BEIRUT // Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah yesterday pledged support for the Syrian government, saying that an end to the Assad regime would only serve American and Israeli interests.
Speaking on the 11th anniversary of Liberation Day - marking the day Israeli troops withdrew from Lebanon in 2000 - the head of the Lebanese Shiite group also called for the rejection of sanctions against Syria and claimed the regime was committed to reform.
"No one denies that Syria has committed mistakes, but no one can deny the historic achievement of Syria to Lebanon, also Syria's stance on Israel and the Palestinian resistance," he said.
Mr Nasrallah again reiterated his claims that the UN-backed investigation into the assassination of the Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri was politicised. His comments come after claims made earlier this week by the US president, Barack Obama, that the Lebanese Shiite group was responsible for political assassinations and car bombings. Mr Nasrallah dismissed the remarks as "US hostility" towards Hizbollah and said that Mr Obama had not just levelled accusations at the movement, but also passed "judgment about us".
While he addressed the changes sweeping across the Arab world, Mr Nasrallah also harkened back to when the regional "equation changed", with the end of the 22-year Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon and the west Bekaa region.
"Liberation Day is not the occasion of a particular party or sect, but a national occasion," he said in the televised speech. "What happened on May 25, 2000, changed the face of Lebanon and that of the region."
At a gathering in the town of Nabi Sheet, in the Bekaa valley, thousands of supporters watched as Mr Nasrallah, who has not been seen in public since 2008, spoke via satellite link-up from an undisclosed location. Hizbollah and its supporters celebrate the Israeli withdrawal every year, but yesterday - for the first time in several years - Liberation Day was marked by a public holiday across Lebanon.
This year's commemoration also comes during a time of great uncertainty in Lebanon, which remains without a government, and as the distance between the country's two main political camps widens.
Commemorating the day used to be more a political event than a "national holiday", according to Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut.
"Really, if the balance of power shifts again, we may not be marking Liberation Day again next year," he said.
In the midst of failed efforts to form a new government four months after the previous cabinet collapsed, representatives from Lebanon's political parties spoke out about the significance of the Liberation Day. Saad Hariri, the caretaker prime minister and leading figure within the March 14 coalition, spoke of the "national unity" that forced Israel to withdraw.
Walid Jumblatt, Lebanon's main Druze leader and a member of the rival March 8 camp, paid tribute to the "thousands of martyrs" who died during the Israeli occupation. According to Professor Khashan, Hizbollah has long framed the events of May 25, 2000 as the first Arab victory against Israel.
This year, the event also came in the aftermath of one of the most serious border incidents in recent years. During a demonstration along Lebanon's border with Israel on May 15, 11 Palestinian protesters were killed when Israeli troops opened fire. Scores more Lebanese and Palestinian protesters demanding the right of return for Palestinian refugees were injured in the attack, which occurred when demonstrators approached the fence that marks the beginning of Israeli territory.
In his speech last night, Mr Nasrallah reiterated the need to maintain "armed resistance" against Israel. He also called for the 2002 Arab peace initiative - which called for peace between Israel and the Arab world in exchange for Israel's return to the 1967 borders - be withdrawn.
"The events during the past three decades have proved that the correct, realistic, logical, productive choice which allows reaching the targets and aims is the choice of the popular armed resistance," Mr Nasrallah said.