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Hizbullah Leader Comes to the Rescue of his Syrian Patron

May 30, 2011
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“All indications show that a majority of the Syrian people still support this regime and support Al-Assad,” Nasrallah told a crowd gathered in the eastern Lebanese town of Nabi Sheet on Wednesday to celebrate the 11th anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon. “Al-Assad believes in reform, and he is prepared to undertake far-reaching steps, but in a peaceful, orderly and responsible manner.”

Ensnared by contradictory impulses and conflicting demands, the Shiite leader hesitated to back Al-Assad, analysts say. On the one hand, the regime in Damascus is an ideological partner in the fight against Israel and many Shiites inside and outside Syria support the embattled president. On the other, Hizbullah doesn’t want to be associated with the atrocities in Syria and looks hypocritical supporting Arab Spring rebels everywhere but Syria.

Malik Al-Abdeh, a Syrian oppositionist living in London, told The Media Line that the fact that Nasrallah finally came down on the side of backing Al-Assad is a signal of how desperate he sees the Syrian president’s situation. Hizbullah is clearly uncomfortable backing Al-Assad so overtly, he added.

“His silence until now reflected a desire not to be implicated in the atrocities taking place in Syria,” Al-Abdeh said. “Nasrallah had to give this speech because of the dire situation of the Al-Assad regime.”

Neither a brutal crackdown on protestors nor repeated promises of political reforms have succeeded in ending the mass protests in Syria.  

Indeed, the crackdown has upset many Lebanese and Hizbullah is taking great pains to be disassociated from it. Both the Shiite movement and Iran have been cited by dissidents as helping Al-Assad in the crackdown

“People are burning Hizbullah flags alongside Iranian ones in Syrian demonstrations,” Nadim Shehadi, a Lebanon researcher at Chatham House, a London-based think tank, told The Media Line.          

Embarrassingly for Hizbullah, the Dubai-based satellite television station Al-Arabiya broadcast an interview with Syrian oppositionist Mamoun Al-Homsi, who accused Hizbullah of direct involvement in helping Al-Assad suppress protests. “Today thousands of men from Hizbullah entered the grand Bani Umayyah mosque [in Damascus] and beat the youngsters inside, sending dozens to the hospital,” Al-Homsi told the interview last Friday [May 20]. “What are Lebanese doing in the middle of the mosque with batons and knives? What is this brutality?”

In his speech, Nasrallah took the trouble to lambast Al-Arabiya, accusing it of broadcasting the allegations “around the clock” while airing the group’s denial of complicity only once.

“I tell all the lying satellite stations, newspapers and websites in the Arab world… it is not our responsibility to militarily intervene in any Arab country. But, if one day we were to enter a battlefield, we will have the courage to say that we are fighting and being martyred,” Nasrallah declared.

Lebanon, where Hizbullah has been engaged in a months-long effort to form a coalition government that it can dominate its political opponents, have pointed to Nasrallah’s hypocrisy on the Arab Spring. The Hizbullah leader publicly attacked suppression of popular revolutions by the regime in Egypt and Tunisia but remained silent when unrest and suppression reached Syria.

“[Former Lebanese Prime Minister] Saad Hariri had taunted Nasrallah, saying he viewed himself as the ‘spiritual leader’ of Arab revolutions,” Omri Nir, a Lebanon expert at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem said, referring to the Lebanese prime minister forced out of office in order to make way for a coalition more to his [Nasrallah’s] liking. Nevertheless, Nasrallah had little choice but to openly side with his patron [Syria] and endure the political attack. “For Nasrallah, Al-Assad is the lesser evil,” Nir told The Media Line. “Nasrallah is clearly very nervous.”       

Syria is Hizbullah’s only political ally in the Arab world and its main supplier of weaponry. The alliance was forged in 1990 when a reconciliation agreement between Hizbullah and its political Shiite rival Amal was signed in Damascus under Syrian auspices and has grown stronger after Bashar took over as Syrian president from his father in 2000.

Both Hizbullah and the Syrian regime see opposing Israel as a central tenet of their raison d’etre. “Nasrallah’s speech doesn’t surprise me,” Nadim Shehadi, a Lebanon researcher at Chatham House, a London-based think tank, told The Media Line. “In his mind, Syria, Iran and Hizballah are all one front—the resistance alliance.”

Nasrallah’s fear of a religious Sunni regime taking root in Syria stimulated him to break his silence, even though the secular Syrian regime and the religious Shiite Hizbullah differed in their long-term strategies.

A Lebanese Shiite cleric, Moussa Sadr, recognized the heterodox Allawite sect to which the Al-Asad family belongs as part of Shiite Islam. But, in fact, the Al-Assad family and its Ba’ath Party are ideologically committed to secularism, a principal that is anathema to Hizbullah. Many analysts regard the alliance as a marriage of convenience; the Shiite movement could manage without Damascus.

Al-Abdeh, the Syrian dissident in London, said the fall of Al-Assad’s regime would not necessarily weaken Hizbullah, since the Lebanese party could benefit from a new and weak Syrian regime.

“Hizbullah won’t be affected as much as people think,” Al-Abdeh said. “The government which will eventually replace Al-Assad will not be so strong, and Hizbullah could exploit the instability.”

Posted on May 30, 2011

Source: (Excerpts of an article by David Miller, The Media Line, May 26, 2011)

Photo Credit: The Media Line

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