HEZBOLLAH AND SYRIA: Tabatabai replies to Abdel Nasser

June 3, 2013

In Blog

The 2014 elections that are upcoming, in which Assad has announced he will participate, has the benefit of allowing non-Ba’thi parties to field candidates and the election monitored by the judiciary rather than the executive. Now, assuming that Assad could not have a popular mandate, there are only two possibilities: the elections will be rigged in favour of Assad or someone critical of Assad will take over, someone who might be less inclined to deal with Hezbollah. 
Sayyid Nasrallah knows these two options. So, either he knows the elections will be rigged, and he is fine with that, or he has no fears of a post-Assad regime in Syria, contrary to the hypothesis I felt you were suggesting. 
Since I highly doubt Sayyid Nasrallah would risk being involved in a rigged elections, then it must be that he has no qualms with a post-Assad regime in Syria.~

I understand where the sentiment comes from, that a people have a right to self-determination, and I concede this. However, I disagree from the heart that nobody has the right to morally evaluate a people’s, a nation’s, decisions at self-determination. When a people act disproportionately, when a nation is duped into sectarian violence by demagoguery and media manipulation, when a population’s choice threatens to jeopardise the rights of an oppressed people, long abandoned to their fate in neighbouring lands, I believe one has every right, even utter duty, to morally condemn such an act. 

Is this the case in Syria? I don’t think anyone can doubt that a war is being waged on Syria. Is it because Assad is a dictator? Is that the aim of this war? It is clear as day that if the only motive would be Assad’s dictatorship, there would be no war, no funding from Gulf dictators, no Israeli sympathy, no US and European pressure. So what else is being aimed? There’s only one thing and it is the resistance. It is a threat to Israeli aggression, a threat to Saudi dominance, a threat to US hegemony. So, if a war is being waged against the resistance, the resistance has every right to defend itself, regardless of whether it implies Assad’s survival or not. 

Your correspondent, Abdel Nasser, made an illuminating point: Saudi Arabia is building mosques and schools (though I should not be too happy about this, this is part of the problem) and hospitals. The threat to these benign policies should not deter us from wanting to overthrow the Saudi oppression of its people. In other words, a greater evil may need to be averted at the cost of a lesser evil. This division of evils into greater and lesser may seem rather brutal, but it is the only method of deciding between two exclusive options. The alternative would be inaction, which may result in the greater evil winning over. So, clearly, in each case, the question one should ask is, ‘Which option is the lesser evil?’ 

It is not always easy to identify the best road to Rome, in this case Damascus, but given a choice between, on the one hand, a more pro-US Syria, or alternatively a sectarian Taliban-esque Syria, plus a weakened resistance in Lebanon, opening it to Israeli invasion and further setbacks for the rights of the Arab people, and on the other hand, an independent Syria pressured into reform from within, then the lesser evil is by far the latter. To see the problems with a pro-US Syria, one needs to look at Jordan, or for a more democratic case, Pakistan, or if that is not democratic enough, Turkey. If Syria is to follow this route, it will be a sad story for Palestine, in fact for Arab dignity in general. Perhaps Syria will join Turkey and Jordan and establish a peace treaty with Israel, promising to keep silent as the latter carries out its now-predictable functions of terror. 
One look at this transcript, where CNN’s Amanpour interviews FSA Gen. Idriss, should make every Arab shudder at these words by Idriss:“Repeatedly, I appeal to the international community, to the president in the USA, to the European Parliament, to the leader in Europe, please, we need your help. Don’t wait more time. Maybe when you come late, we will be in a situation that we can’t use your help.”

It might be argued that a cause, no matter how noble, may face a crisis where it must stretch a hand to those who have channelled all resources to the repression of free, independent people. But it is a poor argument. Your correspondent, Abdel Nasser, wonders whether Hezbollah has been unIslamic in condemning the rebels. But no matter how difficult the crisis for the cause of God, it is no excuse to make a pact with the Devil. 

To see the problems with a sectarian Taliban-esque Syria, one needs to look at Afghanistan, or Somalia, or certain regions of Pakistan and Iraq. If Syria is to follow this route, it will not be long before a worse regime of repression is installed. It might wish to threaten its neighbours, causing international outrage, perhaps provoking NATO or the Arab League (or both, it would not surprise me) to send in troops. Then, it would be goodbye Syria. 
It does not have to be like that. Assad believes he has a popular mandate. So, he will not back down. Just claiming that an autocrat is not popular and backing it by a number of large demonstrations does not entail that Assad does not have a mandate. Hezbollah’s solution is the best so far: let there be free and fair multi-party elections. If there is no popular mandate, it should be the ballot boxes that decide, not weapons. Quoting Russell, ‘War does not determine who is right; only who is left.’ For the sake of the Syrian people, for the sake of a peaceful transition, for the sake of the legitimate resistance against US- and Israeli-hegemony and Arab dignity, this must be resolved through political dialogue. This has been Hezbollah’s call from the start. When the call was rejected, when weapons continued pouring into Syria, when Lebanese neutrality was being compromised and threats were being issued against Hezbollah, when Israel fired missiles into Syria, when it became obvious that the resistance was the true target of this war, Sayyid Nasrallah made his stand against the rebels, in defence of the resistance. Many supporters of the Syrian uprising have failed to read the geopolitics of the situation. They fail to recognise that with the help of the Syrian government, Israeli aggression is at last receiving a fitting response. They fail to perceive the anti-Iran, anti-Hezbollah sectarian propaganda which has been hot in the region far before Hezbollah gave its full support to Syria, in fact far before the ‘Arab Spring’. They fail to study the careful journalists and activists* who have uncovered a US agenda to stir up sectarian violence throughout the region with the aim of crushing the resistance. So, with a desire for greater freedom and egged on by seemingly-benign regional moneylenders, they play on the wrong side of the chessboard. Is the Ba’thi regime to blame? Certainly, for not reforming itself and preparing a transitional government which would continue the proper aspirations of the Syrian people. But I cannot absolve the rebels from blame. When repressive, treacherous sectarian dictators fuel my bid to democracy but bemoan that of others, I should notice that something is wrong: I may want democracy, but instead I will lose my independence. Stupidity to understand the situation and being a pawn for the wrong player is not at all praiseworthy. 

What is pure fact is that Syria has been key in supporting the resistance against Israeli occupation and aggression. For all its faults, it has been resilient against efforts to severe its links with the resistance. Hezbollah is thankful for that. An ally would never backstab an ally. This would be morally repugnant. What Hamas did was morally repugnant. It could have sided with political dialogue to resolve the issue, not bite the hand that fed it. An ally helps reform an ally, remove its flaws, even criticise and pressure it. Your correspondent, Abdel Nasser, concludes his letter with the regret that Hezbollah did not enter into dialogue with Arab leaders. But Sayyid Nasrallah claims otherwise. Being interviewed by Julian Assange, he made it explicit that his overtures to the Syrian opposition were rejected. One can see this in the transcript below, pages 2-3.

In one part, he says, ‘I said this a few days ago that certain Arab countries are prepared… are prepared to have ten years… to go into a political dialect with Israel for tens of years non-stop – despite everything that Israel did in the region – but they won’t give one year or two years for a political – or even just a few months – for a political solution with Syria, and this just doesn’t make any sense and it’s unfair.’

Of course, the Sayyid knows why they will not give dialogue a chance: they fear the popularity and strength of the resistance. It must be weakened at all costs, even if it means Syrian (and Iraqi, and Lebanese, and shamefully, Palestinian) blood. 
So it is a mistake to blame Hezbollah for the lack of political dialogue with Arab leaders. The blame rests squarely on the Arab leaders themselves. Even Assad’s regime is prepared for political dialogue. In fact, politically but not militarily, the Assad regime is cornered. Any political settlement will certainly dislodge the Ba’thi system, whereas a military statement may prolong it. But the aim of this war is not a dictatorship, but the resistance, and a stable, unified Syria is key to that resistance.


Unless I am mistaken, your correspondent, Abdel Nasser, lays emphasis on the principles of Islam as providing a proper framework to perceive and resolve the dispute. Islam, he says rightly, is against the oppressor and for the oppressed. I admit this point. But, I propose that the Koran has a more nuanced teaching with regards to crises. I will provide verses, but I wish to back it up with an interesting piece from Muslim history.

[Hujurat 49:9] And if two factions of Believers fight against each other, reconcile them; and if one of them oppresses the other, fight against the oppressor till it returns to the command of God; then if it returns, reconcile between them with justice, and be fair; indeed God loves the equitable.
[Hujurat 49:10] The Believers are brothers to each other, therefore make peace between your two brothers and fear God, so that you may gain mercy. 
The history I would like to rely on is illuminating, not only on the Islamic view on crises of political legitimacy but also because it is a point of consensus between Sunnis and Shiites. 

Uthman, the third caliph succeeding the Prophet, revered by a large portion of Muslims as a rightly-guided leader, faced a large rebellion from vast swathes of the community. Dissidents from Egypt and Iraq flocked to Medina, the Islamic capital, to protest the nepotism of Uthman and the unjust governance of his appointees. While disapproving of Uthman’s preference of blood over merit and a number of his appointees, the highly-revered Ali, who was to become the fourth caliph, ordered his tribe to stand guard to defend the caliph’s life from the rebels. He then pressed Uthman to acquiesce to their legitimate demands, which Uthman carried out. In reconciling the ruler and the rebels, Ali was effective in lifting the siege against Uthman, giving a chance to reforms, and preventing what might have become the first civil war in the young community of Islam. Nepotism, corruption and injustice are the same charges, brought today against Assad and centuries ago against Uthman. One need not approve of nepotism, corruption or injustice to prefer bloodless reform over bloody revolt. What is astounding, however, is thatboth Sunni and Shiite historiography remember this moment favourably, as an example of the virtue of political prudence.    
And lastly, given the aforementioned verses, is this political prudence not founded on Koranic principle? 


(To read the history piece in more detail, please see Madelung, Wilferd (1997). The Succession to Muhammad: A Study of the Early Caliphate.)

With the scene set, the question is ripe to be posed: what did Hezbollah do when faced with the Syrian crisis? It sought genuine reforms and called for reconciliation. And when the opposition rejected talk of reform and reconciliation but took to arms, Hezbollah condemned them. 

The only objection I can envisage is that Assad is a criminal, not just a Muslim party to a dispute. But, let it be agreed that until March 2011, Assad was just an autocrat, not a mass-murderer. Not likeable, but no different toalmost any Muslim caliph to have ever graced history. Until March 2011, he has had his strengths and his flaws. In the spirit of the ‘Arab Spring’, many people demanded an end to Ba’thi autocracy. That’s the start of the dispute. I do not absolve him from blame for what followed March 2011. But no government gives up its rule just because a segment of its population demands reforms, especially if it believes it holds the popular mandate. Assad, on the other hand, claims he has popular mandate. The only method to decide the issue is reforming the electoral law to bring about free and fair elections. Assad has done some work towards this. The opposition has carte-blanche refused to acknowledge any dialogue. If Islam is to be invoked, the blame lies on the opposition, not on Hezbollah. This should be clear now. 

Nor is it right to blame Hezbollah for its old alliance with Syria. Syrian politics has had its own history, its own upheavals, and if a Ba’thi same-family elite is in rule, this cannot oblige Hezbollah to avoid a military alliance with it against an occupation. You mention correctly that states are not family heirlooms, but if a monarchy gives its support to a fledgling republic, why shouldn’t a republic accept in its time of need? This ties in with my beliefs about political legitimacy and armed revolution. A monarchy is not legitimate, but this does not by itself justify armed revolution. The moral thing to do would be to encourage reform. 
I cannot blame Hezbollah in its stance so far. It did not denounce the peaceful demands of the Syrian protestors, but gave vocal support to these legitimate demands. It did not enter the battleground on Assad’s side until very recently, despite month-old accusations about Hezbollah engagement on the field. Even so, I think I am right in suggesting, Hezbollah’s activities have been present only at the Lebanese-Syria borders, al-Qusayr being one. This new involvement is Hezbollah defending its  ally from what it correctly perceives as a foreign game to tear the resistance and hit at the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is no coincidence that this same game is being played in democratic Iraq at the same time. In contrast to the rebels, the Gulf countries, various Arab clerics and much of the media, Hezbollah has distanced itself from sectarian rhetoric, rejecting the narrative that the Syrian civil war is an Islamic civil war. As far as Hezbollah is concerned, this narrative is being fabricated and propagated to cause instability in the entire region. Again, in absolving Hezbollah from blame, I do not thereby absolve Assad, and certainly not the Ba’thi regime. But I am still not convinced that Assad has ordered this bloodbath. I concede that Assad’s initial reflex would probably be to dismantle any protests by force. To be fair, I think all governments do this when some protestors loot and set fire to office buildings. It’s an excuse for them to dismantle all dissent. The same happened in the UK, in the US. It’s a shame, and wrong. Normally, the protestors then insist that the government itself is sabotaging the protests by infiltrating them with troublemakers. It’s an old and tired story, and transparency is the only victim here. But the bloodbath which you refer to is of course the massacres we see on a television screens. Here, I am not convinced that Assad is the obvious culprit. There are daily massacres happening in neighbouring Iraq. Who’s the obvious culprit there? The recent massacres in Pakistan? Who’s the obvious culprit there? There’s another live candidate that feeds on fear, sectarianism and blood, and they are not incapable of massacres. I am not absolving Assad, but I cannot jump to conclusions just because he is an autocrat, son of an autocrat, son of a man who committed a massacre. This is especially true when a man like Sayyid Nasrallah does not jump to that conclusion. But can a massacre be fabricated? 
Is the media generating figures and headlines to manipulate public opinion to disrupt political dialogue? 
Are we being shocked into a particular narrative?
Sayyid Nasrallah answers these questions in the Syrian context. The speech can be found here, especially from 2:33-3:53: final wordThough no Tory myself, I hereby put faith in one Edmund Burke, who said, in the wake of the Terror following the Great French Revolution:
 •    A man full of warm, speculative benevolence may wish his society otherwise constituted than he finds it, but a good patriot and a true politician always considers how he shall make the most of the existing materials of his country. A disposition to preserve and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman. Everything else is vulgar in the conception, perilous in the execution.

The only exception I can find to this is when a country is about to lose its independence to foreign powers, and that is a time to revolt against its lackey rulers. Ironically, the case in Syria is entirely the opposite: funded by lackeys, encouraged by foreign powers, these sectarian rebels have targeted a deeply flawed, but fiercely independent country. With all respect, Professor, they are political prostitutes, whether they know it or not, and I think that is morally abhorrent.

* Seymour Hersh (2007)
* Gen. Wesley Clark (2007)