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Syria Conflict Puts Hezbollah Ally in Delicate Position

Travelers carry their luggage, as they walk towards the Beirut Rafik Hariri international airport after some of the families of 11 Lebanese pilgrims kidnapped in Syria blocked the highway leading to Beirut airport to protest the Lebanese government's fail
BEIRUT - The conflict in Syria is having a spillover effect on many of its neighbors and placing some allies of the Syrian government in a delicate position. Violence is affecting Lebanon's Shi'ite militant group Hezbollah.

The kidnapping in Syria last month of 11 Lebanese Shi'ite pilgrims returning from Iran has highlighted the delicate links between Syria's conflict and various sectarian groups in neighboring Lebanon.

The main Syrian opposition alliance has denied responsibility for the kidnappings. But a previously unknown Syrian rebel group says it is holding the pilgrims until the Syrian government stops attacking innocent civilians. The kidnappers say five of the pilgrims are members of Hezbollah which they accuse of supporting the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Hezbollah is a long-standing ally of the Syrian government, which has supplied the group with arms, training and money to fight Israel. But lately, Hezbollah leaders have criticized the violence in Syria and have expressed support for democratic reform there.

The head of the International Affairs Institute of the American University of Beirut, Rami Khouri, says Hezbollah is in a difficult situation.

“The Syrian government is important for them for logistical and political reasons. And therefore they don't want to be opposing the Syrian government. What Syria is doing is awkward for them so they've found this middle ground where they talk about the need to reform and solve the political issues in Syria peacefully but it's not very convincing," Khouri stated. "People are very clear [understand] that Hezbollah would like the regime to stay."

Nevertheless, the Syrian government has been angered by Hezbollah's position and relations have cooled.

An editor for the Al Akhbar newspaper that is close to Hezbollah, Omar Nashabe, says Hezbollah's relations with the Syrian government have fluctuated over time. "The nature of the relationship is pragmatic," he said. "It is a relationship that is related to capacity. Hezbollah is a party that is very reasonable when it comes to its role and its function."

Hezbollah's leaders say their main goals are to strengthen political Islam and combat what they call the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.

Yet, the leaders of Hezbollah, like those of its rival Lebanese Shi'ite political group - Amal - have called on Lebanese to remain calm following a series of sectarian clashes in Lebanon sparked by the Syrian conflict.

American University of Beirut professor Hillal Khashem says this is because the two groups have made substantial political gains since the end of the Lebanese civil war two decades ago.

"Neither Hezbollah nor Amal are interested in creating an atmosphere of tension and putting at risk the achievements that accrued to the Shi'ite community over the past 20 years. Therefore they have a vested interest in maintaining a semblance of quiet in the country," Khashem stated.

Nashabe notes that Hezbollah has condemned the violence by the Syrian military and its allied militias against civilians. But he says it should be remembered that a significant portion of the Syrian population still supports the Assad government. "Hezbollah believes that it should be up to the Syrian people to decide what their fate is. But Hezbollah agrees with the Chinese position and with the Russian position that there is a proportion of the Syrian people who support Assad," he said.

He criticizes Western and Arab governments that say the Assad regime has lost all legitimacy and must relinquish power.

"This insistence on the removal of President Assad by all possible means is contrary to the spirit of U.N. charter. It is contrary to any reasonable initiative to find a peaceful solution [because the situation is going to lead to suffering]," Nashabe added.

Nashabe says the only solution is for all sides to stop fighting and engage in dialogue.

But that has not happened. And the Syrian opposition, which has seen thousands of its supporters killed in what began as peaceful demonstrations, says it will no longer accept any solution other than the departure of the Assad regime.