A rift with Assad’s allies? Think again

Have Hezbollah and Iran clashed with the Syrian regime over their support for Gaza?

The issue of Palestine is immensely popular throughout the Middle East, writes Nashashibi [EPA]
The issue of Palestine is immensely popular throughout the Middle East, writes Nashashibi [EPA]

There has been some rather bizarre speculation of a rift between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on the one hand, and Iran and Hezbollah on the other. The rumours have been sparked by statements from his stalwart allies that have been construed as supportive of Hamas, the Palestinian movement that has publicly backed the Syrian revolution.

An example of this speculation is a headline from the Al-Monitor news site: “Iran, Hezbollah break with Assad to support Hamas.” This is wishful thinking. The public statements of Tehran and Hezbollah regarding Israel’s Gaza onslaught have focused almost exclusively on support for the Palestinian people and resistance in general, rather than Hamas specifically.

This may be because Hamas is not the only representative of the Palestinians, and is not their only resistance group (Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has reportedly made phone calls to leaders of Islamic Jihad as well as Hamas).

However, it may just as well be that Iran and Hezbollah do not want to upset Assad, or that they want to still show a degree of distance from Hamas over the Syrian revolution. It is important to remember that Tehran’s funding of the group dried up after its refusal to back Assad.

Speculation about the rift overlooks the fact that Assad’s first remarks against Israel’s Gaza onslaught preceded those of Nasrallah, and of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani. All of them, however, took their time before condemning Israel’s aggression.

Assad seemed to take a swipe at Hamas when he spoke of  “the distinction between real resistance fighters, which we support, and amateurs who wear the mask of resistance according to their interests in order to improve their image or to consecrate their authority.”

This contrasts with Nasrallah’s description of calls to finish off the Palestinian faction as “despicable, shameful and very painful,” and his call – without referring specifically to Hamas – “for all differences and sensitivities on other issues to be put to one side” for the sake of Gaza.

However, this in no way indicates a rift. Despite Hamas backing the revolution against Assad and calling on Hezbollah fighters to withdraw from Syria, and despite Damascus’ siege of Palestinian refugees, it was no surprise that Assad and co would condemn Israel. As the self-proclaimed “axis of resistance”, which portrays itself as guardian of the Palestinian cause, how could they not?

The issue of Palestine is immensely popular throughout the Middle East, with massive demonstrations taking place – “millions” of Iranians have reportedly taken to the streets. The region’s leaders calculate that the more passionately they express their support, the more they can raise their domestic and regional standing.

It would be very damaging politically not to back the cause, even if only verbally, and regardless of relations with particular Palestinian leaders and factions. So whether such expressions are sincere, there is typically an element of political expediency.

This is the case to a great extent with Assad, Hezbollah and Iran, all three widely reviled for their coordinated opposition to the Syrian revolution, reflected in public opinion polls. In light of Gaza, they have taken an opportunity to embrace a popular cause, and to link it – no matter how spuriously – with their own struggle in Syria.

Furthermore, as long as Israel is busy invading Gaza and facing Palestinian resistance in the process, it is less likely to open up another front against Hezbollah – a more powerful military force than Hamas – or to carry out long-threatened strikes against regional powerhouse Iran.

As such, even if they back Palestinian resistance in principle, encouraging it also suits them by keeping Israel preoccupied in Gaza and potentially weaker as a result. This is particularly true for Hezbollah, which is spread thin by its commitment in Syria, and is the target of militants within Lebanon. Were Israel to engage in another war with Hezbollah, the latter would be in a weaker position relative to previous conflicts.

A rift over public statements on Gaza is highly improbable because in all likelihood, there was a degree of consultation prior to making them. Even if there was not, nothing Iran or Hezbollah has said could be interpreted by Assad as sufficient to warrant a spat.

The fact is that all three parties need each other too much to risk disagreement over Hamas. Assad owes his very survival to the direct intervention of Hezbollah and Iran. The latter two, increasingly unpopular throughout the region for propping him up, will not want to risk losing one of the only Middle Eastern allies they have left. The strategic choices they have made makes Assad a more important ally to them than Hamas could be.

As such, talk of a rift seems based more on wild optimism than rational analysis. If the killing of more than 170,000 Syrians has done nothing to dent their alliance, the killing of more than 1,000 Palestinians will not either.

Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs. He is a regular contributor to Al Jazeera English, Al Arabiya News, The National, The Middle East magazine and the Middle East Eye.

Follow him on Twitter: @sharifnash

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