Lebanon's Hezbollah was, until a few years ago, an inspiration to millions of people in the Middle East and around the world. It was a symbol of heroic resistance putting up a long fight to liberate the occupied territories of south Lebanon and continuing to stand up to Israeli aggression post-liberation.
There was a time when Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader, was hailed as “master of the resistance”. His pictures were posted all over Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and were treasured by households across the Arab world. When he gave one of his usually long speeches, people were glued to TV sets and his Almanar satellite TV channel was no less popular than Al Jazeera itself. Many Palestinians truly believed Nasrallah was such a great resistance leader and they wished they had someone like him to lead their own resistance.
Yet today Hezbollah has lost much of the popular support and sympathy it once enjoyed and its leader Nasrallah is ridiculed and condemned by many of those who previously adored him. It is fighting a completely different type of war. Acting upon instructions from its sponsors in Tehran, where a reactionary clerical regime reigns, it is fighting a war in defence of a corrupt despotic regime that reigns in Damascus.
Unlike Hezbollah, Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement – which saw itself as a partner of Hezbollah in the struggle against Zionism, refused to bow to pressure from the Iranians. Although Syria was, according to Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, the best haven Hamas ever had outside Palestine, the movement opted to sacrifice all the privileges it had there so as to avoid taking any part in oppressing the Syrian people.
Since leaving Damascus four years ago, Meshaal turned down several invitations from the Iranians to visit Tehran, whose rulers made his visit a precondition for the resumption of any financial aid. Undoubtedly, the Syrian crisis drove deep a wedge between Hamas on the one hand and Hezbollah and Iran on the other.
Since the war started more than four years ago, there have been numerous reports of war crimes perpetrated by Hezbollah troops and other Iranian-sponsored Shia militias in various parts of Syria. Yet nothing has been as shocking as what Hezbollah is accused of perpetrating these days.
Videos and images coming out of the district of Madaya on the outskirts of Damascus are reminiscent of World War II images of concentration camp victims of Nazism. Men, women and children have been dying daily due to starvation and harsh winter weather. The victims and activists seeking to bring their plight to world attention have accused Hezbollah forces of laying siege to the district preventing any passage of aid to its several thousand inhabitants. The tragedy is that this was one of the Syrian districts that provided shelter to Lebanese pro-Hezbollah communities when they were forced to flee their towns and villages in the south of Lebanon when Israel waged its devastating July 2006 war against them.
Iran and Hezbollah, who both once claimed to stand in support of the oppressed in this world, are today tools of oppression, tormenting and persecuting the Syrian people. Both Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsor are equal partners with the Assad regime and bear responsibility for the millions who have fled their homes, the hundreds of thousands who have been killed and the many thousands who are today being starved to death.
Yet, Iran and Hezbollah would not have had a free hand to kill, maim and torture the Syrian population had it not been for an international community that seemed unbothered with what was going on. Regional and international players have had their own reckoning and their own priorities. Throughout the past four years, the United States and its Western allies had their eyes set on the goal of concluding a deal with Iran over its nuclear programme.
In order to guarantee themselves success they were keen not to provoke the Iranians or alienate them. At the same time, these Western powers, together with many regional ones, deemed it unhelpful to them for democratic transition to succeed anywhere in the Arab world lest it might deliver to power groups with which they shared little vision if any at all.
The only thing that seems to be worth the attention of the international community has been the war on terrorism, which means specifically the campaign targeting Sunni Islamic groups from the most extreme, such as the Islamic State (IS) group, to the most moderate such as the Muslim Brotherhood. The irony is that IS emerged and rose to prominence only after the Muslim Brotherhood's peaceful quest for democratisation was frustrated, particularly following the military coup in Egypt and the tragedy of Rabaa. We are yet to see what the tragedy of Syria's Madaya will unleash.
Azzam Tamimi is a Palestinian British academic and chairman of Alhiwar TV Channel. His books include: Hamas: Unwritten Chapters (Hurst, 2007) and Rachid Ghannouchi: a Democrat within Islamism (OUP, 2001).