Hezbollah Chief Hassan Nasrallah's Costly Support Of The Assad Clan

A friend in need is a friend indeed: Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's chief, has never wavered in his support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The stakes are high: if Assad goes, chances are Hezbollah goes too.

Syrian protesters step on posters of Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in January 2012 (FreedomHouse2)
Syrian protesters step on posters of Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in January 2012 (FreedomHouse2)
Laure Stephan

BEIRUT - It's when things get tough that you find out who your true friends are, or so the adage goes. Which makes Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary General of the Lebanese political and paramilitary organization Hezbollah, a true friend indeed of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Since the start of the uprising in Syria in March 2011, he has repeatedly renewed his support for the Syrian president – and far from adopting a more reserved stance in the face of recent points scored by the rebels, on July 18 Nasrallah paid new homage to the Assad regime.

For the Shi'a Islamic leader, the three high-ranking officials – the Syrian President's brother-in-law among them – who were killed last Wednesday in an attack on a national security building in Damascus "embody the Syria that supported the resistance." The words were guaranteed to anger Syrian activists for whom these men represented repression more than anything else.

Nasrallah also underscored Syria's major role in the Arab movements fighting against Israel. For Hezbollah, Syria is a "real military partner," he said, the country that donated the "most significant weaponry" used by the armed Shi'a party during the 2006 war with the Jewish state.

Statements like that highlight Hezbollah's current vulnerability. Hezbollah fears the collapse of the Syrian regime, described by Nasrallah as "more than a bridge" in a reference to the country's role in the transit of Iranian arms. Losing an ally like that would weaken the Shi'a party in the event of a conflict with Israel because Hezbollah's arms supplies would be cut off. Nasrallah however espouses a publicly confident stance, and has promised the Israelis some "surprises' if they attack Lebanon.

Nasrallah also stated that military strategy was more important than anything else for the party insofar as its relations with Syria go. It is no longer a question of defending "the oppressed" as it has been maintaining in its political charters and by siding with the Egyptians, Libyans, Bahrainis and Yemenis since the beginning of the Arab Spring. Holding on to its weapons, upholding the "axis of resistance" -- Iran, Syria, Hezbollah – against Israel has become top priority.

But the price to be paid for Nasrallah's refusal to condemn the Syrian regime's repression – which he prefers to refer to as "violent acts' committed by both sides – is very high: nothing less than his degree of popularity in the Arab world. Syrian activists are now portraying Nasrallah on social media sites as a paunchy little man whereas before he was held in high esteem in Syria because of his anti-Israel stance.

Preparing for the future

Is Nasrallah's attitude -- wanting to stick it out to the bitter end – and his interpretation of the Syrian revolt as "an American-Israeli plot" the blind spot that will put Hezbollah in the losing camp if the Assad regime collapses? "Either Hassan Nasrallah is in denial, or he hasn't yet received orders from Tehran to keep some distance. He sees the end of the Assads as a personal failure," says Hilal Khasan, director of the political studies department at Beirut's American University.

"Syria is not just one ally among others for Hezbollah, it's a top ally, so Nasrallah is not going to pull back support just because the government is in trouble," says Talal Atrissi, a political scientist from the American University. "Hezbollah is on the same wave-length as Russia and Iran on this – it does not want a pro-American regime in Damascus. It's a confrontation scenario with the other axis in the region, that of the Saudis, Qataris and Turks."

Even if he's not showing it, however, it is impossible to believe that Nasrallah is not preparing for the future. "Just like all the other players in Lebanon, Hezbollah knows that a page is about to turn in Syria, they just don't know when exactly," a European diplomat posted in Beirut says. For months various foreign observers in Lebanon have been commenting on the low profile Hezbollah has been keeping.

Nasrallah purports to be worried about the "chaos' which might engulf Lebanon "the way it did in Iraq and Syria" and called on Wednesday for a "pact of honor" between the various Lebanese communities in view of the tension among religious and political groups that the Syrian crisis has engendered.

For Hezbollah, a Pandora's box has opened: galvanized by the Syrian situation, more and more people in Lebanon are openly hostile to it. In Saïda (Sidon), a radical sheikh has been acting in open defiance of the party since early July, calling for it to be disarmed. Ahmad al-Assir is blocking one of the main arteries in the town, which is a Hezbollah stronghold. The Sunni says he is protesting against "humiliations' and swears that he will not lift his sit-in until its aim is met. Hezbollah has not reacted.

Although weakened by developments in Syria, Hezbollah still has several important cards in hand however. It continues to enjoy massive support in the Lebanese Shi'ite community. It still has its military arsenal and on the national political scene it is still one of the most powerful players.

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo - FreedomHouse2

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!