Daily Israel Report

Hizbullah Cornered By Syria Unrest

Lebanese terror faction Hizbullah has found itself unpopular in Syria with little room to maneuver as it backs Assad.
By Gabe Kahn.
First Publish: 7/26/2011, 6:01 PM

Ongoing opposition protests in Syria has left key Assad regime ally Hizbullah in a tight spot and prompted the Lebanese terror group to take a circumspect view, Lebanon's Daily Star reports.

"Hizbullah's margin of maneuver is currently very limited because the strategic Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis is threatened by the revolt, which forces the group to act prudently," said Paris-based Middle East expert Agnes Levallois.

Shiite Hizbullah, also backed by Iran, is the most powerful paramilitary group in Lebanon – even more powerful than Lebanon's Army – and is a powerful force behind player in the new government formed in Beirut last month.

But the unrest in Syria has caught Hizbullah off guard and left it in a tenuous position, analysts say.

"Hizbollah initially thought the Syrian regime would be able to quickly put down the revolt and that it would not be affected," Levallois told AFP.

"But with the revolt showing no signs of dying down, Hizbullah is realizing that it needs to protect itself by commenting little on the situation in Syria so as not to be at odds with what is happening on the ground and not to alienate itself," she added.

Hizbullah has adopted the Syrian regime's party line in blaming the unrest on armed extremist gangs and outside agitators, prompting anger in Syria where protesters have burned pictures of Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah in effigy.

Nasrallah has also been criticized for acting like a "Syrian television presenter," prompting the terror group to adopt a more low-key approach.

"The Syrian regime became aware that Nasrallah's popularity was not serving its interest in this case, but quite the contrary," said Paul Salem, head of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Centre.

The deep crisis threatening the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad could also impact on Hezbollah's weapons supply through Iran and Syria, analysts believe.

Intelligence officials estimate that Hezbollah has amassed an arsenal of more than 40,000 short- and medium-range missiles which the party has said could reach deep into Israel.

"There is no question that they are worried, because if the regime [in Syria] collapses, that would affect them strategically speaking, especially if the new regime that takes over is keen on exacting revenge on Iran and Hezbollah," Salem said.

"If there is chaos, a new regime or a continuation of the current regime, which has been weakened, all of these scenarios don't bode well for Hezbollah," he added.

The terror groups populist image image has also been dented given its support for the other revolutions shaking the Arab world, including Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, but not Syria.

"Nasrallah is torn between his support for Assad's regime and his image as a resistance leader keen on defending the people's rights," Levallois said.

Nadim Shehadeh, a fellow at the London-based Chatham House, said Hezbollah was in a bind given the platform on which it has built support.

"Their power is based on such big words as freedom and liberation and their constituency follows them blindly on this," he told AFP.

"But they supported the Arab spring in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Libya, everywhere except Syria, and that is contradictory," Shehadeh said.