x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Hizbollah leader says Assad regime is 'out of danger'

Shiite movement's secretary general says Syrian regime has successfully crossed 'most of the dangerous period'.

BEIRUT // Hizbollah's message of support for the popular uprisings that have swept the Arab world was loud and clear - unless, that is, the calls for regime change emanated from Syria.

In a wide-ranging television interview that stretched late into Monday night, Hassan Nasrallah, the Shiite movement's secretary general, said that the regime of President Bashar Al Assad had weathered the worst of the crisis.

"Is Syria out of danger? We can say, to a very large extent, yes," Mr Nasrallah said of the government in Damascus, Hizbollah's longtime ally. "Because of the serious efforts made by the Syrian leadership, Syria successfully crossed most of the dangerous period."

Breaking with his habit of a televised speech, Mr Nasrallah sat down for a one-on-one interview with a female anchor for Hizbollah's Al Manar television channel.

He gave his take on the Arab revolts, as well other regional political developments including the planned withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and the recent Israeli-Palestinian prisoner swap. He trumpeted the former as a victory for Iraqis; the latter, a triumph for the Palestinians.

Mr Nasrallah also urged Syrian protesters to withdraw from the streets to make way for dialogue and government reforms. He also raised the spectre of foreign powers pulling strings to unseat a popular president.

"We say it clearly: we are against toppling the Syrian regime that is ready for reforms for the sake of the Syrian people ... Another regime will not be safe and could plunge Syria into a civil war," he said.

"What is happening in Syria is not a call for reform and change. It is a bid to oust the regime that has been fighting America and Israel."

Seven months into the crisis in Syria, however, it was debatable who merits the much vaunted mantle of "resistance" there. About 3,000 people have died, as daily protests and crackdowns continued and a growing number of opponents of the government resorted to arms to defend themselves.

Mr Nasrallah's views on the tumult next door in Syria mirror Hizbollah's political debts and alliances, said Timor Goksel, a former spokesman for the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil).

"Hizbollah has a lot of gratitude towards Syria," said Mr Goksel.

" I think they calculated that the regime is not going to easily collapse, so why take a position?"

Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University in Beirut, believed that Mr Nasrallah's unflagging support for Mr Al Assad has damaged the Hizbollah leader's regional standing.

"Hassan Nasrallah's remarks over the last few months have been acrimonious and he alienated himself," he said. "Nobody took him seriously, when thousands have been killed by the state. To reduce the situation in Syria to a foreign conspiracy was ridiculous."

On whether the Lebanese government would pay its 49 per cent share of the budget for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) investigating the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, Mr Nasrallah did not mince his words.

"Hizbollah does not agree and is against funding the tribunal because of [our] reading of the tribunal's behaviour and goals," he said. "We are against the funding of the tribunal, but we will not start a row. Anyone who wants to finance it, let him do it out of his own pocket."

The Lebanese cabinet, which is dominated by the Hizbollah-led March 8 coalition, could vote on the matter if a consensus could not reached, Mr Nasrallah said.

Four members of Hizbollah have been charged with helping carry out Mr Hariri's murder. Hizbollah has denied any involvement.

zconstantine@thenational.ae