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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Hezbollah’s Hypocritical Resistance - NYTimes.com


Hezbollah's Hypocritical Resistance

Exeter, England

SINCE the mid-1980s, the militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas have tirelessly pursued armed resistance against Israel in the name of liberating Palestine — often with enormous Arab popular support.

But when a so-called resistance movement fails to support a bottom-up popular revolt against a tyrant, its leaders expose themselves as hypocrites.

That is precisely what is happening to Hezbollah. Faced with the Syrian people's uprising against President Bashar al-Assad and a democratic tsunami sweeping the Middle East, Hezbollah's alignment with Mr. Assad is destroying its reputation across the Arab world.

The Syrian masses who once worshiped the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah today curse him when they parade in public squares. The posters of Mr. Assad and Mr. Nasrallah that once adorned car windows and walls throughout Syria are now regularly torched.

Until recently, Mr. Nasrallah, a Shiite, was a pan-Arab icon. His standing as Hezbollah's chairman and commander of the 2006 war against Israel elevated him to new heights of popularity among Shiites and Sunnis alike, reminiscent of the former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser's political stardom following the nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956.

Not only did Mr. Nasrallah fight Israel next door; he defied pro-American Arab states, trained and protected Hamas in Lebanon, backed Moktada al-Sadr's Shiite militia as it killed Americans in Iraq, and showed absolute loyalty to Iran. His fans were in the millions. The Arab multitude from Casablanca to Mecca saw him as a genuine hero who talked the talk and fought the good fight.

But when such a wildly popular resistance movement abandons the ideal, much less the practice, of liberation in support of tyranny, it loses credibility with the public.

Fighting Israel as a Syrian proxy is one thing, but opposing the Syrian people's desire for democratic change is something else entirely.

The Assads are mortals who are today burdened by a moribund political system. Mr. Assad, his brother Maher and their henchmen have managed to trap themselves in a macabre machine of oppression that has left the stench of death in its wake, from Homs to Hama.

Now, Mr. Nasrallah has reason to worry. In one speech, he defensively denied that his troops partake in repressing Syrian protesters. In another, he ignored the Syrian uprising altogether.

Syrians, in Mr. Nasrallah's eyes, apparently, do not deserve democracy because that would mean the downfall of Hezbollah's patron in Damascus, not to mention the destruction of the "axis of resistance" that reaches from southern Beirut to Syria and Iran.

Hezbollah's fellow "resistance" movement, Hamas, has been more politically savvy. It has adapted to the new political landscape, navigating the uncharted territory of the Syrian uprising by impressing onlookers by what it didn't do and say rather than what it did or said.

Historically, the biggest threat to the Palestinian national movement has been getting bogged down in other countries' internal conflicts — from Jordan in the 1970s to Lebanon in the 1980s — and Hamas is mindful of that history.

When the former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad brutally crushed an earlier rebellion by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama in 1982, Hamas did not even exist. But today, the group cannot afford to be seen as complicit in the face of Syria's new killing fields.

While Hezbollah's pro-Assad rhetoric and deeds scream "united we stand," Hamas's position on the Syrian uprising has been eloquent in its quiet dissidence. The former frets over supply lines for weapons from Iran if the Assad regime falls. The latter, buoyed by the recent success of fellow Sunni Islamist movements — from Tunisia to Egypt — sees a horizon beyond the Assads.

The Hamas leader Khaled Meshal's cameos in Damascus are becoming increasingly rare and the skeleton staff left at Hamas's Syrian politburo is simply to keep up appearances. Although it hasn't severed ties with the Syrian regime, it has downsized its presence in the country, and many of its middle-ranking officials have left Damascus for good, opting to move to Gaza or even to Egypt, Jordan and Qatar — Sunni states where they are likely to find support.

Hamas has paid a price for its more principled stand on Syria: Its coffers have been drying up as Iranian handouts diminish. Its popularity, however, is likely to increase.

Meanwhile, resisting the Syrian people's resistance has steadily darkened Hezbollah's prospects as a popular movement throughout the region.

In a speech last week, Mr. Nasrallah vowed to continue supporting the Syrian regime while commemorating the martyrdom of the venerated Shiite Imam Hussein ibn Ali during the battle of Karbala in the year 680.

But Mr. Nasrallah forgets that before his death Imam Hussein lamented that living under the tyranny of the Damascus-based Umayyad Caliphate was a great sorrow — a message that seems to have been lost on Hezbollah today.

Blind to his present political predicament, Mr. Nasrallah has instead declared that Hezbollah will never allow the ouster of Mr. Assad.

Luckily for the Syrian people, that choice is not Mr. Nasrallah's.

Larbi Sadiki, a senior lecturer in Middle East politics at the University of Exeter, is the author of "Rethinking Arab Democratization: Elections Without Democracy."

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