Lebanese militants have been streaming into Syria in recent months to help that government in its war with the rebels—and by all accounts, they’ve been making a difference in an ongoing and critical battle in eastern Syria.
Desperate to slow that tide, Syrian rebels are trying a brutal new tactic to dissuade Hezbollah militants from crossing the border: They’re decapitating captured fighters and sending the heads back home to Lebanon, according to several reports and pictures posted on various sites.
One Israeli Facebook page called “News In SOS” quoted and translated Syrian rebel sources late last month saying they sent 40 Hezbollah fighters’ beheaded bodies to Beirut, and graphic photos of the heads have been popping up on some of the rebels’ Facebook and Twitter pages (like here and here and here).
Also late last month, Raad Hammadi, commander of the Syrian rebel group Bilal al-Habashi Battalion, told the Egyptian newspaper Al-Akhbar that he would spare no supporter of Hezbollah, and showed footage of three beheaded corpses he claimed belonged to Hezbollah members.
Outlets in Lebanon have also covered the phenomemon. The Lebanese news blog LebanonWindow published graphic photos of a Hezbollah fighter from the southern city of Nabatia who died in Syria, including details of how he was beheaded. (The translation of the caption is: “The photo of Hezbollah’s fighter Ali Eizz A-din Szim’s chopped head.”)
Lebanese militants have been piling into Syria since May in support of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the nearly three-year civil war. Many of the estimated thousands of militants are currently in Qalamoun, where they’ve been waging a brutal battle alongside the Syrian military against the rebel forces. It is not entirely clear which group of rebels in Qalamoun is responsible for the beheadings.
The rebels aren’t the only group in the Syrian war that is lopping off the heads of enemy fighters. The ISIS, an Al-Qaeda faction opposed to President Bashar Assad’s regime, has also beheaded captured fighters. According to the Daily Mail, the group has performed a number of public decapitations (often in front of young children), in which the captive is forced to kneel in the middle of a jeering crowd, and the captor beheads them triumphantly with a sword. The heads are then displayed as a show of victory.
Straddling Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, Qalamoun connects Damascus to Homs, two major Syrian cities. Those who control it have access to supplies from other areas. The regime wants to regain Qalamoun to secure a link between Damascus and the coastal province of Latakia, which is dominated by Assad’s Alawite sect. The rebels, meanwhile, depend on Qalamoun’s border with Lebanon to smuggle in supplies and weapons from supporters in Lebanon.
Hezbollah’s presence significantly strengthens the Syrian military’s fighting capacity in the war, which has reached something of a stalemate. The rebels, meanwhile, are trapped. In order to increase their chances of survival, they are hoping to scare Hezbollah’s fighters into staying on their side of the border.
Beheadings have a long history in the Middle East, both to intimidate people and to punish them. Saudi Arabia has beheaded women for various alleged crimes. Extremists in Iraq and Pakistan have beheaded soldiers and journalists. Jihadis in Sinai decapitated a man this summer for being Christian. The message from Syrian rebels to Hezbollah fighters is: If you cross the border, you won’t return in one piece.
Even some people who have had close ties to Hezbollah criticize its military intervention in the Syrian civil war. In an interview with Al Arabiya News, former Hezbollah Secretary-General Subhi al-Tufayli said that Hezbollah’s role as a unifier in the Islamic world has been tarnished. Al-Tufayli, whose current relationship to Hezbollah’s leadership isn’t clear, blames Iran’s control over the organization.
For its part, Hezbollah has been weakened by the war in neighboring Syria. The group has lost thousands of fighters, including key leaders, and has spent a lot of money and resources participating in the war. At the same time, it is losing its legitimacy as a political party inside Lebanon because of criticism of its involvement in Syria.
However, it is still the strongest organization in Lebanon, with one of the bigger rockets arsenal in the world. And of course, it has Iran’s ongoing backing. Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah declared a few short weeks ago that the group would stay in Syria for as long as needed.