BEIRUT — In a pair of rare public appearances to mark an important Muslim holy day, the head of Lebanon’s Shiite Muslim Hezbollah movement reaffirmed the group’s support for Syrian President Bashar Assad, proclaimed that victory over the al Qaida-linked groups that are fighting to topple Assad was an imperative for all religions and endorsed Iran’s nuclear negotiations with the West.
“If an accord were reached, our party will become stronger and with a better presence locally and regionally,” Hassan Nasrallah said of the nuclear talks at a religious gathering Wednesday night marking Ashura, the day that commemorates the death in battle more than 1,300 years ago of Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson.
On Thursday, before a crowd of hundreds of thousands, Nasrallah made it clear that Hezbollah fighters will remain in Syria on behalf of Assad’s government. He described the Syrian regime as an important bulwark against Israel and the al Qaida-affiliated Sunni Muslim insurgents who are fighting to oust Assad’s regime from power.
“As long as the reasons stand, our presence in Syria remains,” he told the crowd.
Nasrallah has appeared in public on only a handful of occasions since the end of the group’s 2006 war with Israel, a fact that lent special power to his unexpected twin appearances marking what’s considered a day of mourning for Shiites.
Security precautions were unprecedented in the southern Beirut suburb where Nasrallah spoke Thursday. Hezbollah forces fanned out throughout the area, and the group banned most automobile traffic. Hezbollah security officials said that hundreds of the group’s fighters had been deployed along the mountains overlooking Beirut to prevent anti-Assad rebel groups from firing rockets into the capital.
A handful of rockets fired from along the border with Syria targeted several Shiite villages in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley but caused no casualties. Several border villages have come under repeated rocket attack from Syrian rebels in the last year, and at least two car bombs and a handful of rockets targeted Shiite areas of Beirut over the summer.
Nasrallah rejected calls by other political factions in Lebanon for Hezbollah to leave Syria as part of a deal to set up a functioning government, something Lebanon has lacked for the past year. Lebanon’s fractious political system is more or less evenly divided between pro- and anti-Assad camps.
“When there are strategic dangers that are threatening the people and the governments of the region . . . there couldn’t be a condition for partnership in the Cabinet,” Nasrallah said. “We won’t negotiate on the existence of Syria (in exchange for) a handful of ministries.”
Nasrallah’s appearance Wednesday night at a relatively small gathering had been even more unexpected. There, he called on his supporters to defy the threats from militant Sunni groups, such as al Qaida, who consider Shiites to be heretics. He urged them not to let fears of car bombs and rockets prevent them from attending Ashura events.
He addressed concerns that Hezbollah’s most important patron and ally – Iran – was in open talks with the U.S. and Europe over ending Iran’s nuclear program. He said there was no likelihood that Iran would agree to cut its huge financial and military assistance to Hezbollah in return for a deal that would lift sanctions on oil sales and financial transactions.
“Our allies do not worry us,” he said. “We have two allies only, Syria and Iran. Both have never abandoned us.”
He continued, “Do you expect that Iran will ask Hezbollah to abandon its rights, resistance and hand over the country to the other faction?” he asked. “Those who know Iran’s history know that this will not happen.”
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero