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Syria captive rift: Iran defiant, Hezbollah silent

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BRIAN MURPHY | August 9, 2012 03:35 PM EST | AP


BEIRUT — It took just minutes for Lebanon's powerful Hezbollah chief to appear on TV to silence protests after Syrian rebels grabbed 11 Lebanese Shiites in May. Tehran's leadership also went into rapid-reaction mode when gunmen seized 48 Iranians last week, but with a very different objective: to make the abduction an international affair.

The contrasting approaches highlight how Syria's civil war is impacting the political calculations of Bashar Assad's main Middle East backers – and hint at possible separate endgame strategies by Tehran and its proxy Hezbollah if the Syrian regime heads into free fall.

Iran appears intent on strengthening its role as Assad's big brother with outreach that included a visit to Damascus on Tuesday by one of the ruling clerics' top envoys, who tried to frame the conflict as part of Iran's wider showdown with the West.

Hezbollah is no less supportive of Assad – even praising Syria as the main arms pipeline during the 2006 war with Israel – but must take a far more nuanced position that likely includes weighing options in case the Arab Spring claims another leader.

"When it comes to living in a post-Assad world, Hezbollah has a lot more to be concerned about," said Meir Javedanfar, a regional affairs analyst based in Israel.

That's because Shiite Hezbollah sits among a patchwork of factions and fissures that range from those holding out hope for Assad's survival to others playing host to rebel fighters trying to bring him down. Hezbollah occupies a complex space as both an Assad ally and a partner in the Lebanese government, which is desperate to avoid further spillover clashes like the gun battles in the northern city of Tripoli in May that killed at least eight people.

Moments after Syrian rebels announced they had snatched the 11 Lebanese Shiites – accused by some rebels of including Hezbollah operatives – protesters and militiamen stormed into the streets. Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, immediately went on his private TV network with what amounted to a decree for calm. "We don't want to create conflict," he said, repeating the group's claim that the captives were simply religious pilgrims returning from Iran.

Nasrallah has even omitted mention of the Lebanese captives in his recent speeches, suggesting the group remains wary of being blamed for dragging Lebanon into another crisis and risking further blows to its reputation in the Arab world for standing by Assad. Instead, Hezbollah has uncharacteristically deferred to the Lebanese government to lead appeals for the captives' release.

On Wednesday, Lebanese TV stations broadcast video of the captives being visited by family members under a deal arranged by the rebels. They appeared to be in good health and held in clean surroundings, with amenities such as refrigerators. Some claimed to be sympathetic to the rebels, but it was impossible to determine if the remarks were genuine or scripted. "Captives?" one of them said. "No, we are guests."

Ammar al-Dadikhli, a rebel spokesman, told state TV they want the Lebanese government to support the Syrian uprising. The abduction was "a message to Lebanese politicians to take a stand against the (Syrian) regime ... and for the Syrian revolution."

"Hezbollah has got to weigh contingencies and how it could make the transition to a region without Assad," said David Schenker, a Syrian affairs analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"Hezbollah must look at all this through a very localized focus and worry, for example, about engendering the hatred of 17 million or 18 million Sunnis next door in Syria. Iran, on the other hand, is trying to have it all ways. It wants to support Assad, but also use it as part of its larger narrative of challenging the West."

"These different views show themselves in the dealings over the captives."

Iran has spared no effort to trumpet its outrage over Saturday's abduction of 48 Iranians from the airport highway in Damascus. Syrian rebels claim the men were on a "reconnaissance mission" and include agents for Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard – and issued a warning that any Iranians or other foreign backers of Assad's regime also could be targeted.

Iran acknowledged that some of the captives include retired Revolutionary Guard members, but insists the group was on a pilgrimage to Shiite religious sites in Syria. During a visit to Damascus on Tuesday, Saeed Jalili, head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, sought to cast the Syrian civil war as a pivotal moment in the wider battle between the West and its allies against Tehran and the "axis of resistance of which Syria is an intrinsic part."

Hours later, Iran's Foreign Ministry warned that it holds the U.S. responsible for the fate of the abducted Iranians, and Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi sent an appeal to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for help in securing the Iranians' release.

State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said Washington has no information on the Iranian captives and dismissed Tehran's accusation of U.S. links. Ventrell, in turn, criticized Iran for "unconscionable" support for Assad.

Tehran-based independent political analyst Nemat Ahmadi said Iran's aggressive moves over the abduction also could be attempts to display Tehran's confidence that it remains a regional power no matter the outcome in Syria.

"Lebanon is in a shaky position and doesn't want to be harmed over the Syrian conflict," he said. "But Iran's situation is totally different."

At a meeting in Tehran on Thursday, Salehi hosted envoys from more than 30 countries – mostly Tehran-based diplomats – for a gathering on Syria that included Russia, China and Jordan. It was mostly a forum for Iran to push its calls for political dialogue in Syria and denounce nations backing the rebels, including rivals such as Saudi Arabia. Lebanon turned down Iran's invitation to attend.

"The situation in Syria is complicated and every country is trying to protect its interests," said conservative Iranian parliament member Javad Jahangirzadeh. "Syria is Lebanon's neighbor, but not Iran's neighbor. So it's not surprising they are adopting different policies."

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Associated Press writer Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.