessions extracted under torture, lengthy pre-trial detention, decisions issued without an explanation, seemingly arbitrary sentences and a limited right to appeal.”

Since the fall of Aleppo and the shift of Syria’s civil war in the Damascus regime’s favor, many refugees have had to start grappling with the prospect of victory at home for the side that displaced them. They weigh their perilous conditions in Lebanon against the prospect of violence and possible reprisals if they return home. They look at a future for their children in Lebanon that is designed by those in power to be bleak, and weigh that against a regime at home that could deny their children any future at all.

Ibrahim, a man in his 50s from formerly rebel-held Aleppo, considers this awful choice over a cup of sahlab in the convenience store where he works in Bar Elias. On this miserable December afternoon, he is exhausted, yet he has learned to see the silver lining in life. He’s excited that the coffee shop next door has recently started serving this sweet, hot, milky drink made from orchids that is common in his hometown but less so in Lebanon.

Ibrahim was a lawyer in Syria and joined the 2011 protests in Aleppo against the regime, but his daughter, who had married a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon, worked hard to get him and his wife across the border as the war intensified.

He declines to use his real name because he worries about the impact of speaking publicly on his relatives, who survived the battle of Aleppo and are now living there under regime rule again. Although he is fortunate enough not to need to live in a camp because of the support he gets from his children, Ibrahim has lost his livelihood, his home, his sense of security, and the glimmer of hope for freedom and justice that he and so many others demanded on Aleppo’s streets and clung to from exile. “I feel like I’m imprisoned here,” he says flatly.

He has little in common with Hezbollah fighters, whom he bitterly blames for ensuring Assad’s ability to crush his hopes for a new, open, and just Syria. Ibrahim hates the fact that he now must seek refuge in a country where the most powerful political and military force is the same one that helped shatter his city. Still, when distributing blame for Aleppo’s carnage and the future of Syria, he directs his anger not only at the regime and its allies but also at the foreign forces that fueled the proxy war. “We blame the whole world,” Ibrahim says.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has made it clear that his forces will stay in Syria until the regime is stable and in full control. For Ibrahim, this means the hope of ever returning to Aleppo grows increasingly dim, even as the possibility of creating a stable life in Lebanon is blocked by the political calculations of those who have ensured his misery on both sides of the border.

Read more of The Nation’s coverage of the Syrian conflict.

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