Media overlook key player in Middle East crisis

As the U.S. media have focused on the Syrian civil war and Iran’s elections, news organizations have failed to concentrate on what I consider a key player in the equation: Hezbollah, the Shiite militia.

Having covered both al Qaeda and Hezbollah, I think the U.S. news outlets have placed too much emphasis in recent months on the Sunni group, al Qaeda, helping the Syrian rebels rather than the role of Lebanon-based Hezbollah aiding the Syrian government.

The powerful axis of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah is far more potent in the Middle East than any other military and political grouping other than Israel. That axis is likely to pit Sunnis versus Shiites throughout the world.

Hezbollah, which means “Party of God,” started in the early 1980s in Lebanon, engaging in terrorist attacks, including the first suicide bombers in the Middle East. Those attacks, all of which I reported for ABC News, left hundreds of people dead in two attacks, one on the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and a second against U.S. and French soldiers in 1983.

The organization hijacked a TWA aircraft in 1985 during which a Navy SEAL was executed and dozens of people, mainly Americans, were held hostage for two weeks. I covered that, too. Hezbollah’s military leader, a well-known bombmaker, helped plan the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center.

Hezbollah also controls much of the government of Lebanon and fought Israel to a virtual stalemate in 2006. Now the organization has gone into Syria to help the Alawite branch of the Shiite sect, which includes about 20 percent of all Muslims in the world.

The 17-day battle for Qusair in which Hezbollah provided the front-line fighters to rout the rebels may prove a turning point in the civil war. An estimated 1,200 specially trained urban troops pushed the rebels out of Qusair, which is on the northern border with Lebanon, after the Syrian military had failed to do so. The rebels fled in a virtual panic after their defenses failed miserably against Hezbollah. I think the rebels’ loss — more than the use of chemical weapons — is what spurred President Obama to step up his support of the rebels. Unfortunately, the arms shipments promised by the U.S. are far too little and far too late.

Another part of the Shiite equation in Syria is the mass media’s notion that Hasan Rowhani, the president-elect of Iran, provides an opportunity to speak with a “moderate” leader. That’s absolute silliness. Mr. Rowhani served as a member of the inner circle of Ayatollah Khomeini, who created one of the most brutal governments in recent history. As his country, which is predominantly Shiite, recently sent a force of an additional 4,000 Revolutionary Guards into Syria, Mr. Rowhani called for open elections there in 2014. Syrian President Bashar Assad won the last election in 2007 with 97 percent of the vote.

Rami Khouri, a longtime Middle East analyst for the Daily Star in Lebanon, wrote recently:

“Hezbollah reflects the dramatic and dangerous new directions in which many Middle Eastern actors navigate through crumbling edifices of Euro-manufactured statehood, battle each other for survival and cling to older, indigenous identities of sectarianism, ethnicity, tribalism and other subnational configurations.”

The United States did not root Hezbollah out of Lebanon in the 1980s and Israel failed to do so in the 2000s. As a result, before the U.S. government concludes that backing the Syrian opposition with insufficient arms and playing footsie with a new leader in Iran will bring any significant changes in Syria, the media and the Obama administration need to take a hard look at Hezbollah and its growing influence.

Christopher Harper is a professor at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at the Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20.”

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