Syrian Fizzle?

09.18.12

Rebels Despair That Anti-American Protests Overshadow Syrian Struggle

The battle to overthrow Bashar al-Assad rages on, but Syrian rebels say the anti-U.S. protests are distracting attention from the war—and strengthening Assad’s hand.

On Sunday, as last week’s wave of anti-American protests was dying down across the Middle East, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the powerful Lebanese militant group Hizbullah, took to its TV channel to call for more. “The whole world needs to see your anger on your faces, in your fists, and your shouts,” he said, and on Monday, an estimated 500,000 of his followers in Beirut answered the call.

As the protesters massed next door, many Syrian revolutionaries—who are facing a brutal crackdown in their 18-month-old campaign to overthrow one of Nasrallah’s chief allies, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—mused darkly on how the protests over an amateur anti-Islam film were distracting international attention from their plight. “Assad must be very happy by now,” an activist in Damascus, who uses the pseudonym Lena, says.

Some even thought that Nasrallah—who made a rare public appearance at Monday’s rally in which he called it the start of “a serious campaign that must continue all over the Muslim world”—had created the stir to help his friend. “They’re trying to thwart the Syrian revolution,” says Gen. Mustafa Sheikh, the head of the military council for the rebel Free Syrian Army. “Meanwhile, Syrians are getting killed at the hands of Hizbullah and the Iranians, and no one is helping.”

Syrian rebels view Hizbullah, along with its prime benefactor, Iran, as directly involved in their war against Assad. The three groups are aligned religiously—both Hizbullah and Iran are Shia, while Assad’s minority regime is dominated by members of the Alawite sect, a Shia offshoot. They have remained steadfast allies throughout the uprising, and there have been reports that both Iran and Hizbullah are assisting Assad in the fight.

But as with similar protests against the film over the last week, Monday’s rally in Beirut seemed to be aiding Assad in a different way—by overshadowing the grim reality playing out on Syrian soil. The death toll from the conflict has reached more than 26,000, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, while the United Nations has registered more than 250,000 Syrian refugees. On Monday U.N. investigators reported a steep escalation in attacks on civilians as the Assad regime batters its cities with artillery and fighter jets.

The story of the violence in Syria was overshadowed suddenly when news of the anti-American protests broke last week. “People lost interest in the Syrian revolution,” Sheikh says.

Some members of the opposition suspect that with the protests, Nasrallah is trying to mend Hizbullah’s image, and by extension Assad’s, by showing solidarity with Muslims across the globe who are angered by the film. “After all this killing in Syria, and after helping the regime to kill and commit atrocities in Syria, now they’re trying to show that they’re actually good Muslims and they care about the prophet,” says Ahmed Kassem, a rebel coordinator. “This is just propaganda.”

But others worry that—whatever Assad and his allies might do to bolster their image—the unrest may have offered him a more lasting victory on the public-relations front. Assad has long sought to sow fears that the rebellion is being powered by Islamic extremists, while concern over jihadist elements among the rebels has factored prominently into intervention debates in the West.

During a protest over the film in the Libyan city of Benghazi last week, Islamist militants once backed by America against Muammar Gaddafi attacked the U.S. Consulate, killing the American ambassador, Christopher Stevens. Slogans such as “Oh, Obama, we are all Osama,” meanwhile, featured in many of the protests that erupted, even in Arab Spring success stories such as Egypt and Tunisia.

“What happened? Where is everyone?”

“To Assad, the rallies spurred by the Islam-bashing film were heaven-sent: they have given credence to his claims that the Arab Spring is at heart an Islamist spring and that al Qaeda and its affiliates will be empowered as a result,” says Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian activist based in America. “Meanwhile, the rallies have also distracted international attention from the current mayhem unfolding in Syria, and they might give pause to any calls for intervention.”

Alongside all the talk of angry protesters last week, some Syrians were making demonstrations of their own. “We have films being released daily here in Syria offensive to the Prophet and Allah. So where are the Muslims?” read a sign held by one, which was posted on Twitter.

On Monday in Cairo, where last week’s unrest kicked off with a march on the U.S. Embassy, Salma Jazayerli, a Syrian expat, was embarking on week three of a hunger strike for the cause. She said the strike was meant to send a message on behalf of the suffering people back home. She was more pessimistic than ever, though, that any messages like hers would be heard. “I grew up believing we Arabs were all one country, all brothers who should depend on one another. When we had our problems in Syria, I saw that nobody cared. And now they’re attacking the embassy?” she said. “What happened? Where is everyone?”