Syria uprising stirs old divisions in neighboring Lebanon

Beirutis rally against Assad's crackdown; Protesters in Syria burn Hezbollah flags as Nasrallah stands behind Damascus.

By OREN KESSLER
August 10, 2011 20:04
3 minute read.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah

Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah 311 (R). (photo credit: Reuters)

Syria’s crackdown is intensifying old divisions in neighboring Lebanon, where the ruling pro-Damascus bloc led by Hezbollah is pitted in a war of words, with opposition groups denouncing the violent five-month counter-insurgency.

Some 800 people took to the streets of the Lebanese capital Monday to rally against Syrian President Bashar Assad, and police were called in to contain the smaller pro-Syrian rallies that followed. The protest was largely peaceful, with demonstrators shouting, “Syria wants freedom,” “Anyone who kills his people is a murderer and a coward,” and “the people want an end to the regime,” Beirut’s Daily Star newspaper reported.

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Meanwhile, in several locations in Syria this week protesters enraged at Hezbollah’s support for Damascus burned the extremist group’s flags and images of its leader Hassan Nasrallah.

Hezbollah has supported popular uprisings in Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Tunisia – but publicly sided with Iran and Syria in their own violent repressions of dissent.

“Hezbollah always criticizes the double standards of the West, but it has done worse,” Amjad, a protester from the Syrian city of Hama, told the Associated Press. “We feel betrayed.”

Syria ended its three-decade military and political occupation of Syria in 2005, but Lebanese politics remain divided along lines of loyalty to Damascus and its benefactor Iran. Those rivalries – many rooted in old enmities of ethnicity and religion – have now been exacerbated by the seemingly open-ended turmoil unfolding next door.

Much of the debate is playing out in Lebanon’s feisty, sectarian press.

On Tuesday, the pan-Arab daily As-Safir quoted Prime Minister Najib Mikati – derided by the opposition as a Hezbollah puppet – insisting Lebanon would maintain “neutrality” over Syria, and defended its recent abstention from a UN Security Council condemnation of the Assad regime.

Michel Aoun, head of the predominantly Christian, Hezbollah-linked Free Patriotic Movement, dismissed the Syrian uprising as “minor incidents in a neighborhood or two in Homs.”

Aoun, a former Lebanese army commander, accused the West of trying to divide Syria to serve the interests of Israel by pushing Damascus to cut ties with Iran, and with the Islamic Republic’s proxies Hezbollah and Hamas.

The same day, Lebanese Armed Forces Chief Samir Geagea told the left-wing daily Al-Akhbar that Lebanon would have voted in favor of a condemnation had the government not been dominated by the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance.

“If Lebanon was under a different government we would have placed sanctions on the Syrian regime,” Geagea said.

Al-Mustaqbal, a paper founded by slain ex-premier Rafik Hariri and supportive of Hariri’s son Saad’s opposition alliance, slammed Lebanon’s failure to denounce the Assad government’s “massacres.” The younger Hariri praised the uprising, telling the paper of the Syrian people’s “legitimate right to freedom, reform and change.” (Four Hezbollah operatives have been summoned by a special UN tribunal on charges of involvement in Rafik Hariri’s 2005 assassination.) Hezbollah has walked a fine line in reacting to the Syrian uprising. Though it has unwaveringly backed Assad, the group rejected outright any charges that it has contributed its own fighters to the counterinsurgency.

Nasrallah has commented comparatively little about Syria recently, apparently changing tack after a miscalculated comment early in the uprising earned him the opprobrium of disaffected Syrians.

“Toppling the resistance regime in Syria, which is ready for reform, would provide a great service to Israel and to US-American control over the region,” he said several months ago.

Hezbollah owes much of its popularity in Lebanon and the region to its image as the torchbearer in the fight against Israel.

Now – with four of its members wanted for the murder of a prime minister, and its own leader backing a foreign ruler killing thousands of his own citizens – Hezbollah may need more than slogans of “resistance” to maintain its grip on Lebanon.

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