BEIRUT — The leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah militant group stood firmly behind his allies in Syria on Wednesday in his first comments on the country's uprising, saying that toppling the Damascus regime would serve only U.S. and Israeli interests.
Hezbollah has much to lose if Syrian President Bashar Assad is deposed. Besides receiving money from Syria, Hezbollah also is believed to receive Iranian weapons shipments through the country.
"Overthrowing the regime in Syria is in the American and Israeli interest," Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech marking "Liberation Day," which celebrates the withdrawal of the Israeli army from southern Lebanon in 2000 after 18 years of occupation. "They want to overthrow the regime and replace it with a moderate regime."
Nasrallah spoke during a time of great upheaval in the region, including the uprising in Syria and a May 15 march by Palestinian refugees on Israel's borders, as well as two highly contentious speeches by the Israeli prime minister and American president Barack Obama.
While praising uprisings that toppled longtime dictators in Egypt and Tunisia, Nasrallah urged the Syrian people to "protect their country" and give a chance for the Syrian leadership to implement reforms.
"We are worried about what is being plotted for the regime in Syria and the Syrian people," Nasrallah said, echoing Assad's claims that the events in Syria were a foreign conspiracy aimed at weakening the country's leadership.
Nasrallah rejected U.S. and Western sanctions on Syrian leaders.
"We should all cooperate so that Syria may emerge strong and immune," he said.
"President Bashar Assad believes in reform and is serious and ready to go a long way toward reforms, but in a calm and responsible manner," he said.
Nasrallah also lashed out at President Barack Obama for a speech he gave to the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC on Wednesday and said Obama and Israel have the same goals.
Obama last week endorsed a return to Israel's pre-1967 borders, along with mutually agreed-to land swaps, as the starting point for peace talks with Palestinians. That stance initially angered Israel, although nerves have calmed as Obama emphasized that his position reflected the positions of previous U.S. administrations.
Nasrallah said Obama and Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu have dealt a "mortal blow" to the peace process.
He also criticized the standing ovations given to Netanyahu Tuesday in Congress.
"Yesterday, America's name was Netanyahu," he said.
He said the only way to liberate Israeli-occupied Arab land was through armed resistance, and referred to possible future marches toward Israeli borders.
On May 15, thousands of Palestinians in Lebanon, Syria and Gaza marched to the borders with Israel, prompting Israeli shooting that killed at least 15 people.
"If a few hundred Palestinian youth were able to terrify Israel, imagine if several million from all the Arab countries were to march on the border at the same time. What would Israel do?" he said, adding Israel was "weaker than a spider's web."
Also Wednesday, a senior Hamas official criticized Obama, charging he backtracked on his speech in which he called for a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians based on the 1967 boundaries.
"It's an irrational turnabout in less than 24 hours.. This policy is rejected and Obama had to be more prudent in making his policies," Moussa Abu Marzouk, deputy head of the Hamas political bureau, told The Associated Press in Damascus.
Nasrallah brushed off rumors and reports that Hezbollah members were aiding Syrian security forces in their crackdown as "lies."
He also denied accusations Hezbollah was on the ground in Libya.
NATO's top commander, U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis, said in March that officials had seen "flickers" of possible Hezbollah involvement with rebel forces.
Libya's deputy foreign minister claimed in April that Hezbollah militants have joined the ranks of the rebels in Misrata, but he did not provide evidence.