Hizbullah's Image in Tatters Over Syria Crackdown


As Syria's crackdown on protesters gets bloodier, it is having repercussions for one of Damascus' most crucial allies, eroding the reputation of Hizbullah.

At recent protests, Syrians demonstrating against President Bashar Assad have also unleashed their anger at Hizbullah over its blunt support for the regime. Some protesters have set fire to the yellow flag of Hizbullah and pictures of the group's leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.

Such outcry is startling in a country that prides itself for being a bastion of resistance against the U.S. and Israel and has lionized Hizbullah. Syrians and Arabs around the region have in recent years elevated Nasrallah to the status of a nationalist hero after his guerrillas' 2006 war with Israel, and posters of the turbaned, bearded sayyed are one of the top selling items in Syrian souvenir shops.

The anger at Hizbullah illustrates the delicate, contradictory position of the Shiite movement. On the one hand, the source of its popularity — even among many Sunnis in the region — has been its image as a patriotic force to defend Lebanon against Israel, and it is highly protective of that image. On the other, its close alliance to Syria and, even more, to Iran make it vulnerable to accusations that it is merely a well-armed tool for those regimes.

Newly released indictments by the International Criminal Court accusing four Hizbullah members in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Lebanon's most powerful Sunni leader, further cast a shadow over its reputation.

Hizbullah backed the anti-regime uprisings in Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Tunisia. But it publicly sided with Iran and Syria in their brutal crackdowns on protesters.

"Hizbullah always criticizes the double standards of the West, but it has done worse," said Amjad, a protester from the Syrian city of Hama, which for the past week has been under a crushing siege by Assad's forces.

"We feel betrayed," he said. Amjad spoke on condition his full name not be used because of fears of reprisals.

In a sign of its wariness over the damage to its reputation, Hizbullah has avoided talking about Syria's uprising. The movement has gone out of its way to strongly deny repeated, though unverified claims, by Syrian activists that Hizbullah fighters — as well as Iranians — are involved in crushing demonstrations and killing protesters. In his recent speeches, Nasrallah has kept his comments on Syria down to a minimum.

But as a close ally of Damascus, Hizbullah could not avoid the subject completely, and its Manar TV station has adopted the Syrian government line blaming the unrest on armed extremist groups. Early on in the uprising, Nasrallah embraced Assad, casting him as a reformer, in a speech that infuriated Syrian protesters.

"Toppling the resistance regime in Syria, which is ready for reform, would provide a great service to Israel and to U.S.-American control over the region," he said.

Officials of the group contacted by The Associated Press declined to comment about the Syria uprising or its repercussions on Hizbullah, saying their chief was the only person authorized to talk about the subject.

"As the repression in Syria intensifies ... Hizbullah will find itself spending more of its reputation and political capital in support of a regime that is on its way out," said Randa Slim, a research fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington.

The troubles for Hizbullah come at a time when it should be riding high. It now holds a dominant role in Beirut's government and the prime minister is an ally, giving it unprecedented political clout in Lebanon after its opponents, the U.S.- and Western-backed factions led by Hariri's son Saad, were sidelined. Its extensive arsenal of weapons and rockets is virtually untouchable for the moment, after years of calls for it to disarm.

"Militarily, the organization is stronger than ever but its credibility and legitimacy, regionally, have taken a big hit," said David Schenker, director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

In the early 2000s, Hizbullah was riding on a wave of unprecedented popularity, after its war of attrition forced Israeli troops to withdraw from south Lebanon and end nearly 20 years of occupation. In 2006, it fought Israel to a standstill in a ferocious monthlong war. Its popularity across the Arab world was so intense there were reports of some Sunnis in Syria and Jordan converting to Shiite Islam.

But in recent years came several blows, starting with the 2008 assassination of its top military commander Imad Mughniyeh in a car bomb in Damascus. A year later, after the U.S.-backed Lebanese government moved to dismantle its telecommunications network, the group briefly seized control of large swaths of Beirut, turning its guns on its local Lebanese foes, something Nasrallah had sworn the group would never do.

Last month, Nasrallah revealed that a ring of CIA-recruited spies within Hizbullah had been uncovered, a stunning security breach for the group.

The indictments for the Hariri killing, in which Hizbullah denies any role, damages the group's crossover appeal in the Mideast's sectarian divides. "The Sunnis will understand this in purely a sectarian context, that the Shiites murdered the head of the Sunni community, period," said Schenker.

The worst case scenario for Hizbullah would be Assad's fall, though for the moment that seems unlikely. A Sunni-led new regime would likely be far less friendly to the group, so regime change in Damascus could cut off a major supply route for Hizbullah's weapons, heavily damage its political clout in Lebanon and knock out a third of the "Iran-Syria-Hizbullah" axis of "resistance" to Israel.

"The demise of the Syrian regime if it happens will definitely be a game changer in the region. Whether and how Hizbullah will weather that development will be a true test of its political prowess and skills," said Slim.

Comments 12
Default-user-icon Gebran Sons for Cedar Revolution II in 2013 (Guest) 10 August 2011, 10:58

Hizbollah has the same support and credibility in Lebanon as Assad has in Syria. They are even proud of their shared path and common objectives. Good... Time to face the mirror!

Default-user-icon Alexander (Guest) 10 August 2011, 11:02

Time will come when the airport road will be jammed with trucks full of Hezbollah's weapons to be handed to the state. We need a state similar to the 130 others on earth. With one army and with all its people gathered around it. We fighted for Syria for the palestinians, for the US, for christians, for muslims, we did not miss any kind of war. Now it is time to live for Lebanon. All our scrap leaders should understand this. We don't beleive in any of their fake causes because we are the only fools in the region at the front, and the sole country to be destroyed each five years. Why Lebanon should engage alone in this liberation war in palestine? Is it a real war or a comedy? what is the common point between the iranian shiaas and the sunni palestinians? where is the interest of Lebanon here? how many planes, tanks do we have in face of the destruction potential of israel?

Thumb shab 10 August 2011, 11:12

We also feel betrayed Amjad. It's nothing but a filthy non-Islamic Mossad infested mafia militria on a killing spree for Iran. In the end God will punish them all.
What's with this stupid picture? looks like something from a cartoon

Default-user-icon Murad (Guest) 10 August 2011, 13:30

If Hizbullah ever hands over its weapons, their families will be slaughtered like sheep, just like Sabra & Shatila which had international "guarantees". Never again. March 14 are being idiots picking a fight within Lebanon where EVERYONE has a militia.e Sabra & Shatila which had international "guarantees". Never again. March 14 are being idiots picking a fight within Lebanon where EVERYONE has a militia.

Default-user-icon Alexander (Guest) 10 August 2011, 14:44

I just read a comment stating that "everyone" has a militia. I wonder if it is just a superficial way of taking just to give answers without base. If we consider the christian, sunni and druze sects i would like to know where are their security zones out of control of the state?? where are their Dahiye, Britel, Anjar, Rouwaiset? where are their missiles and trained gunmen? do they have the ability to close the airport road, and to build in private and public properties? who was robbing cars since 20 years and parking them in Dahiye and Britel, preventing the security forces from entering there? What militias are you talking about? and what kind of country you want? Are you sure you want a state built on "coexistance", "equitability" and "participation" (watan el chrakeh)? or these are just words as we all of us know actually?

Default-user-icon Abdallah (Guest) 10 August 2011, 15:32

Gebran sons. Dont lie. You know very well that hezballah massive support in lebanon. Not only among their own sect where the support is 100 % but also among 25 % of sunnis, 50 % of maronites, 60 % of druze and about 90 % of the orthodox. Asad on the other hand only has the support of the alwawites, druze and the christians who together make up only 25 % of syria. Unlike the hezballah support which is about 65 % all in all. Even if you dont like hezballah, at least dont lie about their support. They took power democraticly by getting allied with jumblat remember.

Default-user-icon Beiruti (Guest) 10 August 2011, 15:59

The truth is ugly, indeed, which is why Hezbollah must keep it covered and attention diverted elsewhere.

What was more ugly than the Israeli repression of Gaza in january 2009, an army against a lightly armed population that drew the condemnation of the whole world. Hezbollah did not intervene.

Now Syria engaging in the same brutal repression against its own people who dare defy its regime. Syria acts in a mirror image of Israel, and Hezbollah not only stays from the side of the repressed people, but, reportedly, is engaged in killing Syrian soldiers who refuse to turn their guns on their own people. We all know that Hezbollah has no hesitation when it comes to turning its guns against the people of the country that it occupies.

They are all cut from the same cloth - Israel, the Assad Regime and Hezbollah. They all repress, they all believe in the use of brutal force to press a political point of view and they all justify themselves by the existence of each other.

Default-user-icon grumpy (Guest) 10 August 2011, 16:39

Hey Bigdig,first of all I heard rumors that your name ends with K and not G and it was a given name because you remarkably looks like one (a limp one) and to go further a bit your blind loyalty to a hizb that if able will shut everything down from free speech to media ,banning liquor,forcing everyone to dress and look as ugly as you and that Ahmadinijad. my advice to you go and DIG yourself out of this mess before you dig yourself so deep that you you won't be able to ever see the light again(your hero is living in a hole that he dug himself) be smart and start living,life is too short and too precious to waste for an Ayatollah who tell the flock what,where ,when and how and you all follow again like a sheep.

Thumb bashir 10 August 2011, 17:04

Hizbullah's image has been tarnished?Really?!

You mean they are no longer looked up to as a bunch of evil lawless thieves with no respect for the state of Lebanon and who hide beneath a sham of religion? What have they sunken to now?

Missing small.axe 10 August 2011, 20:23

Wait until evidence is released proving their involvement of the murder of Hariri, Gemayel, Tueni, Kassir, Eid and others. Then they will be less popular than Idi Amin.

Missing leb4all 11 August 2011, 05:14

If Israel ceases to exist, HA's weapons should definitely stay given we have traitors like the ones above. Gebran sons of the monkeys, what is this name? You opened a store or something? Don't post misleading remarks or else you'll be labeled a liar or an idiot, or both. Shiites are the biggest sect in Lebanon with support in varied percentages amongst all sects. And how about you all quit your hatred and spend your time somewhere useful? I see the same bunch here every time waiting to get a crack at HA. Is it because you're paid to do so? You can't be that pissed about May 7! After all, didn't mustaqbal's militia-men have weapons? Didn't they have over 1000 fighters come from the north? Or is it just because they sucked at using them after May 5's decision of treason that HA have to drop their arms? Why should they give up their arms when the high butcher said he has 7-10000 fighters but only needs weapons? HA has undying support amongst its own community that experienced

Missing leb4all 11 August 2011, 05:23

cluster-bombs, mines, rockets and everything you haters wish would happen to these people again. But at the end of the day, when HA has people like them and not forgetting all other lebanese who also support. them, who needs traitors like the ones above. Are you just angry that militarily your sect is weak? Are you thinking of it in sectarian terms? I pity you all for being a minority closing in on itself. Look at you, the phalangists are the oldest party and held multiple presidencies- Now they have 6 MPs. The LF, once the strongest party, now has 4 MPs. Al-Mustaqbal, once held a majority recently, now their leader is tanning abroad humiliated while his dogs are barking. I don't want to humiliate any further or boast about M8 parties' growing support through the years. You are weak, and growing weaker in every sense. The power is with the people, and M8's people don't have to get paid to demonstrate.