(photo credit: reuters)
Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon's Islamist Shiite party Hezbollah, publicly endorsed the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, calling on Syrians "to safeguard their country and its regime of resistance and steadfastness."
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"All indications show that a majority of the Syrian people still support this regime and support 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. "Assad believes in reform, and he is prepared to undertake far-reaching steps, but in peace, stride and responsibility."
Syria is Hezbollah's closest political ally in the Arab world and its main supplier of weaponry. The political alliance between the two was forged in 1990 when a reconciliation agreement between Hezbollah and its political Shiite rival Amal was signed in Damascus under Syrian patronage. A Lebanese Shiite cleric, Moussa Al-Sadr, recognized the heterodox Allawite sect to which the Assad family belongs as part of Shiite Islam.
"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 Hezbollah are all one front – the resistance alliance."
Shehadi said Nasrallah had decided to appeal to his pro-Assad Shi'ite constituents both in Syria and Lebanon, after recent documents exposed by the WikiLeaks website revealed that Hezbollah had no true allies within Lebanon's political scene. He said the Syria's opposition movement clearly identified Hezbollah with Assad.
"People are burning Hezbollah flags alongside Iranian ones in Syrian demonstrations," Shehadi said.
Official Lebanon has so far been cautious in its treatment of the crisis in Syria. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), Lebanese security forces have detained nine Syrian men and one child for allegedly crossing the border illegally since May 15. Lebanon returned three Syrian soldiers and the body of a fourth to Syria. The soldiers apparently protected fleeing Syrian refugees and where shot at by pro-regime gangs near the border, but Lebanese authorities said the men did not qualify for political asylum.
"Hezbollah runs Lebanon," Malik Al-Abdeh, a Syrian oppositionist living in London, told The Media Line, adding that Nasrallah's speech was an indicator to Bashar Assad's level of desperation.
"Nasrallah had to give this speech because of the dire situation of the Assad regime," Al-Abdeh told The Media Line. Hezbollah was clearly uncomfortable backing Assad so overtly, he added. "His silence so far reflects a desire not to be implicated in the atrocities taking place in Syria."
Al-Abdeh said that the fall of Assad's regime would not necessarily weaken Hezbollah, since the Lebanese party could benefit form a new and weak Syrian regime.
"Hezbollah won't be affected as much as people think," Al-Abdeh said. "The government which will eventually replace Assad will not be so strong, and Hezbollah could exploit the instability."
Omri Nir, a Lebanon expert at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said that 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 Shi'ite Hezbollah differed in their long-term strategies.
"For Nasrallah Syria is the lesser evil," Nir told The Media Line. "Nasrallah is clearly very nervous."
In his speech, Nasrallah lambasted the Dubai-based satellite station Al-Arabiya for supporting the Syrian revolutionary cause, while underreporting Hezbollah's anti-revolutionary message. On May 20, Al-Arabbiya interviewed Syrian oppositionist Mamoun Al-Homsi who accused Hezbollah of direct involvement in repressing the Syrian revolution.
"Today thousands of men from Hezbollah entered the grand Bani Umayyah mosque [in Damascus] and beat the youngsters inside, sending dozens to the hospital," Al-Homsi said. "What are Lebanese doing in the middle of the mosque with batons and knives? What is this brutality?"
Hezbollah spokesman Ibrahim Al-Musawi denied Al-Homsi's claims, but Nasrallah accused the station of broadcasting the denial only once while broadcasting the fallacious allegations "around the clock".
"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 said.
Many commentators have pointed to Nasrallah's hypocrisy, since he has publicly attacked Arab dictatorial suppression of popular revolutions 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," Nir of Hebrew University said.