BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon’s Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said on Wednesday most Syrians still backed President Bashar al-Assad and the removal of his regime on the back of mass unrest would serve U.S. and Israeli interests.
The Syrian and Iranian-backed ally said he believed Assad was serious about making reforms, in response to pro-democracy protests that have gripped the country for nine weeks and which have presented the gravest challenge to Assad’s 11-year rule.
“All indications and information until now still affirm that the majority of the Syrian people support this regime and have faith in President Bashar al-Assad and are betting on his steps toward reforms,” Nasrallah said in his first comments on Syria since protests broke out in March.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards set up Hezbollah in 1982 to fight Israeli forces that had invaded Lebanon. The group enjoys strong political and military support from Tehran and Damascus. The United States lists the group as a terrorist organization.
“I personally believe ... based on discussions and directly listening to President Bashar al-Assad that he believes in reforms and is serious and committed ... and is ready to take very big steps toward reforms,” he told a crowd in the southern Lebanese town of Nabi Sheet by video link, on the 11th anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from south Lebanon.
Syrian protesters, inspired by popular uprisings in other parts of the Arab world, initially took to the streets to call for greater freedoms and an end to corruption.
Assad made some gestures toward reforms, including lifting a hated decades-old emergency law, while also sending in tanks to crush revolts in flashpoints across the country.
Met with a violent crackdown by Syrian security forces — human rights group Sawasiah says at least 1,100 civilians have been killed — demonstrators have demanded Assad’s overthrow.
Nasrallah, who had praised popular uprisings that overthrew the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt earlier this year, said the fall of the Syrian government would serve American and Israeli interests since it would be replaced by a regime “ready to sign any peace, meaning surrender, with Israel.”
Nasrallah praised Assad’s strong support for the guerrilla group and said he preserved the unity of Lebanon.
Syria’s role in Lebanon has long been in a contentious issue in Lebanese politics. Syria ended a 29-year military presence in its smaller neighbor after an international outcry over the assassination of former statesman Rafik al-Hariri in 2005.
Nasrallah, whose guerrilla fighters fought Israel in an inconclusive war in 2006, called on Syrians to “choose the path of dialogue and not confrontation.”
Human rights activists and witnesses say Syrian security forces, the army and irregular Assad loyalists, have opened fire on peaceful protesters. Syrian authorities blame the violence on armed groups backed by Islamists and outside powers.
Additional reporting by Laila Bassam; Editing by Matthew Jones