For the fire-eating Hizballah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah to suddenly urge restraint, his extremist organization must be in dire straits. But that unfamiliar word dropped from his lips Tuesday, May 22 when he heard that Syrian rebels had kidnapped a group of Lebanese Shiite Muslims passing through Aleppo on their way home to Beirut from a pilgrimage in Iran.
As the victims’ families blocked roads and burned tires in Beirut’s southern suburbs, Nasrallah yelled,
"I call on everyone to show restraint!” The inveterate rabble-rouser went on to explain in a televised appeal, “It is of no use to block roads [in the Shiite Dahiyeh suburb] or perform violent acts because we don’t want to stir up trouble with the army or other factions."
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Lebanese sources say that Nasrallah stepped out of his pugnacious character to buy time for figuring out how to tackle the crises closing in on his organization. The kidnapping of HIzballah adherents by Free Syrian Army rebels confronted him with the hard reality of Syria’s civil war bloodshed beginning to spill over into Lebanon. The backlash on Hizballah’s standing among its countrymen is disastrous, the price for backing the hated Bashar Assad.
Hizballah is only Lebanese community to back Assad
Nasrallah is watching his following become increasingly ostracized and isolated – with worse to come.
The powerful Druze community of Lebanon, which maintains close ties with its Syrian kin, is braving Assad’s army by sending over fighters, weapons, food and money to help brethren in the Syrian Druze Mountain area and the southeast.
Lebanon’s Sunni Muslim factions are solidly behind their Syrian coreligionists battling the Assad regime. They are funneling aid to Syrian rebels directly through the former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Al-Mustaqbal movement and indirectly through the Saudi and Qatari intelligence supply routes. Many Lebanese Sunnis have also established private arms smuggling networks for Syria.
Lebanon’s Christian sects, split until now between factions for and against Assad, are nearing consensus. While Samir Geagea’s Maronite Falangists traditionally hate the Syrian ruler’s guts, the Free Patriotic Movement’s leader, Gen. Michel Aoun – Nasrallah’s close ally in the past two years – has withdrawn his support from the Syrian government and is sitting on the fence waiting for Assad’s overthrow.
Aoun’s desertion is a cutting blow for Nasrallah. It leaves him standing alone as the only Lebanese force still committed to the Syrian ruler and therefore deeply unpopular on the political scene in Beirut and most of the country.
This predicament will be tough to work his way out of.
Nasrallah’s profitable ties with Assad become liabilities
Hizballah is fatally compromised by sending its troops to stand shoulder to shoulder with Syrian military in defending the Lebanese-Syrian border against rebel movements and participate in the Syrian government’s crackdown on rebels. Damascus must be preserved as a key link in the strategic chain linking Hizballah to its Iranian masters through Baghdad.
Nasrallah understands that an incautious move risks landing Hizballah in a load of trouble – either deepening its isolation at home or severing its lifeline to Tehran.
Up until now, Hizballah has profited from the Syrian uprising: For his military and intelligence assistance to the Assad regime, Iran and Syria compensated him with shiny new weapons systems: sea-to-air and surface-to-air missiles, as well as explosives and advanced camouflage equipment. Iranian specialists are teaching Hizballah to build assault drones.
All these acquisitions equip the Lebanese Shiite militia for war on Israel. They are not relevant to the type of guerrilla warfare afoot in Syria and of even less use to Nasrallah’s troops for fighting off a large-scale crossover of the Syrian conflict into parts of Lebanon.
HIzballah’s profitable ties with Assad have therefore become liabilities. It is now dawning on the Hizballah leader that every day he supports the Assad regime exposes his people to reprisals.
The kidnap of 13 Hizballah pilgrims by Syrian rebels Tuesday was the first portent.
Damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t
Nasrallah is expected by his organization and Lebanon’s Shiites to manage the pilgrims’ rescue without delay. To accomplish this, he must first choose one of two bad options: Continuing to keep faith with Bashar Assad as per orders from Tehran, or starting to distance Hizballah from Damascus in an effort to arrest his organization’s catastrophic decline at home.
In weighing his options, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources report the Hizballah leader has a big advantage over almost any other intelligence agency on the state of play within the Syrian armed forces: direct briefing in real time from his own officers fighting alongside Syrian servicemen in the battlefield. He is therefore well qualified to judge how long the Assad regime can survive.
According to his latest update, rebel attacks on Syrian military targets have doubled in past weeks from an average of one or two a day to four.
For Syrian forces to be ready to move rapidly from one flashpoint area to another, they must spend most of their time on the three main highways crossing the country. The units and heavy armor are therefore prey to the sophisticated anti-tank missiles newly supplied to the rebels.
(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 540 of May 11: Qatar and Saudi Arabia supply anti-tank, anti-air missiles).
In many parts of southern, southeastern and central Syria, the military presence is thin on the ground, confined only to the few hundred soldiers manning roadblocks. Most of the army camps in the area are deserted and being plundered by the locals.
Nasrallah’s declining appetite for war on Israel
The military situation currently unfolding in Syria has prompted Hizballah to review its overall strategy. They are thinking hard about how to respond to a possible order from Tehran to go to war against Israel.
Because southern Syria is virtually undefended, Israel’s army, the IDF would be free to avoid going into southern Lebanon and facing a frontal clash with the Hizballah fighters concentrated there in response to attack. Instead, Israeli units would be able to enter the Horan region in southern Syria and then turn west and drive into Lebanon. This maneuver would enable Israeli units to lay HIzballah forces and their lines of defense in South Lebanon to siege and then strike them from the rear.
Nasrallah has no intention of getting caught up in such a war.