Louai Beshara / AFP - Getty Images
A Syrian man holds a picture of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Lebanon's Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah during a pro-regime rally in Damascus on Jan. 11, 2012.
BEIRUT, Lebanon – On a freshly paved road that runs from Baalbak to Ersal in northern Lebanon stands a towering billboard.
On one half of the billboard is Syrian President Bashar Assad, in military uniform. On the other half is a portrait of Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese political and paramilitary organization that has been labeled a terrorist group by Washington.
The conflict in neighboring Syria has put Hezbollah, the staunch regional resistance movement, in a tough spot. Despite praising the Arab Spring democracy movement in many other countries, Hezbollah and its leader Nasrallah are standing by the Assad regime, even as it kills thousands of its own people to preserve power.
While Hezbollah supports Assad’s regime, the broader Lebanese population is divided and hesitant to take sides. Nonetheless, there is growing concern that this distance will be increasingly difficult to maintain as the conflict spirals on.
In fact, both pro- and anti-Assad groups have traded accusations that the other is receiving material support from inside Lebanon
Rivals or bedfellows?
On the surface, Assad and Nasrallah appear to be opposites.
Assad is the president of a country that is increasingly isolated in the international community and is widely unpopular on the Arab street. His government is embattled and his grip on power challenged.
Nasrallah, on the other hands, is the head of a popular Lebanese resistance movement and a domestic political force. He enjoys widespread support on the Arab street, particularly for his staunch resistance to Israel and Western imperialism in the region.
Nasrallah’s organization is considered the strongest non-state actor in the Middle East. It commands respect for its firepower and discipline. Nasrallah’s leadership of Hezbollah is not in doubt. Ideologically, Nasrallah and his organization draw on their Shiite Muslim religious beliefs as the steadfast backbone of their convictions.
In comparison, Assad's Baath party, which rules Syria, is staunchly secular.
But when it comes to understanding why the two men share the same billboard, as well as campaign posters at pro-Assad rallies, there is only one measuring stick, according to a Hezbollah official who spoke on the condition of anonymity: "What is the specific party's proximity to the resistance of Western and Israeli aggressions and occupation in the Middle East?” He added, "Nothing else matters.”
For years, Syria was a conduit by which Hezbollah was able to acquire support from its main backer Iran (also a close ally of the Syrian regime). Because Syria aided and supported Hezbollah's top priority – perpetuating resistance to Israeli occupation – it was considered an ally despite their differences.
While the organization supports the democratic aspirations of all people in the region, there cannot be a "conflict of priorities.”
Hezbollah’s "only priority is the perpetuation of resistance” to Israel, the official said.
Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters
Syrian protesters step on a poster of Syrian President Basahr al-Assad and Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah during a protest against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Saqba, Syria on Jan. 27, 2012.
That helps explain why Assad and Nasrallah are pictured on the billboard and other posters around Lebanon conveying a message of solidarity. The two men are allies because they are celebrated as pillars of Arab resistance and enemies of Israel. It is the classic "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" scenario.
In fact, Nasrallah made a rare public appearance in December to address his followers and make clear his support for the Syrian regime.
"We support the reforms in Syria and we stand with the regime against the resistance movement," Nasrallah said at a rally in Beirut on Dec. 6. He has rarely been seen in public since Hezbollah’s war with Israel in 2006 out of fear of an Israeli assassination attempt.
His appearance was meant to reiterate not only his support for Assad’s regime – but also to diminish any sense that Hezbollah had been weakened by the ongoing conflict in Syria.
It was also meant to thwart what the Hezbollah official said is seen as a major outgrowth of the "Arab awakenings" – inviting more Western influence and interference, if not dominance, in the region. For the Arab revolutions to succeed, he believes, “Western meddling and interference in the region must be rejected and true Arab sovereignty established.”
To Hezbollah, losing Assad means losing an ally; so by their calculation, it is more important to avoid losing their ally Assad than gain a pro-democratic and Western-oriented Syria.
This has been Hezbollah's position towards the Western-led invasion of Iraq, the Western-backed airstrikes on Libya and it would be the same for any Western action against Iran, the official added.
Not fighting other people's wars
What would Hezbollah do if Iran is attacked by Israel and/or the U.S.? Would it fire back at Israel? Target American or Israeli interests? Remain on the sidelines?
"Constructive ambiguity" is how the Hezbollah official described their approach. "Why would Hezbollah tell its enemies what it will do?"
"We have the right to self-defense.” But he quickly added, “We are a resistance movement that is Lebanese, we don't fight other peoples’ war, we fight to defend ourselves.”