Loyalty to Syrian President Could Isolate Hezbollah (NY) TIMES) By ANNE BARNARD BEIRUT, Lebanon 04/06/12)
NEW YORK TIMES
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BEIRUT, Lebanon — Mazen, a carpenter who organizes protests against
President Bashar al-Assad in a suburb of Damascus, Syria, has torn
down the posters of Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, that
once decorated his car and shop.
Like many Syrians, Mazen, 35, revered Mr. Nasrallah for his
confrontational stance with Israel. He considered Hezbollah, the
Lebanese militant group and political party, as an Arab champion of
the dispossessed, not just for its Shiite Muslim base but for Sunnis
like himself. But now that Hezbollah has stood by Mr. Assad during
his deadly yearlong crackdown on the uprising against his rule, Mazen
sees Hezbollah as a sectarian party that supports Mr. Assad because
his opponents are mainly Sunnis.
“Now, I hate Hezbollah,” he said. “Nasrallah should stand with the
people’s revolution if he believes in God.”
Mr. Nasrallah’s decision to maintain his critical alliance with Syria
has risked Hezbollah’s standing and its attempts to build pan-Islamic
ties in Lebanon and the wider Arab world.
Though Hezbollah’s base in Lebanon remains strong, it runs an
increasing risk of finding itself isolated, possibly caught up in a
sectarian war between its patron, Iran, the region’s Shiite power,
and Saudi Arabia, a protector of Sunni interests in the Middle East.
Its longtime ally, Hamas, the Palestinian militant group, has
distanced itself from the Assad government, moving its headquarters
out of Damascus, and Sunni revolutionaries in Syria have explicitly
denounced Hezbollah as an enemy. At home, its Lebanese rivals sense a
rare opportunity to erode its power.
In a delicate adjustment in the face of these new realities — and the
resilience of the uprising — Hezbollah has shifted its tone. In
carefully calibrated speeches last month, Mr. Nasrallah gently but
firmly signaled that Mr. Assad could not crush the uprising by force
and must lay down arms and seek a political settlement. He implicitly
acknowledged the growing moral outrage in the wider Muslim world at
the mounting death toll, obliquely noted that the Syrian government
was accused of “targeting civilians” and urged Mr. Assad to “present
the facts to the people.”
Behind the scenes, Mr. Nasrallah personally tried to start a
reconciliation process in Syria early in the uprising and is now
renewing those efforts, said Ali Barakeh, a Hamas official involved
in the talks.
“He refuses the killing for both sides,” said Mr. Barakeh, the Beirut
representative for Hamas.
Mr. Barakeh said that Mr. Nasrallah visited Damascus in April of last
year and briefly persuaded Mr. Assad to try to reach a political
solution, with Hezbollah and Hamas acting as mediators. But as Hamas
began reaching out to fellow Sunni Muslims in the opposition, the
plan was scuttled by the Syrian government.
Hezbollah rarely allows official interviews and has refused them for
months. But supporters and current and former party activists suggest
that the situation is fueling fears of an anti-Shiite backlash and is
testing loyalists who must explain the party’s position to others,
Mr. Nasrallah is tempering his position because he wants to avoid
asking supporters to endure another war, said a former student
activist who spends hours defending the party on Facebook, arguing,
for example, that rogue forces, not Mr. Assad, are responsible for
Mr. Nasrallah “doesn’t want supporters to suffer,” said the woman,
who works at a Hezbollah foundation, adding that some still
feel “broken inside” from the 2006 war with Israel and “don’t want
Syria’s conflict is testing Hezbollah’s longstanding contradictions.
It relies on public support, yet sometimes behaves autocratically; it
is a national group founded to fight Israel’s occupation of southern
Lebanon, but owes its military might — and the funds that rebuilt the
south after the 2006 war — to Iran’s desire to project power; and it
styles itself pan-Islamic, but it depends on rock-solid support from
Lebanese Shiites for whom it won long-denied power as it became the
Middle East’s most formidable militant group and Lebanon’s strongest
Most of all, Hezbollah won respect by sticking to its principles,
even among rival sects and the leftist cafe regulars in Beirut who
are skeptical of its religious conservatism. Now it is paying a price
for its politics of pragmatism in Syria.
To a young, college-educated health care worker who is a lifelong
supporter of Hezbollah, the party’s support of Mr. Assad keeps faith
with the most important principle of all: opposing Israel.
“This revolution is not made in Syria,” she told friends at a seaside
cafe in Sidon, Lebanon, after shopping at a shiny new mall. “The real
target is Lebanon and the resistance.”
Echoing the party line, she said that the United States and its Arab
allies fomented Syria’s revolt to punish Hezbollah for fighting the
Israelis in 2006.
But that argument has frayed. Hamas, unable to disown Syria’s Sunni
revolutionaries, declared itself neutral, angering Mr. Assad, and
then moved its leadership from Damascus. Some Hamas leaders from Gaza
went further, praising the Syrian revolution to crowds that
shout, “No, no, Hezbollah.”
Deprived of Hamas’s political cover, Hezbollah has been accused of
sectarian hatred, and has been its target as well. Syrian rebels have
burned the Hezbollah flag, claimed that its snipers are killing
civilians in Syria, and named their brigades after historic warriors
who defeated Shiites in Islam’s early schismatic battles. Early on,
some analysts thought that if a Sunni government would arise in
Damascus it might support Hezbollah against Israel. But now, says
Michael Wahid Hanna of the Century Foundation, Hezbollah may have
missed a chance to hedge its bets.
Hezbollah’s supporters, none of whom wished to be identified because
the party discourages interviews with reporters, framed their fears
in sectarian terms. One worried that if Sunnis came to power in
Syria, they would bar Shiites access to shrines there and in Iraq, as
prophesied in a Shiite text. Another supporter thought Sunni
extremists might bomb Hezbollah areas.
Hezbollah seems in no danger of losing its most hard-core supporters.
But some of its loyalists have questions.
In the Sidon cafe, the health worker declared that Syrians, with free
education and medical care, had no reason to rebel. Her friend, a
Shiite from Hezbollah’s heartland in southern Lebanon,
disagreed. “They have things,” she said, “but they are fighting for
A supporter in the Dahiya, Hezbollah’s Beirut stronghold, said that
Al Jazeera, the television news network, was faking atrocities and
blaming the government for them. A friend mocked him: Mr. Assad’s
fall would be bad for Shiites, he said, but he is “slaughtering his
A Hezbollah party member said that government shelling had killed
many civilians, but it was justified because the victims had let the
rebels use their houses “as bunkers.” Israel used a similar argument,
which Hezbollah condemned, to defend its bombing of Hezbollah
neighborhoods in 2006.
Mr. Barakeh of Hamas suggested that Hezbollah’s leaders, who prize
their reputations for morality, were troubled by the “killing of
innocents” on both sides and knew that the government was not
blameless. “They are aware,” he said.
He said he spoke with Mr. Nasrallah for five hours on March 9,
telling him that neither side could win by force. On March 14,
Hezbollah again blessed Hamas’s efforts to engage the opposition
through its contacts in the Muslim Brotherhood, the pro-Hezbollah
newspaper Assafir reported.
The next day, as Mr. Assad insisted that the rebels stop shooting
first, Mr. Nasrallah called on all Syrians — “people, regime, state,
army” — to lay down their arms “simultaneously.”
He later called for “serious and genuine” reforms. Citing
religious, “pan-Arab and moral considerations,” he said a political
solution was the duty of all “whose hearts are throbbing with
sympathy for the Syrian people — men, women, children and elderly.”
It was a dig at Saudi Arabia for trying to arm the rebels, but also
nodded at regional anguish over the killing.
Even for Hezbollah loyalists who call Syria’s revolt foreign-
inspired, the idea of revolution has a natural resonance.
“Arab people need to wake up,” the former student activist said at
her office. “How do you spend your day, Arab guy? Watching Lady Gaga.
Smoking argileh,” the traditional water pipe.
She fantasized about a “clean and pure” revolution in the Arab
world. “If it was real, if it was really the people’s will,” she
said, “it wouldn’t just be good, it would be great.”
An employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Syria,
and Ed Ou from Aarsel, Lebanon. (Copyright 2012 The New York Times
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