Hezbollah Deploys Weapon: a Press Tour on the Syrian Front – NYTimes.com
QALAMOUN MOUNTAINS, Syria — A powerfully built officer in wraparound sunglasses and digital-print camouflage gave a detailed tactical briefing, propping a map up against a juniper tree and pointing to red circles that he said showed leftover “terrorist hide-outs
The presentation, on a limestone-studded Syrian plateau on Friday, had all the trappings of a battlefield tour with American troops in Iraq: officers who refused to discuss politics, fresh-faced public affairs officers, urgent admonitions not to take photographs that could compromise security. All that was missing were the PowerPoint slides.
But the briefing was by a field commander from Hezbollah, whose public relations officials had shepherded a dozen-car convoy of journalists across the unmarked border. The attraction: new territory wrested in recent days from insurgents in Syria.
Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group that is also Lebanon’s most powerful political party, has been on something of a media blitz over the past week, seeking to counter the impression that its grinding campaign in Syria is going badly after battlefield losses for its ally, the Syrian government.
Hezbollah-run news channels have been issuing urgent bulletins about new battles in Qalamoun, the mountainous border area, where fighting has intensified now that the heavy snow that froze the conflict there over the winter has shrunk to graying patches. But the party has also been more open than usual to journalists from other outlets.
That provided, on Friday, a rare glimpse of the Hezbollah version of a news junket.
The trip offered a window onto the first few miles of a crucial corridor between Syria and the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon — and of a front in the Syrian war that is rarely accessible to journalists. The Qalamoun range has been a redoubt for Syrian insurgents and foreign Sunni militants, including the Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front. It is also a route for Hezbollah to receive arms from Iran through Syria.
But also on display was Hezbollah itself, its continuing organization and discipline despite mounting stresses, and its apparent sole control of parts of Syrian territory. (Hezbollah emphasizes that it operates in Syria with the government’s permission.)
First, Hezbollah media officials gathered a gaggle of journalists, mostly Lebanese and Syrian, and reporters from The New York Times and Reuters. From Baalbek, the Bekaa Valley town where Hezbollah was born in the shadow of the ancient Temple of Baal, they drove uphill until the asphalt ended and the cars bounced over rocks.
At a checkpoint, Hezbollah officers collected cellphones, citing security. A fighter welcomed the guests, saying, “We have an excellent program for you today,” and outlined the rules: no photographs of the route, or of fighters’ faces.
Often wary of Western news media, the group appears to be opening up somewhat as its patron, Iran, seeks a nuclear agreement with the United States and other global powers.
And the chaotic changes in the region have created a new, if narrow, common interest between Hezbollah and the United States, which considers it a terrorist organization. Both denounce the Islamic State, the Sunni group that has seized territory in Syria and Iraq and killed thousands of civilians, as an existential threat and a perversion of Islam.
Locally, too, Hezbollah is striving to counter social-media messaging from insurgent groups that have taunted Hezbollah in online videos filmed in Qalamoun. As an employee of a Hezbollah media outlet put it, “They need to fight back against the propaganda.”
The way up wound through hills that were bare but for poppies and clumps of purple-blooming thyme, once crisscrossed only by narrow tracks for smugglers and shepherds. Now, trucks loaded with weapons and fighters squeeze past one another on roads that look recently widened, past posts of prefabricated trailers and tents.
Just across the border into Syria is a plateau dotted with centuries-old juniper trees. On a rise, a fighting unit was posted at a heavy machine gun and a rocket launcher, flying yellow flags with the face of Imad Mughniyeh, the Hezbollah commander assassinated, the group says, by Israel in 2008.
Pointing to a detailed topographical map, the commander said Hezbollah fighters had broken up 40 fighting groups, disrupted three “operations rooms” and taken over 300 square kilometers of territory (about 116 square miles) that insurgents used to lob shells into Lebanese villages and build car bombs for attacks in Beirut.
“This has foiled a threat to Lebanon,” he said, declining to give his name in keeping with protocol. “There is no way they will be able to come back.”
But the significance and durability of the advances, in an unpopulated area where insurgents use hit-and-run tactics, are unclear. The commander said many insurgents had fled to their stronghold in a nearby town in Lebanon, Arsal. Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said in a televised speech on Saturday that 13 Hezbollah fighters had died in the Qalamoun fighting, and he chastised the news media for playing down the battles.
The field commander insisted on certain professional standards: He said he could comment only on strategy, not politics. He rebuffed television journalists who pleaded with him to stage rocket fire for their cameras.
“It’s impossible,” he said. One Lebanese reporter replied, “You’re impossible.”
The public relations officers agreed to have the unit walk across the ridge for effect. Its members did so in staggered, orderly rows like any trained infantry squad.
The newscasters scurried to do live shots, donning flak jackets, though far from any fighting.
“The terrorists are right behind us,” one declared. But as the journalists drove away, fighters could be seen covering the heavy guns with a tarp.
Most fighters avoided small talk, but one, wearing a baseball cap reading “Canada Petroleum,” said he could not resist sharing “my ideology.”
He said that Hezbollah represented a benevolent Islam, unlike the Islamic State, which views Shiites as apostates, and that Hezbollah might even find common cause with the West against the extremists. That echoed recent statements by other Hezbollah members but put forth a view far different from that of the United States and Israel, which consider Hezbollah an aggressor.
“There is a difference between the Islam that is like a flower for the honeybees, and the dark Islam, that is harming people and religions,” the fighter said, adding that he still opposed the West on Israel, which ended its occupation of southern Lebanon after years of attacks by Hezbollah.
“We who defeated the Israelis will also defeat the terrorists,” the fighter said. “And we will take Jerusalem.”
At the next stop along the tour, several cars lay riddled with bullets. Hezbollah officers said they had driven off insurgents who were preparing car bombs. A Hezbollah gun truck nearby appeared to have been hit by a roadside bomb.
At the end of the tour, a public affairs officer bade farewell with typical Lebanese flourish. Waving, he called out in French, “À la maison!”