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Syrians Mostly Back Hezbollah Actions

Hezbollah has won support from many Syrians following the Lebanese militia’s seizure of several Beirut neighbourhoods, although some worry that the recent violence could herald a new round of civil war.

The Shia militia, an ally of Syria, is now retreating from the neighbourhoods that it took over last week. Its withdrawal came after the western-backed government reversed decisions with which the group was unhappy – the sacking of the security chief at Beirut airport for alleged Hezbollah ties, and a ruling that the militia’s private phone network was illegal.

"I was walking around and listening to what people had to say about the crisis,” said one journalist in Damascus. “Most of them are happy with what they see as a new victory for Hezbollah."

Hezbollah flags could be seen fluttering in windows in the Syrian capital, and there were photos of the group’s leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah on walls around the city.

Older Syrians watched the developments on television with some concern.

"The scenes remind me of the awful civil war in Lebanon, which left that most wonderful Arab country into ruins," a 63-year-old shop owner in Damascus, recalling the Lebanese conflict that went on from 1975 into the early Nineties.

"At that time, you couldn’t tell what was going on, or who was fighting whom. Everybody was negatively involved in that war," he added. "Now it's a clear battle between those who are with America and Israel, and those who are with an honest resistance.”

Syria did not participate in the emergency Arab League foreign ministers’ meeting in Cairo that followed the outbreak of violence. President Bashar al-Assad called the crisis an "internal matter" for Lebanon.

Official and pro-government media have taken shots at those Lebanese leaders who are opposed to Hezbollah and Syria over the last few days, using expressions such as "Hariri’s gang" and "Jumblatt’s militia", in reference to the movements led by Saad al-Hariri, member of parliament and son of the murdered prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, and the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.

Local media reported that members of Hariri’s Future Movement beat and stabbed 12 Syrian workers, an incident that further inflamed tensions. The state news agency SANA described the incident as “evil attacks and offences” perpetrated by “gangs” working for the Lebanese authorities.

A writer in Damascus commented, "In such cases, people count the people killed and injured on their side and view the others as enemies. More hatred erupts. The ugliness of war makes people concerned only about the lives of those on their own side.”

Opposition groups inside Syria remained silent on the Lebanese crisis. Some opposition figures expressed quiet concern that Lebanon’s March 14 Movement, which is opposed to Syria, could become involved in the violence, and that Iran might ultimately be the main beneficiary of Hezbollah’s strengthened position.

"The opposition [Hezbollah] doesn’t want Lebanon to be an independent state,” said one woman who supports the Lebanese government’s position. “They want it to be part of an Iranian project in the region."

Another observer said Hezbollah’s power grab was “certainly a victory” for the Syrian government.

However, the Damascus-based writer warned that Hezbollah’s show of strength could yet prove negative for Syria, since the conflict had claimed the lives of 65 people. The violence will put additional pressure on Hezbollah and Syria, he said.

“Syria is in the middle of the regional crisis now more than ever,” he said. “Pro-western and western countries will never forgive the latest moves of Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria.”

He added that public criticism of Hezbollah was not welcomed in Syria.

"I’ve witnessed many family arguments between one member who is against Hezbollah, and the rest of the family,” the writer said. “It crosses a red line if you publicly reject what Hezbollah is doing, not just because of the [Syrian] authorities, but also because many people would consider you pro-American."

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)

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