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Hezbollah on edge in face of Syria revolt

The unprecedented revolt threatening the regime in Syria has placed key ally Hezbollah in a tight spot and prompted the Lebanese militant group to adopt a more measured attitude, analysts say.

"Hezbollah's margin of manoeuver is currently very limited because the strategic Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis is threatened by the revolt and this forces the group to act prudently," said Paris-based Middle East expert Agnes Levallois.

The Shia party, also backed by Iran, is the most powerful military and political group in Lebanon and is a key player in the new government formed last month.

But the upheaval in neighboring Syria caught Hezbollah off guard and threatens its position, analysts say.

When the revolt erupted in mid-March, "Hezbollah initially thought the Syrian regime would be able to quickly put down the revolt and that it would not be affected," Levallois told AFP.

"But with the revolt showing no signs of dying down, Hezbollah is realizing that it needs to protect itself by commenting little on the situation in Syria so as not to be at odds with what is happening on the ground and not to alienate itself," she added.

The party, blacklisted as a terrorist organization by Washington, has adopted the Syrian regime's official line in blaming the unrest on armed extremist gangs and outside agitators.

This has prompted anger among protesters in Syria who, in what would have been unthinkable a few months ago, have torn down and burned pictures of Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, according to images posted on YouTube.

Nasrallah has also been criticized for acting like a "Syrian television presenter," prompting his party to adopt a more low-key approach.

"The Syrian regime became aware that Nasrallah's popularity was not serving its interest in this case, but quite the contrary," said Paul Salem, head of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center.

The deep crisis threatening the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could also impact on Hezbollah's weapons supply through Iran and Syria, analysts believe.

Intelligence officials estimate that Hezbollah has amassed an arsenal of more than 40,000 short- and medium-range missiles which the party has said could reach deep into Israel.

"There is no question that they are worried, because if the regime [in Syria] collapses, that would affect them strategically speaking, especially if the new regime that takes over is keen on exacting revenge on Iran and Hezbollah," Salem said.

"If there is chaos, a new regime or a continuation of the current regime, which has been weakened, all of these scenarios don't bode well for Hezbollah," he added.

The party's image has also been dented given its support for the other revolutions shaking the Arab world, including Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, but not Syria.

"Nasrallah is torn between his support for Assad's regime and his image as a resistance leader keen on defending the people's rights," Levallois said.

The Arabic-language daily An-Nahar, which is close to Lebanon's opposition, summarized the dilemma facing the party in an editorial over the weekend.

"Tomorrow, when the Syrian regime falls – and it will fall – what will Hezbollah, which supported those who assassinated women, children and the elderly, say?" it asked.

Nadim Shehadeh, a fellow at the London-based Chatham House, said Hezbollah was in a bind given the platform on which it has built support.

"Their power is based on such big words as freedom and liberation and their constituency follows them blindly on this," he told AFP.

"But they supported the Arab spring in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Libya, everywhere except Syria, and that is contradictory," Shehadeh said.

For now, analysts say, Hezbollah will probably continue to adopt a low-key approach and avoid any confrontation.

"We thought that Damascus would ask Hezbollah to launch an attack against Israel to divert attention," Levallois said.

"But the Syrian regime understood that it could loose on all fronts if it did so because it is too weak."

-AFP/NOW Lebanon

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