In response to the news that US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, was welcomed by flower-throwing protesters when he visited the city of Hama on Thursday and Friday, Mustapha, of the Beirut Spring Blog, recalled the fickle nature of flower throwers: in 1982, Lebanese southerners greeted the invading Israeli army with flowers. While this seems to run counter to everything we know about the Lebanese relationship with Israel, it shows just how complex – and, yes, fickle – relationships in the Middle East can be. A bit of history:
In 1982, the Lebanese were still in the middle of the civil war that tore apart Lebanon and intensified the sectarian divisions within Lebanese society. Moreover, Lebanon, particularly the Shi’a, had complex relationships with Iran, Iraq, Syria, and the Palestinian PLO embedded in Lebanon. At the time (pre-Hezbollah), southern Shi’ite Lebanese mainly followed the leadership of the Amal party, which was co-founded by Musa al-Sadr (known as Imam Musa) who was born in Iran, though originally from Tyre, in Lebanon. Amal’s links to Iran continued after Imam Musa was ‘disappeared’ in Libya in 1978 and was greatly influenced by many Iranian politicians and Shi’ite Islamic philosophers, such as Mehdi Bazargan and Mustafa Chamran. Indeed, many Shi’a in Lebanon were radicalized and inspired by the 1979 revolution in Iran.
Imam Musa’s cousin Baqr al-Sadr was an Iraqi cleric from al-Najaf (the uncle of Muqtada al-Sadr who caused innumerable headaches for the invading Americans after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003) who also commanded immense respect among the members of the Amal movement. Religious training for young Lebanese Shi’a was traditionally completed Iraq in al-Sadr’s al-Najaf or Karbala. Before the Iranian revolution, many Lebanese Shi’a were expelled from Iraq (Ayatollah Khomeini was even expelled due to the Shah’s influence) leading many radicalized and religiously trained Shi’a to return to Lebanon.
The Syrians viewed Amal as a means to balance against the growing Palestinian powers in neighboring Lebanon and thus supported the Lebanese Shi’a with material and trainings. Many Amal members spent time training in Syria and adopting a intense pro-Syrian mentality. Consequently, as Palestinian power grew in the south of the country, Amal and Syria focused more on containing the PLO than on the Israelis, who would later invade Lebanon.
Radicalized and inspired by the revolution in Iran and the religious training in Iraq, young Shi’ite revolutionaries were motivated to reproduce the Iran’s Islamic Revolution at home in Lebanon. The Iraqi and Iranian influence bifurcated the secular Amal movement, with respected Islamic scholars, such as Sayyid Muhammad Hussein Fadallah (who died last year) calling for religious Shi’a to instigate change in Amal from within. Lebanese Shi’a were consequently divided between the secular supporters of Amal and the religious revolutionaries.
When Israel used an assassination attempt on the Israeli ambassador to the United Kingdom as a pretext for invading Lebanon and crushing the PLO, southern Lebanese Shi’a, both secular and revolutionaries, found themselves in a bizarre agreement with the invading force. Both sides of the Shi’ite community desired an end to the PLO domination of Lebanon; the secular Amal loyalists blamed Palestinian attacks on Israel for bringing Lebanon into Israeli crosshairs and the religious Shi’a saw the removal of the PLO as the first step towards a nationalist, Islamic revolution. The result was throwing flowers on the invading Israelis.
However, the enduring Israeli occupation quickly soured what was clearly an alliance of convenience. Meanwhile, the split between secular and religious Shi’a brought about the creation of Hezbollah as an alternative to the Amal movement as a means to drive the one time Israeli ally from Lebanon. As Ehud Barak said to Newsweek in 2006: “When we entered Lebanon… there was no Hezbollah. We were accepted with perfumed rice and flowers by the Shi’a in the south. It was our presence there that created Hezbollah.”
Now, fast-forward to Ambassador Ford’s flowery welcome in Hama this past week. The current situation in Syria is, of course, remarkably different than when Israel invaded Lebanon, but the flower-throwing is just as fickle. As Daniel Larison notes, the United States is not particularly liked by the Syrian people. In 2009 (and the numbers are similar for 2010), 64% of Syrians had an unfavorable view of the United States and 71% disapproved of American leadership. Flowers for Ford mean little more than recognition that the Ambassador was making a symbolic stand against Assad.
The next move for the Syrian protesters will certainly not be to create a Hezbollah II in order to run the American diplomatic mission out of the country (American conservatives can take care of that). While the protesters were undoubtedly happy to see concrete American support for the uprising, the fabulous welcome could simply be a strategic move. Considering the Lebanese example as well as the high levels of distrust and animosity felt by Syrians towards the United States, it would be folly to assume that the acceptance of an American in Hama was little more than an expendable alliance of convenience such as the one that once linked the future Hezbollah founders with the Israeli invaders in 1982.
Photo of Palestinian graffiti in Bethlehem by Banksy, from Politics after 50