Is Hezbollah beginning to dampen its enthusiasm for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad? The answer is probably no, but that question is being asked in diplomatic circles after indications that Hezbollah has toned down some of its rhetoric on the Syria crisis lately.
Most notably, in a speech in the middle of March, Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah declined to repeat accusations that the upheaval in Syria is the work of the West and allied Arab states to weaken a cornerstone of the anti-Israel ‘Axis of Resistance’, the pan-regional alliance that brings together Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, elements in Iraq and some Palestinian groups. Instead, he opted for a more conciliatory tone, stressing that only a political solution could end the bloodshed.
“Since day one, we have called on the Syrians to avoid carrying arms and adopt a political solution… It has been one year since the crisis began and no tangible results have been achieved,” he said. “There is only a political solution in Syria. That is [for both sides to] lay down arms simultaneously within an agreed-upon mechanism, in order to embark upon a clear political solution.”
Referring to a silent plurality in Syria that does not necessarily support the Assad regime but fears an alternative, Nasrallah said, “There are people who want reforms and not a civil war or partition. They want to continue [to resist Israel] and be loyal to Palestine. We are with them.”
When the revolt in Syria erupted a year ago, it posed a serious dilemma for Hezbollah, as well as Iran. Syria is a critical ally of Iran and Hezbollah, the geo-strategic lynchpin connecting the two that serves as a conduit for the flow of arms and provides strategic depth for the Resistance. The loss of Syria threatens the integrity of the alliance. However, offering unvarnished support for the Assad regime risked worsening already strained relations with the region’s Sunnis. Hezbollah has always championed intra-Muslim unity, believing that the schism between Shias and Sunnis distracts from the more pressing goal of confronting Israel. But the hostility of Syrian Sunnis towards Hezbollah has steadily grown over the past year as the uprising has taken on a more sectarian tone.
In dozens of interviews with Syrian refugees, activists and Free Syrian Army fighters, accusations have been leveled against Hezbollah for helping the Syrian government forces stamp out the rebellion. Some claim to have seen men “dressed in black with beards” kept separate from Syrian security forces. Others insist that the suspected Hezbollah men were speaking with Lebanese accents. Yet little concrete evidence has emerged that Hezbollah is fighting alongside Syrian troops to crush the protests.
In the early stages of the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Libya, Hezbollah sided with the rebels. Indeed, Hezbollah officials could barely disguise their glee at the sight of Hosni Mubarak, former Egyptian president and arch critic of Hezbollah, carried into court on a stretcher after his downfall. But when the Arab Spring came to Syria, Hezbollah changed its tune, opening the party up to charges of hypocrisy. Hezbollah, however, makes no apology for its seemingly contradictory stance toward Syria. The argument runs that Syria is deserving of Hezbollah’s support because of its rejectionist stance toward Israel and its support for the Resistance, unlike all the other countries subject to the Arab Spring revolts, which were allies of the West.
Nevertheless, Nasrallah must surely rue the lost opportunity that was available early in the crisis when the Syrian regime could have staunched the protests by embarking upon a genuine reform program, which would have left the regime in place but addressed some of the demands of the protestors. There is an argument, of course, that the Syrian regime cannot implement meaningful reforms without fatally weakening its hold on power.
Either way, Hezbollah has little choice for now but to follow Iran’s lead and continue backing the Syrian regime in the hope that it can eventually prevail. If the Assad regime collapses it will upset the strategic alignments across the region. In the — admittedly unlikely — event of a smooth transition to a Sunni-dominated regime in Damascus that realigns closer to Saudi Arabia and Turkey, Iraq could emerge as the new regional fault line between Iran and the Gulf states. That would leave Hezbollah still domestically strong, but regionally isolated on the shores of the Mediterranean with its Iranian patron on the other side of the Middle East.