Loyalty to Syria Chief Could Isolate Hezbollah

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Mazen, a carpenter who organizes protests against President Bashar al-Assad in a suburb of Damascus, Syria, has torn down the posters of Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, that once decorated his car and shop.

Like many Syrians, Mazen, 35, revered Mr. Nasrallah for his confrontational stance with Israel. He considered Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group and political party, as an Arab champion of the dispossessed, not just for its Shiite Muslim base but for Sunnis like himself. But now that Hezbollah has stood by Mr. Assad during his deadly yearlong crackdown on the uprising against his rule, Mazen sees Hezbollah as a sectarian party that supports Mr. Assad because his opponents are mainly Sunnis.

“Now, I hate Hezbollah,” he said. “Nasrallah should stand with the people’s revolution if he believes in God.”

Mr. Nasrallah’s decision to maintain his critical alliance with Syria has risked Hezbollah’s standing and its attempts to build pan-Islamic ties in Lebanon and the wider Arab world.

Though Hezbollah’s base in Lebanon remains strong, it runs an increasing risk of finding itself isolated, possibly caught up in a sectarian war between its patron, Iran, the region’s Shiite power, and Saudi Arabia, a protector of Sunni interests in the Middle East. Its longtime ally, Hamas, the Palestinian militant group, has distanced itself from the Assad government, moving its headquarters out of Damascus, and Sunni revolutionaries in Syria have explicitly denounced Hezbollah as an enemy. At home, its Lebanese rivals sense a rare opportunity to erode its power.

In a delicate adjustment in the face of these new realities — and the resilience of the uprising — Hezbollah has shifted its tone. In carefully calibrated speeches last month, Mr. Nasrallah gently but firmly signaled that Mr. Assad could not crush the uprising by force and must lay down arms and seek a political settlement. He implicitly acknowledged the growing moral outrage in the wider Muslim world at the mounting death toll, obliquely noted that the Syrian government was accused of “targeting civilians” and urged Mr. Assad to “present the facts to the people.”

Behind the scenes, Mr. Nasrallah personally tried to start a reconciliation process in Syria early in the uprising and is now renewing those efforts, said Ali Barakeh, a Hamas official involved in the talks.

“He refuses the killing for both sides,” said Mr. Barakeh, the Beirut representative for Hamas.

Mr. Barakeh said that Mr. Nasrallah visited Damascus in April of last year and briefly persuaded Mr. Assad to try to reach a political solution, with Hezbollah and Hamas acting as mediators. But as Hamas began reaching out to fellow Sunni Muslims in the opposition, the plan was scuttled by the Syrian government.

Hezbollah rarely allows official interviews and has refused them for months. But supporters and current and former party activists suggest that the situation is fueling fears of an anti-Shiite backlash and is testing loyalists who must explain the party’s position to others, and themselves.

Mr. Nasrallah is tempering his position because he wants to avoid asking supporters to endure another war, said a former student activist who spends hours defending the party on Facebook, arguing, for example, that rogue forces, not Mr. Assad, are responsible for the “mistakes.”

Mr. Nasrallah “doesn’t want supporters to suffer,” said the woman, who works at a Hezbollah foundation, adding that some still feel “broken inside” from the 2006 war with Israel and “don’t want more pressure.”

Syria’s conflict is testing Hezbollah’s longstanding contradictions. It relies on public support, yet sometimes behaves autocratically; it is a national group founded to fight Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon, but owes its military might — and the funds that rebuilt the south after the 2006 war — to Iran’s desire to project power; and it styles itself pan-Islamic, but it depends on rock-solid support from Lebanese Shiites for whom it won long-denied power as it became the Middle East’s most formidable militant group and Lebanon’s strongest political force.

Most of all, Hezbollah won respect by sticking to its principles, even among rival sects and the leftist cafe regulars in Beirut who are skeptical of its religious conservatism. Now it is paying a price for its politics of pragmatism in Syria.

To a young, college-educated health care worker who is a lifelong supporter of Hezbollah, the party’s support of Mr. Assad keeps faith with the most important principle of all: opposing Israel.



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