Will Hizballah’s Support for Syria Lead To Its Downfall?

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Supporters of the Syrian regime wave flags and hold a picture of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah at a rally outside the Syrian embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, August 2011.

World leaders are often obliged to walk a thin line between national interest and the projection of a state’s moral values. The Arab Spring effectively put an end to the West’s balancing act as Europe and the U.S. were forced to abandon many of their long-term, authoritarian allies for the uncertainty of the democratic process, buoyed by this year’s monumental uprisings. Similarly, Middle Eastern nations spared their own revolutions are not immune; nor are the regional militant groups that have long depended on the patronage of tyrants. So when Hizballah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah, in his first public appearance in more than three years, stood up in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad on Tuesday, it surely induced a few schaudenfreude-laced chuckles in western capitals.

Hizballah formed as an armed anti-Israeli resistance group based in Lebanon, but it has come to stand as a stalwart against oppression of any kind in the region, be it Mubarak-era heavy-handed policing in Egypt or President Ali Saleh’s kleptocracy in Yemen. When the group celebrated the Arab revolutions last March, organizers flew Egyptian, Tunisian, Bahraini and Yemeni flags in solidarity alongside their own yellow banners. At that point Syria’s own revolution hadn’t quite gotten off the ground, but eight months, some 4,000 dead and an estimated 15,000 people detained later, Hizballah has yet to say a word against the regime. In fact, Nasrallah denounced the international sanctions, and repeated Assad’s tired canard about foreign influences (read the U.S. and Israel) driving the revolt.

That double standard doesn’t sit well with a new generation of Arabs who say Hizballah is doing exactly the same thing Nasrallah mocked U.S. President Barack Obama for at the beginning of the Egyptian revolution: supporting a tyrant just because of his stance on Israel. “They call themselves the party of resistance, of justice, but where is the justice?” asks Issa Hammoud, a documentary filmmaker who had been a decade-long member of Hizballah, until he left the group a few months ago in disgust over its pro-Syria policy. “By supporting Assad’s regime they are proving they have no morals.” Perhaps. But Hizballah is also demonstrating that self-interest often trumps values. While Iran is the group’s main financial and military backer, Syria provides a vital corridor for the transit of weapons and cash. Should the regime fall, Hizballah looses its strategic depth, says Thanassis Cambanis, author of A Privilege to Die: Inside Hizballah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel. “Without cooperation from Damascus, they would no longer have an air bridge in case of war.”

It’s not so much hypocrisy as practicality, says Lebanese journalist and Hizballah-watcher Omar Nashabe. For Hizballah, resistance embodies both a stand against government oppression and the rejection of Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. And if Syria supports Hizballah’s principal goal, then the group has no choice but to stand with the regime, no matter the fallout. Says Nashabe, “Hizballah’s first priority is to combat Israeli oppression because it considers it more harmful and destructive.”

Hammoud says there are thousands more like him in Lebanon who have become disillusioned with Hizballah for its pro-Syrian stance. Still, it’s not enough to do any immediate damage to the group, which enjoys fanatic loyalty from a large swath of the country that reveres it for its role in ejecting Israel during the civil war. “They are being pragmatic. Even if they loose the support of 2000, 5000 people, they don’t care. What they get from Syria and Iran is far more important.”

That may be the case, says Cambanis, but over the long term it may spell an end to a group whose reputation for unceasing defense of oppressed and marginalized Muslims across the Arab world has transcended class, nationality, sect and even religiosity. In Lebanon, where a Hizballah-led government has been in power since January, it could mean that the group loses politically as coalition members defect. “Seculars, Christians—those who bought into the idea of Islamic resistance. Those folks will get disgusted. They will turn on Hizballah,” says Cambanis. As much as the Lebanese back Hizballah, many loathe Syria, which occupied the country militarily from the end of the civil war till 2005. Many blame Syria for the as-of-yet unsolved assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005.

A lessening of political power in Lebanon would be coupled with decreased relevance throughout the region. For years Hizballah was synonymous with defiance against Israel, particularly for the citizens of Egypt who decried Mubarak’s accommodation of the hated state. With Mubarak gone, and a new Israel policy in flux, Hizballah could find that it no longer dominates the anti-Israel space. “Hizballah is not the only game in town anymore,” says Cambanis. “As a result of the Arab Spring we now have authentic indigenous groups that oppose Israel. Egypt might be moving to a model where they challenge Israel politically without trying to start a war, where they can offer an alternative to armed resistance.”

For Syrians of course, the betrayal is even more sharply felt. During the wars with Israel, Hizballah members and their families sought refuge among Syrians across the border with Lebanon. In many cases they are the same Syrians who are now suffering so acutely from the regime crackdown. To see Hizballah repudiate the anti-Assad resistance is the worst kind of betrayal, says Ahmed Moussa, a spokesman for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. “Hizballah means ‘Party of God,’ but we don’t call them that any more. What Hizballah is doing now is Satan’s work, so now we call them Hezb-e-Shaitan [party of the devil].”

With reporting by Rami Aysha/Beirut

Aryn Baker is TIME’s Middle East Bureau Chief, based in Beirut. Find her on Twitter at @arynebaker. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEWorld.