Hezbollah to stand by Assad, sheik says
BEIRUT — Hezbollah forces will remain in Syria fighting alongside the troops of Syrian President Bashar Assad for the foreseeable future, the leader of the Lebanese group said on Thursday.
“As long as the reasons are present, we are staying” in Syria, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's general secretary, said in a speech to supporters marking the Shiite Muslim holiday of Ashoura.
Hezbollah rejects any suggestion that it pull out of Syria as a “precondition” for forming a government in Lebanon, where a caretaker administration rules amid deep political divisions aggravated by the conflict next door in Syria. Rival Lebanese factions and Syrian opposition activists have demanded that Hezbollah militiamen vacate Syria, a proposal Nasrallah definitely nixed.
“Anyone who puts Hezbollah's withdrawal from Syria as a precondition for forming a government is putting a hopeless condition,” Nasrallah said, flanked by bodyguards in his second public appearance in two days.
Because of security concerns, Nasrallah typically makes his speeches via video links from undisclosed sites. But the live appearances may have been meant as a message of improved security in southern Beirut, a generally pro-Hezbollah district that was hit by a pair of car bombs in July and August. Nasrallah has blamed militants based in Syria for the attacks.
Hezbollah is a dominant political player in Lebanon and an armed militia whose forces are widely considered superior to those of the Lebanese military. The United States and Israel label Hezbollah a terrorist organization, but the group calls itself a resistance front against Israeli and U.S. aggression. Its key allies are Iran and Syria's Assad.
Hezbollah is a secretive organization, and it is not clear how many of its militiamen are in Syria or where, beyond a Hezbollah contingent protecting Sayyida Zainab, an important Shiite shrine southeast of Damascus. Nasrallah has said that Hezbollah's foes exaggerate its presence in Syria. Iran denies having any fighting forces in Syria.
The Syrian conflict has fanned sectarian tension throughout the Middle East, drawing fighters from Islam's two major branches to opposite sides of the battle front.
While Shiite Hezbollah has dispatched militiamen to aid the Assad government, thousands of Sunni Muslim militants from across the globe have journeyed to Syria and taken up arms against Assad, a member of the Alawite sect, considered an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Several affiliates of al-Qaida, a Sunni group, are major powers in the disparate Syrian rebel movement.
Persian Gulf states and Turkey, with Sunni Muslim majorities, are key backers of the rebels. Shiite Iran, meanwhile, is a major supporter of Assad's government.