BEIRUT (AP) — 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.