Which devotee of the anti-globalization left, enlivened by anti-Americanism, could resist a frisson of pleasure when watching Julian Assange interview Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary-general? And on the Kremlin-backed Russia Today channel, no less.
Getting Nasrallah to chat earlier this week was a coup for the founder of WikiLeaks, but not an unexpected one. The Hezbollah leader, when he grants interviews to Westerners at all, generally does so with those who share his passion for sticking it to Washington.
Syria was a major topic of discussion in the Assange interview, and Nasrallah transformed an apparent revelation into a weapon against the adversaries of President Bashar Assad. He observed that Hezbollah had contacted the Syrian opposition in a bid at mediation, but that it had rejected a dialogue with the regime. “From the beginning we have had a regime that is willing to enact reforms and is prepared for dialogue,” Nasrallah declared. “On the other side you have an opposition which is not prepared for dialogue and is not prepared to accept reforms. All it wants is to bring down the regime. This is a problem.”
It certainly is a problem, though mainly for Hezbollah. What Assad’s enemies know is that Syria’s ruling family – no less than Hezbollah and its patrons in Iran, or for that matter the decision-makers in Moscow and Beijing – regards “dialogue” principally as an instrument to neutralize the uprising. That is why Russia, in endorsing the plan of the United Nations-Arab League envoy, Kofi Annan, followed it up with insistent demands that the Free Syrian Army be compelled to terminate its armed resistance. Within the pro-Assad alignment that objective is essential, and its pursuit continues.
What dialogue is Nasrallah talking about? He has long argued that there can be no dialogue between victim and oppressor. Recall what the Hezbollah leader said in a 2002 speech on the anniversary of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s death. It was usefully translated in “Voice of Hezbollah: The Statements of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah,” edited by Nicholas Noe. Describing the so-called 15th of Khordad massacre by the army of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1963, Nasrallah saw this as an occasion when a massacre provided “a tool of mobilization, a strong incentive, and a spiritual moral, and humane impetus to generate victory, hope, and trust, and strike fear into the enemy’s heart.” And in a phrase he would do well to remember today, Nasrallah noted that “[a]n army that shoots on unarmed and helpless people is in the final analysis a weak one, on the verge of collapse.”
In the unlikely event someone engages in a dialogue with Bashar Assad, let us imagine the dynamics. Which opposition figures will the regime sit with? It will exploit the divisions among its foes to select its interlocutor, possibly members of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, which has been open to negotiating with the regime. Many in Syria will reject such an initiative; but outside, Assad’s foreign allies will maneuver to silence potential displeasure by insisting that this represents implementation of the Annan plan. Moreover, the reputation of the Syrian National Council is so wretched that it might be difficult to interrupt the momentum of a dialogue, no matter how bogus, after it begins.
Once everyone is around a table, what happens? Not much. The security edifice of the Assads will remain intact, while the opposition will have to end all military operations, or risk being accused of torpedoing the Annan plan. The regime will go around in circles, perhaps eventually offering the opposition the ragged bone of limited representation in a new government. This will be hailed as a victory for peace, but no Syrian government of the past 42 years has ever held power. By the time Assad’s pliant interlocutors realize this, the game will be up and the Syrian president will have dodged a bullet.
That’s what Nasrallah is hoping. But most Syrians are no dupes, nor do they particularly appreciate the double standards the Hezbollah leader displayed in the Assange interview. When asked why he had supported several Arab uprisings, but not the one in Syria, Nasrallah replied: “Everybody knows that the [Assad] regime ... has supported the resistance in Lebanon and Palestine and it has not backed down in the face of Israeli and American pressure, so it is a regime which has served the Palestinian cause very well.”
That may have prompted a nod of assent from Assange, but it also leads to an unflattering conclusion. By Nasrallah’s logic, domestic repression is tolerable if an Arab state upholds the proper kinds of struggles regionally – against Israel and the United States. For the Hezbollah leader, injustice, therefore, is a relative term, one tied to his party’s interests. This disqualifies Nasrallah from passing moral judgment on a variety of developments in the Middle East.
In which case why do so many otherwise intelligent people cede to Nasrallah the high ground when it comes to political principle? When the secretary-general remarked that “the passage of time does not negate justice” for the Palestinians, Assange should have inquired as to how a man so dodgy about injustice in Syria could blithely lecture viewers about justice in Palestine.
If there is justice in Syria one day, it will sweep away those such as Nasrallah wagering heavily on Assad’s victory. But the Hezbollah leader is a perceptive man. He can toss out chaff, but because he once marshaled the energies of his own community in its resistance against Israel, he cannot fail to grasp that most Syrians today view their battle in a similar light. Nasrallah is correct about one thing: The passage of time does not negate justice.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.