Last week saw Iran’s staunchest allies squirming on television. President Assad
of Syria tried to enlist Barbara Walters while Hezbollah’s leader Hassan
Nasrallah briefly got out of his bunker
to comfort his worried
Though there is nothing to indicate that the move was a
concerted one in view of the military alliance between the two, it does show
that both men are acutely aware of the fact that the turmoil in Syria endangers
them and also their patron, Iran, while Shia influence wanes in the Middle
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There was something pathetic in the desperate efforts of the two
leaders to pretend that all was well. Assad made a fool of himself by earnestly
declaring in face of the evidence that it was not his forces that had killed
unarmed protesters and that only a crazy man would massacre his own
One wonders whether he is blind or does not want to see.
Casualties are piling up, resistance is not abating and he can’t stop it. Does
he believe that the tide can be stemmed forever? Has he become a tool in the
hands of a military junta led by his brother Maher whom some call a ruthless
murderer? Though Assad was desperate to enlist world public opinion against the
sanctions which are beginning to bite, he did not indicate by one word that he
was ready to quit or to start talking with the opposition.
A few days
later he said he was ready to accept the Arab League ultimatum – withdraw his
troops from urban centers and let in observers to check on the situation in
Syria – but only if the League canceled its sanctions.
In any case, it
appears too late to talk, the opposition being united in its call for Assad’s
departure. While the protests go on, there is now a “Free Syrian Army” made of
deserters from the regular army – officers and enlisted men – and numbering a
few thousand men.
It seems, at least at that stage, that the Syrian army
is not in danger of disintegration.
Assad is using mainly regiments
belonging to his own Alawite minority and as such fanatically devoted to the
Yet the combined effects of the protests, the attacks of the Free
Syrian Army and international pressure are taking their toll, while the
country’s economy unravels.
There is an all too real risk of civil war
which could lead to Syria being torn apart along ethnic and religious lines.
That may be why the Sunni middle class and the Christian and Kurdish minorities
are not keen to join the fray. Such is the case in the city of Aleppo, with its
two and a half million mainly Sunni inhabitants, who have so far remained on the
side lines. Hamas is reportedly considering leaving its Damascus headquarters
for safer pastures. Interestingly, Russia and China are still behind Assad –
realpolitik and economic interests being at work – but for how long? Syria’s
neighbors are increasingly worried.
Relations with Ankara are going from
bad to worse; Turkey is letting opposition movements such as the Syrian National
Council and the Free Syrian Army operate from its territory, and threatens to
set up a security zone along its border with Syria to protect civilians living
there; it has already implemented sanctions against its neighbor.
led Assad to close a number of border crossing and to impose a tax on goods
transiting through Syria on their way to Turkey.
Iraq, careful not to
anger Iran while maintaining its close ties to the United States, is being
cautious: It says it is in contact with opposition leaders (without naming them)
but is against sanctions and supports the efforts of the Arab
Jordan is doing all it can to stay neutral in order not to anger
Damascus and to preserve its vital trade with its powerful neighbor.
Lebanon, opposition leader Sa’ad Hariri is saying openly that Assad is on his
way out – peacefully or not.
A wary Israel keeps silent, fearing that the
dictator at bay might launch his missiles against the hated neighbor while
enjoining his Hezbollah ally to follow suit. An ally which does not feel so
secure right now.
On the occasion of the recent Ashura celebrations in
Beirut, Nasrallah made a rare appearance and hastened to go back to his bunker
to deliver a blistering attack via video on – you guessed it – the US and
Israeli dastardly plot against Syria conducted despite the fact that Assad was
trying to implement reforms. He told militants who watched on huge television
screens that Israel would pay the price of the changes taking place in the Arab
There was nothing new there, nothing to comfort his supporters,
especially after the head of the Syrian National Council had declared that after
the fall of Assad, Syria would cut off ties with Hezbollah and would open
negotiations to regain the Golan Heights by peaceful means. Nothing either to
explain why the whole world and the Arab league were siding with the protests
Another indication of Nasrallah’s waning influence is to
be found in the fact that a few days ago, he had to accept the decision of the
Lebanon’s Mikati government – a government he helped set up – to pay its share
of the cost of the proceedings at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon investigating
the assassination of Rafik Hariri – a court which has already issued warrants
against four high-ranking Hezbollah officers. Najib Mikati had threatened to
resign if Nasrallah blocked the move. Yet barely a year ago Hezbollah brought
about the fall of the Sa’ad Hariri government over that very issue. Today
Nasrallah had to swallow the bitter pill.
Hezbollah, with its tens of
thousands of missiles, nevertheless remain a very real threat to Israel – as
long as armaments keep flowing in from Syria. Should that flow come to a sudden
halt following a change of regime, it would be a near mortal blow for the
organization, which finds itself increasingly isolated inside Lebanon. We are
not there yet.
What is clear is that Iran suffered a serious setback in
its avowed policy of exporting its brand of Shia Islam revolution throughout the
Middle East. Should Syria fall, Iran’s bridgehead in the region will fall as
well, and with it the network of finance and armament keeping Hezbollah
As for the new Sunni regimes born of the popular uprisings, they
might not be too keen on collaborating with a fanatic Shia regime striving to
acquire nuclear weapons.
There is another considerable unknown: the
opposition in Iran. Will the winds of changes blowing in the region spur it into
renewed activity? This must be the question the ayatollahs are wrestling with
The writer, a fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs,
is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.