Why Hizballah is on Bashar Assad’s Side in Syria

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In yesterday’s address to his followers on the anniversary of the 2000 Israeli pullout from Lebanon, Hizballah chief Hassan Nasrullah was typically bombastic when it came to his views on supporting the desires of the Palestinian people to live in freedom. When it came to Syrians seeking to liberate themselves from a corrupt and dictatorial regime that has killed at least 1000 citizen protestors over the past two months, he was markedly less emphatic.

Syria, he said, “backed Lebanon and its Resistance [against Israel]. We cannot forget how much Syria embraced Lebanon.” He said that “data” proved that the majority of Syrians still backed the regime of President Bashar Assad, despite strong evidence of widespread protests. The exhortations to support Assad’s regime against the interest of the Syrian people prompted Syrian cyber-activist in exile Rami Nakhla to angrily tweet “Nasrallah, Today you support a criminal who kills his own people, for what, politics?” Later, he pointed out to me that the Assad regime has killed more people in the past nine weeks than Israel killed in the last war. “So if Nasrallah is a man of principal, where is the principal?” he asked. It’s a good question.

In his address Nasrallah warned that the collapse of Syria served US and Israeli interests. Never mind that the U.S. and Israel might disagree (Israel has a strong interest in keeping the status quo – with the Gaza crossing now open to Egypt, instability on its northern border with Syria could prove disastrous), the reality is that Syria under Assad serves Hizballah’s interest as well. It’s the only conduit for weapons from Iran to reach Hizballah’s base in Lebanon. A few hours after the speech, I met with a Lebanese arms smuggler who works for Hizballah. He had been up in the Bekaa valley, where party faithful gathered in front of a large television screen to watch as Nasrallah, Wizard of Oz-like, delivered his speech from an undisclosed location elsewhere in the country. Abu Jihad, as the arms dealer calls himself, initially told me that he thought that the speech was “inspirational.” But when I asked about Nasrallah’s support for the Syrian regime, the façade of fevered acolyte crumbled. “I hate Syria,” he said. “I don’t like the regime. They kill people and when they ruled in Lebanon we suffered. But in the current situation we need Syria. How else will Hezbollah get its weapons?”

I pointed out that support for Hizballah wasn’t limited to Assad alone, and that one of the reasons why he had remained in power so long was because he reflected popular support for the anti-Israel resistance. Abu Jihad agreed that no matter who ruled Syria, the foreign policy wasn’t likely to change. “But,” he said, “why take the risk?” Which in a curious way reflects the Israeli position on Syria as well. The old aphorism, ‘Better the devil you know,’ seems to be in full effect in Syria these days, no matter which side you are on. Unless of course, you are on the side of the protesters who know him best.