The Hezbollah-Assad connection

Shia leader Hassan Nasrallah’s recent outspoken support of Assad is rooted in Syrian material and political support.

Hasan Nasrallah
Nasrallah has called upon the Syrian people to support Assad and enter dialogue with their government [GALLO/GETTY]

Hamza al-Khateeb was kidnapped from the streets of Saida in Syria on April 29th. The boy was attending an anti-regime demonstration when he was seized by members of Bashar al-Assad’s secret terror squad.  Nearly a month later, on May 24, his family received his mutilated corpse. He was tortured to death.
Here is how Al Jazeera English described the child’s brutalised body:

[He had] lacerations, bruises and burns to his feet, elbows, face and knees, consistent with the use of electric shock devices and of being whipped with cable […] Hamza’s eyes were swollen and black and there were identical bullet wounds where he had apparently been shot through both arms, the bullets tearing a hole in his sides and lodging in his belly. On Hamza’s chest was a deep, dark burn mark. His neck was broken and his penis cut off. 

I read the above lines and failed to comprehend the totality of the horror and violence perpetrated against Hamza. Gradually, a picture began to form in my mind. Here was a child, torn from his family and plunged into the darkest recesses of Assad’s despotic state. Grown men – adults – separated him from everything sacred to him; his mother, his father, his home and routine.
I try to imagine his blinding terror – the kind that arrests your heart and mind – at the first jolting blows to his face. I picture his savage beating and the implements of violence burning into his flesh. Can a child understand the blackness that infests the hearts of men? Was Hamza aware he could die? I pray he lost consciousness.

Ulterior motives

But this article is not about the murder of a child. Nor is it about Bashar al-Assad and the International Criminal Court or a hangman’s noose.  
On May 25 – one day after Hamza’s body was released – Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, delivered an address to commemorate Israel’s withdrawal from most of southern Lebanon eleven years ago. During the programme, he called on the Syrian people to support their merciless dictator and to enter into dialogue with their illegitimate government.
The move was a surprising blunder on the part of the savviest and most popular Arab leader today.
Hezbollah receives material and political support from both Iran and Syria. The Shia movement – which operates democratically in a democratic Lebanon – employs as much realpolitik as anyone else in its domestic and foreign affairs. Oftentimes that means staying quiet and withholding public support when allies behave brutally.
When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, unleashed the forces of state repression against unarmed protesters in 2009, Hassan Nasrallah kept his distance. A Hezbollah spokesman perfunctorily announced that the Green Revolution was a product of Western meddling.

But more significantly, he stated that: “Hezbollah has nothing to do with Iran’s internal affairs … We don’t side with anyone. This is an internal Iranian issue.”

“What is happening there has nothing to do with our situation,” the spokesman continued. “We have our own Lebanese identity and popularity, and these events don’t concern us.”

Indeed, Hassan Nasrallah has managed to avoid direct confrontation with, or co-option by, Arab leaders for most of his political career – although he did make his antipathy for Hosni Mubarak known. His genius as a political leader grows directly from his uncanny ability to guide, or follow, Arab public opinion at every stage. 

Significance of support
In his speeches he seemed to understand that Arab public opinion tends towards justice and away from repression and mass violence. It seemed clear that he understood that the Arabs do not support Hezbollah because they hate Israel; the Arabs support Hezbollah for resisting Israeli tyranny and occupation. The evidence can be found in the self-referential language the Hezbollah militia employs; they call themselves “The Resistance”.
In light of Nasrallah’s behaviour in the past, his recent outspoken support for Assad gains greater significance. Surely, practical considerations would lead him to hope for Assad’s political survival and continued patronisation.
But as with Iran, Nasrallah must know that Hezbollah will continue to enjoy support from Syria irrespective of who is in power. That is true even if the country democratises; ordinary Syrians strongly resent Israeli militancy and the occupation of the Golan Heights.
One thing, however, that can jeopardise Hezbollah’s support among Arabs is the perception that the organisation endorses a regime which tortures children to death. Nasrallah may have other considerations in mind – the Special Tribunal for Lebanon; armaments against Israel; money for social programmes – but those must be subordinated to the reality of Assad’s Syria.
Today, the Arabs are enraged and revolted by the Assad regime. The torture, mutilation and murder of Hamza al-Khateeb has contributed to that popular sentiment. But so have the murders of more than 1,000 peaceful demonstrators since the pro-democracy demonstrations began. If he is wise, Hassan Nasrallah will distance himself and his movement from Assad and his death squads. No amount of political cover or material support is worth the association.  

Ahmed Moor is a Palestinian-US freelance journalist, born in the Gaza Strip and now based in Cairo.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.