When Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah dispatched fighters to Syria last spring to reinforce the beleaguered army of his longtime benefactor, President Bashar al-Assad, it was a matter of pride for the militant chief.
The hard-line Shiite movement played a decisive role in turning the tide in the conflict and securing the strategic town of Qusayr from Sunni rebels. And its leader wanted the world to know about it.
"Regarding this battle, like all the battles before it, our men are there and we will make victory there," Hezbollah's secretary-general boasted in a May broadcast on Hezbollah-owned Al-Manar TV station. "Syria is the backbone of the resistance and its main supporter.… The resistance will never stand by while its backbone is exposed."
But Syria appears reluctant to repay the compliment.
Late Tuesday, Syria's U.N. envoy, Bashar al-Jaafari, refused to respond to questions about Hezbollah's role in the fighting. Asked repeatedly to comment on Syria's military ally, Jaafari dodged, weaved, and ducked. When that didn't end the questioning, he insulted a reporter asking the question.
The hesitancy to acknowledge Hezbollah's role, according to Emile Hokayem, a Middle East analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, reflects the Syrian leadership's reluctance to admit its dependency on foreign fighters to prevail in battles on its own territory. At stake is the ability of the Syrian leadership, which already receives direct military assistance from Iran, to demonstrate convincingly that it is a truly sovereign nation with the power to rule its own country.
Assad, Hokayem said, "needs to keep up the pretense that Syria is a functioning state and that its government maintains the monopoly over the use of force. It is not a sign of strength for the mighty Syrian army to have to rely on foreign actors and foreign militias to take control of a town of 30,000 people."
Syria's silence on Hezbollah in New York reflects the Assad regime's need to portray itself as a sovereign government facing an all-out assault from foreign forces. It also highlights, however, the Syrian leadership's reluctance to antagonize key supporters, principally Russia, that were alarmed by Hezbollah's entry into the conflict, Hokayem said.
In an effort to maintain a disparate constituency of supporters, Assad has developed what Hokayem calls a "segmented messaging strategy." On pro-Shiite and Alawite news outlets and Facebook pages, Hezbollah's role is "discussed, praised, and emphasized." But at the United Nations, Syria has sought to downplay the connection.
The issue of Hezbollah's role arose after Syria's U.N. envoy complained to reporters that it would be impossible to hold an "objective" peace conference on Syria as long as key foreign powers were supplying weapons to the opposition. The remarks refer to a troubled effort by the United States and Russia to bring together the Syrian combatants and key outside powers for a major Syrian peace conference in Geneva. No date has been set for the meeting, which was supposed to take place in May but has been repeatedly postponed because of differences over who will attend.
Reminded by Associated Press reporter Edith Lederer that Syria is receiving military aid from foreign forces in Lebanon, Hezbollah, Jaafari cut off the reporter. "Hezbollah is not part of the Geneva conference."
Another reporter pressed on, asking how Syria could square its objection to the influx of foreign fighters on behalf of the armed opposition when Syria had invited Hezbollah into the fight. "Hezbollah is a fixation for others, not for my government," he said. "Those who have fixations on Hezbollah are not the Syrian government. We don't have this kind of fixation."
Jaafari then went on to denounce the U.N. secretariat for failing to echo Syria's concerns that Lebanon, as well as Jordan and Turkey, is permitting the "flux of foreign fighters, terrorists" into Syria. When a third reporter, Voice of America's Margaret Besheer, asked Jaafari whether Hezbollah should be on that list of foreign terrorists crossing the border, the Syrian envoy made it clear he had had enough. "I think you are a new journalist or an old journalist?" He asked rhetorically. "If you are a professional journalist, you wouldn't ask that question."
Follow me on Twitter: @columlynch