Two Thursdays ago, the Lebanese political talk show Kalam al-Nas featured an interesting discussion of Hizbullah’s involvement in the battle for al-Qusayr, and its repercussions on the Lebanese domestic front. Several guests weighed in (including Ramzi Kanj, Nawfal Daou, Salem Zahran, Mohammad Salam, Saleh Machnouk, and Louay Miqdad), and while no fists were thrown, the show had its usual share of tirades and tantrums.
In case you missed it, I thought I’d draw your attention to some of the juiciest tidbits, which distill the main talking points being bandied about these days, as far as Syria is concerned. This show (and others like Bi-Mawdou`iyyeh) is must-see TV for anyone interested in Lebanese politics. It functions not only as a spin room for all the Lebanese parties, but also as a kind of court of public opinion. This episode was no exception.
0:07:44: The journalist Salem Zahran (who is the `Okab Sakr of Hizbullah) argues that Hizbullah was compelled to go into al-Qusayr to “defuse a bomb” that was going to explode and set off a string of explosions. He says that it did not go to al-Qusayr to kill Syrians, and in fact the party worked out a deal with the armed opposition inside the city to let 610 cars filled with 2000 militants to leave al-Qusayr in the last 48 hours of the conflict, so as to spare further bloodshed and allow the battle to end more quickly.
Later on in the conversation, (see 1:14:00) Mohammad Salam (a journalist connected with the Future Movement) reveals that the defected general Manaf Tlass was the one who actually arranged the deal, working through the Russians. This, I imagine, is probably true, since both Hizbullah and Future are pushing the story.
00:09:35: Saleh El-Machnouk (whom I’ve written about here and here) calls for a public demonstration against Hizbullah’s action in Syria, saying that the Lebanese people will never accept living in “a state of dishonor.” Al-Qusayr, he says, survived 22 days of relentless bombardment before the regime claimed victory. In 2006, he reminds the guests, when the IDF similarly struggled for several days to take the Lebanese village of Maroun al-Ras, Hizbullah called this “victory” a defeat that revealed the weakness of the Israeli army. “Today,” Machnouk says, “Hizbullah is Israel, and Nasrallah is Olmert. And the true resistance are the heroes of Qusayr and the Syrian people.”
00:25:20: Nawfal Daou reminds us that the first time we ever heard of Jabhat al-Nusra was in 2005, when Syria and its allies claimed that this group was behind the Hariri assassinations. “So either Jabhat al-Nusra are our allies and we’re paying money to people so that they can come kill us, or it’s a creation that someone else came up with in the first place.” (The subtext being that the Syrian regime is playing up the takfiri angle for its own gain.)
00:34:09: Marcel asks Salem Zahran to comment on the recent press statement by Louay Miqdad — the spokesman of the Free Syrian Army — to the effect that Syria would be Hizbullah’s graveyard. Zahran dismisses him, saying that he who laughs last laughs best.
01:09:40: Louay Miqdad calls in! He and Zahran proceed to take potshots at each other for several minutes. This is kind of remarkable, when you think about it: how often do you get to hear two military organizations trying to shape the narrative about a recent battle on live television? Try to imagine a U.S. Marine Corps spokesman debating an Al-Qaeda-sympathetic journalist on “Hardball with Chris Matthew” a couple days after the Second Battle of Fallujah…
01:17:30: There is a phone call from a member of the Arab Democratic Party (which represents the Alawites of Jabal Mohsen, in Tripoli). He complains about the treatment of the Alawites by the Sunnis of Bab al-Tebbaneh.
Immediately after that, we get a call from Ziad Allouki (at 1:19:00), the Sunni guy who had been accused just the day before of having an arms warehouse in Tripoli, and was wanted by the police. (Salem Zahran had presented the army intelligence report about the guy earlier in the show.) So Allouki calls in to clear his name! This is what I mean when I say that this show functions as a court of public opinion. Every week, multiple people call in (usually politicians or other public figures) to contest a statement made about them earlier in the show by one of their opponents. This was Allouki’s fifteen minutes of fame. (Get a load of the amazing Tripolitan accent on the guy…)
1:32:28: Mohamad Salam states the Future Movement’s position on the formation of a new government and the current challenge to the extension of the Parliament’s term being considered by the Constitutional Council. He states for the record that anyone who participates in a Hizbullah-led government is a traitor to Lebanon and to the Sunnis (this is directed at Salem Zahran, who is Sunni). He goes on to say that “Israel is our enemy and Hizbullah is our enemy, and Bashar al-Assad and his father are our oppressors. This is a war which will be decided one day soon. And he who laughs last, laughs best.”
Salem Zahran replies: “Why don’t you go help the Syrian revolution in Syria?” And Mohammad Salam replies: “No, I’m against that. The jihad is here in Lebanon.” When Nawfal Daou protests that they should both stop with this kind of language, Salam stupidly says that Daou’s religion is a forgiving one whereas “We are the people of retaliation. Our religion says: “In retaliation there is life for you, O ye men of understanding…” (Qur’an 2:179).
When Salam repeats his statement that anyone who participates in a Hizbullah-led government is a traitor, Zahran asks him: “Even if Saad al-Hariri is prime minister?” Salam replies: “Even if the Prophet Muhammad is prime minister.” Then all hell breaks loose…
Sunni-vs-Sunni sectarianism? Only in Lebanon.