The Middle East Channel

Hezbollah's subtle shift on Syria

After one year of doubling down on their support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Lebanon's Hezbollah has finally shifted its public position on the regime, albeit with great subtlety and in an extremely measured fashion. The pivot point came during a lengthy, televised speech delivered on March 15 by the party's longstanding secretary-general, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah. Speaking to hundreds of students mainly on the subject of illiteracy and the dire need for greater access to education in the Arab world, Nasrallah eventually turned to the anti-government protests in Syria that began in March 2011.

Almost from the outset, he was especially frank in equating the opposition and the Assad regime, urging -- even pleading for -- a negotiated political solution where both sides first "simultaneously" lay down their weapons (a call subsequently made by the U.N. Security Council). "These matters cannot be dealt with by fighting, confrontations, wars, or by inviting foreign military intervention," Nasrallah stressed, an intimation that, while some in the opposition should be blamed for calling for external intervention, the regime also bore at least some responsibility, since its actions had (quite obtusely) moved the possibility of intervention to the forefront of the international discourse. But he had more specific demands of the regime, too.

"All forms of massacres and the targeting of civilians and innocent people are to be condemned," he said. "Now the opposition is accusing the regime and the regime is accusing the opposition. One of the regime's responsibilities today is to present the facts to the people. Those who have the facts should present them. Leveling accusations left and right is an easy thing to do but the main thing is that the massacres deserve to be condemned...All forms of killing must stop [emphasis added]."

What explains his heightened sense of urgency on these matters -- ever a function of the many constituencies that he must constantly juggle? Nasrallah argued that a great unravelling in the Middle East accompanied by extreme violence is fast coming into focus."We are apprehensive," he said, "that Syria, and hence the region, might be divided. We are afraid of a civil war, anarchy, and the weakening of Syria and its position as a pan-Arab force in the Arab-Israeli struggle and a genuine backer for the resistance movements in the region [emphasis added]." Of course, Nasrallah has long acknowledged these concerns, and said, during his speech, that he was merely reiterating this specific point of concern.

What was different, however, was that alongside an unmistakable sense of alarm was an acknowledgement that, after months of predicting the regime would get the upper hand, the situation has instead stalled just at the edge of chaos. The critical question that now follows is how will Hezbollah approach a further deterioration in Syria -- a still likely outcome -- in the coming phase?

Unfortunately for proponents of militarizing the situation, and also those hopeful of violently "declawing" Hezbollah, Nasrallah's new rhetoric does not aid the oft-repeated assertion that, in the event of a bloody Syrian regime collapse, Hezbollah would just absorb the major strategic and ideological blow with a minimal (or symbolic) response. (The corollary myth, it should be pointed out, has been that Iran would similarly limit its response in a militarized event and that Assad diehards, for their part, would also not want or be able to do much harm in their waning moments).

Indeed, he suggested that Hezbollah, together with "the part of the Syrian people" who steadfastly reject what the party believes is essentially a pro-Zionist push for supremacy over the Levant, will necessarily be forced to use counterforce at some point -- the logic of resistance -- to defend mutual interests so clearly threatened by a direct attack on the regime. "We tell our Syrian bothers," Nasrallah clarified, "people, regime, state, army, parties, and political forces -- your blood is our blood, your future is our future, your life is our life, and our security and fate are one."

Ironically then, Nasrallah actually ends up where so many regime opponents who believe in a direct confrontation are now: in the absence of a viable political track, the only way to stave off total chaos, massive violence, and a collapse of one's vital interests will be to introduce decisive counter-violence to the picture.

What is perhaps new here -- and more frightening -- is that Nasrallah now also seems publicly concerned that the Assad regime, and not just the opposition and its external allies, are pushing everyone along a path to war, including Hezbollah. The brutal truth then for Nasrallah is that after having so tightly wed his party to Assad, Hezbollah's own agency in these vital matters -- existential matters as he repeatedly declares -- has been severely undercut. This means that even if Hezbollah would prefer to keep relatively quiet in the event of a violent regime collapse, Nasrallah feels he might now have no choice in the matter if things continue as they have. After all, if we only take his suggestion that Assad's forces are killing women and children in cold blood, then the party understands perfectly well that this regime will also have little regard for sucking its ally into a regional conflict whose timing, scope, and terrain the party would realistically prefer to avoid for now.

As if this was not enough, Hezbollah also knows that there are a multitude of ways by which Assad and his minions could go about accomplishing this task with relative ease -- not least by pulling Israel and Hezbollah into yet another conflict which both parties ideologically crave and which both will be enormously hard pressed to limit, given the underlying mechanics of the relationship.

Even so, all may not be lost or given over only to even more violence.

Assad's regime has been significantly weakened over the past few months, evidently less as a result of any fighting and external intervention than as a result of its own wanton and strategically stupid actions. It may have the upper hand, at least for the moment, on the field of battle, but it has done enormous damage to its moral, ideological, economic, political, and diplomatic standing.

Further, Hamas has abandoned Assad. Russia and China have at least some limits to their support, even if these are only slowly coming into focus. And Nasrallah, still one of the most popular leaders in the Middle East, is apparently trying to grab back some leverage over the pace of events by publically rebuking the regime to stop fanning the violence before it's logic overwhelms everyone and Hezbollah is forced, willingly or not, to "resist." Crucially, too, the United States has privately and publically rejected the path of increased militarization of the Syrian conflict and even signaled a willingness to step back from the demand Assad himself must go as a precondition for any political process.

When you add up all of these factors, now might be exactly the time to get the severely wounded regime caught up in a concerted international process that begins protecting Syrians while slowly and steadily draining Assad's ability and desire to exercise violence. This may not be an ideal situation since the regime's brutality will likely continue and the democratic aspirations of Syrians will only be met gradually. But the alternative of full-blown civil war, and quite possibly a regional war, would be far worse.

Hezbollah, for one, now seems ready to succumb to this logic -- and encourage the regime to bend -- if such a process rejects the use and encouragement of more direct violence. Without this key proviso, however, Nasrallah will likely find himself in the distasteful position of going to battle on the side of an ally that has done so much to undermine the party's claim to represent the weak and the oppressed.

Nicholas Noe is the editor of "Voice of Hezbollah: The Statements of Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah" and writes a weekly column for Bloomberg View.

AFP/Getty images

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