Did The Uprising In Syria Catch Hezbollah Off Guard?

The ongoing political unrest in Syria is drawing negative attention to Lebanon-based Hezbollah. The Shiite militia and its political wing have portrayed themselves as being on the side of the people. But Hezbollah's patrons in the Syrian capital Damascus have cracked down on protesters demanding change.

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The Arab uprisings have had an impact on almost every country and group in the region, even those who've not been directly involved in the unrest. Consider Hezbollah - the Shiite militia and political party in Lebanon that's been emerging as the dominant force in the country. Yet, Hezbollah is a closely-aligned group with President Bashar al-Assad in neighboring Syria. And the trouble next door has put Hezbollah in an awkward position as it tries to figure out what to do next. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Beirut.

PETER KENYON: Just a few months ago, Hezbollah's fortunes seemed to be on the rise. The Syrian-backed Shiite militia was as powerful as ever, and its political wing had just helped topple the pro-western Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Hezbollah seemed poised to make big gains.�But with the onset of the Arab Spring, a lot of political calculations have been scrambled, including Hezbollah's.

Group: (Chanting in foreign language)

KENYON: The international spotlight is on Hezbollah's patrons in Damascus, as they deploy tanks and troops against demonstrators demanding reform. Over the weekend, activists say at least 20 more people were killed.

Internet videos, impossible to verify, show the body of a 13-year-old allegedly tortured by Assads men. Others show young children in hospital beds after their school bus was reportedly fired on.

Analysts say this is deeply embarrassing for Hezbollah, which always portrays itself as on the peoples side. But Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah remains loyal to Syria. In a recent televised speech, he tried to distinguish President Bashar al-Assad from other leaders in the region:

Mr. HASSAN NASRALLAH (Secretary-General, Hezbollah): (Through Translator) I personally believe that President Bashar al-Assad is a believer in reform, and is serious, but with patience. This is a responsible regime. In Bahrain, that was a hopeless regime, and still is. Mubarak was hopeless, Gadhafi was hopeless, Ben Ali was hopeless. Here the regime is not hopeless.

KENYON: Beirut analyst Oussama Safa says the strength and tenacity of the popular uprising in Syria caught Hezbollah by surprise along with everybody else. He says its forced the movement to rethink its plans in Lebanon, which is one reason theres no government here months after the Hariri government fell

Mr. OUSSAMA SAFA (General Director, Lebanese Center for Policy Studies): They brought down the government in Lebanon, and wanted to go ahead and form a government, but suddenly they found themselves surrounded by successful revolts around them in the region, particularly in Syria, so now that they waged a coup, so to speak, against Hariri, they dont know what to do with the results.

KENYON: Other analysts say Western pressure also has much to do with the current Lebanese political stalemate. Omar Nashabi is an author and journalist with the Al-Akhbar newspaper, which sides editorially with Hezbollah and its allies. He says the Americans are pushing for a government that will support the uprising in Syria and take on Hezbollah, which Nashabi says is a non-starter in Lebanon.

Mr. OMAR NASHABI (Journalist/Political Analyst, Al-Akhbar): They want a government in Lebanon that will disarm Hezbollah. And therefore it will be difficult to form a government at this stage.

KENYON: Analyst and retired Lebanese army general Elias Hanna says Hezbollah is taking a wait-and-see approach because it really has no choice there are too many questions still unanswered.

General ELIAS HANNA (Strategic Analyst; Lebanese army, retired): We have the Axis of Resistance between Hezbollah and Syria, and as well as Iran. So whats going to happen if you have real turning point? What is the alternatives for Hezbollah in Syria? Who is going to replace al-Assad in Syria? So what is the fate of this axis of resistance?

KENYON: So far analysts take the view that Iran and Hezbollah will continue to support the regime in Damascus. The real test, they say, will come if these demonstrations survive the fierce Syrian crackdown. At that point, they say, a number of alliances may need to be re-evaluated.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Beirut.�

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