Hezbollah and its sponsors Iran and Syria have made a calculated decision to escalate the violence inside that country by inserting large contingents of its fighters in the fight for Qusayr. The battle for that strategic town is turning out to be the Masada or Alamo of the civil war. For four days, rebel fighters have withstood constant hammering by government air power and ground forces which include large numbers of Hezbollah fighters. They crossed the border from the Lebanese Bekaa Valley and have turned the Syrian conflict from a domestic drama into a regional crisis.
I believe Iran and Hassan Nasrallah have made a strategic blunder. Before, the only major actors were Assad and his loyalists on one side and the Free Syrian Army on the other. There were larger actors playing secondary roles like Turkey, Qatar, Iran and Russia. But their involvement was peripheral to the main action. With Hezbollah’s insertion of its veteran fighters into the conflict, Nasrallah has crossed the Rubicon of intervention. He has taken his Islamist movement from being its roots in resistance to Israel and transformed it into a regional mercenary force ready and able to kill not just Israelis, but fellow Arabs.
Until now, Hezbollah, while hated by many inside Lebanon, could at least argue that it remained true to its original mission. But now it has moved far beyond that. It has lost its focus. It has become a gun for hire (in this case hired by Assad). By all reports, the Syrian rebels have made Nasrallah’s men pay a high price. Funerals are now a regular occurrence in the Bekaa. At least 46 fighters are reported dead in the past few days.
If Qusayr continues to hold out and represents either a victory for the resistance or a bloody massacre perpetrated by Assad’s forces, it could ignite the will of those nations which have largely remained on the sidelines in terms of active, direct involvement, especially Turkey. This in turn, could ignite the sort of regional conflict many of us have dreaded.
For Iran, which has to have played a major role in encouraging Hezbollah’s decision to “invade” Syria, it too had few good options. If it had poured Revolutionary Guards into Syria to stabilize Assad, it would’ve brought down the combined wrath of all the P5 countries who are negotiating about its nuclear program. There would be even less tolerance of Iranian intervention than of Hezbollah intervention.
Hezbollah intervention has moved three major European powers, Germany, France and the UK to ask that the EU designate Hezbollah as a terrorist group. This change will turn world public opinion against the Lebanese group. It will also embolden its Sunni enemies within Lebanon to oppose them politically. In fact, five days of rioting in northern Lebanon have left five dead. Just as most Lebanese did not want Syria to meddle in Lebanon’s political affairs, most Lebanese want to remain out of Syria’s conflict. Hezbollah’s turning against this consensus will bring a dear price in terms of its popularity within Lebanon.
Israel, while alarmed at the escalation and how it might play out in terms of the stability of security on its border with Syria, will be delighted. Because Hassan Nasrallah, usually a cold, calculating fellow, has overplayed his hand. Autocrats remain safe as long as they remain cautious. But when they allow their egos or megalomania to draw them into adventures, then they leave themselves vulnerable. Pride (and miscalculation) come before a fall.
Israel will be able to exploit these mistakes. As long as it remains outside the conflict. But if Israel too intervenes, as Jodi Rudoren reported it is contemplating, then all bet’s are off. She spoke to unnamed Israeli advisors who admitted its forces are using Syrian Druze villagers as intelligence assets. They speculated that Israel might develop them into a military proxy. This is reminiscent of Sharon, who created the South Lebanese Army, which became Israel’s enforcer in the region. The SLA turned out to be a costly and disastrous mistake. It did not stave off Israel’s eventual retreat from Lebanon; and it left hundreds of Lebanese Christian allies who Israel had to save from being killed as collaborators. That’s the model Israel would use in the Golan as well.
Further, when Israel believed it’s worst Palestinian enemy was Fatah in the 1980s, it tolerated the budding Islamist movement, Hamas, which it saw as a blocking force. Guess what happened there…
Israel might also want to contemplate the U.S. experience in Afghanistan in the 1980s when we propped up the mujahedeen as a resistance force against the Soviets. What hell did we reap from that whirlwind? Out of it came bin Laden, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and 40 years of Afghan civil war.
Best friends have a habit of turning into worst enemies in the Middle East, given the right circumstances.
To all this provocation and incitement, add a new element. An IDF artillery unit wiped out a Syrian military position which had shelled an army jeep which the Syrians claimed was on their side of the armistice line. Israel claimed it was on its side. This is the same sort of incident Moshe Dayan described when he noted the deliberate provocations the IDF used on the Syrian border, when it placed a tractor on the border, hoping Syrian artillery would shell it. When it did, Israel used this as a justification for invading the Golan in 1967. It is entirely possible Israel wants a Syrian military overreaction to justify its own intervention. Though it is possible there are Israeli strategists who have enough clear-sightedness to realize an Israeli entrance into the maelström would spell doom for whatever outcome Israel wishes.
The point is that over-reaction or miscalculation by one side will draw the other deeper into the mire (remember Newton’s Law: “for each action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”) The result could be something like what happened after the Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated by Serbian nationalists at the onset of World War I. Is that what any sane person (who isn’t an extremist) wants? In other words, back off!