BEIRUT (AP) — For the embattled Syrian regime, the crudely produced film mocking Islam that has unleashed fury across the Muslim world could not have come at a better time.
Images of furious protesters targeting Western diplomatic sites in Libya, Egypt, Pakistan and elsewhere have diverted the world's gaze from the bloodstained streets of Syria, where President Bashar Assad is trying to crush an 18-month-old uprising.
The crisis over the film also has reinvigorated militant rhetoric that U.S. and Israel are the real enemies of Muslims, taking the heat off of both Assad and his loyal and powerful ally in neighboring Lebanon, the militant group Hezbollah.
On Tuesday, Syria's Cabinet condemned the movie, titled "Innocence of Muslims." In its first official reaction, the Cabinet said the film about the Prophet Muhammad is "cheap and provocative," adding that it's "part of a Western project that aims to infringe upon the nation's heritage and symbols ... as a prelude to control its potentials and wealth."
It remains to be seen whether the controversy will result in any lasting gains for Syria or for Hezbollah, whose reputation has suffered severely for siding with the Assad regime even after supporting revolts in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Bahrain.
The demonstrations over the film, while fervent, were relatively small to begin with, and they appear to be tapering off in the Arab world. Still, Hezbollah is determined to keep them going, which serves the interests of the Shiite militant group as well as Assad.
Assad's fall would be a nightmare scenario for Hezbollah. Any new regime led by Syria's majority Sunni Muslims would likely be far less friendly — or even outright hostile — to Shiite Muslim Hezbollah. Iran remains the group's most important patron, but Syria is a crucial supply route. Without it, Hezbollah will struggle to get money and weapons as easily.
The Syrian conflict has descended into a civil war, with neither side able to strike a definitive blow against the other. The result is a murderous stalemate, with a growing sense of worldwide horror over violence that activists believe is responsible for killing 23,000 people.
The prophet film, however, has exposed a well of deep anger and frustration directed far beyond Syria's borders — and Syria and its allies are seizing on it.
In his first public appearance since 2011, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah told tens of thousands of rapturous supporters Monday that there must be sustained demonstrations against the film.
There are four more rallies planned this week in Lebanon, starting Wednesday, as Hezbollah tries to redirect popular rage against the U.S., describing the film — which is amateurish and intentionally provocative — as an unprecedented attack on Islam.
"The world should know that our anger is not a passing thing. ... This is the start of a serious campaign that must continue all over the Muslim world in defense of the prophet of God," said Nasrallah, who rarely appears in public for fear of assassination.
"As long as there's blood in us," he added, "we will not remain silent over insults against our prophet."
Nasrallah has said he considers the film the worst insult to Islam mainly because it is available online and anyone can access it.
"I think that this level of offense is very big, very grave and unprecedented," he said in a televised speech recently. He said the film is more of an insult than the 2005 publication by a Danish newspaper of cartoons depicting the prophet, which unleashed a wave of violent protests by Muslims; and British author Salman Rushdie's 1988 novel, "The Satanic Verses," inspired in part by the life of Muhammad.
Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a religious edict in 1989 calling for Rushdie's death, leading the writer to live in hiding for a decade.
Hezbollah is harnessing the outrage over the film, an apparent attempt to keep the issue alive and to bolster its standing a defender of Muslim dignity and a moral force in the Arab world. Many in the crowd Monday wore headbands of green and yellow — the colors of Hezbollah; others hoisted Syrian flags to show their allegiance to Assad, a sign of the strong links between Syria and Hezbollah.
But the group also appeared to be trying to ensure the gatherings don't descend into violence, planning them only in areas where Hezbollah has control. None of the rallies targets the heavily fortified U.S. Embassy in the hills outside Beirut.
The movie portrays the Prophet Muhammad as a fraud, a womanizer and a child molester. Protesters have directed their anger at the U.S. government, insisting it should do something to stop it, although the film was privately produced. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton criticized it as "an awful Internet video that we had nothing to do with."
For the moment, the masses who have risen up against Assad appear to be drowned out by those chanting against more familiar enemies — the United States and Israel.
"Death to America!" the crowds shouted Monday in Beirut. "America is the great Satan!"
Kennedy is The Associated Press chief of bureau for Syria and Lebanon.
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